Think of breaking in your hiking boots as a metaphor for preparing for any challenging hike: aiming for the summit your first time out is unrealistic. Building your endurance gradually with a series of less challenging hikes that grow more ambitious over time is a reasonable approach. In a nutshell, take your time: when you break in your boots slowly, not only will your feet thank you, but your boots will enjoy a longer life. Your hiking boots are arguably the most important piece of hiking gear in your kit; carefully conditioned, the right pair of hiking boots will provide years of comfortable and reliable service on the trail.
How you break in your new hiking boots falls along a continuum depending on the type of boot you choose: lightweight hiking shoes may be ready for trekking right out of the box, with little or no breaking in needed. Rugged, heavy-duty leather hiking boots may not feel perfect for weeks: leather takes time to soften and conform to your foot. More art than science, breaking in new hiking boots is finally about making proper introductions followed by a little awkward posturing and a few gentle adjustments, ultimately reaching a place where you and your boots are like old friends.
BREAKING IN YOUR HIKING BOOTS
STEP 1: GET ACQUAINTED WITH YOUR NEW HIKING BOOTS
Neatly align the tongue and gussets the first time you lace your new hiking boots: this is especially important, because it will determine where permanent creases form in the tongue. Your boots should feel snug but not over-tight. Wear them for an hour at a time at home and around the neighborhood as you would any other pair of shoes (but always with your hiking socks and insoles). They may be stiff at first, but that’s okay—already they’re starting to yield to the shape of your feet. If you feel genuine pain or pressure points you can’t relieve with small adjustments, return your boots for another size or maker.
STEP 2: VENTURE OUT IN YOUR NEW BOOTS
Next, take ‘em for a spin around the block, and then gradually add out-and-abouts around town. Now your boots will begin to stretch a little and conform to your foot. Continue to take an inventory of problem spots in your boots, and try making adjustments in your orthotics or lacing to address them. Gradually add some easy two- to three-mile day hikes on mainly flat terrain; before you ratchet up how long they’re on your feet, make sure your new hiking boots still feel comfy every time you take them off.
STEP 3: SETTLE INTO YOUR NEW HIKERS
Finally, try some short trail hikes in your new boots while carrying a daypack, gradually increasing your mileage and the payload in your pack. Try a two- or three-hour hike. Watch out for blisters, which are caused by heat (foot against sock against shoe), moisture (sweat softens the skin and causes friction against the sock), or pressure from detritus that makes its way into your hiking boot. If you bought waterproof boots, now is a good time to test this claim: stomp through a creek or some puddles and then check for watertightness and dry feet.
BEFORE YOU BREAK IN YOUR NEW HIKING BOOTS
No amount of breaking in will “fix” a poorly fitted boot—an excellent fit should be your top priority before you begin breaking in and wearing your hiking boots.
- Boot Length and Width – Once you’ve found the correct length in a pair of hiking boots, pay attention to the toe box (it should neither “swallow” your toes nor bind them), and note how much extra space there is elsewhere in the boot. Test the fit: slide your index finger into the boot just behind your heel—it should fit comfortably in that space, but without too much room to move around. If you can scarcely get your finger behind your heel, or it has lots of wiggle room, the boots are probably sized incorrectly for you.
Note: When you order hiking boots online, read fitting advice in the product description, and also browse online reviews to see what other people say about a particular manufacturer’s boot sizing.
- Hiking Socks – Choose wisely (avoid cotton and opt for wool or synthetic blends) and wear them to your boot fitting and when you’re breaking in your boots. Highest-quality hiking socks will wick away moisture from your feet and thus help prevent blisters.
- Insoles and Orthotics – Spend some money on good insoles: they will pay off in spades with the orthopedic stability and comfort they give your foot inside the boot. And wear your insoles or custom orthotics to your boot fitting.
Now you should be ready for a full-blown adventure in your new, broken-in hiking boots: it’s time to go for it with a full-day hike or weekend backpacking trip. Take a foot-savvy inventory while you hike:
- How much do your feet sweat?
- Where are the hotspots?
- Is your heel comfortably snug inside the boot’s heel box?
- Is the tongue comfortable and flat?
- Are your feet pronating more than what you consider normal? (Pronation is a “rolling in” of the arches; excessive pronation can be painful and fatiguing.)
- How do your inserts or orthotics feel?
- How’s your instep holding up?
- Are you enjoying improved traction in your new boots?
When you stop to rest and let your feet and socks air out, also take a moment to inspect your feet. Remember, sweating is not a bad thing: leather will conform to your foot more quickly when it’s warm. Nor is stiffness bad, but lends a measure of stability and support to your foot, important for hiking.
While it never hurts to ask seasoned hikers how they break in their boots, there are no shortcuts to hiking boots paradise: you can ruin your chances for a proper fit if you submit your new boots to Draconian measures, like soaking them in water and then wearing them on a walk, or beating them with a rubber mallet. In the end there is no fast way to break in your new hiking boots—there’s only the right way. You’ll know you’ve successfully broken in your new hiking boots when they feel so good you don’t want to take them off.