Guard your footwear against the elements with these tips.
By clicking one of our links you're supporting our labs and our independence, as we may earn a small share of revenue. Recommendations are separate from any business incentives.
Winter is tough on shoes. The snow, sleet, ice, and rain that hit throughout the season can wreak havoc on soles and uppers, transforming what was a fine pair of kicks in September into a bedraggled pair come March.
Not only is this aesthetically displeasing, it can make walking around downright dangerous, as slick soles and frozen ground don’t mix. But you don’t have to commit to snowshoes or cross country skis as your go-to winter footwear. We talked to pros to find the best ways to get your shoes ready for winter, so you can continue to strut your stuff even as the weather gets messy.
No matter what kind of shoe you’re preparing for the season, you’ll need to take some steps to ensure your winterizing efforts are effective. Remove any laces and clean off as much dirt and grime as you can before layering on a treatment. “Any dirt or dust sitting on your shoes now will be there for months [if you treat them before cleaning],” says Danny Butenas, footwear sales lead at the REI flagship store in Washington, DC. “Caked dirt can work its way into seams and wear down the shoe over time.”
“Leather shoes are the easiest to winterize because they already have a lot of toughness built into them,” says Butenas. But leather is susceptible to salt, which is often used to melt snow and ice on the roads, and can degrade the finish on a leather upper. To prevent this, you’ll want to treat your leather shoes with a waterproofing seal.
Jim McFarland, president of the Shoe Service Institute of America, likes to use shoe protectants with nano-technology—like Tarrago and Nanoman—because this formulation covers each individual fiber of the shoe with the protectant in a thin, nearly indistinguishable coating. It's also easy to apply—all you have to do is spray it on—and often requires just 30 minutes to set. “It’s really great for leather and fabric and it repels stains well, which is key,” McFarland says.
If you prefer a wax treatment, which some people think of as a more natural option, Butenas recommends Granger’s Wax. It can be applied with a soft cloth or rag and has the same waterproofing effect as a nano spray, with the potential of adding a waxy sheen.
Whichever treatment you choose, spray or rub in an even amount all around the shoe, then let it sit for the time on the treatment’s instructions, from minutes up to 24 hours.
If your shoes look darker than usual—more likely to happen with wax than with the nano spray—don’t freak out. “That’s pretty normal,” says Butenas. “They should look more like their original color within 24 to 48 hours.”
Sneakers can also be winter—proofed, but McFarland says to avoid wax and silicone-based treatments. “You don’t want to use those products on sneakers because they make them greasy and can collect dust and dirt,” he says. For athletic shoes, the nano spray is the way to go, by applying an even coating on the upper portion of the shoe and let it dry for as long as the label says.
Once you’ve waterproofed your kicks, you can take additional steps to keep your feet protected against cold weather, particularly if you plan to use them for hiking or running. Butenas recommends slip-on traction soles like Yaktrax and waterproof gaiters, or ankle guards that cover the laces of a pair of shoes. These help provide more grip and protection against snow and underbrush, which Butenas says can help provide protection for a “high heat-producing activity without sacrificing comfort and agility.”
Because suede is more textured—and more liable to become matted—than leather and canvas, it can be tough to winterize. That said, if you want to give your favorite suede booties some extra protection against puddles and ice, it’s possible. McFarland recommends nano shoe spray (sensing a theme?), which coats the individual fibers of suede without making them look greasy or lank. “Just make sure the shoes are dry before you spray,” he says. “If they get wet, whatever is in that liquid [will stain] the suede.”
One thing to avoid when treating suede: Any product that contains mink oil. According to McFarland, this can “mat the suede down.”
For most shoes, winterizing only needs to be done once a year. McFarland likes to use Halloween as a benchmark time to get shoes ready for winter, so once you put your costume away, feel free to take out your waterproofing supplies. “That should last you all the way through March,” he says.
There are exceptions to this—if you wear a pair of shoes several times a week and find they get soaked pretty regularly, you may want to treat them every month or so—but most of your shoes should be good for the season once you give them a coating of protectant.
For a special pair of new shoes or boots that you splurged on, or ones you’re not sure how to treat yourself, consider seeking professional help. The shoe-repair shop you visit will have all the products you might need, and the cobbler can help you figure out which one you need, and how you should use it.
“A cobbler will probably tell you if the winterizing is something you can do yourself, and what the best product to use on them is,” says McFarland. “And if you just don’t feel comfortable, they can do it.”
Some shoes simply aren’t made for the harsh winter elements, no matter how many waterproofing sprays and treatments you give them. Leather dress shoes—any that you wear on nicer occasions and want to keep looking extra-spiffy—shouldn’t be winter-proofed.
“I’d rather just clean and polish them in between wears, because when you spray the waterproofing on them, you don’t always get the same shine,” says McFarland. “And a lot of times, polish can’t soak in as well if there’s protector on the shoes.”
It’s also worth considering your shoes’ limits. Sure, you can probably skip snow boots in favor of waterproofed boots on days when the weather is looking a little gray. But if you live in a place where it rains regularly or you can’t see the pavement for much of the year for all the snow on the ground, no pair of standard leather booties will work as a replacement for weather-appropriate boots—even if you painstakingly winterize them.