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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!