Whether you work outdoors, or you’re an enthusiastic hiker (check out our ranking for the best hiking boots), or you enjoy hunting, or you’re just strolling to the office in your chukkas, leather boots are a staple of modern life.
Leather has been used to make shoes since antiquity. It is celebrated for its durability and flexibility. It’s also one of those materials that ages with grace. The longer you wear your leather boots, the more personality and comfort they acquire without looking decrepit. Which is why you need to know how to waterproof boots.
Yes, every wardrobe should have a pair of leather boots, but waterproofing is a basic, if under-appreciated, aspect of boot care. It not only keeps your feet dry, but it prolongs the lifespan and beauty of your boots. Here is everything you need to know about how to waterproof boots.
Why Do Boots Need to Be Waterproof?
Most boots you buy new have already received waterproofing treatment of some kind. The quality of this treatment can range from standard DWR (Durable Water Repellent) to the more rugged Gore-Tex. This means your boots do not need waterproofing immediately after they are bought. Before you apply any fresh treatment, break your boots in first.
For most boots, you need to walk 40 to 50 miles before the waterproofing treatment breaks down and the boots begin to leak. Regular use is all it takes to erode the factory-applied waterproofing treatment. Leather is naturally water-resistant, but water can still soak through. Once the treatment is gone, you will think you’re wearing sponges on your feet (Lightweight boots will break in quicker).
Finally, as you break in your boots, the shape of the leather changes as it forms to your foot. This stretches the leather, which creates seams, strains the stitching, and thins out the leather at spots. All of this makes it less resistant to water.
How to Increase the Longevity of Waterproofing Treatments
Your boots will need several waterproofing treatments over the course of their lives. Depending on how actively you wear them, treatments could only be weeks apart. However, there are certain practices when it comes to how to waterproof your boots that will help you get the most from each treatment.
1. Keep your boots clean and free from dirt
Your boots will inevitably get dirty, even if they spend most of their lives on a sidewalk. Particles of dirt and rubble can enter and widen seams and cracks. They also irritate the surface area of the boot, wearing it down. To give your boots (and your waterproofing treatment) as long a life as possible, remove all excess grime immediately at the end of each use. A boot scraper is a good investment for this. A hand rag, brush, or hose will also work.
2. Keep your boots away from open flames and heaters
Let’s say you’re camping. After a long hike, your toes are cold and soaked in your boots. You idly plop them near or (heaven forbid) over an open flame, trying to warm them. Even if it’s Gore-Flex, close proximity to a heat source will melt away any waterproofing treatment. It will also soften any glue or rubber, which could quicken a sole replacement. In short, never do this to your boots.
3. Store your boots in a dry, warm place
Basically, keep your boots indoors where temperatures are regulated. Even the garage is better than the porch or car. Exposure to the elements and dramatic temperatures will greatly shorten the lifespan of your boots, to say nothing of any boot waterproofing treatment. Save the battle with the wilderness for hikes and camping trips.
Best Preliminary Practices before Waterproofing Boots
As we’ve said, waterproofing is as much about caring for your boots as it is about keeping your feet dry. Many waterproofing methods are good for the leather and keep your boots in top condition. There are several methods which we will get into. But before that, here’s what you need to do first before we teach you how to waterproof boots.
1. Break in your boots
We already touched on this, but let us repeat it here for emphasis. All boots bought new are already waterproofed, so they are not in need of any further proofing. After 40 to 50 miles, this begins to wear down. Now a new treatment is needed. Also, as the leather molds to your foot, it creates thin spots and seams that will need additional protection.
2. Remove the shoelaces
This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many boot-owners try to work around the laces instead of going through the hassle of removing them. However, removing the laces first will make the boot waterproofing treatment much more expedient. It also ensures every square-inch of the leather will be treated, which will boost boot performance.
3. Clean the boots
A thorough clean is absolutely essential for effective waterproofing. You must go further here than merely knocking off excess grime. Take a brush and water and give every inch of leather a good scrub and rinse. If any particles of dirt are captured between the leather and the waterproofing treatment, it will wear down the treatment from the inside. You will need to treat it again much sooner. To avoid any contact with dirt, clean the entire boot — even the bottom.
If there are clods of dirt or clay that are not coming off easily, submerge that portion of the boot in water for up to half an hour. This will loosen the clod and make it easier to remove.
4. If you want to seam-seal your boots, do it before you apply a waterproofing treatment
Sealing the seams of your boots is a quick, cheap, and easy way to prolong the lifespan of your footwear. It also makes them more waterproof. If you are planning on seam-sealing your boots, do it before you start waterproofing. We highly recommend this. A seam-seal is easy. You apply it by running a thin bead of urethane sealant across any seams you see on the boot.
Waterproofing Methods for Boots
You’re finally ready to begin learning how to waterproof boots. But before you do, make sure you know what kind of material your boots are made of. Most waterproofing treatments are designed for either full-grain leather or “rough” leathers like suede or nubuck. Before you begin to waterproof boots in any way, read the product description and product application instructions, or contact the manufacturer.
There are many different ways to waterproof boots. The instructions differ for each method. Here’s our complete list, beginning with the most effective options and ending with options that should only be used for emergencies.
Wax is the old-fashioned way to waterproof boots. It has fallen behind the times, somewhat, due to Silicone sprays and other quick-fixes. However, it remains the most effective and long-lasting waterproofing treatment. It is also good for the leather. It nourishes the leather and replaces lost natural oils, which prevents cracks, dryness, and blotches. Wax works for both leather and suede.
To begin, place your boots in a warm place along with the wax treatment you will be using. This can be near a heating vent, a wood stove, or in a spot of sunshine. Do not place your boots on the vent or fireplace or near an open flame. You can also use a hairdryer.
What you are trying to do is warm the leather. This will make it supple and help it absorb the wax deep into the leather. Continue until the leather is warm (but not hot) to the touch.
Using your gloved fingers or a lint-free rag, dab a small bit of the warmed, softened wax and massage it into the leather in circular motions — like you’re waxing a car. Continue until the entire boot has been treated. Avoid applying wax to the plastic or rubber parts of the boot.
Once the boots are thoroughly waxed, leave them in a warm, dry place for 30 to 60 minutes to cure. This can be the same place where you left them to warm before. Sunny days are the best times to waterproof your boots for this reason. But again, make sure the boots don’t get too hot. When you’re done waiting, buff off the excess wax with a dry lint-free rag. Do not attempt to speed up the curing process by applying direct heat, like with a hair dryer.
There are many different waxes available online. If you want the discount version (which user experience swears to be just as effective), then stop by your local hardware store, purchase a wax ring for a toilet seat, and let it warm with your boots before using. You will know it is ready to use when it is creamy and dabs easily onto your rag.
You will know your boots need to be treated again when the leather starts to look thirsty. That is the first sign that the wax is wearing off. When that happens, simply repeat the procedure outlined above.
Cream is a more recent waterproofing method. The procedure is less complex than wax, and the cream dispenser often features a built-in applicator, so you can simply rub it over the entire boot like a marker. If there is no applicator, a cloth or lint-free rag will do.
There is some preparation involved. Before you apply the cream, water should be soaked through the entire thickness of the leather. This step is critical. You want your boot to be wet when you apply the cream. Then, as the water evaporates, it will pull the waterproofing treatment deep into the leather. The more thoroughly soaked your boot, the more effective the waterproofing cream.
Running water over the boot or dabbing it with water is not sufficient. Sometimes, even the cleaning stage is not enough. Leather is naturally water-resistant, so it may take several hours for water to soak through. However, you don’t want to submerge the boots in water, either. We recommend wrapping a damp towel around each boot and returning to them after a few hours.
Apply the cream in small amounts and in small, circular motions. Once the entire surface area is treated, remove your boots to a warm, moisture-free spot to dry. Do not try to speed up the drying process by applying direct heat, such as with a hair dryer or placing them in direct sunlight. This could soften the glue in your soles or even cause the leather to crack.
Drying may take several hours. However, though direct heat is a no-no, you may use a fan. You can also insert wads of paper (newspaper is especially effective) in the boots. The paper will absorb some of the moisture and make the drying process faster. Once dried, buff off any excess cream with a clean, dry rag.
3. Silicone Spray
Waterproofing sprays are very popular. They are fast, low-maintenance, and can even be done on the trail! They avoid some of the vices of other treatment methods — for example, using wax poses the risk of getting wax in the welting, which can stretch the seams — and they can be purchased for every type of footwear: leather, suede, and even synthetic materials. But they also have some vices of their own.
Silicone spray is the easiest way to waterproof boots. It is also the least lasting. To keep your toes dry, you will need to reapply a silicone spray every few days. Some brands require you to apply more than one layer during a single treatment session.
Follow the same preliminary instructions for silicone spray that you would for wax, up to the warming stage. Put your boots in a warm place. This can be near a heating vent, a wood stove, or in a spot of sunshine. Do not place your boots on the vent or fireplace or near an open flame. You can also use a hairdryer, but don’t let your boots get too hot.
What you are trying to do is warm the leather. This will make them supple and help them absorb the silicone spray deep into the leather. Continue until the leather is warm (but not hot) to the touch.
When applying the spray, keep the head of the can about six inches from the surface of the boot. Follow whatever instructions are provided, but you usually spray until the entire boot shines with a thin film. It is best to do this outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. It is also best to wear a mask so as not to inhale fumes.
Once you’re done spraying, relocate the boots to a warm, extremely dry, and well-ventilated area. Let them cure for several hours, preferably overnight. Once cured, wipe away the excess spray with a soft lint-free rag. You may need to repeat this procedure a second time before wearing your boots.
You will know you need to reapply the spray when spots on the leather begin to darken and moisten. You can expect a silicone spray treatment to last anywhere from a few days to a week or two, depending on how actively you wear your boots. There are a few cases where silicone spray has been known to permanently discolor the leather, so make sure you purchase waterproofing spray from a trustworthy brand.
Emergency Methods to Waterproof Boots
Supposing you’re in an emergency situation and need to waterproof boots fast, you have a few other quick-fix options besides wax, cream, or silicone spray. However, none of these are recommended as normative methods to waterproof boots. All of them are strictly temporary measures and, if continuously applied, may damage or discolor your boots.
4. Transmission Oil
The great thing about this quick-fix option is that it can be found in most gas stations. Before you strut into puddle territory, smear some of this on your boots and watch it repel water like an umbrella. Besides the smell, the only other downside is it may turn your boots red.
5. Clear Coat Enamel Spray
Hey, if it can prevent rust, why can’t it be used as a discount Silicone spray? It will begin to flake off within hours, so bring a broom and dust-pan.
6. Vaseline Cream
This is an extremely short-term solution. Just pull out a blob of the stuff and rub it into the material like a hair-gel, and you’re good to go…for a few hours, at least.
7. Shoe Booties/Covers
Okay. Technically, this isn’t a waterproofing treatment, but it’s effective. Think of them as two grocery bags living their best lives as exterior socks. At any rate, they will look great with scrubs.
Waterproofing might not seem like the most important part of boot care, especially with those made of leather or other water-resistant materials. But water can cause long-lasting and sometimes irreversible damage to your shoes. Boots are footwear you want to last, they keep your feet warm and dry. No one wants soggy, smelly and cold feet. Making sure your shoes still look good isn’t a down side either. So take it from us, and waterproof your boots.