Ask Me: How ‘Waterproof’ Are Waterproof-Breathable Apparel and Boots?

Can I sound off for a moment about Gore-Tex and other supposedly waterproof/breathable membranes? I’ve owned four pairs of boots, a running suit and a pair of gloves that have been Gore-Tex lined, and got wet in all of them. Not wet from sweat or water going over the boots, but wet from rain (soaking through) and in the case of the boots, even wet grass. I think Gore-Tex should change its slogan to Guaranteed to Keep You Dry—If It Doesn’t Rain. How can manufacturers make these waterproof claims? People’s lives can depend on their gear.


Worcester, Mass.


Many hard-core backpackers would agree with your observation about waterproof-breathable membranes in boots. I’ve field-tested scores of shoes and boots over the years. In my experience, lightweight “waterproof” shoes and boots will eventually wet through in really wet conditions, such as hiking for an extended period on wet snow, brushing through wet trailside vegetation for a long distance, or even persistent, heavy rain. Heavy-duty, waterproof-breathable boots, synthetic or leather, will keep your feet dry longer than a lightweight, low- or mid-cut shoe or boot, but may also eventually wet through. Waterproof-breathable rain jackets can also eventually soak through in prolonged, heavy rain.

The membranes aren’t totally impermeable; that’s why they ostensibly breathe. Some backpacking pros, like ultra-hiker Andrew Skurka, maintain that it’s futile to depend on footwear to really keep your feet dry, and instead you should employ any of a variety of strategies, such as wearing low-cut, non-waterproof but highly breathable shoes, which will dry out faster because they don’t have a membrane. You can also dry your feet during breaks (something I always do, even on sunny days so they don’t get too sweaty) and apply a waxy balm to your feet at night to help partially seal your skin against moisture.

Still, waterproof-breathable footwear will keep your feet dry in moderately wet conditions, which can make a difference in how warm and comfortable your feet remain, not to mention that moisture (plus heat and friction) breeds blisters. So I don’t entirely dismiss the value of waterproof-breathable shoes and boots for many hikers and backpackers in mildly to moderately wet conditions.



Thanks for the advice.

Besides whining to you about Gore-Tex, I emailed the company, and a consumer rep called me two days later. He asked that I send Gore-Tex my boots so the lab could check how they were manufactured. I declined, telling him that I needed the boots and liked them, except for the lack of waterproofing.

So Gore-Tex ordered a pair of the Garmont model I have, tested them and found they leaked right out of the box. The rep called me back with the results and suggested I steer clear of Garmont until they figure out what’s wrong. However, he told me to pick out any other boots—carte blanche, as he put it—and Gore-Tex will buy them, test them and send them to me.

I’m blown away by this; I wasn’t expecting anything when I complained. Gore-Tex obviously takes its product—and reputation—very seriously.



I’m not surprised by Gore’s response. They’re a successful company and recognize that their most likely customer is a past customer who was happy with the product; they also recognize the impact of word-of-mouth publicity, good or bad. I hope you’re happy with your replacement boots.

Nonetheless, as I wrote above, I think you will find that no footwear is infallibly waterproof in the most extreme wet conditions. If you aren’t comfortable with the idea of hiking in a wet environment in non-waterproof footwear, then help keep your feet dry longer by wearing full or short gaiters, and follow other strategies like those I mentioned above.


[In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission.]



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