We tend to think it's impossible to go hunting without bringing a piece of the backcountry back home, in the form of muddy boots. In some ways, it's a badge proving you made it in and made it out unscathed. Arguably, your boots are the most important gear you have while hunting - you wouldn't get very without them.
So if you want to keep them in top shape for many more seasons, you have to clean and maintain them regularly. In this guide, we'll cover every step you'll need to follow to care for your hunting boots so they stay in high-performance condition.
Hunting Boots 101: Anatomy, Materials, and Style
Before we get into the brass tacks of cleaning, treating, and maintaining your hunting boots, we should level set on the styles and materials involved. Between the types of boots and the hundreds of brands out there, cleaning and maintaining a pair of boots isn't as straightforward as you'd hope.
This means you need to know what's covering your feet before you can clean them. Failure to do so could potentially ruin the material and become a problem in the field. Use the following information to better understand the materials and construction of your hunting boots.
Anatomy of Hunting Boots
In its most basic form, a hunting boot can be categorized into two areas - the inside and outside. You can drill down further within each, which we'll cover shortly, but this is the simplest way to wrap your head around the care different parts of your hunting boots require.
The outside is meant to protect from the elements, chief among them being moisture. And the inside's primary role is to retain an appropriate level of warmth. They achieve far more than just water protection and heat retention - traction, protection, etc.
But when it comes to cleaning and maintaining hunting boots, moisture, and insulation are the easiest components to clean incorrectly - this can be expensive and devastating if realized in the backcountry.
Outside the Boot
You might be shocked at how many components go into making a boot, but for the outside, we'll focus your attention on four specific areas: uppers, shanks, midsoles, and outsoles.
- Upper - Uppers in hunting boots are the aptly named material at the top of your boots and are typically made of leather, synthetic materials, or a combination of both. These protect your feet from water and dirt but can dry out and crack over time if not properly maintained.
- Shank - This is the bridge between the uppers and midsoles in your boots. Its role is to provide arch support, reduce fatigue during extended hikes, and increase stability while walking on uneven terrain. They are usually made of plastic or fiberglass but can also be made of steel for more aggressive outdoor activities.
- Midsoles - Midsoles act as the shock absorber in your boots to reduce foot fatigue and strain. These are often created with lightweight foam materials like Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) or polyurethane.
- Outsoles - This is the part that touches the ground, and it needs to provide traction and grip on different surfaces. Hunting boots often feature an aggressive tread pattern made of rubber or thermoplastic rubber (TPR).
Inside the Boot
The inside of a hunting boot typically consists of the collar, tongue, and insole, but of special focus for the cleaning and maintenance post-hunt, we're going to focus on the footbed and insulation only.
- Footbed - Footbeds provide underfoot cushioning and support, often made of EVA foam, cork, or a combination of both. Maintaining a proper shape is vital to a comfortable hunt.
- Insulation - Insulation is designed to keep the foot warm in cold climates, usually with materials like Thinsulate™ or wool.
In terms of materials, we've only scratched the surface. There are far too many options to list in one article, but we're going to cover several of the most popular materials across a few styles of hunting boots.
Common Hunting Boots Material
Up to this point in the article, we've named nearly a dozen different materials that could be in your boots, but at the highest level, materials used in hunting boots can be separated into four categories: synthetic, leather, rubber, or a mix of synthetic and natural materials. Each has a unique advantage in the field and method for maintaining at home. Let's quickly look at all three.
- Synthetic - Nylon is one of the more popular synthetic materials found in hunting boots. It's lightweight, affordable, water-resistant, and breathable. It makes for a great mesh and other outer-facing surfaces. Polyester is another synthetic material that can be found on boots. It can certainly be used outside the boot but also has a role in insulation since it can be wicking, which helps keep your foot dry and warm.
- Leather - Leather has passed the test of time in footwear, and for hunting boots, it's a classic option that's famous for its durability and malleability. If you wear them in properly, the fit will be one of the most comfortable out there. Leather requires different treatment throughout the year compared to synthetic boots - it's primarily conditioning leather to prevent it from drying up and cracking.
- Rubber - From entire boots to outsoles only, rubber is a mainstay in boot materials. Similar to leather though, rubber boots need to be conditioned to prevent drying and cracking.
- Hybrids - The majority of popular boots today are a combination of synthetic and natural materials. This most often takes the form of using synthetics for their breathability, water resistance, and reduced weight of too much of the boot. Where the leather is used to add shape to important components in the structure, and rubber serves as a sturdy and durable outsole.
Hunting Boots Styles
The type of hunting and location of that particular hunt ultimately determine the right footwear. Each has a specific combination of materials and construction to make sure a hunter's feet don't hinder performance. Among the many styles of boots available, mountain (hiking) boots, upland boots, and rubber boots cover the vast majority of situations for a hunt. An honorable mention might be PAC boots, which are built for ridiculously cold weather. But in general, the following three get the most mileage across the different disciplines of hunting.
Mountain Hunting Boots
These are the style of boots you'd use to trek through mountains and technical trails, but they're also great for hunting in a variety of terrains. They have full-grain leather uppers with rubber soles and toe caps. The insulation used varies depending on the season, so be sure you know what temperature range it's built for.
Upland Hunting Boots
Upland hunting primarily takes place in grasslands, so boots are typically lightweight and low-cut. This allows for greater freedom of movement while walking. The materials used here are usually a combination of synthetic and leather with an EVA foam footbed for cushioning. As you might expect, these are designed to keep your feet dry while also providing support and protection.
Rubber Hunting Boots
When heading out in wet conditions, you'll want a pair of rubber boots. They don't offer much insulation or support but can be found at varying heights depending on the type of hunt you're pursuing. Rubber makes them waterproof, so even if the terrain is flooded, you'll be able to stay on your feet. You can also find insulated rubber boots for winter hunts.
Overall, there are various considerations for selecting the right hunting boot for any given situation. Not only does it come down to the material and style but also the terrain, weather conditions, and of course budget.
Now then, with this informal class on hunting boots out of the way, let's get to the meat of this guide - how to clean and maintain your hunting boots.
How to Clean and Maintain Hunting Boots
When it comes to hunting boots, they’re designed to stand up to a lot of punishment. But even the toughest boots will eventually show signs of wear and tear if not properly cared for. That’s why it's important to regularly clean and maintain your hunting boots - so you can keep them in tip-top shape for years down the line.
After all, no one likes having their feet soaking wet or tripping over rocks because their soles have lost traction - that's an easy way to injure yourself. When dirt and debris are allowed to dry on the boot, this can cause them to age faster than usual as well as degrade any upper material like leather or nubuck.
Even your outsole isn't impervious to the degradation of nature. By leaving dirt and debris on your sole you can mitigate its grip ability. That's kind of important for navigating slippery terrain on a mountain. So let's get into how you can keep your hunting boots looking brand new!
Synthetic Hunting Boots
Synthetics are man-made materials that involve petroleum in the production process. Nylon and polyester are inescapable materials in all our lives - in fact, polyester is the most manufactured garment material in the world - by a huge margin. We say this because you probably have either material on at the moment, which means you also know how to care for this type of product.
Rubber isn't a synthetic material, although synthetic imitations are popular in hunting boots, the way to clean rubber is more closely aligned to synthetic boots, but with one additional step. It's best to add an aftercare treatment to prevent the rubber from drying out and maintain its waterproofness.
And waterproofness is the name of the game when it comes to synthetics. There's no need to rub mink oil on synthetic materials as you would leather, but they are typically coated with a water-resistant application that needs to be maintained regularly. As you clean synthetic hunting boots, this is the primary caution to be mindful of.
What's the Difference Between Waterproof and Water Resistant?
This is an important distinction to make. Water-repellant means that the boots will keep your feet dry while you're in wet conditions, but it's not designed to withstand heavy rain or submersion in water. Meanwhile waterproof materials are designed to block out moisture and remain dry during more extreme conditions like a downpour or walking through stream beds. Find the label of your hunting boots to identify which material you have then pick your path below, either waterproof or water resistant.
Cleaning Waterproof Uppers and Outsoles
- First, you want to make sure there’s no dirt or debris on the outside of your boots. Start by brushing off any visible dirt with a soft bristled brush and warm water. If there is mud dried onto the surface, use an old toothbrush to gently scrub it away while using warm water. Once the exterior of the boot is clean, move on to interior cleaning.
- Remove the laces from both boots and set them aside.
- Then fill a small bowl with warm water and mild detergent or soap. Soak the removable insole in this solution for 10 minutes before scrubbing away any dirt or debris that's collected on its surface.
- Empty the basin and refill it with water and mild detergent or soap. Soak the entire boot in the water for 5-10 minutes then remove.
- Use a small brush to gently scrub the front, sides, and back of your boots. The scrubbing should be in smaller circular motions.
- Rinse your boots with water only. If you still see debris on your boots repeat step 4.
- Finally, use a damp cloth to wipe down the interior of the boot. Make sure you check in any crevices where dirt and sweat can easily collect.
- Once your boots are clean, air dry them away from direct heat sources like radiators or ovens. Lastly, if you have waterproof hunting boots add an aftercare treatment
Cleaning Water Resistant Uppers and Outsoles
Cleaning boots that have a water-resistant rating instead of waterproof follows a similar process, but instead of soaking the boots starting in step 4 (basin of water), you'll simply run them underwater. This is to protect the integrity of the water-resistant technology of the boot's materials. You'll also want to be careful about the boot cleaning agent used on water-resistant boots since some coatings can be destroyed without the right treatment.
Treating Synthetic Hunting Boots
- The first step of treating hunting boots begins with a thorough clean - everything from removing the laces to drying them with mother nature. All the steps we just discussed.
- Look at your care label to see the proper water-resistant coating to apply to your boots. Once you have the product in hand you'll want to apply it as evenly as possible. Don't forget that rubber boots require treatment as well - as do outsoles.
- Allow the treatment to dry.
- Test the water resistance or waterproofness of your boots. If they don't pass your test, apply another coating and repeat the process.
Leather Hunting Boots
Leather hunting boots require a bit more effort to ensure they stay in top condition. Left untouched, even without wear, they can degrade simply by drying out. Let's look at how to clean leather boots first.
Start by brushing away any dirt or debris with a soft brush and warm water. If you need something extra, use a damp cloth to remove the stubborn bits. Create your leather cleaning solution by mixing 1 teaspoon of saddle soap with 1 cup of warm water.
Apply the mixture to a soft cloth and rub it into the leather in circular motions. Pay special attention to any crevices or stitching on your boot where dirt and grime can easily build up.
Rinse off your boots with clean water then allow them to air dry away from direct heat sources like radiators or ovens.
Once your leather hunting boots are clean and dry, you'll want to use a conditioning treatment to keep them soft and supple. Apply the product with a soft cloth in an even layer then allow it to soak into the leather before buffing out any excess with a second cloth.
Cleaning Leather Hunting Boots
- Start by removing your laces (and insoles if possible) then brush away any dirt or debris with a soft brush. Use a soft bristle brush here.
- If you have areas where debris or grime won't release its grip, you can try wetting the boot under the faucet in that specific spot or using a wet microfiber cloth - whatever you do, don't dunk your boots in water or let them soak in water.
- After the grime is removed, lightly rinse or wipe the boots down again.
- Stuff your boots with paper of any kind (newspaper, etc) and leave them to air dry. Be sure to avoid any sort of heat source during this stage.
Treating Leather Hunting Boots
Treating leather boots is a similar process to synthetic boots. Where it differs though is in the solutions used to treat the leather and the frequency of the process. You'll need to apply an oil, such as mink oil, onto your leather boots. You can use a rag or a shine brush to do this. This should be done regularly, even in the off-season when you aren't using your boots in the backcountry.
Be sure to let your leather boots dry at room temperature after doing this.
Maintaining Your Hunting Boots
It's not hard work to keep your boots in hunting condition, but it is consistent work. If you're wondering what maintenance looks like, there are a few rules to follow.
How Often Should You Clean Hunting Boots?
Hunting boots should be cleaned after every hunt. In the event of light use, they should be cleaned and treated once a month. For leather hunting boots, they should be cleaned and conditioned in periods of no use, such as the off-season - every 2 to 3 months is the general cleaning guideline.
For some people, storage is another word for their garage. But when it comes to your hunting boots you need to find a different spot. Garages are terrible storage locations because of their drastic change in temperature and humidity.
For synthetic, leather, and rubber boots, a garage can ruin the integrity of your hunting boots. Instead, when it's the off-season, find a cool and dark location in the house, such as your basement, to store your hunting boots when you don't need them. Drop them in a bin and place them away for a couple of months. If your gear has a strong odor, you can add baking soda to the bin or the boots before you seal the bin.
Well-Worn Boots Are Well Worth Caring For
It's not every day that you get a pair of hunting boots, or any boots for that matter, to fit just right. Hell, you're supposed to put at least 20 miles on a new pair of boots before you wear them into the backcountry. That takes time. Plus, you could probably add an extra zero to the end of that distance to match how far you've gone in yours. That being said, you owe it to yourself and your boots to give them a little extra love.
Clean and treat your hunting boots regularly so that they're always ready when you need them. It's not hard work, but it is consistent work. If you take the time to clean and maintain your hunting boots - whether leather or synthetic - they will last you far longer than a single hunting season and your feet will thank you for it.