You’ve got plans for a big hike—a multi-day backpacking trip or a long day hike to a high point—but your suitable footwear is either worn out or nonexistent. Here’s what not to do: buy brand-new hiking boots right before your outing, ensuring you have no time to wear them before you start trekking up a mountain. That almost guarantees trip-ruining foot problems like blisters. Here’s what you should do instead: break in your boots—and more importantly, your feet—before the hike, by wearing the new shoes as much as you can on diverse terrain. That doesn’t have to be mountain trails if you don’t have easy access; you can break in hiking boots in the city, too. For tips on how to break in your boots anywhere, we called up Jennifer Pharr Davis, a former record holder on the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, owner of the guiding outfitter Blue Ridge Hiking Company, and author of the 2018 book The Pursuit of Endurance.
Outside: Do my hiking boots even need to be broken in?
Jennifer Pharr Davis: Yes, if you buy more traditional, old-school leather boots or boots made from stiffer, less breathable fabric. But there’s also a lot of hiking footwear that you can break in over a couple of short walks. Hiking shoes that are made of mesh or more breathable fabric and have less restriction in the heel cup—they resemble a sneaker more than a boot—will need less time and effort to break in. They also don’t last as long on the trails.
Can’t I just wear them around the house?
Wearing boots around the house is better than nothing, if that’s all you can do, but adding weight and elevation will make a big difference when you’re out on the trails. The friction caused by different terrain will change the volume inside the footwear. Boots with stiffer components will need more miles on the trail before you wear them for a backpacking trip. A lot of people will walk in their shoes or boots without weight, but adding it will create a different dynamic. So does elevation. You’ve got to wear them going up and down stairs, in a stadium, over a bridge, or on a trail with elevation. Range of motion is very different when you’re walking flat versus uphill.
How much time do I need to break in my boots?
I recommend two to four weeks of lead time before a backpacking trip. Trying to hike in different conditions will help. Try to build up to two-thirds of your daily mileage of what you’re hoping to do on the trail. So if you’re planning to hike 10 to 15 miles a day on the trail, then try walking eight miles in your new shoes and see how it feels. If you opt for the extreme end of lightweight shoes, you can just wear them around town for a few days prior to your hike.
I’m breaking in my boots, and my feet are killing me. What gives?
Pay attention to hot spots. You’re not just breaking in your boots, you’re also breaking in your feet. They’re developing calluses and protection against friction and rubbing. If you have limited time, wear a thin sock so you can feel the rubbing sooner. Get used to it, and build up those calluses. You don’t want to push it too far—once you get a blister, you’re miserable.
Laces are a big thing, too. The way people lace their boots can impact the fit of the boot. So play around with how tight or loose you prefer them. People like them tight for ankle protection, but then they find that’s causing hot spots and blisters.
Try out different socks. Some people will wear liners or socks with toe compartments.
You could play around with Vaseline or Body Glide to prevent chafing, rubbing, and friction. Where I live—in Asheville, North Carolina—we have a lot of rain, and your feet inevitably get wet, so I put Gold Bond powder in my socks. Playing around with those additional actions can be helpful.
Anything else I need to do to break in my boots?
It’s good to walk in your shoes while they’re wet. Go for a walk in the rain, or use your sink at home and then go tromp around. Some materials restrict or expand, and they rub differently. In a shoe with more athletic fabric and material, they will typically increase in flexibility and volume. The stiffer, more traditional leather boot might initially expand when wet but then tighten or constrict after drying. This exercise will help you better prepare for the various conditions you’ll see on the trail.
I didn’t walk in my boots before my big hike. Am I screwed?
No. People work and have families and don’t have time to break in their footwear before a trip. If you haven’t had the opportunity, be extra cautious of hot spots or discomforts before they become an issue. Pack different types of socks. Try using Body Glide or powder on your feet. Pack Moleskin, and stop the blister before it starts.