Leather Boots – Breathable?
You have heard many a story, since Gore-Tex arrived into the hiking footwear market back in the ‘80s, that leather boots do not “breathe.” From a practical standpoint, is this true?
Let’s start with creating a baseline awareness of what’s going on in your boot as you hike along.
What happens when you put your bare foot in a plastic bag (waterproof membrane)? Because your feet, hands, head, and groin have the most blood circulation close to the surface of your skin, they are warmer than other areas of your body and radiate off the most heat and moisture.
– Your feet get hot and sweaty easily, so the inner surface of the plastic bag that you just stuck your foot into will receive lots of heat-driven moisture from your skin that will condense on it because the air outside the bag is cooler.
– Your foot in the bag will, also, get warmer, because of the lack of air circulation, then sweat more, all in order to try and cool off through evaporation (not possible in the bag).
So, feet get hot and sweaty, easily, especially when they are confined within a waterproof membrane, like a plastic bag. If you take the plastic bag off, your foot’s heat and moisture will radiate into the air and it will cool down and dry off. Thus, air movement across the foot catches and transports heat and moisture away from your foot, making it cool and sweat less.
Yes, that’s right…hiking in bare feet would be the coolest and driest way to go, but that’s not possible nor practical for many of us, so we’ll skip that subject for now!
And, yes, that’s also right…open shoes, like sandals or another kind of footwear with mesh or otherwise “breathable” upper fabric around your feet would work to keep your feet cool and dry, but water can come in from the outside, as well.
Are wet feet a problem? Chronic wet feet can lead to a nasty skin condition called “Trench Foot,” but if you can dry your feet off within a few miles of getting wet, say, in a creek crossing, you should be alright. If you’re in and out of creeks all day for weeks on end, you might have a problem. Keep an eye on your feet at night and try to dry them well. Rotating on dry socks while letting the wet ones hang on your pack to dry is another good idea, but you’ll need sunlight for that to work.
Who raised their hand?! Hmmmm, you’re right, again…I did mention “waterproof-breathable” membranes, like Gore-Tex earlier, didn’t I? The problem with this idea is that there has to be,
– 1) sufficient heat blasting off the body to “drive” the moisture of sweat through the PTFE (Big, long, scientific word; don’t ask!) membrane’s microscopic holes and out into the air, and that’s not always the case nor possible with all clothing applications, and
– 2) those microscopic holes, or pores, as they’re called, have to be clean enough to be open (dirt clogs them and becomes a wick to let moisture, actually, in – not good). This might work for a jacket, but we ARE talking about an application into footwear that’s down in the dirt all day, right?
Back to boots.
By nature of their smooth-sided, waterproof membrane, they usually repel water straight out of the box, but if that smooth surface gets cut or abrased, the seal is broken and water could soak through and get your feet wet. Now, that isn’t possible on backcountry trails with roots, granite boulders, and logs reaching for your feet all day, is it? It’s well known that hiking footwear takes a beating out there!
So, “smooth-out” leather boots need to be re-sealed periodically with a wax, “grease,” or oil that the manufacturer recommends to keep outside water from coming in. When I go hiking for any length of time greater than a week, I carry a leather conditioner/waterproofing “grease” that rubs-in with a cloth or toothbrush applied during a warm lunchtime and my boots are good to go. No huge complication.
“But, Ned! You said that such a waterproof membrane will hold in the moisture of sweaty feet, so what’s up with that?”
Ah, “Kemosabe,” you do understand! You’re listening!
You know that a plastic bag around the foot will hold in moisture and keep your feet wet, but what if that waterproof membrane were a distance away from your skin, allowing for air movement between skin and membrane and out the top of the boot?
Hmmmmm! How might that be accomplished?
Socks, sometimes in layers, for comfort and spacing! You’ll need to find out which combination of sock type and thickness works best for your boot size and sweaty (or not) nature of your feet, but I use a thin, silk liner as the layer directly on the skin of my feet (it wicks sweat off the skin well and transfers it into the air space made by the next layer; it also minimizes the friction between skin and boot that causes blisters), followed by a thick wool or “mountaineering” sock that receives the moisture coming off the liner and transports it out the top of the boot.
“You’ve got to be joking, right?!”
Sweat transfers from one sock to the next, right? That’s pretty much common sense and well documented. So, how does the moisture get driven out of the boot?
You’re not just standing there sweating, right? You are out hiking! The movement of your feet up and down (even ever so slightly as you walk along) within the boot’s confines acts like a “pump,” sucking in and pushing air out the top of the boot. At the end of a day of walking through the high desert of Southern California on the PCT, my liner sock may still be moist, but my thick, outer sock will always be dry! After multiple days of kicking through snow while snow-hiking up the PCT in the High Sierra in May and June, my feet always remain dry. Always have, and I’ve been teaching safe snow travel for the last 41 years.
“Traditional,” full leather, hiking boots, waterproofed on the outside, can easily provide the ideal material and design for a comfortable, durable, stable, and reliably dry environment for your feet, no matter the external conditions, hot, cold, wet, muddy, rocky, or snowy. They have “worked” for me for 54 years and I’ve rarely gotten a blister, never had wet or overheated feet, and still wear the same size shoe I did in High School (no foot expansion)! However, everyone is different and “Your Mileage May Vary!”
Can leather boots be waterproof and breathable?
[People’s feet come in all shapes and sizes such that good hiking boots have to be sized and shaped to fit properly so that the wearing is comfortable and blister-free. This little teaching can’t cover the details of fit and sizing, but if you’d like to learn a bit more about that, just let me know!]
(Photo: brand new, 1974 Vasque Whitney boots sponsored to me by Red Wing. This pair did the PCT and CDT. By the way, they are the same pair in the picture, below, taken at Lake Ivanhoe!).