How to break in your hiking boots without developing blisters

Breaking in hiking bootsThey’re begging you to go out on the trail, to smush mud between their treads, and yet, you hesitate. Because you’ve been here before, and you know that, as tempted as you are to throw on those beautiful new hiking boots and head straight for the nearest wooded area, it’s critical to break in your boots the right way.

If you don’t take time to properly break in your hiking boots, you’ll quickly find yourself with blisters and maybe a substandard fit. This is the time when the boot conforms to your unique foot shape; it’s not something that should be rushed if you want that hand-in-glove fit.

Take the time to introduce your boots to your feet, and they’ll return the favor with years of comfort and service. There’s no better way to kick off a beautiful friendship.

Breaking in hiking boots
David Prahl/Shutterstock

Get the right fit

For anyone into the outdoors, hiking boots are an important investment. With this in mind, this may be a time to head for a brick-and-mortar store.

Having the right fit is critical. An overly-loose-fitting boot leads right to blisters and raises the risk of foot and ankle injuries. Too tight, and the boots can cause foot pain and ingrown toenails. So put in the effort to find that Goldilocks fit. How do you know when you have it right? The best answer is also the simplest: It feels good!

Wave goodbye to water

If you bought heavy-duty hiking boots, it could take a few weeks to get them properly broken in. It’s important to be patient with the process, because quick fixes are often too good to be true. Perhaps the most widely-circulated hack is to use water to help break in boots.

Long-held practices involve filling or soaking new boots in water for extended periods of time or donning wet socks and then walking around in the boots, which doesn’t sound particularly fun regardless. The process may not do any harm in many cases, but it can also unnecessarily stress your intricately-made footwear. Are they going to disintegrate? Of course not. But even solidly-constructed boots can incur wear if they are, say, submerged in a bathtub overnight. It’s always better to be on the safe side, especially given the relatively sizable investment a top-notch pair of hiking boots can require.

Ease into it

Start small: Put on your socks and wear your boots. Do you use insoles? If so, now’s the time to slip them in. Lace them up as tightly as you can, making sure the tongue and gusset (just a fancy name for the loops you often find on the top or sides of hiking boots) are flat and properly lined up — nothing ruins that new-boots buzz like a creased or crooked tongue.

Once you’re laced up, avoid the siren song of the trail for just a little longer. Break in your boots gradually by wearing them around for casual, day-to-day activities. Go to the grocery store, walk the dog, or take a light stroll through the neighborhood. Think of it as a meet-and-greet for your boots and feet.

A woman hikes with a dog
Blazej Lyjak/Shutterstock

Ramp it up

Now it’s time to hit the great outdoors in earnest. Give your boots a chance to acclimate to the terrain. At first, keep things relatively tame, using a conservative pace. Look for a few miles of hiking on a lower incline, then gradually push it up (if desired) from there. The boots will slowly mold to your feet and to the landscape they’re encountering.

After you’ve had some time, think about your satisfaction level. Are they working out? Are they pinching a bit? This is another benefit of shoe shopping in person. For example, a staff member at the store can use a boot stretcher to give you more room in the toe box. And exchanges (and more fittings) are an easier process.

Take care of your feet

No matter how carefully you progress, it’s essentially impossible to remove the chances of a blister occurring. Friction is almost assured when a new boot presses and rubs against the skin. Even socks can only do so much, especially when the movements get more vigorous and sweat adds moisture to the equation.

Here are some pointers for hikers looking to prevent blisters and generally protect their feet on the trail:

  • Trim and file toenails to avoid sharp edges.
  • Apply heavy moisturizer or petroleum jelly to callouses.
  • Wear moisture-wicking socks.
  • Walk barefoot in safe environments to improve mechanics.
  • Treat your feet for fungus before a hike.
  • Take frequent breaks during hikes, removing boots for a while, if desired.
  • Remove annoying debris from inside your boot as soon as you notice it.

The process of breaking in a new pair of hiking boots really isn’t complicated, but it does take some time and thought. Think of it this way: When you and your comfy boots are effortlessly scaling summits and crushing day hikes two years from now, the few weeks you spent breaking them in the right way won’t seem like such a hardship.

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