Listen, there is no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to outdoor gear. There are a lot of nuances involved and it’s a topic that you can keep as simple as you want or as complicated as you’d like. “Waterproof” footwear is a perfect example of this.
Simply put, waterproof footwear will keep your feet dry when wearing them. Sometimes, waterproof is in fact referring to water resistant or repellent in which case it will mostly keep your feet dry, in light conditions. Something that should be obvious - but isn’t always - is that 'waterproof' won’t fight to keep water from getting inside your shoes. If the water is higher than your boot cut, or dripping down your legs, there is nothing stopping your shoes from getting wet - no matter their level of waterproofing. Now, yes, you can wear gaiters to help this but we aren't talking about gaiters today. In the event that water does get inside your waterproof shoes, you will quickly learn that they keep your feet wet longer than non-waterproof shoes. Confused, yet? Let’s break this down a bit.
How are shoes made to be Waterproof?
In most cases, such as Gore-Tex, there is a waterproof membrane beneath the outer shell of the shoes or boots. Additionally, the outer shell is often a water resistant material or a material that has a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating. If a shoe is labelled as Water Resistant/Repellent, rather than Waterproof, this means they will work well at repelling light precipitation but anything beyond that will seep through.
Are they actually ‘breathable’?
Yes. This depends on the technology incorporated with the shoes but most are in fact breathable. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) Gore-Tex and Keen Dry. It’s important to note that there is a range with *how* breathable waterproof footwear can be. For most of us - we don’t need to get too hung up on those numbers.
Without getting too science-y, the waterproof layer has tiny vents that allows moisture/sweat to escape but small enough to keep water out. There is a fine balance between waterproof-ness and breathability with waterproof shoes. They simply can’t co-exist with both at maximum capacity. Imagine wearing a sealed plastic bag on your feet as you exert yourself. No water would enter, but your feet would become sweaty and therefore damp inside. To allow your feet to breath, some waterproofing is sacrificed. It will be awhile before your feet get wet while hiking or running in waterproof shoes though they do have limits.
What are the cons to Waterproof footwear?
One of the main cons of waterproof footwear is that it works both ways. The waterproof liner that keeps water from soaking the shoe also makes for slow drying time if water gets inside the shoe. Another con is that even though waterproof technologies are advanced enough to be breathable, they are still going to be more warm than a non-waterproof shoe. On the flip side, that becomes an advantage during the cold months. Additionally, waterproof shoes are generally more expensive and weigh more than their non-waterproof counterparts.
How to maintain Waterproof shoes?
As with all outdoor gear, maintenance is key to longevity. Cleaning them regularly and allowing them to dry completely between activities are essential. The DWR coating on a pair of waterproof shoes will wear down over time so it’s important to treat them regularly. You can keep your shoes functioning great by spraying them with a water-repellent product such as Footwear Repel Plus from Granger’s. Leather shoes can be treated with a https://riverandtrail.ca/waterproofing-wax/ to maintain its waterproof-ness, along with its appearance.
Do you need Waterproof footwear?
This will come as no surprise but it is subjective. Waterproof shoes are an excellent option for hiking 3 seasons of the year - until the snow falls, and then you will want a winter hiker, or a waterproof hiker paired with warm socks.
For running, the chances of water getting in your low cut shoes are higher which is a reason for choosing non-waterproof shoes as they will ultimately dry faster and provide better breathability for your sweaty feet. Similarly to hiking, you may prefer waterproof running shoes in the winter. As with anything, some experimenting will help you determine what keeps your feet the most happy.
If you are able to have a collection of shoes, or at least a non-waterproof AND a waterproof pair of shoes, that is likely your best option so you can choose your footwear based on the weather and location of activity for the day.
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