Break-in pain is the ultimate paradox when you buy a new pair of boots. One day they’ll fit like a dream, but for now the elements you love, like the stiff, high-quality leather and the thickness of the sole, can make you dread wearing them. But never fear — we’ve compiled the ultimate collection of tips and tricks to make breaking in tough boots as painless as possible. Remember, this is a break in process, so it may take some time. Here’s how.
- How to Break In Boots
- How Not to Break in Boots
- Wrapping Up
1. Start With the Right Size
Forget what you’ve heard about the leather stretching — there’s nothing you can do about a pair of boots that’s too small, back-to-front. If your toes are cramped or the width of your foot hangs over the footbed, no amount of breaking in is going to fix it. On the other hand, too-big boots will never be more than blister machines. Blisters are formed where there’s friction, and if you’re sliding around with every step, you’ll never get past the break-in stage.
If you’re not sure exactly what size you are, go to your local shoe store and get measured on a Brannock device. It’s a helpful starting point, though not all manufacturers are true-to-size. If possible, try on boots in person before you buy them, and experiment with a half size larger and smaller than your actual size. If you have to buy online, be sure to read our reviews and consider ordering a couple of sizes and returning one of them when you’re confident. A lot of boot brands are designed to fit best when you go a half size down, but not all! Luckily, our reviews have you covered.
[Learn more: The Ultimate Guide to How Boots Should Fit]
The Dayton Service Boot is one of my favorites of all time — but that break in…
2. Wear Thick Socks — Inside
Start with the thickest sock you have (or two if you can manage it!) and wear your new boots around the house. This will help you figure out if they’re the right size without getting them dirty, so you can still return them. It’ll also begin stretching the leather.
Out-of-the-box leather is as stiff as it will ever be, and softens and stretches best with a combination of gentle pressure, heat, and moisture. That’s why boots are easier to break in during summer months — the combination of warmer outside temps and increased moisture from your sweaty feet (gross but real) is the ideal set of conditions for loosening the leather fibers. The bulky socks will mimic some of this by warming up your feet and pressing on the upper, helping it mold to the shape of your foot.
3. Slap on a Band-Aid
Once you’ve worn your new boots for a bit, it’ll be pretty clear where blisters will form on your foot. You don’t have to be a martyr to them – just note those places and slap on a band-aid the first few times you wear your new boots out in the world. A little bit of preventative medicine goes a long way here. Large, fabric band-aids work best for this, as the plastic ones tend to get slippery and don’t stay in place as well.
My first pair of boots, the Red Wing Moc Toe. Break in was not fun.
4. Bring Your Old Boots With You
Don’t commit to a 12-hour day in your new boots. No matter how comfortable they may be in your house, your arches will need a break after a few hours. It’s best to wear new boots early in the day, when your feet are fresh (your feet expand throughout the day as the weight of your body presses on them), and take them off after 2 or 3 hours. Leave your old boots by your desk or in the trunk of your car and swap them out when you start to feel discomfort.
[Best: 10 Best Boots for Wide Feet]
5. Give It a Break
As tempting as it may be, don’t wear your new boots many days in a row. The moisture from your foot takes more than a night to evaporate fully, and giving the leather a day or two in between wears will not only give your feet a much-needed break, it will give the boots time to dry fully before you wear them again.
As an added bonus, using this method throughout the lifetime of your boots will keep the foot-stink to a minimum. We recommend using shoe trees between wears to help draw out the moisture and so the boots retain their shape. I get that this might be tough if you need to break in new work boots, it’s not like you can just take a day off of work because you need to break in new pair of boots.
[Learn more: 3 Reasons Your Boots Need Shoe Trees.]
6. Work the Bend
There are two main places where boots bend: at the ankle, and just below the toes, at the ball of the foot. Those are the places that the leather will flex as you take a step, and need some work during the initial break-in. When you’ve worn your new boots for a while, just after you take them off, hold the boot in your hands and work the leather, bending the sole back and forth at the crease and crushing the leather fibers around the heel and ankle. Don’t worry about being too gentle with them either. You’re not going to ruin your boots, you’re just speeding up the process that would naturally happen as you walk around in them.
7. Scuff Up the Heels
Heel slippage is a super common problem (especially with boots that have a smooth leather lining) and as we know, friction causes blisters. Over time, wearing the boots creates a “heel pocket” in the inner heel area, which is why boots don’t give you blisters forever. You can speed the development of the heel pocket by taking a piece of fine-grain sandpaper and lightly sanding the inside of the heel area. You might be cringing at the thought of damaging the leather, but you don’t need to go crazy with it – just scuff it a bit so that the boot can grip your sock a little better and reduce the friction.
8. Treat Your Leather
This method is most useful if the leather upper feels too tight: adding moisture in the form of a leather softener, like Tenderly Leather Softener, or a conditioner like Venetian Shoe Cream, can increase the give of the fibers. Remember: moisture helps leather stretch. Just be careful not to over-condition, which can make the material floppy. A little conditioner goes a long way.
[Related: The 5 Best Boot Conditioners On the Market]
9. Stretch It Out
If you’ve got a lot of tightness in the width of the boot (and you’re sure it fits right everywhere else) then a shoe stretcher is the way to go. It looks a bit like a cedar shoe tree, except with a crank that you can use to increase the width of the wooden foot. Best used in combination with a conditioner or leather softener to break in your new boots. You just insert it into the boot, crank it open, and leave it there for 6-8 hours.
10. Try A Different Lacing Combo
If you’re encountering tightness around your arch or ankles and want to give your foot a little more room to flex, skip some of the eyelets when you lace up your boots. After all, the point of the break in is to stretch the leather, not the laces. This can be particularly helpful when you’ve got a pair of boots with a gusseted tongue, which adds extra bulk to break in.
11. Take Your Pair of boots to a Professional
If you really can’t stand the idea of breaking in your own boots, then a cobbler can help. They have specialized stretching tools that can expand just the problem areas on a pair of boots, or add padding to an insole or arch. A quick Google search for “shoe repair near me” or “cobbler near me” will turn one up. Just keep in mind that you might need to leave your new boots with them for a few days.
12. Don’t Rush It
A final word of warning: there are a lot of terrible DIY tips on the internet for “breaking in boots fast!” Don’t buy it. Wearing your boots despite the discomfort can cause problems. There’s a fine line when you break in new boots, you don’t want accidentally to damage them.
How Not to Break in Boots
We wrote an entire article on what not to do to stretch or shrink a pair of boots. Most of those articles on the internet are based on old-wives’ tales perpetuated by recycling content from old message boards, and most of those methods can hurt your feet or damage your boots.
Don’t fill your boots with water and let them dry.
This is often recommended for work boots and hiking boots. This myth is perpetuated by military types for quickly breaking in boots, and that might work if you’re in the military, but seems like it’s just bad advice that won’t die, because wearing wet boots has tons of down sides for your foot and boot health. Especially, if you own heritage boots with cork and other oldy-timey materials. Too much water can cause the leather and other materials (like cork midsoles!) to rot, warp, or shrink.
Work boots, military boots, and hiking boots are built differently from a pair of heritage boots. They have more synthetic materials like nylon, Poron, and EVA that are more durable if they get wet. These boots dry quicker and won’t rot as easily. Also, there’s less leather, or the leather has been treated to prevent it from drying out and cracking. If you need to break in a pair of work boots quickly, and you know they are mostly synthetic, just use the same advice we gave above.
Don’t wear wet socks around
You want to break in new boots, not your feet. Wearing wet socks can cause blisters. Also, it can cause your boots to get really stinky. As you wear wet socks and your boots heat up and bacteria will grow. When you leave your boots to dry overnight, you’re basically creating the perfect environment for mold and other microorganisms to invade your boots. These are really tough to get out, and you might be stuck with stinky boots. Also, wet socks are guaranteed to give you blisters.
Don’t blast your boots with a hair dryer.
This is one of the worst ways to break in new boots. New boots have a lot of oil in the leather to soften it and keep it from getting brittle. Boots basically come with leather conditioner already applied. Heat will remove these oils from the leather. That’s why a lot of these so-called tips recommend adding more conditioner to the leather after you blow dry them.
I’ve seen it touted as a way to stretch, shrink and break in boots. This is one of the worst ways to break in brand new boots. New boots have a lot of oil in the leather to soften it and keep it from getting brittle. So boots basically come with leather conditioner already applied to protect them from heat and dry air which remove the helpful oils from the leather. That’s why a lot of these so-called tips recommend adding more conditioner to the leather after you blow dry them.
This method also includes get your boots we to some degree. So you have all of the problems of soaking the boots combined with the additional problems of wet boots. The leather won’t stretch much, you’ll waste leather conditioner, your boots don’t break in as much as wearing them or bending them, and you may cause excessive damage to your boots.
A hair dryer will suck all the natural moisture right out of the leather fibers.
Don’t spray your boots with a combination of alcohol and water.
Spraying your boots with alcohol and water to stretch, widen, or soften up the leather in areas where the boot or shoe is tight, is something cobblers do. Fiebing even sells shoe stretching spray that is just water and alcohol, but for breaking in boots, just wearing them and bending them is much better. If you have a problematic spot where the leather is too stiff like on the ankle, a good cobbler can soften the leather in that spot.
You want to avoid the alcohol and water spray method because it also strips out the oils from your new boots. You need to use leather conditioner, which can be expensive. Also, you can cause the dye in the leather to fade. That may not be too important for a pair of work boots or hiking boots, but you definitely don’t want to damage a pair of $400 dress boots.
Alcohol will eat the dyes out of your boots. It will increase the brittleness of the leather, which can lead quickly to cracking and other damage.
The internet is full of terrible ideas – use your common sense.
Go slow, pay attention, and remember that breaking in quality boots is a process that takes a couple of weeks, tops – hardly a trade-off when you think about the years of comfortable wear you’ll get out of them after it’s done.
[Related: My list of The Best Boots]
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