How to break in a new pair of hiking boots

Proper-fitting boots and moisture-wicking socks can save hikers the misery of hot spots and blisters.

An old proverb says, “If you want to forget about your troubles, put a pebble in your shoe.” When your feet are miserable, so is the rest of you.

Preventing foot foibles begins when you choose a boot. Today’s trail shoes range from open-style sandals to heavy-duty waffle-stompers. 

As a rule, bigger people carrying heavier packs over rougher terrain require more rugged boots. Group leaders who often carry more than their share of communal gear might be better off with sturdier all-leather boots, while not-quite-full-grown teenagers can get by with lighter (and easier to break in) fabric-and-leather boots. Many youth tend to “overboot” themselves. They buy heavy boots intended for traversing scree slopes when they plan only to hike on trails.

By far the most important factor in choosing a boot is a good fit. Buy boots in the afternoon, when your feet tend to swell, and look for these three signs of a proper fit:

  • The toe box is roomy enough to wiggle your toes.
  • The heel has enough room that if you push your foot toward the front of your boot, you can squeeze a finger down the back of the boot.
  • Your heel does not slip up and down as you walk.

GETTING READY

It’s not just the boot; it’s also what goes inside it. The first rule: No cotton socks—even in the middle of summer. Cotton absorbs sweat, which makes skin soft and vulnerable to blistering.

Instead, use a double-sock system. Thin moisture-wicking liners made of fabric like Thermax or polypropylene should go against your skin, where they can absorb moisture and wick it away. The outer sock should be made of cushy wool or a wool-and-synthetic blend.

Try on boots with the socks you plan to use, because the thickness of the sock affects the fit. You might also try some of the newer high-tech socks on the market with Blister Guard, a Teflon fabric (yes, like the frying pans). The smooth, nonabrasive fabric is less likely to cause friction and blisters.

BREAKING IN BOOTS

Don’t wait until your troop’s 10-mile overnighter to wear your boots for the first time. Gradually introduce your feet to your boots, and vice versa. A few rubs and hot spots are normal the first time you take your boots out for a walk. If you need to fine-tune the fit, here are some tricks:

  • Triple-twist or half-knot the laces over the arch. This allows you to vary the tightness of the front and back of the boot.
  • Strips of moleskin inside the boot or on your foot can take up a little space in a too-big boot. You can also use tape to smooth over irritating seams in the boot.
  • “Soak them wet and walk them dry.” This is a time-honored way to break in boots to the shape of your feet. First apply moleskin to blister-prone areas of your feet. Then put on dry socks. Soak boots in lukewarm water; then start walking. After the boots dry, treat them with a leather conditioner.

TRAIL TIME

On the trail, pay attention to what your feet are telling you. A slight rubbing or irritation is a plea to stop before the problem gets worse. Hikers are often reluctant to hold up an entire group just to check their feet. Impress upon your group the importance of stopping for even the most minute problem.

Sometimes blistering is caused by sweaty feet sliding around in too-stiff boots. Use breaks and lunch stops to air out feet and socks.

A quick footbath in a cold stream can rejuvenate tired feet. Remember to let wet (or sweaty) feet dry before applying adhesive treatments like moleskin, because adhesives don’t adhere well to wet skin.

IF YOU GET BLISTERS …

A small red spot might just need an adhesive bandage. An angrier-looking spot might require additional padding like a layer of moleskin. Put the moleskin over the bandage so the adhesive doesn’t stick to the tender area. Or you could cut a “doughnut hole” in the moleskin (the hole goes over the blister).

If you’ve got a bona fide liquid-filled blister, it’s usually best to pierce it. Treat it promptly and properly with an antibiotic ointment and a dressing. Be sure to use a sterile needle. (Dip it in alcohol or hold it to a lit match).

The best blister remedy I know is a product by Spenco called 2nd Skin. This dressing takes pressure off the blister and relieves pain. Put the squishy jell directly on the blister and cover it up with athletic tape or moleskin.

Or better yet—avoid blisters entirely.

By breaking in well-fitting boots, wearing comfortable moisture-wicking socks, paying attention to your feet, and stopping at the first sign of trouble, you can avoid this most common backcountry problem.

After writing this article, Karen Berger took her own advice and went for a break-in hike in her brand-new boots. Her most recent book is Hiking the Triple Crown: How to Hike America’s Longest Trails (The Mountaineers Books).

Photo by arnybo.

One thought on “How to break in a new pair of hiking boots

  1. I don’t think that well fitting modern boots need much “breaking in”. But people who are wearing flip-flops and tennis shoes all the time need to toughen their feet to the boots. I tell people to put 30 miles on the boots in the couple of months before the trek, and to wear the boots as often as appropriate in the weeks leading up to the trip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>