A new pair of boots is like joining a college fraternity. Even if you made the right pledge, there can be a decent amount of agonizing hazing.
For boots, that hazing is the dreaded break-in period. When what eventually will be the perfect mold of your foot pulls, pinches, and squeezes the most sensitive parts of it.
This is especially painful with sturdy, heavy work boots.
We’ve got you covered though. Today, we’re sharing the nine best practices when breaking in robust work boots.
Why It’s Important to Break Work Boots In
You’ll be living in a world of hurt if you try heading to work with boots that haven’t been broken in.
Even if you have the pain threshold of a running back, you should still break your work boots in before wearing them on the job. Blisters can get infected which can lead to further complications. Engaging in strenuous activity all day while your muscles and bones are being tenderized can be damaging to your feet.
If you don’t care about your feet, at least care that you spent your hard-earned money on a new pair of boots. You don’t want to start wearing them out before you’ve even worn them in.
9 Proven Ways to Break in Work Boots
1. Start with the Right Size
When it comes to size, work boots have a lot more going on than just a number. Some boots run small and some boots run large. For footwear that you’ll be spending days doing labor in, do your research per brand and model.
Make sure you know how wide you want your work boot. If you get hot easily, leave extra room in the toe regardless of whether or not your feet are wide.
Just as runners need to measure their gaits to find the right running shoes, those seeking out new work boots need to know how much arch support they’ll need. The flatter the foot, the more arch support is necessary.
Choose wisely. You may start to think you’re destined to forever work in pain with your pair of magically unbreakable shoes, when it’s really just the wrong size.
2. Wear Your Boots With Thick Socks
There are a few benefits to doing this.
First, the added layers will stretch the leather outward from the inside. Second, it will cushion your feet as you’re hazing them during the break-in process.
Thick socks are especially crucial when breaking in steel toe boots. Good work socks are not only bulkier, but feature an extra heel pad so you’re effectively stretching the inside at every angle.
Thick socks can also help you passively break your boots in. Wear the boots with socks while you’re having dinner or sitting on your couch during Monday and Thursday night football—bonus points if you keep them on during half-time.
Sure, this isn’t as immediately effective as walking around in them, but the socks are still doing some work even when you aren’t.
My favorite works socks are from Camel City Mill. They’re made with Merino wool so they’re durable, comfortable, and they don’t make your feet sweat.
Plus, they’re made in North Carolina and the brand backs up their quality with a 10-year guarantee.
They’re expensive, but for work boots, I don’t think there’s a better sock out there.
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.
3. Walk Around the House
Leather is a tough material. It’s what bullwhips are made out of, after all.
Work boots will take more effort to break in than regular boots because of how hard the leather is. The more you wear it, the more the leather flexes into the shape of your foot.
Start by wearing your new boots around the house for a few hours a day. If you’re short on time on the weekdays, give it about 15-20 minutes before and after work, then spend all weekend wearing them around the house.
Walk up and down your stairs in your new boots.
Place the midsole on the edge of a stair step, and rock your foot back and forth. This is how I break in new riding boots, and it works every time.
Do this for two to three days, then gradually up the amount of time you spend wearing your boots around the house.
4. Walk Around Outside
Don’t go too far from home, but if you have patio steps, an apartment walk-up, a back garden, or a front yard, break your boots in on different floors with different textures and hardness.
Use the sidewalk in front of your house like an exercise step. I also recommend doing the midsole rocking trick I suggested with the stair steps, but on the sidewalk rise.
Do most of the breaking in indoors first though. You can’t return your boots once you’ve worn them outside.
5. Bend the Boot, Step on the Heel
Bend the midsole of the boot back and forth with your hands. This is another activity you can do in front of the TV when the game is on (place a straw in your beer can, maybe? No one will know).
You can also step on the heels of the boot to relax the stiff areas. Some recommend stepping on the toe as well, but I suggest wearing a soft flip flop or indoor moccasin when doing that.
6. Condition and Moisturize Your Boot
Be kinder to your unbroken-in boot than an unbroken-in boot is to you.
Leather conditioners, moisturizers, and oils soften and relax the boot’s upper. This makes stretching the fibers easier. Manufacturers may recommend specific kinds of products for specific models of shoe.
Bick 4 is an outstanding addition to your leather conditioner collection. It’s inexpensive and perfect for giving your boots a pick-me-up without changing the color at all. It doesn’t penetrate deep into the leather, so you should use a liberal amount, and you may want to do several layers, but the price is right.
Mink oil, for example, darkens leather, so you’ll only need a pinch. Spray conditioners contain silicon, which dries out the protein bonds in leather. Some boot oils are infused with pine sap, which is a natural preservative.
- Mink oil for Waterproofing, conditioning, and preserving leather goods
- Ideal for leather boots, shoes, purses, jackets, hats, baseball gloves, saddles and harnesses
- The oil creates a WaterProof barrier against the elements and helps to protect leather by preventing Water, salt, and perspiration stains
- Easy to use and dries within minutes; may darken some leathers, test first in an inconspicuous area
- Resealable tin contains 3.5 ounces of mink oil; tin measures 3.5 x 3.5 x 1 inches and weighs 0.34 pounds
After conditioning, let your boots air dry before walking around in them.
Boot products are necessary even beyond the break-in phase. Condition your boots every three to six months to ensure they clock in some overtime hours for you.
7. Use a Shoe Stretcher
A shoe stretcher is a shoe-shaped piece of wood that you insert into your boot. It’s attached to a mechanism that will move the front of the stretcher (placed in the toe) and the back of the stretcher (placed in the heel) further apart.
You can simply lock it in place and leave it in the boot for an extended period of time.
A shoe stretcher is a good way to get into the tighter parts of the boot.
8. Stick it and Stuff it
Channel your inner MacGyver and use everyday household items to reach tight areas in your new boots.
Loosen the leather fibers using the previously discussed bending method, then place a long wooden implement into the taut parts of the boot that your shoe stretcher can’t get to. You can use a wooden stirring spoon, a long brush handle, one of those novelty miniature baseball bats you get at the ballpark, basically anything of that nature.
You can also shape the boot by stuffing thick socks with other socks or scrap paper (finally a use for junk mail), and stuffing those into the boot overnight.
9. Bring an Extra Pair and Adhesive Bandages to Work
This is basically an insurance policy for the first few days of wearing your new boots to work.
There may be different ways your foot and ankle need to bend or hold on the job that you didn’t anticipate or couldn’t replicate during the break-in exercises at home.
If this causes you distracting pain or discomfort, patch up the sensitive areas of your foot with a bandage, or just change back into your old boots when you’ve had enough.
You’ll eventually be able to spend the whole work day in your new boots, but there’s no need to suffer for it.
Things Not to Do
1. Don’t Overdo it
Take breaks between break-in days. Go for two to three days in a row, then stop for a day or two. Alternatively, do your break-in exercises every other day.
If you don’t give your boots a break, the moisture inside will build up without a chance to disperse.
We’ll get into the myth of using wetness to break in boots next, but as we hit on in our general boot break-in article, too much moisture in an unbroken-in boot can cause blisters.
2. Don’t Use the Hot Water Treatment
Yes, they do indeed use this method in the military to break in boots. But you know what else they do in the military? Wake up at 5am on Sundays and take two-minute showers.
The hot water treatment involves submerging your boots in a bucket of very warm water for half an hour at a time. Unless you’re military-trained, avoid this method.
The leather can go from loosening to warped before you know it. This method dries and destroys the leather, so we don’t recommend it for any reason.
3. Don’t Apply Heat Directly to the Boots
The internet is a bigger rumor mill than a room full of PR interns. Despite the counsel of some, don’t use a hair dryer to speed up the drying process post-conditioning.
Doing this will dry out the leather and it can cause cracks, especially in unbroken boots.
Note: You can use both the hot water treatment and a blow dryer (on low heat) on your boots, but only if you purposefully want to shrink them.
4. Don’t Get Impatient
Work boots are robust. It’ll take time to break them in.
The moment you let yourself get impatient is the moment you end up submerging your boots in water or taking a hair-dryer to them. Just stay the course.
Break-in Boot Camp
The whole point of work boots is to provide you with footwear that will be comfortable and protect you from workplace hazards.
Breaking in such a stubborn piece of footwear can seem like an exercise right out of a detention center or post fraternity rush, but breaking in work boots is a great way to stay safe and pain-free on the job site.
So whether you’re going to strap your work boots on for a few laps around the block, or you’re planning on bending and twisting them during the next big game, these 9 simple methods of breaking your work boots in are sure to help.
How do I stop steel toe work boots from hurting?
Put adhesive bandages on your foot’s pain-points or use a felt pad cut into shapes that can cushion the parts inside the boot causing you pain. Make sure the boot has been properly broken in and that the laces are pulled tight to keep your foot from moving around inside the boot.
How do I break in steel toe work boots fast?
In addition to wearing them for hours a day in your house, use a metal shoe-stretcher overnight and anytime you aren’t wearing them.