One shoe to rule them all…
One of the most important and overlooked items a paddler can wear is their footwear. You can’t hike out, rescue effectively, or get to the put in as safely without a great pair of foot coverings. Sit back, take a look at a few here, and learn what works and what doesn’t.Great shoes have come and gone. Craptastic ones posing as the ultimate shoe still exist. I am talking to you Teva! Long gone are the days when all you had was a pair of old running shoes or dive booties as your best option. There are many great and a few not so great options out there today. For a while, great classic shoes like the Lotus Designs (Patagonia) playboot and the Nike ACG all but disappeared. Eventually, companies responded to our desperate need. Here is a look at a few of the current paddling specific options out there.
First, though, we should outline some of the criteria that goes into a great river shoe. I have gone into this topic on our Facebook Feed in review of another river shoe, I will lay it out quickly here.
Must be sticky on river rocks and good for a hike out.
Should fit comfortably on your feet and in your boat.
Should not pose an undue snagging hazard and be easy to swim in.
Offers good foot protection.
Should hold up to the rigors of a river environment.
Must be sticky on river rocks and good for a hike out.
Some great bonus criteria would be dries and drains very quickly, is light weight, does not carry a ton of sand and gravel, easy to get on, fit with your drysuit socks, and not be terribly expensive.
The Shoe List
The Keen Gorge Boot – Keen has made several forays into the river paddling shoe arena and has yet to hit the mark. The current offering, the Gorge Boot, however is a vast improvement over past offerings. It is shaped more like other river shoes instead of the usual Keen roundness. Their rubber while stickier than on past shoes, is still about the slickest of the shoes I will be comparing. It is quite stiff, which can be great for hiking out and keeps your foot from getting bruised on the river bottom, but a bit too firm for really feeling out the river bottom or when forces to climb out. It indeed is very boot like in this regard. The shoe looks great and appears over the past year of intermittent use, to be holding up quite well. Although, I certainly have not worn it much due to it being not so sticky and only fitting in my creek boat. It is also a bit of a chore to put on and does not really get tight in the right places despite its seemingly awesome looking velcro strap system. It does not let as much sand in due to its solid neoprene boot and it coming higher on the ankle. But once in, it does not leave. It is quite warm and might serve as a good winter boot. So, Keen, you have some work to due if you truly want to satisfy the paddlers.
The Five Ten Water Tennie – Five Ten is no newcomer to the river shoe market. Indeed, one of my first pair of true river shoes was an old pair if Nemos. This was a while back. While Five Ten has always knocked the primary criteria of stickiness and traction out of the park, its long term durability and sturdiness has always been lacking. Their newest offering, the Water Tennie, continue much of this trend. The Water Tennie is indeed the stickiest of river shoes out there. It climbs rock faces while your are shouldering a boat and scouting leaping from boulder to crag to log. You feel nimble and don’t need to second guess your move from slick spot to slicker spot. The shoe is low profile and fits great into creek boats. It does snag a bit on the heel from where the sole comes out a bit from the bottom of the upper. Nothing major though. It does take quite a while to dry out, despite a liberal amount of mesh, which also lets in a fair amount of sand. It may be a bit too flexible for long hikes in, its arch support while there, is not super. It stays on the foot just fine on the all the swims I have done in classes and other swims which we will not discuss here :). It excels at finding all the stickiest spots in the river. The Achilles’s Heel of this shoe is its lack of durability, at least on the shoe I had. However, I liked the shoe so much, I ordered another pair to serve as my winter paddling boot. Order a size to a sizeandahalf up if you plan to use them with your drysuit, particularly with the stiff socks of the IR Double D suit. Customer service at Five Ten is great though and they have taken a lot of this feedback in from me and other paddlers and have been working on the durability issue. If the durability is worked out, then they will have a shoe for the ages.
The Astral Brewer – So much praise has been heaped upon the Brewer, I almost feel I have nothing really to add. But here goes. Astral makes the best lifejackets you could ever want, Philip and his crew of testers have put the same care and thoughtful design into the Brewer. From the heel drain and drains in the side of the sole, to the bomber stitching and use of durable materials, to the collapsibility of the heel to enable use as a slip on. The shoe is as much a work of art as it is pure functionality. The environmental footprint is even accounted for in its design and manufacture. I have the Brewers on now as I write this. It was designed as a use anywhere shoe, looks stylish and is very comfortable. It is likely the most comfortable shoe that I own. It is designed to be worn without socks, but handled Kokatat drysuit socks and fleece just fine over a 5 day sea kayak trip. It was the only pair of shoes I brought. Unfortunately, IR drysuit socks will require a size up or two. Wear and tear seems to be going just fine, only a minor bit of sole separation on the heel and one stitch a little frayed after 3 months of near continual use both on and off the river. Is it sticky?? It most certainly is, due to the Five Ten aquastealth rubber bottom. The same stickiness that is so great on the Water Tennie. Sand does go in the shoe, but comes out easy, as the inside of the shoe does not rely on an insert for arch support, it is built in, lightening the shoe and making it faster to dry. The shoe strikes the right balance of support and flexibility for traction in the river and on rock cliffs and for the hike out on the trail. They easily dry out over night in almost all conditions and even while having a post paddle brew or the drive home. The only issue I have really encountered is due to the low profile of the shoe, it can slip off if your heel catches on a wet exit or rock, particularly when worn with a drysuit.
I could not be more thrilled with the Astral Brewer, both on and off the river. Can’t wait for the high top to come out in January.
Other Shoes – I have tried out many other shoes and the ones above are still the top 3. But here are some others I have crossed paths with. I have already made mention of my Chaco flops, they are too great and wonderful not to mention. A Chaco Sandal with the Five Ten bottom is still in my quiver. Mainly I use the flop for playboating and the Sandal for playboating when I might have to hike a bit. Also for multi day raft and sea kayak trips so my feet can get some air. I have tried the Vibram 5 Fingers, I found them not to be all that sticky, hard to put on, trapped lots of sand, and my feet felt too exposed. Felt like my toe was in a prime spot to get ripped off when wading. Plus my wife hated them. They did fit in my playboat which was nice, in that I could get right out of the boat and have shoes on my feet. I have had the NRS Attack Boots, all in all, they are not a bad shoe. They just tended to wear out quick and were hard to put on. Fairly sticky though and served pretty well. They were in 4th place. For wearing in my playboat for something low profile, I still go barefoot, but this has its limitations for sure. I would be interested to trying the Kokatat Seeker or the NRS Shock Socks to see if they were a good option for a playboating shoe.
So, in the end, I am currently sporting about 2 shoes. The Brewer for most all of my paddling and daily use. The water tennie still makes the cut as it is too good of a creek boating shoe and fits good with my drysuit when sized up. I still bop about in a pair of Chaco flip flops, nothing has replaced those yet 🙂