Rip & Equip: Boots

First: Buy the right boots. Second: Keep them in tip top shape with these tips.

Shop Smart | Boot Anatomy | Care Instructions

Shop Smart

Ask yourself five key questions before buying new boots.

1. Where are you going? As a general rule, you’ll be more comfortable with the lightest boots appropriate for your planned terrain. Dayhiking on trails? A well-cushioned, flexible low-cut should do. Carrying 50 pounds off-trail in Alaska? You’ll want a high-cut, heavy-duty boot. Once you’ve picked a category, don’t fixate on weight: With footwear, fit trumps a few ounces.

2. Do you need more (or less) support? If you have weak ankles, choose higher-cut boots with maximum stability. The extra weight is well worth the joint protection. Likewise, if you’re prone to sore feet, opt for stiffer soles made for heavier loads than you typically carry. Conversely, some trekkers need less structure and can wear trail runners for ultralight trips or 2,000-mile thru-hikes.

3. Waterproof? You need weather protection for soggy trails, certainly, but don’t always pick a waterproof shoe for just-in-case scenarios. If you rarely hike in cold, wet conditions, you might be better off with footwear that’s more breathable and fast-drying. If you’re getting a low-cut boot primarily for summer use, an airy upper can prevent sweaty feet—and blisters.

4. What size? Feet grow and change shape with age and mileage. Get yours measured on a Brannock device (gauges length, width, and arch length) by an expert salesperson who should be able to recommend specific brands and models well suited for your foot’s shape. To best simulate your on-trail shoe size, shop in the evening, when your feet will be slightly swollen.

5. Do they fit? Try on boots with the hiking socks and insoles you intend to use. If you can’t slip your index finger between your heel and the back of the boot, try a bigger size. Wear your top-pick boots for at least 20 minutes in the store, then answer these focused fit questions: Do your heels slip? Test movement on an incline board so you can check fit on ups and downs. Feel any pressure points? Do your toes feel pinched or bang the boot front? Remember: A boot may stretch in width, but it can never get longer.

Shopping Tips

In-store

Pressure points may not be readily apparent in the store. For a good visual, remove both insoles and stand on them. The more similar the shapes of your feet and the insoles, the better chance of a good fit. Red flags: Places where your feet overhang indicate likely snug spots. A boot may be too loose (a recipe for blisters) if its insole is wider than your foot.

Online

Because manufacturers use differently proportioned lasts, stick with brands that you know fit well. ­If you’re unsure about sizing, order three pairs at once (your best sizing guess, plus a half size bigger and smaller) to compare. Zappos.com offers free shipping (on returns, too!), and backcountry.com and rei.com have no-questions-asked return policies. Be respectful: Restrict test-wearing to clean, indoor surfaces.

Shop Smart | Boot Anatomy | Care Instructions

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Shop Smart | Boot Anatomy | Care Instructions

Care Instructions

Repair

>> Dried-out leather If your boot’s leather has become stiff and light-colored, rejuvenate it with a silicone-based treatment such as Aquaseal Leather Waterproofing. Don’t use oil, which can oversoften boot leather and inhibit breathability.

>> Flapping sole If the heel or toe delaminates, clean the leather and rand rubber with alcohol (use a prep pad from your first-aid kit). Evenly coat the inside of the sole with an ample amount of McNett Freesole (A), then firmly press the sole and upper together. (You can use Seam Grip in a pinch, but it won’t hold as long.) Smooth the excess glue along the seam to keep out water. Place a heavy object like a water bottle inside the boot, to apply constant, even pressure (B). Let the glue set overnight. For a delaminating toe, wrap duct tape around the boot’s front (C) to add pressure while glue is setting (insert a pen under the tape after applying, to increase pressure).

>> Hole in the upper A tear isn’t a death sentence for your boot. Cobblers can fix holes and broken lacing systems in addition to worn-out soles. Contact local listings or boot-repair expert Dave Page (davepagecobbler.com, 800-252-1229). On trail with a hole in the toebox? Try backing it with duct tape, evenly covering the hole with Seam Grip, and letting it cure thoroughly before hiking again.

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Clean

Stinky boots? Remove the insoles and clean them with a nondetergent soap, water, and a toothbrush. While insoles are drying, wipe down the interior of your boots with a 3:1 solution of water and white vinegar. (Avoid using soap, which can clog breathable fabric.) Pack uppers with newspaper, prop boots upside-down, and change out the newspaper every few hours until the boots are dry. Outside a mess too? Scrub off dried mud with a vegetable brush.

Maintain

>> Protect shoes at night. Brush them off and bring them inside your tent so that rodents don’t nibble sweat residue in the liners.

>> Remove the insoles. Footbed materials retain moisture, so pulling them out for storage speeds drying and wards off mold.

>> Banish perma-stink. If your washed boots still smell, put them in the freezer overnight to kill lingering bacteria.

>> Make (or expand) the toecap. If the toes of your leather boots are prone to scuffing, preempt further damage: Line the area you want to protect with tape, slightly scuff the leather with sandpaper, clean with rubbing alcohol, and apply Freesole, spreading it to cover the section. (No need to smooth, it self-adjusts while drying.) Remove the tape after 30 minutes and let glue cure overnight.

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Never Do This

>> Overwaterproof. Excessive coats of sealant make repair and cleaning difficult. Aim to apply one layer of a waterproofing product (appropriate for your upper material) each year.

>> Hit the trail with brand-new kicks. Lace them up around the house first, and do at least 10 dayhikes or dog walks first, aiming for 20 hours of pre-trip wear time in the burliest boots.

>> Dry boots by the fire. The leather might crack, the rubber melt, and the size shrink. Instead, unlace them, remove the insoles, and put chemical warming packs or a bottle filled with hot water inside. Lacking those, stash the boots at the bottom of your bag overnight or hang them upside down on trekking poles. At home, stuff them with newspaper; do not use a hair dryer.

>> Use oil-based treatments on leather boots. Oil softens the leather, which defeats the purpose of providing stiff support. Instead, use wax- or silicone-based treatments. Exception: Use mink oil sparingly on all-leather, full-grain boots that resist break-in.

Secret from the Pro

Use these three tricks to squeeze even more comfortable trail miles out of your favorite pair of boots.

>> Pack camp shoes: We like lightweights like Crocs and Timberland’s Radler Trail Camp Moc.

>> Nip blisters in the bud. As soon as hot spots flare, change socks or apply moleskin or medical tape to reduce friction on skin.

>> Relace. Use different patterns to relieve pressure points. See ex-amples at backpacker.com/laces.

—Excerpted from BACKPACKER’s Complete Guide to Outdoor Gear Maintenance and Repair

($20, falconguides.com)

Blister Wars

Don’t get sidelined by painful sores. Visit our blister resource page for step-by-step tips to treating and preventing hotspots, and a grisly reader-photo slideshow. backpacker.com/blisters