What is PU leather?

best hiking boots: Lowa Renegades
What is PU leather made of anyway, and is it any better for the environment? We attempt to answer these questions, plus how PU leather performs against real leather (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

There’s major overlap between spending time outdoors and environmentalism, and many hikers are looking seriously at how their behavior impacts the environment they recreate in. From leaving no trace on every adventure to mending clothes and resoling hiking boots instead of replacing them, being a steward of nature requires us to examine every aspect of our outdoor escapades. Many of us are seeking waterproof jackets, hiking backpacks and footwear that are more sustainably crafted, and a number of fabrics such as PU leather have become commonplace that are regarded as more ethical and high performing than their traditional counterparts. But what is PU leather made of anyway, and is it any better for the environment? In this article, we attempt to answer these questions, plus how PU leather performs against real leather.

Man's feet wearing Scarpa Ribelle Lite HD boots

PU leather is used in a lot of the gear we test at Advnture, such as the Scarpa Ribelle Lite boots (Image credit: Matthew Jones)

What is PU leather? 

Short for 'polyurethane leather', PU leather is not leather at all but a synthetic substitute. It looks and feels a lot like real leather, but it’s made from plastic. There are two types of PU leather: semi-synthetic leather, which is made using real leather as the base with a plastic layer on top, and full-synthetic, which has both a plastic base and coating, and is therefore also described as vegan, since it doesn’t contain any animal products.

In outdoor gear, PU leather is frequently used as a leather alternative in hiking boots such as the Lowa Renegade GTX, hiking shoes and Scarpa Ribelle Lite mountaineering boots and even in heavy-duty hiking gloves, for instance Sealskinz Waterproof Extreme Cold Weather Gauntlets. It looks and feels like real leather, but upon closer examination you’ll see that it lacks the imperfections that real leather is characterized by.

Sealskinz hiking gloves

PU leather is often used to reinforce hiking gloves against the elements and rock (Image credit: Sealskinz)

Is PU leather as good as real leather?

Whether or not PU leather is as good as the real thing depends on who you are and what you’re doing with it. If you’re a cow, for example, it’s definitely better, and with increasing awareness about animal cruelty and ethical production, more and more people are seeking it out as a good replacement in gear like approach shoes.

If you’re a hiker, it also has some advantages. For example, it repels water, unlike real leather which will absorb it, making it good for hiking in a bog. It’s also cheaper to produce, and those savings are passed on to you when you’re shopping for a new pair of hiking boots which is obviously good if you’re hiking on a budget.

However, to answer the question you’re probably asking, PU leather does have a shorter shelf life than real leather, and though it may be better for the cows, it’s made from plastic, which in turn raises good questions about its impact on the environment. That said, in some cases, PU leather can be recycled, and true leather has its own chemical-based tanning processes too, so as always, we’re wading into murky territory here.

Overall, it can be hard to weigh synthetic materials against natural ones, since it's not exactly like comparing apples to apples, but if vegan footwear and other outdor gear is your top priority, you'll want to look out for this common ingredient.

Trail runner wearing La Sportiva Vegan running shoes

If vegan footwear and other outdor gear is your top priority, you'll want to look out for this common ingredient (Image credit: La Sportiva)

What is the difference between PU leather and faux leather?

The main difference between PU leather and so-called faux leather is that PU leather is made purely from polyurethane, whereas faux leather will be made using a blend of different materials, such as wax and dyes.

Does PU leather peel or crack?

As we mentioned before, PU leather is not as durable as real leather, and one of the main downsides is that it isn’t as flexible as real leather. If you’re lucky enough to have owned and long-loved a leather jacket, even when it’s well worn the actual structure leather won’t have disintegrated. This is because it’s a naturally flexible fabric and what makes it so durable for shoes and clothing. But PU leather doesn’t have the same degree of flexibility, meaning over time it will crack or peel. This will mean that eventually, you’ll need to replace those hiking boots, and that’s another point against the environment. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.