You just pulled your brand new hiking boots out of the box. Stoke is high to get on the trail and do a big day to test out new boots.
Hiking boots big and small should be eased onto the trail and broken in before you throw on the pack and do multiple days with them.
And if you don’t? Blisters.
Blisters are no fun. I hit the trail a few years ago for a warm hike with about 1500 metres (5000 ft) of elevation. I spent a few weeks prior doing short hikes in some heavier backpacking boots and wanted to use them on this 3 day hike to see how they felt.
But I didn’t break them in enough. I wanted to finish the hike but it cost me. Blisters the sizes of loonies on both heels. The hike was beautiful but it hurt.
You don’t need to do this.
Let’s walk through a good method of breaking in boots so you don’t have to go through this pain.
What does ‘breaking in’ a boot mean?
Hiking boots are all built with standard foot molds called a last. Each company uses a different last and they can be different between boots or years of boots from the same company.
Clearly that last or mold isn’t exactly the same as your foot. This can be a problem. Some people have generic feet and put on a hiking boot and it fits. For the rest of us, a fit can be close but it’s still not our foot.
We need to soften the materials in the boots and form them to our foot. We can do this with heat and moisture.
At the end of the process, we’ll get a boot that fits much closer to each little dent and bump on your feet than what you get from the store.
How long does it take to break boots in?
Breaking in boots can take a few weeks. It all depends on how much time you spend in them.
Larger, heavier, leather boots might be 2 to 4 weeks or more. Smaller, lighter, synthetic boots and shoes might just need a few days of wearing them.
There aren’t any shortcuts. The process just takes time on your feet in the boots and there aren’t any ways around it.
The more time you spend in the boots while breaking them in the faster the process will go.
If you don’t have much time before your hike, opt for something lighter and more flexible as long as it fits.
Let’s step into the 4 step process of breaking in boots.
Step 1: Buy boots that fit well
While not exactly breaking in boots, buying a boot that fits well will making breaking in your boots even possible. Here are a few tips to do that.
Wear your hiking socks
When buying boots at the store, wear the socks you’d like to wear hiking. How thick they are will affect how hiking boots and shoes feel.
Some socks wick moisture away from your feet faster. You’ll be able to feel how well they wick with each boot.
Wear them in the shop
Spend as long as you can in the boots at the store. If you are at home, then you can have as long as you like. But even at the store, wear them around while you shop so you get a better feel for any pinch points or hot spots.
Climb some rock
Some stores will have a rocky hill or platform you can climb up with the boots to see how they feel. Any sort of incline or stairs will highlight weird bending in the boots or if your heel slips. Try going down the incline making sure your toes aren’t bashing into the end.
Try lacing differently
Try lacing differently to fix any issues you feel in the store. If that doesn’t work, it’s time for a different pair.
Add some weight
Once a pair feels good walking around for a while, put your backpack with some weight on if you brought it, or ask for one. A good outdoor store will have lots of backpacks with weight like climbing ropes in it. More weight will make the boots feel different.
Test boots with swollen feet
Try to shop near the end of the day when you’ve been on your feet all day. They will swell a bit walking around a lot and will be shaped and sized more like how your feet will be walking on the trail.
If everything feels good walking around in the store with your socks carrying some weight on an incline, it’s time to wear them around the house.
Step 2: Wear Around the House
You’ve bought some nice hiking boots or shoes that feel great in the store. Now it’s time to wear them around the house for a week or 2.
Wear around the house
Wear the boots around the house as much as you can. This helps with 2 things.
Wearing around the house keeps your feet in the boots for longer while you do your cleaning, cooking and other chores.
Keeping the boots in the house also keeps them clean and dry in case you need to return them. Most stores offer a return policy and will exchange boots and shoes no problem if you just wore them in the house.
Try to wear them all day long like you would your hiking boots.
Try relacing, with different socks or different insoles if you have any issues. If you can’t get past some hot spots or paint points, take them back to the store for suggestions or to try a different pair.
Once they feel good, it’s time to go outside.
Wear for errands
Take the boots out for all your errands, shopping and work if you can. Try different types of terrain like side hills, includes and stairs.
Make sure you have your hiking socks on still (maybe wash them once in a while too).
If everything still feels good it’s time to hike!
Step 3: Wear on Short Hikes
Now it’s time to hike.
It’s not time for a multi-day hike with 20 kilometers a day but it is time to get on the dirt.
Find varied terrain
Pick some nice short hikes with a light pack and get out on the trails. Find all the different terrain you can, rocks, dirt, inclines, declines and slippery surfaces.
Same as the steps above, if they don’t feel right anywhere, stop, adjust the lacing, empty any debris and then keep going.
We don’t want to get blisters at this point and we want to break in our feet a bit too.
Bring supplies and a back up plan
With your testing hikes you might want to bring backup shoes to help get out if something goes sideways. A blister won’t stop you from hiking but they are certainly uncomfortable.
Bring sports tape like Leukotape to tape up hotspots until your feet are a bit tougher. Vaseline or Body Glide are good lubricants that can help alleviate a hotspot until you get home. Gold Bond powder or something similar can help dry out moist feet if the moisture is causing issues.
Add some weight
Just as in the store, start adding more weight, slowly working up to your hiking weight you’d take on a trip. Don’t throw on 40 pounds right away but work up to it slowly adding distance and weight. We’re getting your feet and body used to this as well if they aren’t.
Boots will get wet on the trail so it’s time we try that to see how things go. Get your boots soaked and do some hiking. This will let you test the waterproofing as well as see how your boots feel wet. Adding moisture to the boot materials will let them bend and form to your feet better.
Work up to 2/3 hiking distance
Work up to near your actual hiking distance you’d like to do each day. We don’t want to jump straight from 5 kilometer testing hikes up to 20 kilometer trail days.
Break in your feet
Part of this process is breaking in your feet. If you haven’t hiked in boots for a while or ever, your feet won’t be as tough as they need to be for boots. Building up those callusses from hiking a lot will help prevent blisters. Spend as much time barefoot as you can, especially in rough places like sand. Going straight from the couch to long hikes may hurt.
If you have successfully completed all your testing and sorted any issues you have with the boots, it’s time to do your trip!
Step 4: Do your Hike
Now it’s time to do your hike!
Use what you’ve learned with all your breaking in and hit the trails. You might need to take sports tape, Body Glide or Gold Bond with you on the hike to make sure you don’t get blisters. For your first few larger hikes you might want to take them just in case.
What not to do to break in hiking boots
There are far more incorrect ways to break in boots than correct ones. Some of them can actually harm your boots.
Some methods that don’t work:
- don’t freeze them
- take a hairdryer to them
- pee on them
As long as you follow the steps above and don’t try any of these odd hacks, you should be on the trail in no time.