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Leather Boot Care

Despite investing a lot of money into my footwear, thrashing them heavily, and depending on them to carry me further, I’ve never spent any effort on cleaning or caring for my boots. A month or so ago, I was in REI and took a gander at the footwear section. They happened to have a pair of Lowa Renegades on the rack. The Renegades remain my primary boots that I wear on a daily basis and for the vast majority of my travel. I was shocked by the contrast of the boots on my feet and those on the rack. The boots are made of nubuk leather with some cordura around the ankle band. New, the leather is of a smooth, dark blue color. The leather on my feet was dry, wrinkly, and of a brownish-green color. This made me think that maybe there was something to that whole boot care thing, after all.

I didn’t know much about leather care, nor what I should look for in a product. My first stop for research like this is the Kifaru Forums. The forums are peopled predominantly by those whom I think of as the modern day longhunters and mountain men. I take their gear advice very seriously in considering all of my purchases. The overwhelming opinion on the forums was for a product called Obenauf’s. Obenauf’s makes three relevant products: White Jaguar Leather Cleaner, Leather Oil, and Heavy Duty Leather Preservative (LP). The LP, in particular, was developed for and by wildland fire firefighters. What with the hiking, the heat, and the smoke, I can’t think of any other profession that demands more out of leather boots. I promptly placed an order for $50 worth of product.

After a week-long trek, my boots were soaked through and caked with mud. I was looking forward to trying out my new Obenauf’s products. The first thing I did was remove the Sole insoles (which I clean separately) and attack the boots with a hose, blasting the mud off the outsides and flooding the inside. After about half a day on a boot dryer, the boots were dry, both inside and out, and had returned to the familiar dry, wrinkly, brownish-green color.

White Jaguar Leather Cleaner

The first product I used was the White Jaguar Leather Cleaner. They claim the cleaner is a water based solution of natural plant ingredients. As such, it is non-toxic and biodegradable. Obenauf’s recommendation is to spray some of the cleaner onto an applicator, such as cloth, sponge, or soft-bristles brush. Then work it into the boot with a soft, circular motion, which lifts the dirt, and finally wipe the dirt off with a clean cloth. They warn against soaking the applicator. I found that this did not work very good at all on the nubuk leather. Instead, I sprayed the cleaner directly onto the boots, soaking them thoroughly but stopping just before the point where the cleaner would begin to run. Having soaked the boots, I worked the leather with a nail brush, making circular motions to lift the dirt off. I then wiped off the dirt with a clean cloth. This worked much better than the recommended method. I repeated the process 4 times on each boot, till the dirt stopped coming off.

I’m not sure if the White Jaguar cleaner is in any way superior to, say, a sudsy bath of Dr. Bronner’s, which is the soap I use on everything else. This would clean the cordura as well, and I can’t imagine it would do much harm to the leather. I will probably try this method next time for comparison.

Leather Oil

Regardless of which cleaner is used, the leather will now be very dry and free of all oils, which must be addressed. Obenauf’s says of leather that “it’s a skin, with fibers and pores that requires proper natural lubrication and needs to breathe. Because it no longer has a body to provide proper natural oils, we must.” They claim that other products “soften by weakening or decomposing the fibers and they waterproof by sealing the pores.” Their own product, by contrast, is a combination of natural oils that maintains and preserves the leather’s natural properties.

They recommend applying the oil at a temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The ambient temperature when I was doing this was around 45 degrees. I decided to hit the boots with a hair-dryer to warm up the leather a bit before the application. Then I applied the oil to the boots, lobbing it on in obscene amounts. One coating per boot, then I went over both of them with the hair-dryer again to encourage the oil to soak in. Obenauf’s recommends two coatings approximately one hour apart. Because my boots took so long to dry after the encounter with the hose, it was rather late after the first oiling, so I left the boots to soak overnight and went to bed. In the morning, I did a second application the same as before, treating the leather to the hair-dryer both before and after. After this, I let the boots set another hour, then lightly wiped off any excess with a cloth.

If you’re a masochist and appreciate ugly, attention-grabbing footwear, you could also use this oil to buff the leather to a shine.

The transformation of the leather was amazing. Save for a few scuff marks here and there, the boots look identical to the brand new pair that caught my eye on the store shelf. They’ve returned to the dark, rich blue color and no longer look so dry and chapped.

Heavy Duty Leather Preservative

The third step, for long term preservation, was the application of the leather preservative. The LP is made of three different natural oils that are suspended in beeswax and propolis. This wax allows the oils to gradually seep into and lubricate the oil over time. Being exposed to flexing or extreme heat, rather than drying the leather out, encourages the wax to release the oils faster, thus preserving the leather.

To apply the LP, I once again heated the leather with the hair-dryer. Then, I turned the hair dryer onto the LP itself. Holding it over the jar for about a minute melted the wax a bit, making it easier the apply. Obenauf’s recommends applying the LP by hand, as your natural body heat will also help to warm the wax and encourage the leather to accept it. So, I dipped in a couple fingers and started spreading the wax all over the leather. After coating the first boot, I went over it with the hair-dryer again to help it penetrate a bit more. Obenauf’s recommends two coatings of the LP, which is what I did. The LP darkened the color of the leather more so than the oil, and also gave them a slightly waxy gloss. The boots actually look a bit too new and fancy for my taste now. I’ll have to rough them up a bit on the next hike.

I’m very happy with all three of the products from Obenauf’s, particularly the oil and the LP, which seemed to have worked magic on my boots. I’d recommend them to anybody who demands heavily on their boots. I plan to work them into a regular care schedule for my own boots, extending the life of my investments.

If anybody with more experience has suggestions for other products or a critique of my method, let me know.

This post was published on . It was modified on . It was tagged with feet, footwear.

Sole and Superfeet

Last March, I used part of my REI dividend on a pair of Sole Ed Viesturs Ultra Cushion footbeds. Prior to this, I’d been using Green Superfeet in my Lowa Renegade boots.

When I pulled the Green Superfeet out of my boots and attempted to install the new Sole footbeds to insure I had a proper fit, they were quite hard to insert – much harder than the Superfeet. I took them out and compared them with the Superfeet to see if they wanted trimming, but they appeared only a millimeter or so longer. They were, though, much thicker than the Superfeet – particular in the arch area – which was what, I deduced, made the fit a bit more tight.

So, I tried inserting them again, this time shoving them almost all the way in, then put in my feet to force the footbeds into place. I felt around a good deal to assure myself that there was no bunching at the toe, then took them out again and popped them in the oven.

Sole includes a sticker on the bottom of one of the pair that turns from silver to black when properly heated. They claim that 2 minutes in a 200F oven should do it, but that, if not, give ‘em 5 minutes, then assume the sticker is defective and stick the footbeds into your boots anyway. Well, it actually took 6 minutes in my oven at 200F. After the sticker had turned black, I stuck the footbeds into my boots, laced them up, and stood up straight, feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed forward, for two minutes. The warmth was actually quite pleasant, particularly on a cold, wet day.

An aside on Superfeet:

I purchased my first pair of Green Superfeet last summer while working for the National Park Service. My footwear at the time was a pair of Merrell Sawtooth boots – easily the stiffest, most uncomfortable boot I’ve ever worn. Any more than 6-7 miles in those and my feet would start to develop an ache. And going over ridges: that was absolutely no fun. The boots were completely lacking in support during downhill endeavors – which, to be fair, was not entirely the boots’ fault. My arches aren’t completely collapsed, but I do have flat feet, which, as you may know, equals zero shock absorption. So when I traversed my way down a rocky slope in the Sawtooths, I felt it. Shortly after purchasing the boots, but long enough after that I felt I had broken them in as much as I could, I went out and bought the Green Superfeet. The difference was stark. Really quite amazing. They were hard and awkward for about the first week, but after that break-in period, the Superfeet turned the Merrell Sawtooths into completely acceptable boots. I could log far more miles, over any terrain, with any slope, all without ache. They were great. When I left the park, I bought a second pair of Superfeet, this time for my 5.11 HRT boots, in the hopes that I could breathe a little more life into them. Alas, it was for naught. Even with the Superfeet, I had to admit to myself that the 5.11s were at the end of their life.

While I would certainly call the Superfeet supportive, I’m not sure I’d term them comfortable. And in fact, Superfeet claims that the insoles should not be comfortable. If it felt like one was walking on a soft mattress, the insoles wouldn’t be giving the feet any support. I don’t know much about feet, but the argument makes sense to me. Personally, while moving with the Superfeet, I had no complaints, but standing still for more than a few minutes, they would start to become noticable uncomfortable. Not painful, but uncomfortable. The discomfort originated in the arch area of the footbed, which I felt was too high for me. A bit like if I had a small ping pong ball or somesuch under my arch. Again, I don’t know much about feet, but this made complete sense to me. My feet are flat, thus I have very little shock absorption. The Superfeet provide shock absorption, thus they must be pushing up my arch. So I couldn’t, and still can’t, complain.

While I’m here, I’d like to make a comment on Superfeet sizing. My boot size is a US 9.5. Superfeet classifies their insoles by letters. Their size E equates to shoe sizes US 9.5-11. I’ve used size E Superfeet in three different pairs of boots (all size 9.5), and it’s always been a perfect fit. No trimming necessary. Great for me, but if you happen to be size US 11, I’d be a little weary. Definitely buy them from a store with a decent return policy, as you may find yourself wanting to upgrade to size F.

But when I heard about Sole, who made footbeds that actually molded themselves to the wearers feet, and that wearers often termed them as not only supportive, but comfortable, I was intrigued. I thought perhaps they could reach a pleasant medium between pressing up the arch for support, but not pressing it up too much.

Back to Sole:

After the initial 2 minute molding process, I walked around them a short while. An immediate, very stark difference from the Superfeet was evident. The Soles were, in fact, comfortable. The level of comfort worried me, actually. I feared they wouldn’t give me any support what-so-ever.

I have by now logged enough mileage, over enough terrain, under enough of a load to over a verdict: thumbs up. The comfort, compared to the Superfeet, allows me to to travel slightly greater mileages in the same boots than before.

I still keep the Green Superfeet in my running shoes, but I, personally, find the Sole footbeds superior. I would caution that feet are extremely variable, and the merits of both Superfeet and Sole are strong, but, it would seem, complimentary to different foot types. Experiment!

There is absolutely no reason not to purchase a pair of non-standard insoles for your footwear – even with good boots. The thin, non-supportive, flimsy things that manufacturers include standard cannot match a custom pair. I expect the majority of those reading this site probably recognize their feet as extremely valuable assets, and are not unaccustomed to spending uncommonly large sums of money on a good pair of boots and socks. So do yourself a favor, take the next step, and buy decent insoles. There is little less valuable in this world than mobility, and, whatever brand they may be, custom insoles will allow you to go harder, better, faster, longer.

Lowa Renegade Mid Hiking Boots

2011 Update: Although I still wear the Renegade boots, and claim that they're the best hiking boots on the market, my reasons for doing so differ from those I expressed three and a half years ago. (And I don't like Superfeet anymore!) The following is left for posterity.

Early last Fall, it became clear that my old pair of boots – 5.11 HRTs – were at the end of their life. New insoles bought me a little while longer, but the fact had to be faced.

I knew exactly what boots I wanted to replace them. Trouble was, I couldn’t afford them. (Still can’t, in fact.) So I had to search for something else to hold me over for a while. I’d heard much positive review of Lowa and Vasque, and thought this an excellent opportunity to try them out. After much research, I settled on the Lowa Renegade GTX hiking boot.

Lowa Renegade Mid Hiking Boots

REI happened to carry them and, rather conveniently, I had a pair of boots that I’d been given a while ago but never been very fond of (Montrail Torre GTX – I wore them in Thailand). So I took (perhaps unfair) advantage of REI’s lenient return policy, and ended up with a pair of Lowa Renegades for only $30.

The craftsmanship is excellent. I can spot no failures of any kind along the boots. Most any other boot I’ve worn for this amount of time has shown some small failure: a broken stitch, or a bit coming unglued somewhere. Not so with the Renegades. The Germans, I think, know a thing a two about making boots. (Actually, they’re made in Slovakia, but I’m Am’r’can, damnit, so that’s close enough for me.)

The soles are Vibram, like most other boots, and provide excellent traction on varied terrain: concrete, dirt, rocks, etc. Snow is a little iffy, but that’s been the case with any boot I’ve had.

The Gore-Tex liner is great. Verifiably waterproof and breathable (though I’ve not had the opportunity to wear the boots in hot weather).

The break-in period was non-existent. They were comfortable and supportive as soon as I put them on.

My feet registered no complaints concerning the standard Lowa insoles, but they were small and flimsy, like those provided by any other boot manufacturer, and I’ve been in a love affair with Green Superfeet since the Summer (more on that later), so after a couple weeks I swapped them out, and have been happier for it.

Some people report Lowa runs slightly large, but I found this to be untrue. I ordered my normal boot size, and they fit perfectly.

The absolutely only complaint I can offer for the Renegades is the lacing system. Lowa is quite fond of their D-rings. I am not. They allow for slightly faster unlacing, but slower lacing. And if you lace too fast, without paying attention, the lace may not make it’s way entirely inside one of the rings, and pop out eventually. This happens every now and then to me. It’s not enough to turn me off from the boots, or dissuade me from recommending them, but it is a minor annoyance. (And I had to find something to complain about.)

Lowa Renegade Mid Hiking Boots

I’ve been wearing them daily for close to 5 months now. Though this Fall and Winter, regrettably, have seen me mostly in urban areas, not logging any serious mileage over mountainous terrain with heavy loads, I am very pleased with the Renegades and whole-heartedly recommend them to anyone looking for a mid-to-light hiking boot, or footwear for every day urban wear. (Plus, they look quite snazzy with TAD Legionnaires, no?)

3-3-08 Update:

I wore these boots yesterday on a 23 mile hike, with about 1300 ft elevation gain, under a 75lb pack. My feet aren’t too happy about it, though they’ve ended up worse after shorter humps with lighter loads in lesser boots. Last week I did 12 miles under the same load with no problem. They’re definitely light hiking boots.

This post was published on . It was modified on . It was tagged with review, footwear, gear, lowa.