So you’ve decided it’s time to upgrade from a part-time to a full-time hiker. No longer satisfied with something like a hi-top sneaker with ankle support, you’re moving on up in the world to a pair of new hiking boots. A great choice and a worthwhile investment that will keep you going for miles and miles along the dusty trails and steep canyon switchbacks. But before you take them out to the country and really enjoy that wilderness, you have to make sure they first fit your feet. And this requires a process we like to call breaking in the boots. You want them to learn to wrap and fit along the sole, to identify hot spots and specific pressure points across the tops and toes of your feet, to prevent blisters and maximize comfort on the paths outside. Nothing worse than hoping for a nice day of gorgeous views and sun time fun only to be harbored by painful steps in your new shoes.
In this guide, we will help you with the process and expectations of breaking in a pair of hiking boots. The first time you wear them, your new brown clunkers will be too stiff to provide that supreme comfort you hope to expect from the boots as the months move on. But as you slowly progress and aide their development and reduce stiffness, you’ll have a worthwhile companion to keep you upright and alongside your friends on the beautiful mountain trails. In the meantime, let’s tackle a deeper dive into the break-in process, its expectations and different phases of maturity.
What does breaking-in mean?
Breaking-in your shoes is something like a trial period between your feet, hiking socks, and shoes. It’s almost like you guys all just started dating. You can’t just start holding hands, making out in public and sending out the marriage invitations right away, can you? Well, depending on where you are in the world I suppose you could see some of those things early on, but before anything moves too fast, you want to ensure your boots have an understanding of your unique feet! And learning to love each other takes time.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the boots have an abnormal build or weren’t crafted with considerate care. It’s just that slowly the boots will conform to the individual contortions and angles of your feet the more you use them. At first, the grain will be stiff, which could cause rash, burns, and blisters that we hope to avoid by going smooth and easy at first on your feet.
Additionally, it’s not only hiking boots that have this slow break-in period. Running shoes and soccer cleats also require some time to best encapsulate your feet and ensure you have the right boots protecting you. If you were to hit the road in your new shoes for a 10k or a 90-minute soccer match in the new versions of your footwear, it would be disastrous and potentially dangerous. Same with your hiking boots and an arduous 5-mile loop over a river and under a canyon. If you’re too hard on yourself in a new pair of shoes, you could even damage muscles and tendons that would leave you stranded on your couch when the workweek ends. Even worse, the hospital followed by the physical trainer’s studio. So be smart and take your time with a new pair of hiking boots. It’s the best thing for you, your shoes, and your physical well-being.
The rigidity and stiffness that comes with a new pair of boots is something that should be alleviated as soon as possible. This break-in process can help protect against sore and tired feet, blisters and weak ankles. Not only could you potentially injure yourself as previously mentioned, if you’re hiking in brand-new boots, but you will tire yourself out as well. When the soles aren’t completely aligned with the pads of your feet, your steps are less efficient and produce greater fatigue. Plus, you will have to encounter sideways tongues and misaligned gussets; the last thing you want to worry about on difficult terrain. You just want to keep on pushing forward, keep on truckin’ and enjoy the good times. But before you get those new boots on your feet, let’s consider what kind of boots you may want to buy.
What kind of boots should I buy?
Within the umbrella term of hiking boots, there are three main groups: Hiking shoes, day-hiking boots, and backpacking boots. You’ll want to purchase the right option for your lifestyle and outdoors eagerness, so let’s spend a moment to recap and review the various types of outdoors footwear we have.
Hiking shoes are usually a low-cut style shoe with flexible midsoles, highlighting their supreme levels of comfort. Fantastic for something simple like day-hikes on easy trails, they often look casual enough to be sported on the mean streets of any major city without anyone batting an eye. With an emphasis on casual, they won’t have such a rugged finish and look great anytime. It’s a great pick if you never hike with heavy gear, but even these simple soles still require some time to break-in. And while you may think a shoe this comfortable could be great for a long-distance trekking trip with a backpack loaded with supplies, think twice. The infrastructure in the shoe isn’t really built to support more than the average man’s weight and may come at a cost later on. Look at these as a gateway entry point for the outdoors lifestyle: they may get you in the game, but soon you’ll have to find something stronger to support your habit of wildlife views and scenic sunsets.
These are the mid-level boots of the market, with a medium to high rise across the ankle. Something of a hybrid between the aforementioned and a sturdier backpacking boot, they are relatively flexible and won’t take much time to break-in. With more durability than the previously highlighted hiking shoe, they also often come with a higher price point as well, and still something that shouldn’t be worn for weeks at a time on the trails. If you hope to stay out for something longer than a moon cycle while carrying gear, you need something really heavy duty. Something that can withstand the pressure and grinding weight of a daily trek with scores of additional weight across your shoulders and back. And for that lifestyle, you’ll want the most rugged option, explained below.
Backpacking boots are the heaviest and strongest choice when maneuvering the trails. If you’re hoping to spend time in the backcountry for weeks or even months at a time, these bad boys will keep you protected the whole time. However, know that these are the least comfortable off the rack, and will require the most time breaking them in and getting used to the new soles and exteriors. And because you will be out on the trails for an extended period of time, these boots’ break-in period is the most important to do correctly and safely. You can’t hike the Appalachian trail if your footwear isn’t as prepared as your backpack and your body, so be sure to take the time to plan.
While the type of hiking boot determines break-in time, that’s not the only consideration. We also should investigate the hiking boots’ materials as they all come with various rigidity and safety concerns of their own. Let’s dive into these considerations below.
Hiking boot materials and their break-in time
Whatever the material is within the exterior of your boots determines how well they perform and how long they will last. Water-resistance, durability, breathability, and weight all impact the make, quality and price point of your shoe. One of the most important aspects is the leather type your boot has been designed with. Within the boot community, there are three predominant options: full-grain, split-grain, and nubuck leather. Let’s now identify the key markers that explain the differences in each and how they will impact your times on the trails and your wallet as well.
Full-grain leather provides premier durability and resistance to both abrasion and water intrusion. You mostly see full-grown leather when looking at the sturdiest backpacking boots on the market, as here we’re looking to emphasize durability and reliability versus breathability and weight. While chunkier and less breathable than the split-grain variety, as well as requiring more break-in time, we feel they’re a strong choice for their reliable upside. They’ll keep you going and they last a long time, so you can continue to put one foot in front of another as the weeks turn into months on the hills.
Split-grain boots are made with a combination of nylon-mesh and leather to reduce weight and improve breathable function. It’s easy to keep your feet cool and sweat-free throughout a day’s physical exertions with these guys. However, the smooth exterior these boots provide is made with a cheaper material compared to the original option, so it’s more suspect to nicks, rips, and tears, as well as water intrusion while you’re stepping on the hills. Expect to see something like this in the hiking shoes we highlighted above. What’s nice is they are a more affordable option, and for the ethically-minded hiker, the poly-material blend may ease a vegetarian or vegan’s conscience and general environmental outlook.
Nubuck leather is full-grain leather that’s been modified with synthetic polyester and nylon to provide a lighter version of their full-grain cousin. View this style as if a full-grain leather material went on a diet. And, they practical resemble suede with how buffed down the material can seem. Still a durable product with strong water-resistant capabilities, it can also be more flexible than a full-grain boot. The stretch and comfort leave it somewhere between the split-grain and full-grain leather. However, they take just as much time as the former to break in and may start to show signs of wear and tear before their leather cousins as well. With that lighter movement comes a price in terms of durability and wear-and-tear resistance. This is a good choice that you’ll often see in day-hiking boots.
Breaking them in
And finally, we arrive at the most important stage of the boots article: Breaking in your boots. There are three stages to consider: first, the inside phase; second, the lite-outside phase; and lastly, using your boots as expected without worry or pitfall. While the three different leather boots and styles we described will probably vary in break-in expectation times, know that they also approximately follow these steps and stay correlated to this formula.
First, the indoor stage
Now onto the first stage of breaking in your boots, which is the indoor stage. Feel free to initially wear your newfound boots around the house, as they’re still clean and new. So with the same wool socks, you’ll be wearing out on the trails, get a few steps in within the comforts of your home. Cotton socks aren’t a realistic option when you spend so much time on your feet and under the specific strain of a backpacking trip. This helps your insoles start to get accustomed to the specific pressure points and emphasis your feet and body composition deliver and can learn to give in those specific spots.
When it becomes uncomfortable, feel free to take off the footwear. As you go along you’ll be able to wear your shoes longer and longer without comfort as they slowly get broken in and your boots improve and shape and composition. It’s normal for your boots to feel stiff in these first initial steps, as that’s how the boot is designed. However, there shouldn’t be any chafing, pinching or pain. If you experience serious discomfort, consider trading in your pair for a different pair. And because you’ve only worn them inside, it should be easy to trade them back without worry.
Time to head outdoors
Next is bringing them outside in a reduced role. Feel free to wear your boots to the nearby grocery store or other simple, around the neighborhood kind of activities. Short walks llke taking the dog for a walk in your lightly broken-in boots, or perhaps a simple flat walk on a nearby path. The goal here is not to turn them into trail-ready boots immediately, but to train them for the different kinds of surfaces you’re bound to come across in the outdoors.
You need to train your stability muscles across your ankles and feet, teaching them to communicate with the boot’s sturdy exterior and maintain that stability and balance to keep you safe and upright. Depending on the comfort and discomfort you experience in this stage, this secondary break-in process can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. At first, we wouldn’t recommend wearing the boots for more than a few days at a time. You want to have your feet experience the difference in weight and stability from the boots back to your daytime sneakers.
Once your boots feel sturdy, take them on short hikes at first. Start with a simple day-hike, without a pack, then one where you can load up with some additional weight to check the sturdiness of the additional supply. From there, the strain should move from light to non-existent, and you’ll be free to step around for as long as you’d like and as far as you’d like.
Of course, we want to insist that all these progressions happen gradually, with adequate time for your feet and boots to adjust to each other. A second or third dashiki is probably enough time to move up in terms of expectations and requirements of their fit. From there, your boots are just about prepared for their use. So feel free stepping out into the outdoors with your old time friends and newfound hiking boots, all prepped and broken in.
Our last piece of advice regarding hiking boots and breaking them in is to consider the kinds of socks you wear on the trails as well. A fine pair of merino wool socks is a surefire way to reduce the risk of blisters and keeping your feet breathable and cool on an arduous journey over mountains and rivers. Additionally, you may want to consider which insoles you use on your trip, depending on if you have flat feet or high arches, as their pressure points may press differently than how the boot is initially designed.
So if you have extenuating circumstances regarding the same and size of your feet, be sure to investigate before you’re on mile 6 of a long trek with friends. If your feet are too wide or too narrow, a similar problem could arise via slipping or sliding in the interior of the boot. So know your foot, know your capabilities, and step with the best foot forward this year with your well broken-in boots.
Bonus tip: Here’s an informative, one-minute video breaking-down the integral steps of the break-in process!