How to waterproof your gear
Tips and tricks to keep you and your stuff dry, year after year
The waterproofing finish on your gear doesn’t last forever. Instead of tossing gear once its performance fades and buying something new, you can apply a new layer of water repellency whenever your jacket, tent, boots, or sleeping bag stop repelling water. It’s easy to do, affordable, and extends the life of your gear for years to come.
[caption id="attachment_637" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Waterproofing doesn’t last forever. You can maintain breathability and apply new waterproof layers to practically any piece of outdoor gear.[/caption]
Water repellency diminishes over time for a variety of reasons—dirt acquired on-trail, city smog, a bad washing experience—but that doesn’t mean your gear is faulty, it just means it’s time for a little TLC. Re-waterproofing your gear gets you the biggest bang for your original buck, and you’ll be doing a service to the environment at the same time by reducing textile manufacturing (new gear) and textile waste (throwing away old gear).
Heidi Allen, who’s worked for the gear care company Nikwax for more than ten years, likens gear maintenance to that of cars: “You don’t have to change the oil in your car. You absolutely don't. You’re just going to have to buy a new car more frequently,” she says. “Likewise, you don't have to waterproof your gear, but if you don't, you're going to have to buy new gear a lot more frequently.”
[caption id="attachment_631" align="aligncenter" width="600"] You can waterproof any type of jacket—hardshell, softshell, down, or fleece.[/caption]
So, what types of gear can be re-waterproofed? Basically anything, including: rain jackets, softshell jackets, hardshell jackets, down jackets, fleece jackets, cotton jackets, leather, suede, nubuck, gloves, ski skins, down or synthetic sleeping bags, tents, backpacks, and goggles. Even things that were not waterproofed before, like running shoes or hats—or really anything you want, we won’t judge—can absolutely be made waterproof with the right treatment solution and a little bit of elbow grease.
Have something that needs waterproofing? Turn up the tunes, and let’s begin.
TL;DR (too long, didn’t read)
- In as little as 15 minutes, you can extend the life of your gear by an order of years
- Get the right waterproofing treatment product for the job; after extensive research, we recommend Nikwax
- Anyone is capable of this financially and environmentally savvy task
Firstly, it’s important to equip yourself with the right waterproofing treatment product. Just like you don’t want to get caught on Denali with the wrong jacket, you don’t want to waterproof your gear with anything but the best and most practical treatments. In the case of waterproofing, we examined product options bearing two things in mind: performance and environmental impact. Durable water repellency (DWR) treatments are historically notorious for their use of PFCs, ecologically destructive compounds that literally do not decompose—making them one of the environment's worst nightmares.
Nikwax, we found, offered the best-performing treatment products, as well as the most-environmentally friendly impact and the most sustainable business model.
[caption id="attachment_642" align="aligncenter" width="600"] One tube of Nikwax’s waterproofing wax for leather will last for multiple shoes and/or coats[/caption]
Nikwax’s Heidi Allen says environmental stewardship has always occupied the forefront of the company’s interests. “One of the major brand values of Nikwax is consumption reduction, making outdoor gear last longer and perform to its highest level,” she explains. Nikwax was one of the first companies to find a reliable waterproofing alternative to PFCs, and since the company’s founding in 1977, they’ve never used PFCs or aerosols in their waterproofing products. In 2017, on Nikwax’s 40th birthday, they also became the first company in the world to be totally carbon neutral since its founding, offsetting every ton of carbon the operation had released in nearly half a century.
For years, adventure journalist Morgan Tilton has used Nikwax to re-waterproof her gear. Once she went to the Pacific Northwest on a backpacking trip, where it rained for two days straight. “I remember being so stoked that the droplets rolled right off my clothes the entire time, so I was able to stay dry,” she says. “Ever since, I've also used Nikwax products to replenish my resort and backcountry ski and splitboard apparel, too.”
Other tried-and-true waterproofing treatments include products from Grangers, one of Patagonia’s recommended brands, which makes a specialized “2-in-1” wash-in solution that simultaneously cleans and waterproofs machine-washable gear, potentially saving you a wash cycle.
Arc’teryx recommends Gear Aid Rivivex spray-on products, although, in our effort to avoid aerosols, we looked into it and found that Revivex also comes as a wash-in treatment for Gore-Tex fabric, as well as a rub-in version for leather boots. All three companies offer convenient clean-and-protect kits that will set you up for success as you prepare for a lifetime of waterproofing and re-waterproofing your favorite gear.
- Thing(s) to waterproof
- Waterproofing treatment, dependent items that need waterproofing
- A 15 minute block of time, plus more drying
- Optional: old towel to protect any working surfaces
[caption id="attachment_644" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Forsake boots (pictured) are made with full-grain leather sourced exclusively from tanneries that have received a Gold rating from the Leather Working Group, which evaluates the industry’s environmental aspects.[/caption]
The type of item that needs waterproofing will dictate the treatment product you’ll use. Some treatments will be wash-in, meaning you’ll add a solution directly to your washing machine that evenly coats your gear with a new waterproof layer. (Think sleeping bags and many types of garments.) For items that cannot go in washing machines (like tents and backpacks) or for gear that’s built to be breathable (like jackets with inner wicking linings), the treatment will be manually sprayed on the outside layer. Leathers and synthetic shoe materials will typically get treated by hand with a rub-in solution.
[caption id="attachment_646" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Nikwax’s leather-waterproofing wax is gentle enough to be applied by hand—no need to waste or wear plastic gloves. In 2019, Forsake (boot pictured) was certified as a carbon-neutral business.[/caption]
It’s pretty straightforward to discern which treatment products are best for your gear: the treatment products themselves will tell you their intended purpose, such as “Down Proof,” “SoftShell Proof,” “Waterproofing wax for leather,” etc. A reminder before you dive in: check the care instructions of your to-be-waterproofed gear and take note of any special needs.
- Gather all equipment items in one workspace
- Wherever and whatever you plan to waterproof, make sure you clear a space big enough and sufficiently airy for drying
- Carefully review the directions on your waterproofing product.
Most product manufacturers will suggest a process similar to this:
[caption id="attachment_652" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Clean your shoes before applying any waterproofing treatment. Application of treatment can be done while the leather is wet or dry.[/caption]
- Clean your gear. It’s important to remove any dirt or anything else that will get in the way of the waterproofing layer and the gear’s surface. Check your item’s care guidelines for how to clean safely and properly.
[caption id="attachment_654" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Be sure to work the wax in and around shoe seams and wrinkles. The wax may darken materials, but not by much.[/caption]
- Apply treatment product to your item. Whether it’s wash-in, spray-on, or rub-in, make sure you use the appropriate amount, as suggested by the treatment product’s instructions.
[caption id="attachment_651" align="aligncenter" width="600"] When using waterproofing wax, wipe off any excess wax with a damp rag.[/caption]
- Wipe away excess product, if you’re applying treatment by hand. You don’t want any clumps!
- Let it sit to dry. This seals the waterproofing layer.
...Wait for your gear to fully dry and, voila!, you’re done and ready to adventure another day.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she's not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she's running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.