Even if you tried them on at the store or have worn the same boots for years on end, a pair of brand new hiking boots is exciting. Opening that box of hiking boots brings you straight back to Christmas day and you want to get out on the trail as soon as the laces are tied.
The high levels of excitement can power you through a huge number of miles, but can also easily result in blisters and damaged feet.
Breaking in hiking boots is a skill that can easily get overlooked due to most hikers’ eagerness to get outside. Luckily, it can be done while out on the trail, but maybe not as quickly as you want it to be done.
It’s an important step (pun intended) towards taking care of your feet, so we’re going to go over in detail how to break in hiking boots and make for happy feet.
How long does it take to break in hiking boots?
Some shoes don’t require much breaking in at all. If you’ve strapped on some light hikers, trail runners, or synthetic boots, you may be good to go from the box. It’s still a good idea to get your feet used to the new shoes and start small. Everyone’s feet are different and you can easily get a hot spot where others won’t.
For the most part, you’re looking at a few weeks minimum to get your boots properly broken in. Over time, they’ll continue to get more and more comfortable, but it all depends on your boots and your feet.
Remember, you’re also toughening your feet up in this process. Change takes time.
Hiking Boot Types
Today, a lot of boots are made out of a wide range of materials. Gore-tex is widely used to top off some Vibram rubber soles that give you the best traction while staying dry (supposedly). These boots are much more flexible than other styles and therefore require a lot less breaking in. There are, however, models that use an ultra-supportive design that will need breaking in before a long hike.
Leather boots are both old and new-school. They’re loved by many who don’t mind a few extra ounces on their feet and love the protection from the elements that come from that extra weight. Leather boots need a lot more love, especially in the breaking phase. They require the longest amount of time to break in and will bring the highest consequences if you skip them.
In general, the manufacturer’s recommendations can provide a lot of useful information on how to break in hiking boots. The internet can be a dangerous place full of easy fixes and shortcuts that are incredibly tempting but must be avoided if you care for your feet and your new hiking boots.
Just like when you’re on the trail, you’ll see satellite trails that others have walked before. Just because those trails are there, you don’t need to take them. They look better, faster, and easier, but in reality, the main trail is there for a reason.
The shortcuts and quick fixes to breaking in hiking boots online are just like these satellite trails. Some blogs will recommend you soak them in warm water, freeze them overnight, put them in the dryer, maybe even give them to your dog to chew on for a while.
These fixes can be dangerous to all of the different parts of the boots and shouldn’t be taken as quality information.
Breaking in Your Hiking Boots
Know your foot characteristics
If you have flat feet or high arches, you may need to take a slower approach to break in your hiking boots. Most boots are made for feet that fit the middle range of curvature and don’t need any extra care. Unfortunately, most of us are on either end of the spectrum rather than in the middle.
Knowing your feet will help you know the right approach to take when breaking in your hiking boots.
Buy the right boots
Want to know how to break in hiking boots? It all starts right here. The new boots you buy will be a huge determining factor in how to break them in. Like we mentioned earlier, the material that the boots are made out of will greatly influence the length of time and effort it will take to get the boots properly broken. Mountaineering boots are drastically different than running shoes and you'll need to know what you're getting, even if it's just buying new hiking boots for a weekend backpacking trip.
If you’re rushed for time, you may need to buy synthetic boots without a lot of support. That’s the only way to break boots in quickly; buy the ones that you barely need to break in.
For the most part, we all want the extra support on the trails, and leather boots or synthetic with extra rigid support will be the best for long-distance hiking. Leather will last forever, but you need to do the work to take care of them and get them comfortable on the front end.
Know what you want out of your boots and make the decision from there.
Wear your boots inside your home
The first step once you’ve bought boots is to just wear them around the house. You don’t need rugged trails out the backdoor, in fact, it’s best to start without the ruggedness and keep them on inside and up and downstairs. This will start to introduce your feet to the boots and vice versa without any tough terrain or slippery surface around.
You also probably aren’t hiking miles on end around the house, but your feet will start to recognize the spots of the boots that may irritate you after wearing them for a long time.
So, when you get the boots, bring them home, throw on a pair of hiking socks, and lace the boots up.
Don’t forget a good pair of hiking socks, as this will help protect your feet from hot spots and blisters.
Walk around the block and short hike
Once your feet have gotten to know the boots a little better, you can take them out for a short walk around the block rather than on any challenging hikes. This will start to point out any issues that may exist when walking more consistently than stopping and starting inside the house. Pay attention to any spots that start to feel warm and uncomfortable while you begin breaking in the new hiking boots.
If you’ve had enough of pavement hiking, you can hit the trail for a short day hike next. This is a great opportunity to find out how your boots handle uneven terrain and how they support your feet over rugged terrain. It will activate different levels of pressure between the boots and feet, opening up the possibility of other discomforts.
Increase the mileage and difficulty gradually
Slowly but surely, you can start to increase your mileage, only if you haven’t had any pain or discomforts yet. Add a half-mile every hike, along with a lightweight backpack. You can slowly work your way towards carrying a full pack straight uphill but don’t jump straight to it.
Remind yourself that this is the time when it can feel the easiest to jump ahead. You’re almost there and need to continue practicing self-restraint. The 20-mile day up a 14,000-foot mountain is tempting but needs to wait just a little bit longer.
Listen to Your Feet
As you keep hiking, you should always be listening to your feet. This entire process is, after all, for their safety and security. They’ll tell you everything you need, and sometimes more.
Pay attention to hot spots
Hot spots are areas on your feet that are rubbing uncomfortably and are common during the break-in process. Your feet start to feel warm and uncomfortable in certain places with the friction on a big hike. They’re the biggest sign that you will soon have a blister which can later pop and lead to infection. If you care for your feet properly, you will be developing calluses with the right pair of boots.
People are terrific at ignoring problems until they get to be huge. Hot spots are one of the more-often-ignored medical issues on the trail. The key to stopping blisters is to get ahead of the game and prevent them rather than treat them.
Silk liners are cheap and easy to find. Paired with moisture-wicking socks, they’re also the best way to prevent blisters for anyone who is highly susceptible to blisters. Seriously, I’ve been on the trail with people who had feet that looked as if they’d been put in a box of bees. It wasn’t until they put on sock liners that they finally stopped getting blisters.
Pack duct tape
Yes, you can buy and pack Moleskin (which you should do when you buy a brand new pair of hiking boots). Don’t get me wrong, it works, but it falls off easily and you need to tape it anyways. Duct tape is the best option to cover a hot spot or blister if you aren’t carrying Moleskin. Plus, you can use it for every other issue you encounter.
When to Know You're Wearing the Wrong Boots
Your feet will quickly tell you that you are wearing the wrong boots, all you need to do is listen. If you’re experiencing an outrageous number of blisters without hiking a huge number of miles, there may be an issue. You may also have the wrong boots if you are feeling pain in the arches of your feet, or your toes are bumping up against the toe box of the boot when going downhill.
The right boot should hold your foot steadily while keeping it supported from underneath and dry from outside.
Give yourself time
We understand that not everyone has a ton of time to spare, but your feet will thank you for it. No, it’s not the end of the world to hike in new boots, but you need to be extra careful of blisters and hot spots. Preferably, let your feet get adjusted and happy.
Foot problems are one of the top reasons for people to come off a long-distance hike, and we want you to keep pushing forward now that you know how to break in hiking boots.