Gear Guy

What’s the deal with Sno-Seal?

Why did Sno-Seal fall out of favor? I kept a pair of heavy hiking boots alive for years with some welt dressing and this stuff. Joe Midland, Texas

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Sno-Seal is one of the great outdoor products of the past century. It was invented back in the mid-1930s by a guy named Ome Daiber, a long-time Seattle-area mountaineer who wanted a boot coating that would waterproof but not soften the leather. This was a drawback of the common grease-based boot coatings of the day; soft boots don’t work well with crampons. As his main ingredient, Daiber settled on beeswax, which had a high melting point (146 degrees) so was very durable, yet had lots of waterproof capability. It had the further advantage of adding just enough moisture to boot leather so that the leather would stay supple but not turn to mush. Best of all, while it was durable, it pretty much completely wore off after several long trips, so it didn’t change the boot permanently.

Sno-Seal was the only boot treatment worth squat when I began to hike and climb. I fondly recall driving to Mount Baker many years ago in my robin’s-egg-blue Karmann Ghia (now there was a car!), while my friend Norman tried to get enough heat out of the registers to apply some Sno-Seal. The boots had to be warm to apply it, see, and the little Ghia’s heat vents just weren’t up to the task.

In the past decade, though, new treatments have come out—primarily those that use aqueous wax or silicon. These have the advantage of being a little easier to apply than Sno-Seal, and perhaps a bit more compatible with modern silicon-tanning methods. They also are slightly more breathable—Sno-Seal was so effective that it tended to make the boots airtight as well as watertight, which could lead to sweatier feet, although I never found that to be a real problem.

But the bottom line is that Sno-Seal remains an excellent waterproofing treatment for boots. REI, among other stores, still carries it for $4.50 a can. I’m confident it’s the only product to appear in both the 1943 and the 2003 REI catalogs.

Sno-Seal available from REI here.

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