If you enjoy outdoor activities as much as I do, you know the importance of selecting appropriate and high-quality equipment. For thirty years, I’ve hiked, camped, kayaked and climbed my way through 45 of 50 states and several foreign countries. I can tell you from personal experience that no other product demands more careful scrutiny than the gear on your feet.
Footwear can ultimately enhance or quickly ruin an entire outing for you and your companions. Moving water raises the stakes of footwear selection from a question of comfort to a matter of personal safety. With this in mind, I want to share with you some research I’ve done on the best water shoes for a summer adventure.
Best Water Shoes (Winner):
In 1981, famed boot maker Randal Ivan Merrell was producing custom-order hiking boots for over $500 a pair. That was until two executives from Rossignol ski company approached him with a proposal: join forces and continue R.I. Merrell’s dedication to quality with a line of outdoor footwear that could retail for the common adventurer. Since 1983, Merrell has been the producer of some of the finest boots and shoes in the world, including the winner of our contest for best water shoes: the .
Construction & Functionality
When considering our pick for best water shoes, the form is tied heavily to the function. For the sake of simplicity and consistency, I have broken down my comparative review to correspond with the main components of a shoe.
The ‘Upper’ refers to the entire portion of a shoe that covers the wearer’s foot. In the case of the , the Upper is constructed of a combination waxy, waterproof leather and durable synthetic. Generous cut-outs allow for breathability and easy water pass-through. The entire design is engineered to wick moisture away from the foot and dry quickly. This is important if the wearer will be alternating wet and dry experiences (as with kayaking and then portaging).
The is also treated with odor-preventing M Select fresh technologies. This product helps prevent the accumulation of microbes that are a major contributor to foot odor. If you’ve ever had wet shoes before, you know that the constant wetting and drying of the material can produce some seriously offensive fragrances. Considering your water shoes will be wet a majority of the time, the odor-preventing technology is a key feature.
The ‘Closure’ is the portion of the shoe’s construction that allows it to stay firmly attached to the foot. When considering the best water shoes, this is extremely important as a shoe that is unintentionally removed may be lost for good. In a wilderness situation, this is a major safety concern. Conversely, the wearer may encounter situations (such as debris in the shoe) where it’s critical to remove the shoe quickly.
The uses a combination of Omni-Fit bungee laces and a Lycra neoprene stretch collar. This gives the wearer a degree of control over the fit. Crucially, it combines tight control with the possibility of very rapid evacuation from the shoe if needed.
The ‘Outsole’ is the bottom and sides of the shoe: every surface that contacts the ground during normal wear. Obviously, for matters of performance, safety, and comfort, the material and construction of the outsole is critical when considering the best water shoes.
The outsold of the is a synthetic rubber known as Vibram TC5+. This thoroughly tested, state-of-the-art material is widely used in high-end athletic and outdoor gear from reputable outfits such as New Balance, Under Armor, and L.L. Bean.
The Vibram TC5+ is molded into a systematic series of ridges and valleys known as ‘Lugs’. As with the tread on tires, the deeper the valley between these ridges, the greater the potential for friction. In other words, the stronger the grip on surfaces such as muddy trails and slippery rocks. The has lugs of up to 5mm deep for some serious traction. The lugs on the tread of the Merrell are also hollow, a feature that keeps the weight of the shoe down.
While each component of the shoe combines elements of performance and comfort, the following four subcategories focus more on the wearer’s experience. As with matters of functionality, here the furthers its case as the best water shoes for whitewater adventure.
As you probably guessed, the ‘Midsole’ refers to the inner portion of the sole: the part of the shoe that directly contacts the sole of the wearer’s foot. The is constructed with a cushioned and protective UniFly midsole. The UniFly midsole is designed to absorb shock from the ground and lend stability as the foot encounters uneven terrain.
Unlike cheaper counterparts, the has padded ankle support that extends up and across the entire ankle. This feature has a dual function: to protect the wearer from external threats such as river rocks and roots and to stabilize the ankle, decreasing the chance of injury from sprains.
Weight obviously varies based on shoe size. To have a standard metric, most shoe companies list the weight (and dimensions) of a Men’s Size 9. The comes in at a fairly light 1 pound, 5 ounces.
In the case of outdoor gear, this can be doubly important. Depending on the nature of your excursion, you may be wearing the shoe during part of the route and packing it at other times. A difference of ½ pound can really add up over a 5-day trek!
% Fit as Expected
Amazon has a nifty metric for comparing shoes: the percent of reviewers who report the shoe size they ordered as fitting the way they expected. Although this number will fluctuate, at the time of my review, 86% of purchasers of the reported the fit as expected.
When it comes to contenders for best water shoes, the durability of the product counts twice! First, you don’t want your footwear flagging on you mid-outing. This could lead to serious discomfort, safety concerns, or even an excursion cut short. Second, you want the water shoes you love to show up for you time and again. Outdoor gear is expensive and investing in new footwear every year can be a major drain on your budget.
The is a serious hiking shoe. The term ‘water shoe’ can refer to a variety of products, including very flimsy coverings intended to afford the wearer a small degree of protection when entering and exiting their boat. The is constructed to carry the wearer over significant stretches of land. This is one of the greatest strengths securing its spot at the top of our list of best water shoes.
Of our major categories comparing the best water shoes for whitewater, the aesthetics is the most subjective and, arguably, the least important. However, anyone who has ever flipped through an Eddie Bauer or North Face catalog can tell you: how outdoorsy people look when they’re being outdoorsy is not lost on them.
In this vein, I personally think that the is an extremely striking piece of footwear. The black and brown leather with a single accent color makes for a very handsome composition, and the vents are strategically placed to be both functional and attractive.
In general, the looks more like a boot than the other contenders for best water shoes. Personally, I find that style more appealing and in keeping with my outdoor aesthetic than a sandal or an athletic shoe.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
Up to this point, I have basically fawned over the , and for many great reasons. However, I would be remiss if I did not point out a few flaws in an otherwise remarkable product.
Slippery When Wet
Several reviewers have noted that their pair of s failed to provide adequate traction on smooth, wet rocks. While this was not my personal experience, I don’t want to skirt away from any issue potentially impacting buyer safety.
Barring a highly controlled experiment, it is impossible to say if the expectations of these reviewers were reasonable when considering the best water shoes. No matter what product you buy for your whitewater adventures, err on the side of caution whenever traversing treacherous terrain.
Not for the Wide-of-Foot
The are narrow. If you have a wider-than-average foot, consider one of our other contenders for the best water shoes.
Best Water Shoes (Runner Up):
Founded in 1938 by immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany, Columbia began its life as Columbia Hat Company, a Portland-based hat distributor. After becoming Columbia Sportswear in 1960, the company began manufacturing its own products, specializing in outdoor apparel. Over fifty years later, it has grown into one of the largest and most widely-respected sportswear producers on the planet. Among its many triumphs, it has given us the runner-up for best water shoes: the .
Construction & Functionality
At first glance, its easy to see a lot of differences between the and our winner for best water shoes. Let’s break the comparison down by parts.
Unlike the Merrell, the upper (or foot cover) portion of the is composed entirely of textile: synthetic fabric and mesh. While this allows for a high level of breathability and comfort, it also absorbs water, causing the shoe to gain weight when wet.
On the other hand, unlike the other water shoes in our review, the upper for the completely encloses the foot, virtually eliminating the chance for sand, gravel, and grit to enter the shoe.
Designed much more like an athletic shoe than the Merrell, the is secured entirely by synthetic laces threaded through classic eyelets. This makes for a very comfortable shoe. However, as with any sports shoe, the more secure you tie it, the harder it will be to free your foot in a pinch.
Here is the first place that the only LOOKS like a tennis shoe. The outsole of the Drainmaker is designed with Omni-Grip (non-marking wet grip with razor siping). Siping is the manufacturing process of cutting razor-thin slits across strategic portions of the rubber sole to increase traction.
While the lags behind the Merrell in some considerations of functionality, for comfort it really shines as one of the best water shoes available this summer.
The features a Techlite, superior cushion, high-energy return midsole. Techlite is patented midsole technology that Columbia sews into a variety of products, from sandals to hiking boots. In layman’s terms, it makes the Drainmaker feel like a high-end running shoe.
Unlike the other products in this review, in the , the ports for water drainage and airflow are actually in the bottom of the midsole. In conjunction with quick-dry fabrics, this helps keep the wearer’s foot reasonably comfortable when wet (hence the name: Drainmaker).
Like a low-top running shoe, there isn’t much ankle support in the . The shoe protects the entire foot but leaves the ankle vulnerable to abrasions and twisting.
Due to the fabrics used in its construction, this is another exemplary category for the . At an average (men’s size 9) weight of just under 1 pound per pair, these lightweight rock stars are easily the lightest of our review.
% Fit as Expected
In keeping with its other comfort ratings, the knocks it out of the park with a 90% fit as expected average on Amazon (at time of publishing).
Just as a running shoe is not as durable as a hiking boot, the is not as durable as our winner for best water shoes, the .
That said, the is relatively cheaper. One could make the argument that you get the product-life that you pay for. There’s no reason not to get plenty of value out of the and then move on to your next model (maybe the Drainmaker V?).
Style-wise, if your closet is full of running shoes and jerseys, the is right up your alley. Available in three colors (black, grey/red, and blue/green), you can even coordinate your outfits. Unlike most other water shoes, this bad boy actually looks exactly like an athletic shoe.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
Due to its material composition, the dries more slowly than the other water shoes in our review. Depending on the type and length of activity, this can lead to discomfort and an increased potential for foot odor. My suggestion (backed up by several reviews) is that the Drainmaker is ideal for isolated athletic events with the potential for immersion in water, not for extended periods of wet wear (or multiple days in a row).
Uncomfortable Without Socks
Again, this relates to its similarity to athletic shoes. The is designed to be worn with athletic socks, which may not be ideal for some users.
Best Water Shoes (Honorable Mention):
Invented in 1984 by geophysicist and rafting guide Mark Thatcher, Teva sandals have become synonymous with rugged functionality in the world of river sports. Noticing the shortage of appropriate footwear worn by whitewater enthusiasts, Thatcher designed the original Teva (named for the Hebrew word for ‘nature’) to combine elements of the athletic shoe and the sandal, eliminating shortcomings of both. Over thirty years later, the Teva brand still produces top-of-the-line water wear. The take the honorable mention slot in our quest for the best water shoes for summer whitewater.
Construction & Functionality
While the Teva is marketed as a sandal, it belongs on the same platform as the Merrell and the Columbia. Let’s break down the components of the and see why it makes the list of best water shoes.
One look at the and you can see that the construction of the upper is very similar to the . The Teva sandals are vegan-friendly though, with a combination of synthetic leather and mesh. Like the Merrell, the is treated with an odor-controlling microban. This zinc-based chemical reduces the accumulation of odor-causing microorganisms that are attracted to the wet, porous surfaces.
If you have any experience with Teva brand footwear, you won’t be surprised to learn that the closure is where the shines. The Teva features three separate devices: a pull-cord lacing system, a front buckle, and a rear Velcro strap. In conjunction, these components insure that the Teva stays in place when you want it to and comes off very quickly when you don’t.
The features a thick, synthetic non-marking rubber outsole. A fine, spiderweb patterned grip helps the Teva to cling to rocks and other slick surfaces.
Considering it is classified as a sandal and not a shoe, the is surprisingly comfortable.
A patented Shoc Pad system defines the midsole of the Teva. This technology not only gives your foot a comfortable cushion, it adjusts to keep your feet in line over uneven surfaces. As advertised, the thick closed toe protects the wearer from rocks and other obstacles in the front.
Here again, the surprises. While the Teva does not cover the ankle itself, the Shoc Pad technology constantly counters your ankle’s tendency to roll, reducing the risk of strains and sprains.
At an average of 1 pound 8 ounces, the is not as light as you might expect for a sandal.
% Fit as Expected
Interestingly, the comes in third place with only 82% of reviewers claiming they fit as expected. The majority of the unsatisfied 18% claimed the sandals were too small.
Durability is a trademark of the Teva brand. I’m not sure you can wear these sandals out.
The look like sandals.
Flaws But Not Deal Breakers
Depending on the architecture of your foot, the mechanics of your stride, and the sort of activity, the may give some blisters. If you’re looking forward to a kayaking trip, this won’t be a deal breaker, but you may want to avoid extended hiking.
Hard to Put On
The may be easy to get off, but some wearers report that it is hard to get ON. One would hope that the size foot made to wear a shoe is also the perfect size to get into it, but wider feet may have an issue in this department.
All the Nitty Gritty
|Upper||Leather / Synthetic Fabric||Synthetic Fabric / Mesh||Synthetic Leather / Mesh|
|Midsole||Unifly||Techlite Cushioning||Shockpad Heal|
|Closure||Omni-Fit Laces /
Lycra Neoprene Collar
|Laces||Bungee Laces /
Front Buckle / Back Velcro
|Open @ Heel /
Gapped in Upper
|Midsole Ports||Open @ Heel /
Gapped in Upper
|Fit as Expected||86%||90%||82%|
|21 ounces||16 ounces||24 ounces|
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is simple: ‘best water shoes’ is a great conversation starter but it’s far too broad of a category to define an absolute winner. The best footwear for you depends entirely on what water activities you’re planning and what your preferences are.
Looking for a tough sandal that will protect your feet while kayaking? The may be the perfect choice.
Planning a wet-weather soccer game or a day with your dog at the beach? Try the .
If you have the finances and storage space for it, consider getting a pair of each of our finalists, equipping you for an entire battery of summer water activities.
However, if you’re like me and want to put the research in and spend your hard-earned cash on one perfect pair of shoes, my recommendation stands. The caps 2018’s list of best water shoes for the summer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: I’m looking at water shoes online and I see a lot of options that are less than half the cost of the three you suggest. What will I be missing?
A: As I mentioned, ‘best water shoes’ is a very large category for consideration. Many products are simply equipped to do less (and for much less time) than the three finalists.
For instance, I own a pair of Body Glove Riptide water shoes. The soles are so thin that I can’t walk on gravel comfortably, and I keep them outside because of the odor. However, I’ve had some great fun in them. They’re worth every penny of the $20 I paid for them.
Q: Vibram? Omnifit? Techlite? Unifly? What are all the different brands that manufacturers incorporate into each kind of water shoe? Do I need to know what they do?
A: Manufacturers brand proprietary materials and components so that competitors can’t use them in their products. Many of these are virtually the same, offset by small differences that aren’t noticeable to the end user.
Often the function is evident in the name of the product itself. If not, the marketing team for the manufacturer will make sure you know exactly what the component does (and why you’re paying for it). If that doesn’t quench your curiosity, a quick Google search will tell you all you need to know.
Interested in taking more of the family on your outdoor excursions? Check out Kelly Berry’s pick for the Best Hiking Baby Carrier.