Do you have a new pair of boots giving you trouble?
I love boots because they’re sturdy and stylish, but the stiffness of the leather and thickness of the sole often comes with a cost. The first few weeks can feel like you’re wearing a medieval torture device instead of a modern shoe.
But once you break those bad-boys in, you’ll have a durable, beautiful pair of boots that fit your foot perfectly. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
I’ll break down how to break in your boots quickly and do so without causing any damage.
13 Surefire Ways to Break in Boots
1. Start with the right size
I don’t care what trick your dad taught you about breaking in boots—baseball bat, flamethrower, saying the name of the brand three times in the mirror—if your boots don’t fit well, there’s not much you can do to ease the discomfort.
Most people check to see if they have enough toe room and call it a day. There’s a lot more to finding the right fit. If you have naturally wide feet, you’ll need a wider boot. Yes, the leather will stretch a little, but not enough to make the experience comfortable. You’ll be spending your days with crowded pins-and-needles feet.
There are a lot of considerations that go into finding the right size boot—in fact, we wrote a complete guide about how boots should fit.
If you want all the juicy details on getting the right fit, check out that article, but if you want the quick version: there’s no substitute for trying the boot on in person. However, that’s not always an option.
Go to a shoe store anyway and have your feet measured in one of those metal Brannock devices. You can find your foot’s true length and width. Sure, it may seem inconvenient, but once you have it done, write your sizes down. Now you can go online shopping with confidence.
Pro tip: if you go to get your feet measured, go in the afternoon. Your foot can swell a half-size throughout the day. Buy your boots at your larger foot size.
2. Wear thick socks around the house
Hard leather is the main reason your boots hurt like hell. 90% of breaking in a boot is stretching and softening the leather in those areas where your foot is shaped a little differently. Maybe you have high arches, or the ball of your foot is especially wide. The leather will stretch around those areas.
A great way to speed the process is to wear a thick pair of wool socks under your boots. My favorite pair of thick wool socks is the Camel City Mill Heavyweight. They’re designed as work socks, but you can wear them casually, too and they have a 10-year guarantee, which is awesome.
The Heavyweight from Camel City Mill is the best work sock you can get for a steel toe boot. The padding is heavy in the heel and toe, but since it's made with Merino wool, this sock is also very breathable and won't make your feet sweaty.
Sure, it may feel a little tight, but in exaggerating your foot-size, you’re stretching the leather much faster than by letting nature take its course.
We recommend doing this for a few hours around the house before venturing outside for the first time. If you start in the morning, at lunch you’ll know whether you need to return the boots. Because you didn’t venture outside, they’ll still be clean enough to send back.
If your feet are getting the pins and needles feeling, they’re too tight. If they’re not, then you know you’re just dealing with a tough break-in period and you’ll have to bust out some other tricks.
3. Use leather conditioner or oil
Treating your leather with oils and conditioners is the equivalent of giving your boots a spa day. They’ll relax and soften up.
By relaxing the leather fibers, it’s much easier for your foot to get in there and stretch the material to the correct size.
Of course, you can over-condition your leather. At that point, the leather is too relaxed and develops a significant flop-factor. Applying too much conditioner risks creating a depression in the leather where there shouldn’t be one.
One of the saddest deaths a boot can face is when the toe cap sags. Sure, they still function fine, but the style becomes sloppy. So with that warning, we trust you understand that a little conditioner is all your boot needs.
After testing 10 of the most popular leather conditioners, Venetian came out as my top pick because it nourishes leather, doesn't change the color, and actually adds a decent amount of weather resistance as well.
A second benefit of conditioning your leather is that it becomes more water resistant. Knowing how to properly care for your boots is a big factor in increasing their longevity and allowing them to evolve into beautiful, patina-coated masterpieces.
4. Put on a band-aid or blister pad
If you’re going to dive straight in and commit to wearing your boots out for the day, put a few band-aids on the vulnerable parts of your foot. Trust us, you won’t regret it.
The most problematic and friction-prone areas are along the pinky toe, the side of the big toe, the inside ball of your foot, the heel, and the top of your foot.
Usually a fresh pair of boots will irritate at least one of those spots. And sometimes, you get a boot that rubs all of those places and your foot stings enough to consider checking into a hospital.
Wearing a band-aid or blister pad underneath your socks in those areas can be a foot-saver. Remember, you won’t have to always wear these band-aids—just for the first week or so.
If you go without the band-aids, you can wear the skin down, making it painful to wear the boots again anytime in the following few weeks. That’ll slow the break-in process considerably. So go ahead: splurge on some band-aids. You’ll be glad you did.
5. Don’t wear your boots too often
Yes, the best way to break in your boots is to wear them everywhere you go. But as you wear your boots, your foot releases moisture.
If you wear them too many days in a row, the leather doesn’t have a chance to dry, and the extra moisture can cause more friction (i.e. more blisters/ howling pain).
So let your boots rest for a day or two in between wears. Even better, toss a shoe tree in your boot when it’s not in active-duty. Shoe trees absorb the excess moisture and help keep the shape of the boot.
We like cedar shoe trees the best because they have the added benefit of smelling nice. What clamps are to woodworkers, shoe trees are to boot-lovers: you can never have too many.
6. Take your old boots with you
What’s worse than rubbing your toes and heels raw for four hours straight? Continuing for another four hours, that’s what.
When you’re ready to take your boots out into the world for the first few times, bring an older, already broken-in pair of boots (or other comfortable shoes) with you. The most important thing is that you don’t allow your foot to blister or rub raw.
Sure, wearing your boots for a few hours may cause tenderness—that’s expected—but once you go to the blister/raw stage, your foot takes significantly longer to heal. That’ll put a limit on how much you can wear your new boots and only lengthens the time they’re not broken in.
If you have a second pair of boots with you, you can change out of your news boots as soon as you start feeling discomfort. Little by little, you’ll be able to wear them for longer periods of time.
7. Adjust the lacing
Folks with high arches often experience uncomfortable rubbing at the top of their foot. If that sounds like you, skip a few eyelets with your shoelaces where you’re experiencing the rubbing. This’ll ease some pressure and allow you to break in other parts of the boot.
Similarly, if your heel is stinging too much, you can do a hikers crossover lacing where the boot bends at the ankle. This simple move keeps your heel secured in place until the leather softens up.
Both may look a little funky, but it’s important to remember that breaking in your boots only takes a week or two. After that, you can tie your laces however you want.
8. Scuff the inside heel
If stiff leather causes the most friction and pain, there are a few drastic measures you can make to soften it up. While we’d never recommend this next method on the upper, it’s an excellent trick if the hard leather heel is wreaking havoc on you.
Take a fine-grit sandpaper and gently scuff up the inside of the heel. We’re not suggesting you go to town and grind away at your boot.
But a little scuffing will expose leather fibers, which will grip your sock. As you walk, your heel will rub more on the soft cotton of your sock rather than the hard leather.
If you’ve ever gone out for the night with a new pair of shoes, only to end up hobbling around with raging sore spots on the backs of your heels, this tip is definitely for you. Of course, you can add some leather heel grips, which are already soft. Be careful though, as adding a grip can change the fit of your boot.
9. Use a shoe stretcher
This is another drastic measure as you can never go back. If you stretch a boot too much and it becomes floppy, then you become the proud owner of a floppy pair of boots.
A lot of folks think they can only stretch their boots through a professional, but you can find a quality shoe stretcher like this one that’ll do the trick nicely for under $60.
We’d only suggest this method for the stiffest, most stubborn boots. Again, because you risk altering the fit, it’s best to go little by little.
Leather loosens best when gentle heat and moisture is applied. A great source of gentle heat and moisture is your foot, so it’s naturally the best way to stretch your shoe.
But if your foot just can’t get the job done, a shoe stretcher is a suitable way to go.
10. Focus on the bend
Your foot naturally bends in two places: the ankle and the toe. These are the two places you need to focus on mostly when breaking your boots in.
After you wear your boots around the house for an hour or so, the leather will crease where your foot bends.
At that point, you can take your boots off and use your hand to continue reinforcing those creases.
This isn’t a perfect method, but it’s one way to wrestle tough work boots into submission.
Another route to soften the leather around those natural creases is to stay in a crouched position and bounce slightly. This will work better than doing it by hand, but you’re also not completely removing your feet from harm’s way.
11. Keep them clean
Dirt and grime can stiffen up leather fibers, which is the opposite of what we’re going for when breaking in a pair of boots.
The best way to clean your boots is with saddle soap. There are a few other leather cleaners on the market, but in our experience, saddle soap does the job without removing any finish from the leather.
A horsehair brush will get into the creases and knock out anything that’s stiffening the leather.
If you don’t have any rags to apply the saddle soap, you can always just cut up an old t-shirt and use that for oils, conditioners, and buffing.
12. If all else fails, go to a cobbler
If you’ve tried everything on this list and you’re still having trouble breaking in your boots, you can always take them to a professional and explain where you’re having the most trouble.
They may be able to stretch only specific parts of your boot to allow for more room and less friction.
Though if you’ve tried the other methods on this list and they’re still not working, you may need to double check to see if you got the sizing correct.
Cobblers can likely get the job done, but you’ll be dropping more money on your boots and you won’t be able to see them for a week or two. And even then, you can’t be sure your boots will be comfortable when they come back.
Like we said earlier, the best way to break in a pair of boots is by wearing them. Don’t do anything that seems like it might damage the shoe.
We’ve heard it all: stand in a bucket of water for an hour and go for a run, spray the leather with alcohol, rub vinegar on the upper, blast your boots with a hairdryer, etc.
These are all bad ideas. Unless you want to ruin your new boots.
There’s no substitute for patience.
Take your boots on quick trips, and once they get too uncomfortable, switch them out. Tomorrow is another day.
Hopefully you’ve found a solution that works for you.
When we break in a new pair of boots, we start with the first six items on this list (and #11).
If things are bad, we’ll try #7 and #8.
It’s rare you’ll have to try the steps beyond (besides keeping your boots clean-—always do that), but if you need to go def-con, you know where to turn.
For a more visual guide to breaking in tough boots, check out this clip from our YouTube channel:
How long do boots take to break in?
Boots can take between one and four weeks to break in. It depends on how often you wear them, though the general rule is 80-100 hours.
How can I soften my boots?
The best way to soften boots is by using boot oil. Do not spray alcohol or rub vaseline on your boots. You risk ruining them. You can also soften your boots by bending them with your hands in the natural creases where your foot bends.
Should new boots be tight?
Your boots should be snug, but never so tight that it causes the pins-and-needles feeling. It’s ok to have a half-inch of space at the heel as that will diminish as you break your boots in.