How to Waterproof Hiking Boots: In-Depth Guide

Hiking boots come from the factory waterproof and ready to go. They’re almost all treated with a DWR (Durable Water Repellant) finish. However, after a few months out in the field the treatment wears down and you’ll need to reapply.

New boots rarely need waterproofing treatment out of the box, but a give them a few months and you’ll need a quick treatment. Luckily reapplying DWR to your hiking boots is easy.

When Should You Waterproof Your Boots?

It doesn’t matter how expensive your hiking boots are, you’ll eventually need to reapply DWR. Trust me it will be obvious when you need to replace the waterproofing treatment.

When DWR is properly applied water is going to bead up on the surface of your boots. Water simply rolls off the boots surface. Once water stops beading up on the surface and starts soaking into the outer layer of your boots it’s time to reapply a DWR.

Choosing a Waterproofing Treatment

Hiking boots normally fall into two main categories, leather and suede/nubuck, or a combination of the two. Some companies are experimenting with new technical materials, but they haven’t really taken off.

  • Full Grain Leather: Most of us picture full grain leather when when thinking about boots. You probably have a few pairs of full grain leather boots in your closet. With full grain leather all you really need is a good old fashioned beeswax waterproofing treatment(this is what I use). Waterproofing sprays like Nikwax Spray are another great option since they’re easier to apply.
  • Rough Leathers(Suede & Nubuck): Never use a beeswax waterproofing agent on suede or nubuck boots. Instead you’ll want to use a Spray on DWR. (Nikwax Nubuck/Suede Proof)

Alternatives to Wax Based Products

For years wax based waterproofing treatments were the only waterproofing products you could find. Beeswax based products are time tested, but they have one major flaw.

With beeswax based waterproofing you can’t replace the sole of your boots due to residue buildup. For cheap $40-50 boots it wouldn’t make sense to replace the sole, but buy a pair of $200 Salomon Boots and it makes sense.

Every couple years I spend $15 to get my soles repaired by an old Amish gentleman that I’ve befriended over the years.

Waterproofing Gore-Tex Boots

Boots that have Gore-Tex built into them (or any other waterproof membrane) don’t need treatment in those areas. However, you still need to treat the surrounding leather.

Instead of applying a waterproofing agent just wash and clean all the dirt off those areas.

Preparing Your Boots For Waterproofing

Waterproofing products only work on clean slightly wet boots. Dirt and grime is going to block the penetration of your waterproofing product. Plus who would want to trap dirt underneath the water repellant.

Cleaning Your Boots
  1. Remove your shoelaces and replace them if needed. I wouldn’t even bother trying to clean shoelaces given their price.
  2. Brush your boots to get off all that caked on dirt. You can use just about any brush on full grain leather, but you’ll want to buy a specifically designed brush on Nubuck and Suede.
  3. Use a leather cleaner and conditioner to further clean your hiking boots. This is the cleaning kit that I’ve been using the past couple years.

How to Waterproof Hiking Boots

Obviously, not all waterproofing products are the same, so application instructions may vary slightly. Most of the time you’ll want to apply your waterproofing agent when the boots are wet. Applying directly after cleaning is the perfect time to waterproof your boots.

  • It doesn’t matter if your boots are full grain leather or suede/nubuck the application process is similar. Make sure your boots are clean and damp. Water should be soaked into the leather. Don’t just run water over your boots, it’s going to take a while to get your boots fully wet. You might need to let your boots soak in a utility tub or your kitchen sink.
  • Once your boots are fully soaked it’s time to apply the waterproofing treatment. Every product has different steps so refer to the products directions.

Applying a Spray on Treatment

I’ve always found that spray on treatment are less permanent than wax, but so much easier to use. Check out my post on the best spray on waterproofing products.

You can use spray on products with both hard grained leather and Nubuck/Suede.

  1. Clean your boots using a leather cleaning product (this is what I use). Make sure you get off all the dirt and your boots are fully soaked.
  2. Choose a waterproofing spray that will work with your boot material. I’ve had success using the Nikwax spray for hard leather and Nikwax Nubuck & Suede. Regular waterproofing sprays will destroy your suede shoes so make sure you buy the right product.
  3. Take your shoes outside and spray your boots from about 1 foot away. Make sure you fully cover your boots paying close attention to the seams. Reapply the product a second time after it has fully dried.
  4. Allow your boots to dry for 24 hours before wearing them outside.

Applying a Wax Based Treatment

Hikers have been using wax based waterproofing treatments for ages. They’re all basically the same beeswax based product with similar application directions.

Wax treatments work, but there is one major downside. It’s a serious pain in the butt to apply. You have to heat up your boots or melt the wax before application.

I’ve been using Sno-Seal Beeswax Waterproofing on my boots since I worked for UPS in the early 90’s. It kept moisture out of my boots throughout the harsh Ohio winters.

Caution: Don’t use wax treatment on suede and nubuck.

  1. Clean up your boots using a boot cleaner. Make sure the cleaner isn’t flammable(you have to heat up your shoes in the next step).
  2. Before applying a wax based treatment you have to either heat up the wax or heat up your boots. During the winter I typically just set my boots next to the fireplace or my electric heater. You have to get the leather up to 125 degrees. Another way to heat up your boots is in a oven set to 125 degrees.
  3. When you take your boots out of the oven they should be slightly warm, yet still safe to touch. Use a rag to wipe the wax based treatment into your boots. The wax should melt instantly when it touches the hot leather.
  4. As you continue to apply the treatment your boots should go from shiny to dull. Don’t worry, that just means you need to add more wax. You’ll be able to buff off all the excess wax after your done and make your boots look great.
  5. After you’ve applied the wax give it time to fully dry. Give it a day or two, the wax will continue to harden in storage.

Do Waterproofing Products Affect The Color?

It doesn’t matter what waterproofing product you use they all change the appearance of your boots. After applying the treatment your boots will appear slightly darker.

Don’t worry, with even coverage you won’t really be able to tell the difference.

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