Exploring the Natural World

How to Condition Your Leather Hiking Boots (with Nikwax)

No piece of hiking gear does heavier duty than boots, so I never skimp on quality. I prefer leather boots for their toughness and because when I take good care of them they last for years. But I’ve learned the hard way on maintenance. In my ignorant youth (as opposed to my ignorant present age), I let a much beloved pair of Vasque boots die prematurely from total neglect. Hiking through dirt, gravel, wet grass, mud, flowing creeks, swamps, and so on, I cavalierly abused them without conditioning them enough. Within a quick couple of years, the uppers dried out and began to split. Only then did I realize I’d been foolish.

But life is about moving forward and onward…

Using a series of photos, I’ll demonstrate how I presently keep my leather boots from drying out and cracking. My current pair of Asolo boots cost $250. I’ve had them several years now and put them to regular use. I condition them four to six times per year, and then additionally for peace of mind before any extended trip.

The first thing I do is remove the laces and place them into the boots. You don’t really need a photo of this, but I took one for fun, so here you go…

Remove the strings and place them into the boot. Now I’m having fun!

Lately I’ve been using Nikwax Conditioner for Leather, which I find does an excellent job. Most good hiking boot retailers will carry Nikwax products or an equivalent brand. My boots are Gore-Tex lined, and Nikwax conditioner does not prevent the leather from breathing. If you care, you can study the detailed product specs (yes, it is water-based and eco-friendly), but the claim that matters most to me is that this product “softens and waterproofs new full grain leather and restores suppleness to dried out leather.” The waterproofing is an important aspect of care. Even though my boots have Gore-Tex lining to keep my feet dry, the leather itself should be “impregnated” regularly with a treatment that prevents dirt from sticking and water from soaking in, both of which cause leather to dry out and become brittle.

Okay? Here’s a photo of the product…

I use this product from Nikwax to revitalize and protect my boots between four to six times per year.

Under the Nikwax cap is a foam applicator, which works fine unless the foam wears down. At any rate, I prefer having more control to work the product into crevices and tight places, so I cut a 1 x 2 inch piece of purple sponge from a larger sheet of general purpose cellulose sponge cloth (available where kitchen scrubbies and rags are sold).

According to the instructions, you must:

  1. Brush off dirt with a damp cloth
  2. Apply product to wet leather
  3. Ensure penetration of welts and seams
  4. Remove any surplus after two minutes

Why get the leather wet first? Isn’t the treatment product itself liquid? Well, I’ll take the answer from Asolo’s instructions on care. According to Asolo, the leather pores are wide open while damp, which allows the impregnation treatment to penetrate deeply into the leather. That answer satisfies me.

Clean the boots with a damp cloth to remove dirt and open the leather’s pores for impregnation of treatment.

As you clean your boots, examine them for damage and wear. You’ll find normal creases in the leather uppers where the boots flex during walking and hiking. Pay particular attention to getting these areas conditioned and waterproofed, because it’s at these wear points that irreparable fissures (think gash-like open wounds) can develop. Such creases develop naturally on both sides of the boot as they are broken in, and they are no problem as long as you keep them conditioned.

These creases result from normal walking and hiking. My neglected Vasque boots split right here, a problem that could not be repaired.

Whether necessary or not, I shake the Nikwax bottle to mix up the solution. Then I pop off the cap, upend the bottle, and press the applicator down onto my purple cellulose sponge. (If the original foam portion of the applicator remains intact, I usually press the applicator directly onto the boot.) This triggers a release of milky white conditioner through a button valve, although I often must squeeze the bottle gently before it starts to flow.

Pressing the applicator down opens the button valve, which releases the milky conditioner.

(Did my original foam disintegrate? Did I rub it raw? It might appear so, but no. The round disc of foam, approximately 1/4 inch thick, which originally covered the blue button valve, simply came loose due to adhesive failure. When it began flapping in the wind like a comb-over, I tore it off completely and threw it away. Fortunately, I prefer using the purple cellulose pad anyway for working into tight spots.)

My original foam portion of the applicator is missing, and the button valve is exposed.

The most tedious areas to condition are the lace grommets. I usually start here while my enthusiasm is still high. Because these areas are more challenging, I rely on a meticulous squeeze and dab technique, which allows the milky treatment to soak and flow around grommets.

Work the treatment around the lace grommets.

The tongue seams are up next. I spread wide the tongue area and use the same squeeze and dab technique to let the conditioner soak into the seams and valleys. The cellulose sponge really shines here, moving a lot of liquid and controlling the flow. I’ve found the original foam applicator to be awkward and inefficient in these areas; however, rather than over-milking the damp cellulose sponge, I’ll often press and squeeze the Nikwax applicator high in the valleys of the tongue, letting the conditioner flow freely down into the tight lowlands. Then I dab up and spread the excess with the sponge.

Spread the tongue area to condition the seams and valleys.

Once the tricky areas have been addressed, I begin conditioning around the boot beginning with the toe. Again, my cellulose sponge works best on most parts of the upper, due to the rounded shape of the boot. (When I use the bottle’s applicator directly on the toe, for example, with or without the foam pad, the milky liquid runs immediately off the boot and down onto my work surface.) Direct application from the bottle is rather convenient, however, when treating either side of the boot because with the boot laid over the fluid tends to pond rather than run off, which makes for easy spreading. Note the following photo…

Direct application of product ponds nicely when the boot can be laid sideways.

I always give the leather collar special attention because it must stay conditioned. Due to constant flexing, I’ve always found this area prone to small fissures, no matter how often I condition the leather. The softer and more comfortable the padded collar, the more I notice that fissures will develop. Fortunately, such fissures have yet to become major problems, or lead to catastrophic boot failure, so I don’t lose any sleep over the issue.

Condition this area well due to constant flexing while hiking.

And from there I simply finishes the boot by working around the heel, up the opposite side, and back to the toe where I began. I let that sit while I treat the other boot, then go back and wipe off any excess, as per the instructions on the bottle. If you fail to wipe off the excess with a damp cloth prior to completing the job and closing up shop, I don’t imagine it harms the conditioning or waterproofing effectiveness. From experience, though, I know that excess Nikwax dries into a chalky white residue by the next morning, which makes your boots look like they traversed the salt flats of death valley while you slept.

Before (left) and after conditioning with Nikwax.

Once both boots are finished, I let them relax overnight before putting the laces back in. The next time I hike, I’ll be completely free on the trail of the nagging guilt that burdens my mind when I’ve gone too long with unconditioned boots.

Thanks for loving your boots.

BW


An interesting side note: While conditioning my boots for this article, I discovered they had finally contracted the unfortunate disease called Boot Sole Separation (Hydrolysis), which may require my soles to be replaced. This is caused by a chemical degradation of adhesive, from what I understand. I might cover this issue and the repair process in a separate topic.

About Bob Ward

In addition to nonfiction, Bob writes a fiction series featuring outdoor travel hero Kip Stone of Epic Adventures, Inc. For details, visit BobWardBooks.com.

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