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Summer is fast approaching, and that means on-the-water adventures are back in season. Maybe you’re planning on hitting your local swimming hole for a casual dip or picking up a paddle and going whitewater rafting. Maybe you’ll be rappelling into a muddy sinkhole or exploring an underground river system. Perhaps you’re hiking a trail that requires a few river crossings, surfing in cold water or scuba diving. Regardless, a reliable pair of water shoes will make your adventure much more comfortable and safe.
What are water shoes?
Water shoes are footwear used for a variety of water sports, such as kayaking, whitewater rafting, paddle boarding, canoeing and other outdoor activities where your feet are likely to become wet, such as caving or canyoneering. On any outdoor excursion where you’ll likely be traveling through water at some point, bringing a pair of the best water shoes is a good call. Water shoes protect your feet from sharp rocks, sticks and other hazards in rivers, lakes and the ocean, and also provide grip and traction on slippery surfaces.
The different types of water shoes
Classic Water Shoes: A traditional “water shoe” is a closed-toe shoe. It can feature a slipper-style, Velcro or lace-up closure system. Typically, the sole will be made of a durable rubber material that provides grip and protection from sharp rocks and other hazards in the water, and the upper will consist of a soft, pliable mesh that is breathable and drys out quickly but still protects the top of your feet. Closed-toe water shoes are the best water shoes for swimming, rafting and a variety of other in-water activities but are less helpful when you’re spending most of your time on land and regularly moving in and out of the water — such as while caving or canyoneering — because the water tends to drain slowly from the shoe.
Sandals: For mellow flat-water kayaking and canoeing, the open-toed sandal is an excellent water shoe. The world-famous Teva was originally designed as a raft guide sandal. Other sandals, like Chacos, are also a favorite of many paddlers. They don’t offer as much protection as traditional closed-toed water shoes — so they aren’t a great choice for whitewater — and they aren’t made for sustained swimming, but they do float and shed water quickly if submerged. They’re also open and breathable, drying out almost immediately. “Sandals work well in moderate hiking situations where you might be crossing creeks or streams as well,” says Alabama-based spelunker Gentry Patterson.
Hybrids: Hybrid water shoes blend a mix of the closed-toe, slipper-style water shoe with a sandal. Hybrids, such as Keens, offer a closed-toe construction with a rubber toe cap and some form of protective upper, but, unlike traditional closed-toe water shoes, also have numerous drain holes so that water can escape. For a cheap hybrid water shoe, many adventurers simply bring a pair of Crocs.
Booties: Cold-water surfers and scuba divers also use a style of water shoes, known as booties, to keep their feet warm in the water. Booties offer full-foot protection, generally coming up above the ankle, even to mid-calf, and trap water inside to maximize warmth via the body’s own heat, like a wetsuit. Booties are typically made with neoprene. They feature a minimal footbed and little support, so they’re rather useless on land and best suited for situations where you’ll be in the water at all times. Some booties are split-toed for added tactility.
What to look for in the best water shoes
What you should look for in your water shoes depends on the type of activity you’re getting into, but there are still a variety of factors you should keep in mind regardless of your planned adventure.
Materials: “The two main things I look for in a water shoe are the tread and how quickly they dry,” says raft guide Raphael Laurito. Treads should be made of sturdy rubber, like Vibram, to stand up to harsh rocks, coral and other sharp objects in the water. A breathable, quick-drying upper, typically mesh, is equally important to avoid foot rot, which can occur when water sits in your shoes for a long period of time. For canyoneering and caving, “you want a really tough shoe all-around, with an upper that can stand up to lots of abrasion and sharp rocks and a very aggressive tread,” Patterson says.
Design: As noted above, the design of a water shoe will vary depending on the activity you’re practicing. If you’re paddling in whitewater, a closed-toe shoe is preferred for maximum protection. In addition to facing rocks and other in-water hazards, “being in a raft and shoving your foot underneath the seat in the raft can really do some damage if you’re wearing open-toed shoes,” Patterson adds.
For swimming in potentially hazardous water, like near coral reefs or in remote swimming holes, closed-toe shoes are also helpful to protect your feet. They offer full-foot protection and allow you to swim relatively normally. Open-toed sandals, like Tevas or Chacos, often feel clunky and cumbersome while swimming. “When you kick your feet, the fronts of the sandals can also fold against the force of the water,” Patterson says.
If you’re paddling on mellow flatwater, say in a kayak or on a paddle board, however, an open-toed sandal works fine. You’ll still want a stout rubber footbed with good traction to protect you when you’re walking on the riverbed and hauling your watercraft to the put-in. But you don’t need a closed-toe shoe, since you won’t be spending a sustained amount of time in the water, regularly coming up against rocks or other underwater hazards.
Open-toed sandals also work well as a secondary shoe when hiking, if you plan on crossing water. “On backpacking trips, I sometimes have a pair of lightweight Tevas strapped to my back just for stream crossings,” Patterson says. “A shoe that’s as lightweight as possible, but won’t slip off my foot, with at least one strap around the back of the heel will do the job here.”
If you’re caving or canyoneering and constantly coming in and out of the water, you’ll need a sturdy footbed with good grip and a burly upper to protect the top of your foot and your toes. “When you’re doing a lot of climbing over rocks, crawling and scrambling like you do in a cave or canyon, sandals would get your feet all torn up, and you’d get rocks in your shoes,” Patterson explains. “So, closed-toe water shoes are awesome there, but you also want holes for that water to drain fast.”
Fit: According to Laurito, comfort is critical. “Go with whatever feels comfortable,” he advises. “It doesn’t need to be the fanciest or most expensive pair of shoes. Just make sure it fits your foot and protects your foot, first and foremost.” Regardless of the style, a water shoe should fit snugly, because oversized shoes leave room for water to slosh around and excess rubbing can create blisters.
With all this in mind, we rounded up the 13 best water shoes, as tested by this writer and our experts.
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Top Water Shoes for Men and Women
Astral Brewer 2.0 Water Shoes
- Sizes: 8-14
- Best for: whitewater paddling
- Built-in treated sockliner for odor prevention
- 100% vegan
The Astral Brewers, which sport a high-performance G.15 rubber outsole, are Laurito’s favorite water shoes. “I think they have great tread,” he says. “They’re also incredibly versatile and can take a lot of wear and tear in the water.” The Brewers feature a spacious toe box and quick-drain holes at the front and back. “They’re super comfortable,” Laurito adds. “They fit like tennis shoes, but are designed for water. If you’re in whitewater, you want full-foot protection, and the Brewers do a great job.”
Merrell All Out Blaze 2 Hiking Shoes
Best Caving Shoes
- Sizes: 7-15
- Best for: caving
- Great for use on muddy, slick or uneven Terrain
The All Out Blaze 2 (and other earlier iterations, like the All Out Blaze Aero and Sieve) are beloved by Patterson for spelunking trips. “The sole is pretty robust, like a hiking shoe, but the top is a mesh that drains extremely well,” he says. A Vibram TC5 outsole provides reliable grip and a mesh-leather hybrid upper offers a blend of protection and breathability. Meanwhile, a nylon arch shank adds support underfoot.
O’Neill Heat Split-Toe Booties
Best Surfing Booties
- Sizes: 6-15
- Best for: cold water surfing and paddle boarding
- FluidFlex split-toe design
These lightweight surf boots from O’Neill are a surefire pick to keep your toes warm in frigid water and are one of the best water shoes for paddle boarding. An anti-flush shin strap keeps in water for warmth, while a protective rubber sole and toe cap makes jaunts over rocky shorelines a breeze. The bootie’s FluidFlex split-toe adds grip and tactility when you’re on the board.
Merrell Hydro Moc Water Shoes
Best Budget Water Shoes
- Sizes: 5-15
- Best for: general water adventures
- Over a dozen color schemes available
The all-rubber Merrell Hydro Moc is like a more technical, supportive and protective version of a Croc, with an articulated heel that allows for a secure fit. This shoe is a good budget-friendly example of the “hybrid” design, providing full-foot protection and copious drain holes — though the rubber construction isn’t stout enough for aggressive activities like canyoneering or caving. That said, if you’re heading out on your first rafting trip or looking for an inexpensive do-it-all water shoe, this is a great choice.
Crocs Classic Clogs
Best Budget Water Shoes, Runner-Up
- Sizes: 2-17
- Best for: general water adventures
- Lightweight (8 ounces)
The iconic Crocs clogs offer an ankle strap to lock in the fit, but still aren’t secure enough to be recommended for serious whitewater, and the soft rubber leaves a lot to be desired in terms of protection. That said, these are a much better choice than an open-toed shoe like a Teva or Chaco, and for a first-time rafter, Laurito thinks they’ll get the job done. “I see more Crocs floating down the river than anything else,” he says. “If you’re looking for something low-cost or all-purpose, Crocs are a good idea.”
Pali Hawaii Jandals
Best Water Shoes for the Beach
- Sizes: 5-15
- Best for: poolside, lakeside or beach lounging
- Extremely affordable ($15)
All my surfing buddies wore these jelly slippers in college, and they’re a great choice of comfortable sandals for casual beachside activities. I wear them almost daily, and my original pair took at least three to four years to wear out. If you’re actually swimming, paddling or doing anything active, these slippers will slide right off your feet. But they float, they’re affordable, extremely comfortable and dry out quickly. For chill days by the water, with a beer in hand and music on the stereo, you can’t beat Pali’s Jandals.
O’Neill Youth Reactor Reef Booties
Best Summer Camp Water Shoes
- Sizes: small, medium, and large
- Best for: youth summer camps, scouting events, church retreats, etc.
- Affordable and easy-to-use slipper style
For a basic, do-it-all water shoe at an affordable price, the Reactors from wetsuit mainstays O’Neill are a stellar find. These slipper-style water shoes are an excellent choice for teens heading to summer camp, as they feature a two millimeter neoprene build that offers moderate warmth and textured rubber sole for grip and protection.
Teva Original Universal Sandals
Best for Flatwater Paddling
- Sizes: 7-15
- Best for: paddling in estuaries, rivers, lakes, and other flatwater, paddle boarding, hiking
- Comfortable hook-and-loop strap closure
Lightweight and affordable, with a veritable slew of color schemes and styles, the classic Teva sandal is a great choice for mellow paddling conditions, like on a lake or flatwater river. “I prefer Tevas for this kind of paddling,” Patterson says, “because of their slim profile.” He also recommends them as a back-up shoe for backpacking trips. The .75-inch heel still provides adequate support, and a foam-cushioned footbed adds extra comfort.
Vibram V-Aqua Water Shoes
Best for Grip
- Sizes: 6.5-14
- Best for: whitewater paddling, hiking, paddle boarding
- Five-toe design for added tactility
Laurito says Vibram’s V-Aqua is the go-to water shoe of his mentor, a raft guide of 15 years. “He swears by ‘em,” Laurito notes. “He says he’s never had a better shoe on the water.” The V-Aqua is extremely lightweight (4.9 ounces) but provides protection for the entire foot and features a Megagrip Vibram sole. The shoe is especially useful for folks with larger feet, Laurito adds, since the individual toe sleeves allow you to wrap your toes around rocks for added grip and stability.
Hisea Men’s Rubber Rain Boots
Best for Deep Mud
- Sizes: 6-13
- Best for: Hunting, caving or other muddy trips
- Mid-calf reach
Sometimes, you’re just tracking through deep, boggy terrain and you don’t need breathability or quick-drying capabilities. You just need your feet to stay completely dry. These stout rubber boots will come up mid-calf to keep all moisture out and are temperature-rated from 14 degrees to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, so they’ll operate well in a variety of climes. For non-technical caving outings, marshy hunting trips or other situations where you don’t need a super aggressive shoe but need full waterproofing, the Hiseas work well.
Merrell Men’s Speed Strike Leather Sieve Water Shoes
- Sizes: 7-15
- Best for: swimming, caving, hiking, canyoneering
- 100% recycled build
The Speed Strike is a similar shoe to the All Out Blaze 2, but is designed for rapid draining via a porous mesh upper and maximizes comfort with an air cushion in the heel and EVA foam midsole. One of the best pairs of water shoes for swimming, hiking, caving and canyoneering, these also have 100% recycled webbing, mesh linings and a foam midsole for eco-friendly touches.
Chaco Z2 Classic Sandals
- Sizes: 7-15
- Best for: flatwater paddling, hiking
- Toe-Strap for added security
Laurito notes that many of his fellow guides wear Chacos on the river, though he personally isn’t a fan of them. “What I will say is that sometimes you will find a rock, and with that open-toed design, it will not feel good,” he explains. As an alternative to the Tevas for flatware, the Chaco is a solid choice, though. In addition to featuring a heavier (and stronger) footbed than the Teva Universal, the Chaco has a toe-strap that secures the toe in place and prevents that “folding” effect while swimming.
Vifuur Water Socks
Best for Water Yoga
- Sizes: 3-12
- Best for: aqua yoga, paddle boarding
- Dozens of color schemes available
These Vifuur water socks aren’t going to offer much in the way of protection or support, but if you’re looking for a lightweight liner to stand between your feet and the rocks, these are a worthy buy. They work well for anything on flatwater, like paddle boarding and canoeing, but won’t offer much support if you get out and do any walking on land. They’re particularly effective for aqua aerobics, yoga and other casual in-water activities in a pool or other controlled environment.
Cressi Unisex Adult Booties
Best Dive Booties
- Sizes: 5-14
- Best for: scuba diving, snorkeling
- Thickness Options: 5 millimeters and 7 millimeters
The hard rubber sole on these neoprene Cressi booties is anti-slip and makes them more comfortable to wear out of the water than many other options. Plus, the back of the heel is designed to work with open-heel fins. Five-millimeter and seven-millimeter options let you choose a bootie that provides adequate warmth for the water (and depth) you’ll be diving. A side zipper closure makes for easy on-and-off access.
Astral Hiyak Outdoor Minimalist Boots
Most Protective Water Shoes
- Sizes: 7-13
- Best for: technical whitewater rafting
- Burly, high-top construction
With an above-the-ankle, hiking boot design that completely locks in your ankle with a Velcro strap over the forefoot, the hydrophobic canvas Hiyak is one of the most protective water shoes on the market. It’s the ultimate cross between a burly hiking boot and a lightweight, breathable water shoe. “As guides, our ankles get beat up a lot,” Laurito says. “I’ve never worried about it, because I’m so used to my ankles getting beat up, but guys that I work with who wear these shoes love them.”
Body Glove 3T Water Shoes
Best for Grip, Runner-Up
- Sizes: 7-13
- Best Use: General Water Adventures
- Three-Toed Design for Extra Tactility
If the V-Aqua and other Five Fingers models are a bit too pricey, this Body Glove slipper provides a nice alternative at a budget price point. A slip-on design makes for easy on and off, and the three-toe build lets you experience some of the tactility and extra grip offered by the individual toe sleeves on the V-Aqua. This shoe is flexible and lightweight with a fast drainage system, making it great for swimming, paddle boarding and essentially all water activities — though the build is less rugged than the Vibram V-Aqua, so it’s not a top choice for serious whitewater outings.
Astral Loyak Barefoot Minimalist Shoes
- Sizes: 8-14
- Best for: whitewater paddling, hiking
For a more affordable alternative to the Brewer 2.0 or other high-end water shoes, the Loyak is a great option. It offers the same high-performance G.15 rubber outsole and hydrophobic, quick-dry canvas upper, and is superbly lightweight. The protection and comfort is slightly lacking in comparison to the Brewers and particularly the bulkier Hiyaks, but the Loyaks are a great middle-ground option between a budget shoe like the Merrell Hydro Moc and Astral’s other pricier options.
Bonus: An Old Pair of Tennis Shoes
If you’re heading on a one-off whitewater trip, an old pair of normal tennis shoes might just do the job. “If someone wants to just go on a single rafting trip, one-and-done, honestly, the best thing would be an old pair of tennis shoes, aka something they’re not afraid to get wet,” Laurito says. For a little two-hour whitewater jaunt, this is a solid option. If you’re going to be in and out of the water all day, however, these won’t dry very well, and certainly on multiple-day paddling trips, foot-rot is a very real concern with a tennis shoe.
Meet the Author
Owen Clarke is a lifelong outdoorsman and outdoor sports journalist. In addition to contributing to Footwear News, Owen is an editor-at-large for Climbing, executive editor for Skydiving Source and Indoor Skydiving Source and a regular contributor to Backpacker, Outside, SKI, Trail Runner and a variety of other outdoor publications.
Meet the Experts
Gentry Patterson is an avid spelunker and outdoorsman based in North Alabama. He has led dozens of trips paddling, hiking and caving through his company, Red Mountain Excursions (RME). RME offers customizable adventure tours in destinations across the Southeast.
Raphael Laurito is a professional whitewater rafting guide. He worked as a full-time guide and trip leader for the last six seasons at Outdoor Adventure Rafting in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He continues to work part-time there.