Shoes in wet weather: The best ways to prevent rain damage

Monday, April 20th 2020
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Last month I wrote a fairly comprehensive piece on the ways to deal with rain damage on shoes, when it happens. 

In this article, I’ll outline the best ways to prevent that damage happening in the first place - both in terms of which shoes you wear, and how you look after them. 

As a brief summary of my own experience and opinions, a dark-suede rubber-soled shoe (as a chukka boot above, from Saint Crispin's) is my rain shoe of choice. Suede is great in the rain, despite its reputation, because it rarely shows salt stains. 

My second choice is cordovan, because it's essentially waterproof. It will produce white spots after rain, but these can easily be removed with cream. 

I never wear galoshes or other overshoes today, though I did for a few years. They’re just too irritating. 

Polishing

Normal, everyday care of leather shoes can make them much more water-resistant - and it’s something most guys don’t do regularly enough. 

Polishing shoes gives them a natural resistance to rain, filling in the pores in the leather. It will never be perfect, as the surface remains open anywhere it bends, but it’s a good start. 

Also, applying that polish along the welt of the shoe (where the stitching is) will help to waterproof this area, which is often where water gets in. Use a natural-coloured polish and apply with a small brush. 

Sprays

Waterproofing sprays do work, but their effectiveness is reduced when you agitate the surface - so brushing suede, polishing leather, or just everyday scuffs. 

If you care about how your shoes look therefore, and polish the calf regularly or keep up the nap of the suede, sprays will be of limited use. They are best on cheap shoes, with leather that has a treated surface anyway. 

I’d still say it’s worth applying a spray to suede or anything else you won’t polish often, though - particularly at the start of the winter or when you know wet weather is coming up.

Use ones without any silicone in them - such as Saphir Super Invulner (above).

Rubber soles

Leather soles can be slippery in the rain, but more significantly, they soak up a lot of water. This leaches into the welt and the upper of the shoe, as well as wearing down the sole itself quicker. 

I have cordovan shoes with leather soles that are fine in the rain, but rubber is usually going to be more effective. 

The only limitation is the smartness of the shoe. A thin rubber sole (above, from JM Weston) is often indistinguishable from a leather one, so this isn’t a problem. But the thicker the rubber and tread, the more casual the shoe becomes. 

I wouldn’t sacrifice the smartness of a shoe by putting on a big Dainite sole (below). But if the rubber is slim and hidden, it’s great. I have suede Dovers from Edward Green with a slim rubber sole that work very well in this regard (pictured at the bottom of this post). 

As to types of rubber sole, I’ve never noticed much of a difference between Dainite and Ridgeway, for example. But then it’s very rare in London to be walking on an icy surface. It’s worth getting someone else’s experience if you live in Stockholm or Toronto. 

Waterproofing leather soles

At one point there seemed to be a craze online for different ways to oil the soles of shoes. 

From seeing that, and the results from several friends, I would conclude two things. First, only ever do it with dedicated products. Otherwise you’re just as likely to soften the leather and make the sole more fragile, rather than stronger. 

And second, while there can be beneficial effects in the rain, they are small compared to every other option listed here. Plus, those benefits can be just as easily achieved with better aftercare, as discussed previously

The other option with leather is to just make it thicker: have a double sole. This doesn’t mean the shoe needs to look too chunky either - Stefano Bemer do it well, slimming from a double sole to a single in the waist of the shoe. 

Essentially, anything that keeps the upper of the shoe further away from the rain on the ground will help. 

Welt constructions

Which brings us to the welt of the shoe - the strip running around the edge, attaching it to the sole. This is an important area, because it is the easiest place for water to attack the upper. 

There are several types of shoe construction, but the basic understanding needed here is that shoes without a welt are generally worse in the rain; normal shoes with a welt are in the middle; and shoes with some type of Norwegian or storm welt (above, from Alden) are best. 

The latter can be identified by seeing that strip, the welt, curving up onto the outside of the upper, rather than appearing to run underneath it. 

The only problem, as with rubber soles, is smartness. That external welt is rather chunky and makes the shoe rather more casual. I tend to prefer suede shoes with a normal welt as a result. 

Suede

With that, onto options for the upper of the shoe. 

As stated at the start, I like suede because it avoids the main danger of shoes getting wet, which is the distortion of the leather by salt ridges. Suede can get absolutely soaked and still dry without any marking. 

The only time I’ve seen suede get salt marks is when surfaces are heavily salted against snow, and when shoes aren’t treated in any way after being outside

The other dangers with suede are that it just gets dirty (so avoid pale colours) and that the colour fades (a reason to avoid black). But the standard dark-brown suede (above) performs well. 

A last caveat: some European shoes are made with softer, thin suedes, and can be more delicate as a result. English ones tend to avoid this. 

Grain leather

Grain leather is normal calf, but printed with a particular pattern - such as pebble grain or country grain (above, from Stefano Bemer). 

Grain leathers aren’t necessarily more water-resistant than others, but because they’re not smooth, they don’t show marks anywhere near as easily. They also tend to be thicker than normal leathers. 

If you want leather and dislike cordovan, then a grain is the next-best option for the upper. 

Cordovan 

Cordovan is of course not really a leather, but a membrane that sits under the butt of the horse. It is tough, and becomes deeply oiled during the tanning process. (See our visit to the Horween tannery here.)

Cordovan is much more water resistant than other leathers, as in it doesn’t get soaked and saturated as easily. It is much less likely to develop salt stains and ridges as a result. (This also applies to oiled leathers such as Chromexcel - shown below, on my Wolverine boots.)

Men that buy cordovan as a wet-weather shoe, though, are often disappointed that it gets white water marks. This lessens with time, as you care for the shoes and add in cream and perhaps polish. 

And those marks are quick to remove with cream rubbed into the surface. The key point is that there is no permanent damage - your biggest fear when buying expensive shoes. And there is the advantage over suede that there’s no risk of discolouration. 

In the end, if you're after a shoe that has no negative effects at all from water, you need one made of plastic. 

Overshoes and galoshes

Which is a neat segue into the last area: overshoes. 

These are plastic covers which stretch over your normal shoe. They’ve been around for a long time, but became more popular when Swims introduced a sleeker and smarter version a few years ago. (As often happens these days, the company has now expanded into every possible water-related category.)

I have a pair of Swims (below), and used to wear them whenever it rained. But they do look a little silly, and they are a pain to get on and off. What killed it for me, though, was that they were uncomfortable. They tended to squash any slightly elongated shoe, and give me blisters across my toes. 

Personally, I’d only recommend them if you can’t wear suede or cordovan, and it’s raining heavily. 

There are a few other points we haven’t mentioned. 

Boots are practical if your socks get wet in rainy weather, and loafers less practical for that reason. But then you do have to wear the boots in the office all day. 

And you can swap shoes when you arrive at your destination - in which case you have far more options, from duck boots to wellies. But I know few men who have the patience to do that consistently. 

For me, a sensible dark-brown suede shoe with a rubber sole is the way forward.