Whether you are trekking 10,000 feet up a mountain or just taking 10,000 steps into the wilderness in your backyard, waterproof hiking boots are an absolute must. Without them, wet feet will be the least of your problems. But which waterproof material is best for hiking boots? Better yet, which one will provide the perfect balance of protecting you from Mother Nature and being comfortable enough to wear for days? If you’ve ever wondered what makes waterproof boots waterproof, this article is for you.
Go to any outdoor gear store and you will see “waterproof” on nearly every brand of boot or shoe. It’s slapped on labels so often that it’s hard to even tell what it means anymore. Water-repellent, water-resistant, waterproof—it’s all par for the course these days.
But what does it all mean?
If you plan on hitting the trails, your choice of hiking boot is by far the most important one for your journey. Rather than thinking about which water-resistant material is best, you should ask “which is best for me” or “what do I value the most in a shoe?”.
How Do They Make Something Waterproof?
Before we get to the materials, we should cover how waterproofing actually works. It seems counter-intuitive at first, doesn’t it? Water can’t get in but it’s somehow breathable enough to let moisture sweat out. Here’s how it works:
At their most basic, water-repellent shoes consist of 2 components: the outer layer and the membare.
- The Outer Layer: This is like “the face” of the fabric. Think of it like the good-looking singer in the band who is just there to look pretty. It doesn’t do much except provide a sense of style for the shoe. It is treated with a DWR (durable water repellent) so it doesn’t soak up water, but it isn’t actually waterproof itself. Shoes made of natural leather actually do have natural water resistance, though.
- The Membrane: This is the technological marvel that keeps your feet dry under hurricane conditions. The membrane keeps water out via an ingenious breathing method. The holes in the membrane are too small to let water in yet just large enough to allow water vapor to escape. This means your feet can both breathe and stay dry. Most go through an oil treatment so they don’t lose water resistance over time.
A Guide to Waterproofing Materials
Rain, snow, rivers, mud—they are all out to stop you from taking that hike of lifetime. There are a range of materials to choose from so that you can power through any obstacle Mother Nature puts in front of you. From cutting-edge science that’s basically tornado proof to basic sprays that will fit snugly in your bag, the choice is yours. The only hard part is actually making the choice. Use this guide to make things “cut and dry”:
Waterproof Lining (Membrane)
A breathable waterproof membrane like Gore-Tex or eVent is bonded to a lining and then inserted into the boot or shoe. This completely surrounds the foot and prevents moisture from seeping in. This type of shoe has come to dominate the market. Gore-Tex is at near celebrity status from all of the publicity that it gets. It’s for good reason, too. These types of shoes generally offer the best combination of protection, breathability, and comfort. But remember, just because water can’t get in doesn’t mean it doesn’t damage the outer layer of the shoe. It’s recommended to regularly clean and treat the shoes with a water repellent for maximum product lifespan.
Normally these come in two variants: PU (polyurethane) liners or Gore-Tex/eVent liners. The former do the job well but will keep moisture in and heat up your foot. The latter are brand name superstars that keep water out and let water moisture escape so your feet can breathe. Obviously the brand name materials are more expensive.
- Waterproof: With a durable lining and multi-layer protection, waterproof linings offer a high level of protection in tough conditions.
- Breathable: The fact that it’s a membrane means it offers maximum breathability. When your feet are sweating, they get damp. This creates a lot of discomfort and could even lead to skin conditions. But remember, the breathability only kicks in when there’s a temperature difference. This means they are best for colder regions. When your body is working and your feet are sweating, the temperature increases, creating a major temperature difference between the inside and outside of the shoe. If you’re going hiking in a warm environment, maybe it’s best to consider an alternative.
- Quick Dry: The breathable membrane allows for faster drying. A great advantage during long hikes.
Made With Seams: These “weak points” could allow water to seep in and destroy the shoe. If you take good care of your boots, you should be fine.
- Only Breathable at Certain Temperatures: See above.
- Shorter Lifespan: Membrane shoes often have a shorter lifespan, and if the membrane breaks, the shoe will leak considerably.
Recommended For: Cold environments. Shorter, less demanding hikes. Hikers on a budget.
What is Gore-Tex: We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the superstar of the waterproof outdoor gear world: Gore-Tex. This brand name can be found everywhere from pop songs to popular hiking trails around the world. In fact, it’s to the point where people use Gore-Tex and waterproof interchangeably.
So what makes it so special?
Gore-Tex is actually a proprietary brand of waterproof membrane that has been at the forefront of innovation since the 1960s. Equipped with billions of microscopic pores, the membrane is specially designed to provide maximum protection and breathability. It was the first breathable, waterproof, windproof fabric, and when it was introduced to the public back in the 1970s, it blew the doors off of the outdoor world. It’s “guaranteed to keep you dry promise” is the reason that everyone from skiers and hikers to medical professionals turns to it for their products. When you see Gore-Tex fabrics in a shoe, you can be assured that the shoe has been tested and held up under extreme conditions.
Waterproofed leather is considered the more traditional hiking boot style. Heavier, more durable, and tougher to break in, hardcore hikers swear by them. Normally they are made with full-grain or nubuck leather. Treated leather is treated with a waterproof coating. Although they are specially designed to resist water, it’s important to make sure you avoid fully submerging your foot. Leather hiking shoes/boots are still made with seams and water can seep in.
How to Waterproof Your Hiking Boots
Although leather boots should already have some built-in advantages, there’s plenty more you can do to get yourself prepared for the great outdoors. Here are a few ways to waterproof your hiking boots. A few of them can even be done with stuff lying around the house.
- Waterproofing Spray: Waterproofing spray is the most popular option for waterproofing your hiking boots. It’s fast, easy, and relatively inexpensive. Make sure to completely dry your shoes before applying the spray. Be generous! Remove your laces, shake the bottle well, and have at it. The best sprays will be odorless, improve the look of your shoes, and not cause discoloration.
- Cream or Wax: There are plenty of commercial, water-based waxes or creams for waterproofing your boots. These ointments will replenish tanning agents, maintain durability, and, of course, repel water. The water-based formulas are directed toward leaks, making them ideal for worn out shoes. Applying it is easy: just shake well and scrub it on.
- Home-Made Remedies: Did you know you could waterproof your boots with ingredients lying around the house? Mix 200 ml of olive oil with 50g of beeswax, then mix in some lavender and tea tree essential oil and you are good to go. Mix it in a jar and place it in cold water, heat it up, and voila. You’ve got your paste ready to be applied to your boots.
- Use a Seam-Sealer: Seam-sealed waterproof leather boots last longer and provide greater protection. If you want drier feet, make sure to do this BEFORE applying a sealant. Apply a thin line of urethane sealant along all of the stitched seams on your boots. For greater precision, use a syringe. That one step will make your boots last longer.
Note: These materials will not make non-waterproof materials waterproof. They only enhance the waterproof level that the materials already have.
Recommended for: Rugged trails. Tough climates. People who need extra support.
Rubber boots are a less-expensive alternative to waterproof leather boots when the time calls for it. There’s a major difference between them and the kind of boots we’ve covered already—rubber boots are water-resistant, not waterproof. This means they are great for activities such as:
- Gardening in light rain
- Walking to school on a snowy day
- Working outside in wet climates
- General backyard work
- Shoveling the driveway after light to mild snow
They are not suited for more demanding climates nor are they good for rigorous outdoor activities, but if your situation calls for it, they do a fine job.
Tips for Waterproof Boots
If this is your first time (or even if you’re a veteran), use these tips to make sure you keep your shoes looking and working great for longer. Hiking boots can be expensive, so make sure you treat your investment well.
- Do You Really Need Them?: Even the most experienced hikers know they don’t always need waterproof shoes. Some only get them for the colder months when a wet foot could be a serious issue. Others prefer the comfort of walking shoes when on light terrain. Consider the climate, season, and terrain before investing. Of course, if it’s a wet climate and rugged terrain, waterproof shoes are a necessity.
- Break Your Boots in Slowly: Let the boots blend to your foot first. Walk around in them, sweat in them, take them on a leisurely walk. Once they’ve softened up, it’s time to take them on the real trail.
- Clean Them Regularly: After you’ve been on a rigorous hike, all you want to do is lay down and sleep. But first, give your boots a thorough cleaning. They’ll thank you later.
- Avoid Direct Sunlight: When drying your boots, avoid direct sunlight. Exposing wet shoes to the sun could crack the leather.
- Treat Your Boots Well: A morning at the spa never hurt any pair of boots. Get yourself a brand name cream and give them a treatment to keep them looking fresh and functioning well.
- Avoid Submerging Them: When hiking, don’t fully submerge your shoes in streams or rivers. This is asking for trouble. Instead, bring a pair of gators or flip flops along to cross the stream in. They are lightweight enough to carry a pair around in your bag easily.
Waterproof hiking boots come in a range of shapes, sizes, and uses (and prices!). Now that you know which waterproof material is best for you, it’s time to go hit the trails. Stay dry, my friends!