Paddlers are always dipping their toes into the sometimes cold, sometimes murky, sometimes clear and turquoise waters where they set float for adventure, exploration, and relaxation. That’s what paddlers do-they get their feet wet.
In any sport, having the right gear is an essential component of a good experience. This includes paddling. Canoeists and kayakers need Coast Guard-approved PFDs, quick-dry and waterproof clothing, and well-fitting boats, and paddles, as well as sturdy, temperature-appropriate footwear to take them to and from their destination.
While specialized footwear for boating may not be the first item on a new paddler’s to-buy list, it is indispensable gear. Unlike old sneakers or dime-store flip-flops, water shoes are designed to drain, grip on wet and slippery surfaces, dry quickly to reduce bacteria and mildew growth, and protect feet from water hazards.
There are many styles of water shoes on the market, each suited to a specific aquatic environment. In choosing shoes for yourself, consider the terrain, temperature, your preferred paddling location, and your travel plans if you’re buying them for a specific trip. A water shoe should protect your feet from dangers lurking in the depths, such as zebra mussels, clamshells, coral, or cold temperatures. If you plan on long portages or a multisport excursion, you’ll need a different shoe than you would for playboating. And you’ll want a different shoe for skirting the coastline of tropical Costa Rica than you would for paddling the chilly Atlantic off coastal Connecticut. Take the plunge-in a new pair of water shoes-and enjoy the ride.
Water Sport Shoe, Dunham
What the Dunham Water Sport Shoe lacks in a catchy name it has in features suited for serious paddlers. A light-weight and low-bulk slip-on shoe with tongue and heel pull tabs, the Water Sport fits snugly but not uncomfortably, thanks to its stretch mesh/heel-holding elastic and mid-foot Velcro strap. The shoe drains through open holes on top, as well as mesh panels at the forefoot, arch, and heel. Removable insoles also have drainage holes. While the top holes do give the Water Sport Shoe a distinctive look and offer excellent drainage, they also leave select circles of your foot open to the elements. For such a light shoe, the sole offers a surprising amount of support, suitable for a moderate portage. Though relatively smooth, the Water Sport Shoe’s Vibram soles have superior grip on slippery surfaces. Leather-like sidewalls resist abrasion and offer extra support.
Hood River, Keen
A new concept in water-shoe design, Keen’s Hood River offers the protection and stability of a shoe and the comfort, drainage, and drytime of a sandal. A unique hybrid, Keen’s Hood River is built on a well-cushioned anti-microbial foot bed with a multi-textured, grippy sole that holds as well on smooth, wet surfaces as on slippery mixed terrain. Pull-through strapping holds the foot in place, and quick-dry mesh protects the foot and ankle from land and water hazards. The toe guard is perforated for drainage. Though the Hood River looks like a sandal, it has the stability of a shoe. It’s made with abrasion-resistant, non-marking rubber. Though it doesn’t offer 100 percent foot protection because of its open sides, the Hood River is exceptionally comfortable and fun to wear, and low-profile enough to be cozy in a sea kayak. It’s not designed for whitewater boaters.
Helium Ventilator, Merrell
For the paddler who plans to put on some trail miles portaging or on side excursions, Merrell’s Helium Ventilator is a comfortable, lightweight, quick-drying hybrid. Built on a running-shoe last, the Helium Ventilator looks like a trail-runner but offers 100 percent drainage through its mesh upper. The anatomical foot bed (with drainage holes) and aerated, compression-molded EVA foot frame mean that these shoes will take the road shock so that you don’t have to. While the Helium Ventilator’s sole is not as sticky as those of many other water shoes, its aggressive design gives excellent traction on varied terrain. Unlike former incarnations of Merrell water shoes, which were difficult to get on and off, the Helium Ventilator is a straight lace-up, and will be a winner for recreational kayakers and canoeists. It’s not designed for tight cockpits.
Air Toketee Mid, Nike ACG
A high-tech bootie that’s streamlined enough for tight playboats, the Air Toketee Mid is a versatile water shoe with a supportive sole. The four-way-stretch neoprene upper snugs comfortably around the foot with a cinching forefoot strap, a double hook-and-loop midfoot strap, and a hook-and-loop heel closure. Sueded abrasion-resistant side panels have drainage holes that spit water out of the bootie so your feet can dry quickly. The biggest surprise when you slip on the Air Toketee Mid is the textured rubber insole, which contributes to the boot’s quick-dry performance. Nike’s wet/dry sticky rubber sole holds tight on wet and slippery surfaces. There are no hard clips or clasps to grind into your foot as you maneuver through whitewater or meander along the lakeshore, just a few patches of extra padding. The Toketee Mid is exceptionally comfortable, and it’s a bootie with a conscience: a portion of the proceeds go to First Descents, Brad Ludden’s kayak camp for kids with cancer. Learn more here: www.firstdescents.com.