Some hiking boots are waterproof and some are not.
If a boot has a waterproof membrane inside then it should be waterproof for a long time.
If a boot is some kind of leather without a waterproof membrane then it will very water resistant.
If a boot is just fabric or mesh, then it is not waterproof.
These same rules apply to hiking shoes and trail runners. They can have a waterproof membrane, be water-resistant leather or open fabric.
If waterproof boots and shoes keep all the rain and puddles out, why would you want mesh? There is a very good reason to have a non-waterproof shoe.
But first: does waterproofing actually last?
How do waterproof boots work?
To answer that let’s look at how waterproof boots work.
Waterproof boots start with the waterproof membrane. Gore-Tex, eVent, Merrell’s M-Select DRY and Oboz BDry are all different kinds of waterproof membrane. They’re soft, flexible materials that have gone through very high-tech and proprietary processes to let sweat through but keep water out.
This boot of waterproof material is made into a boot shape with a soft liner on the inside. The rest of the boot materials are added to the outside like the fabric or leather uppers, the laces and the sole.
A chemical Durable Water Repellency (DWR) is added to the outside which makes water bead. If water soaks into the outside of the boot then air can’t flow through it, preventing any sweat and moisture from breathing out through the waterproof membrane.
This DWR coating comes from the factory but eventually wears on. Nikwax and other companies have products to wash or spray the DWR layer back on. Waterproof jackets and pants work the same and also have a DWR coating.
Does waterproofing last forever?
Waterproof membranes don’t last forever.
Hiking boots get a lot of abuse. They hit the ground with every step hiking. They get dirty and wet a lot. They bend near the toes and other places.
Eventually dirt wears its way through the outer fabric and into the waterproof membrane. Dirt and sand act like sandpaper overtime when the boot moves. That’s why it’s important to clean your boots. You might not care there’s a bit of mud on there, but it might mean years of use on your boots.
Once dirt’s in the membrane, it can clog the little tiny holes called pours that let sweat breathe or can tear larger holes and let water in from the outside.
Waterproof vs breathable
Everyone has their own preference of waterproof versus breathable boots and shoes but the preference has slowly changed over time. If you saw someone hiking in wet conditions in trail runners in the 1980s, you might think they didn’t know what they were doing. Now if see someone hiking long distances or in somewhat wet conditions, they might be wearing lightweight breathable trail runners.
Non-waterproof shoes and boots are lighter, more comfortable to hike in and don’t cost as much. Waterproof versions of shoes and boots adds a couple ounces and $30 to $80.
Air easily flows in and out of non-waterproof shoes resulting in more comfortable and cooler feet. Even if they do get wet, they dry faster than waterproof versions.
Waterproof membranes aren’t perfect. The layer that keeps rain out can also traps moisture in. They work better in cold and mild temperatures to push moisture out. In warmer locations and weather, that moisture sits in your boots. Sweaty feet can lead to blisters.
We try to err on the side of lighter weight and more breathable for most hikes but that’s going to be very uncomfortable in some weather. Taller, waterproof boots are much more comfortable in cool wet and snowy conditions. The trade-off of less breathability likely will be more appreciated when your feet will be soaked the whole time.
Trails with many river crossings are a bit of a special case for choosing footwear.
Will you be crossing in your waterproof hiking boots, non-waterproof shoes or other footwear you have for crossing like sandals or watershoes?
Waterproof boots are only waterproof up to the gusset in the tongue. The gusset is the fabric that connects to the tongue to the rest of the boot. If water gets up past that, it’s just going to pour in. Wet foot. Long dry times.
Non-waterproof shoes will dry faster if you just cruise right through the river. Your feet will certainly get wet but will dry faster than a waterproof boot.
Another option is bringing a small lightweight shoe for camp and water crossings like sandal or watershoe. Change into these shoes for crossing and then back into your dry hiking shoes after. A small towel or t-shirt works well for drying your feet off before donning hiking boots.
Do you need waterproof boots?
Smaller, non-waterproof shoes will be lighter on your feet and more breathable in warmer conditions.
That said, cold, wet and snowy conditions are much more comfortable in taller, waterproof boots.
So do you buy tall hiking boots or lightweight shoes?
If you can, a combination of lightweight shoes and waterproof boots will let you tackle any trail and any weather with the best tool for your feet.
If you can only afford one, then it will depend on what you like doing most.
Day hikes during warm weather? Get a lightweight shoe.
Long wet hikes? A waterproof hiking boot. Most brands have ‘Mid’ style hiking boots which are shorter but still waterproof. They’ll be smaller and lighter than the taller versions.
There’s always going to be a spectrum of what you can wear on a hike. Some people will tend to the taller boots, and some will tend to the smaller, lighter shoes.
At the end of the day it’s entirely up to you what you pick but this article hopefully gave you some information about all the options so you can test them out for yourself.