Everyone in our firefighting community uses leather boots for work, but we often struggle with breaking them in. I wear leather boots for both work and play, and have nailed down a routine on breaking in my new ones. I wanted to share that with you, so next time you get a new pair of kicks, you can hit the trail sooner and more comfortable.
For my work boots, I wear an 8” high all leather fire boot. That's a whole lot of leather to break in! That first time you put them on could be one of the most uncomfortable things, but with a few steps, they are ready to go in no time.
The first thing I always do is oil them. There are all kind of leather oils and greases and some even meant specifically for boots. Any of them will work, since it's just leather in boot form, but get some! You can apply it with a brush, a rag, or your hands. Rub it in and you'll see quickly how thirsty your leather is! It's almost like oiling that baseball glove when you were a kid. The oil/grease helps soften the leather allowing it to form to your foot and bend a little easier.
After your boots are nice and oiled, wear them! You can toss them on and wear them around the house, or tough it out and go for a short walk or hike. Getting the leather bending and molding will soften it and shape it to your foot. When you get back check them out and see if they look dry again. If so, it's time for another dose of the good stuff! I live in the mountains and it's rarely hot, so I will often oil them up and set them near the fire or heater to help soften the leather and soak up the boot grease.
Wearing the boots is going to be the best way to break them in, but oiling them will just make it and easier, quicker process.
There is another method that I have only done with one pair and some people vote against, but it didn't seem to harm my boots nor speed up the process a significant amount. That method is water. Water can be very tough on leather but if you dry them and oil them properly, it shouldn't matter. The two methods I have used are similar but it comes down to soaking them and wearing them dry. Wear them in your local creek or river, drown them in the sink, or fill them with hot water. Get them wet, and wear them until they are dry. Then oil them of course. Apparently this breaks them in quicker and shapes them to your feet. But, again, I didn't notice it any different from the method I first explained.
So now that you have a couple tips on breaking in that leather, let's talk about saving your feet. In the end, you are going to have to tough it out in the beginning a little bit. Nothing will make a leather boot perfect right off the bat.
You can save a lot of pain and misery by wearing the proper sock. Choosing an allcotton sock will totally tear your foot up if you are in a situation with tough boots. Fortunately, there are a ton of hiking sock brands and styles out there to choose from, so take a look and see what suits your style best. You can even layer different type of socks to allow some minimal sliding between your foot and boot. (Popular in the Wildland Firefighting world) I personally wear a single sock set up that is mainly wool. You can go with a Darn Tough sock like this one, which is 77% Merino Wool, the goldstandard for backcountry boot socks.
Another trick I tend to do not only to prevent blisters, but it helps with sweating and rubbing: Put some Gold Bond in your socks before gearing up and you'll not only stay dry, but you'll experience less toe and heel rubbing.
When all else fails and you feel those hot spots starting… be sure to have some sort of product like Moleskin that you can apply to your blisters or hot spots. Basically a Band- Aid type material that keeps the boot off that part of your skin. (The trick with this stuff is to cut it out like a donut and put your blister in the donut hole.)
I am definitely not a podiatrist or anything resembling an expert, but considering how I put hundreds of miles on leather boots every year, I consider myself well versed in the subject. These are the tricks I have come up with, that make it tolerable for myself, but I encourage you to find your own tricks too. Good luck and happy hiking!
Looking for a pair of Chippewa boots like these? Find a pair in your size.
About Gregg Boydston
Gregg is a Hotshot Firefighter for the US Forest Service. Born and raised in Southern California, his eagerness to be in the mountains brought him to Mammoth Lakes where he can step out of his house and explore the Eastern Sierra. When he is not fighting wildfires, he’s traveling and camping with the best of them, or out and about adventuring with a camera, cooler, and a positive attitude.
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