Choosing the Right Footwear for Comfort & Function when Paddling
What to wear on your feet while paddling is going to depend a lot on the time of year and the weather conditions. You will find that every paddler has their own opinion about what is the “best” thing to wear on your feet. In fact, every time I am on a kayaking trip, this is one of the topics that always seems to come up for discussion, and for every person who has a particular favourite, there’s always someone else who will tell you why they suck. So I’m going to tell you what is out there, list some pros and cons and maybe tell you what footwear I like to use and leave it up to you to decide what’s right for you.
Warm Weather Paddling
When the weather is warm, many paddlers like sandals because they’re light, airy and comfortable. It doesn’t matter if they get wet because the water drains out, and they dry quickly. While sandals at first glance may seem like an obvious choice, one downside is that they pick up rocks and pebbles on loose gravelly beaches which can literally, be a pain, especially when trying to carry your boat and gear. That being said, I still wear my sandals when I am paddling locally but not so much on longer trips where I am going to be hiking up and down beaches with boats and gear. The sandals I like best have an enclosed toe, like Keens, which can prevent nasty stubbings.
There are a lot of companies now making a good selection of ‘water shoes’, which are a combination between a low hiker and a sandal. They usually have some sort of fine mesh upper, which lets the air in, but lets the water out. Some even have drains in the soles. They give you the light airiness of a sandal but with an upper that will keep out the larger rocks and pebbles. This type of water shoe has become my footwear of choice in warmer weather.
If the weather or water is cooler you can wear wool, neoprene socks or waterproof socks in your sandals or water shoes extending their usefulness. Make sure to size them appropriately if you are going to use them for this purpose.
Cold Weather and/or Cold Water Paddling
Neoprene booties come in a range of styles from soft sole to hard sole, and in low slipper style, ankle boot style and knee high style.
Hard Soles versus Soft Soles
Neoprene booties like a wetsuit, keep your feet warm by trapping a thin layer of water between your skin and the neoprene. This layer of water heats up and helps insulate your feet. In really cold weather and water neoprene booties can be more comfortable when combined with a wool sock.
Soft sole booties offer greater flexibility, which can be better for kneeling in a canoe. They may be the only option for smaller kayaks, particularly small whitewater kayaks which won’t fit larger hard sole booties. I use a soft sole slipper style bootie in my whitewater boat over the socks built into my drysuit. Soft sole booties are a little harder on the feet when walking over rocks and don’t provide great ankle support.
Hard sole booties are much better for walking over rocks and much more comfortable on longer portages since they not only protect the soles of your feet but the stiffer uppers also provide more ankle support. I use an ankle height hard sole boot over my Kokotat Dry Bibs for sea kayak trips. I like the hard sole bootie for the warmth it provides as well as the comfort they provide walking over rocky beaches, particularly when carrying boats and gear.
The height of the bootie you choose is largely a personal preference. The low slipper booties work well with dry suits and are comfortable with bare feet in warmer weather. Ankle height booties are warmer and can provide some ankle support, particularly the hard sole models. Many sea kayakers like the knee-high booties. Their height can keep your feet dry when wading in shallow water and getting in and out of the boat. Knee high booties can also be cinched around the calf, reducing the amount of water that can fill them in the event you go to deep or worse, capsize.
Water Shoes for all conditions
With the popularity of all types of paddling, manufacturers have addressed the need for good, fast draining, fast drying water water shoes that can provide good traction and good ankle support, but still be small and flexible enough to be useful for paddling. These come in a variety of styles resembling anything from tennis shoes to light hikers. Some styles are well suited for use with drysuits where you don’t necessarily need the insulation value of a neoprene bootie.
Back in ‘the day’, when gear was scarce and money scarcer, an old pair of tennis shoes and wool socks were often the foot wear of necessity, if not choice. Today, this combination is still a good one, or better yet combine them with a pair of neoprene or waterproof socks. I have been using a pair of waterproof socks with my Keen water shoes for keeping my feet warm and dry around camp on rainy days.
Another old time favourite footwear and still practical today, are a good old pair of rubber boots. The primary downside of rubber boots are the open tops leading to wet feet and that sinking feeling when they fill up with water during a capsize. They also lack some flexibility and can be slow to dry out.
For minimalists, five toed shoes, such as Vibrams Five Fingers, offer a minimally padded shoe that are meant to mimic the barefoot experience. They are thin and flexible enough to fit even the smallest kayaks and their grippy rubber soles provide good traction on slick surfaces such as slippery rocks or standup paddle board decks. They are also better for swimming.
When you are on longer trips, get your feet out of your waterproof footwear when you can. Change into dry socks and shoes when you get to shore, or if the weather is nice, put on some sandals and let your feet dry out. I prefer to avoid going barefoot when I am kayak touring as I don’t want to take the risk of a cut or injured foot.
If you are like me, you may end up owning multiple types of footwear for paddling and even different sizes. For example, I need to wear one size bigger neoprene booties when I am wearing a dry suit or my paddling bibs to accommodate the added bulk of the built in Goretex socks.
Remember, everyone has an opinion but everyone is different and has different needs, so the choice is yours, and you may end up going through a couple of options before you find something you like and that works well for you.