The Best Water Shoes of 2020
Astral TR1 Junction
The Astral TR1 Junction is a superb do-it-all shoe. During testing, we happily used it for more activities than any other shoe we tested. Its comfortable interior is highly adjustable, making it great whether you're going barefoot or stuffing in multiple socks under your drysuit. Their G15 outsoles balance traction on soft and hard surfaces better than any other water shoe we tested and the moderately stiff midsole provides excellent foot protection and support while also providing good proprioception on rough terrain.
While these shoes are great for most water activities you can throw at them, they aren't quite as warm as paddling booties like the Top Pick for Boating NRS Paddle Wetshoe, and their outsoles struggle to stick to the slickest rocks, unlike our Top Pick for Canyoneering, the Adidas Hydro_Lace. If you need a purpose-built shoe for more narrow usage, look to our Top Picks below. If you're looking for a single shoe that can perform great in any water sport, we heartily recommend the TR1 Junction.
Read review: Astral TR1 Junction
Best Bang for Your Buck
Adidas Terrex Summer.RDY Voyager Speed
The Adidas Terrex Summer.RDY Voyager blew us away in terms of their performance to price ratio. For a price much lower than most similar water shoes, you get some of the stickiest rubber in existence, stellar drainage, and lots of protection for your foot. These are very much a lighter, airier version of the burly Adidas Hydro_Lace, something that works quite well for when you need to be safe in the water, but also want excellent drainage and comfort.
While we loved their drainage and fast-drying materials, the mostly mesh upper makes the Voyager prone to scrapes and tears. We think Adidas did well in toning down the burliness of the Hydro_Lace, but they seem to have gone a bit too far - these shoes just aren't able to handle abrasive environments and therefore not suitable for canyoneering. That said, their airy uppers and supportive soles make them great for a whole host of activities, both in and out of the water. For a shoe that can nearly do it all, these are a screaming deal, handily earning our Best Buy Award.
Read review: Adidas Terrex Summer.RDY Voyager
Best Value on a Tight Budget
NRS Kicker Remix
We acknowledge that some people are just looking for a great water shoe for boating on a shoestring budget. If that describes you, look no further than the NRS Kicker Remix. The thick neoprene uppers are comfortable and keep your feet toasty warm. The thin but very sticky outsole is great on wet rock and provides good proprioception for keeping balance on rough terrain.
While they work well for kayaking, these booties are too thin-soled to do a lot of walking. Having no laces to fine-tune the fit, they also tend to slip around on the feet unless your feet fit them well. Both of these things are not really an issue if you only need a shoe to keep your feet warm in a boat, protect your drysuit socks, and keep your feet protected at the put-in and takeout. For the price, these make a very decent boating shoe.
Read review: NRS Kicker Remix
Best for Stylish Performance
Don't let the casual, stylish looks of the Astral Loyak fool you. With a well-designed, sock-like fit, superb drainage, and sticky, siped outsoles, these are high-performing water shoes. They are super comfortable on the foot, whether in the water or on land. Their thin, neutral soles have great ground-feel that helps maintain balance and make them fun to swim in.
While they perform well in the water, they are less durable than other shoes we tested, and not quite as adjustable as higher-performing models that allow for more insulation on cold days. That said, they offer excellent value for anyone looking for a paddling or river walking shoe that also works well as a shoe for hanging around camp, traveling, or going from water to watering hole.
Read review: Astral Loyak
Best for Paddling
NRS Paddle Wetshoe
The NRS Paddle Wetshoes are booties designed specifically for paddling. Their super stretchy neoprene upper and fleece interior provides a superb fit and warmth even on super cold days. Their sticky rubber that kept us stable moving over slick, wet rock in the river. With a low-drag upper and excellent ankle flexion, these are fun to wear in the water.
However, that flexibility and warmth come at the expense of on-land performance. The thin, flexible soles don't provide enough support for lots of walking, and the lack of drainage that makes these so warm ends up retaining water on land, leading to soggy, uncomfortable feet. These booties are more or less a one-trick pony: for any activity in which you expect to be on the water most of the time, they will keep your feet happy and ready to go once you get back to shore.
Read review: NRS Paddle Wetshoe
Best for Canyoneering
Adidas Terrex Hydro_Lace
The Adidas Terrex Hydro_Lace are burly, super sticky canyoneering boots. With a PVC-like upper material bonded to a neoprene inner, they are super warm and feel like a suit of armor over your feet. Their Stealth rubber, known among climbers for being unbeatably sticky on rock, is the stickiest we tested on slick, wet rock. They can withstand day after day of abuse in abrasive and whitewater slot canyons that eat lesser shoes for breakfast.
However, the same features that make them ideal for canyoneering make them less than ideal for many other water sports. While they work great for whitewater paddling or rafting if you expect to be on your feet a lot in rough terrain, many paddlers may find them too bulky. For activities like kayaking, river walking, and SUPing, they are too heavy and lack the drainage that keeps feet comfortable out of the water. However, for rappelling down waterfalls, jumping into pools between tight canyon walls, or making confident strides along rocky river banks, no other shoe beats the Hydro_Lace.
Read review: Adidas Terrex Hydro_Lace
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is led by Dan Scott, an avid packrafter and canyoneer. Dan has spent years paddling and rafting rivers across the Western United States, from the Grand Canyon to the Main Salmon. With a passion for rivers, Dan has descended canyons all over the world, from Spain and Austria to Utah and the Pacific Northwest, with multiple first and solo descents in both high and low flow canyons. Dan is also a Ph.D. river scientist who spends much of his work time on and around rivers collecting data.
For this review, we spent a ton of time splashing around in the drink. We spent over two months in the super-wet Pacific Northwest paddling, river walking, running, hiking, and canyoneering in these shoes to evaluate how they measured up. We also waded up and down frigid, snowmelt streams in the Colorado Rockies. We often used a tried-and-true method of shoe testing in which we wore different shoes on each foot, making it easy to figure out which foot was happier and which shoe was higher performing. Throughout this testing, we kept in mind what paddlers, canyoneers, and water-loving folks like about their shoes, often asking friends for their take on things. Rigorous testing, a variety of testing environments and activities, and thoughtful evaluation allow us to make detailed and dependable recommendations for which products will work best for you.
Related: How We Tested Water Shoes
Analysis and Test Results
We tested these shoes in a variety of environments and activities. Through our testing, we determined which shoes work best on and off the water and for a variety of purposes. Below, we delve into the six key metrics that we used to define water shoe performance. As you read through, think about how you use water shoes and which metrics are most important to you.
The value proposition (what you get for the price) depends on the activity. For paddlers, you can get a stellar bootie like the NRS Kicker Remix for half the price of most other water shoes, but don't expect it to perform well for much else than paddling. Paying a little more can get you a more versatile kayaking shoe like the Adidas Voyager or Astral Loyak, but that only makes sense if you need that versatility. For canyoneers, the higher cost gets you durability and really sticky rubber (namely, the Adidas Hydro_Lace). While many moderately priced shoes like the NRS Vibe will work alright for canyoneering, it's probably cheaper in the long run to get the burlier Hydro_Lace, as it will likely last 2-3 times as long.
For more general water sports use, price often buys comfort, effective drainage, and a leg up in durability compared to other shoes, as exemplified by the Astral TR1 Junction. For a fair bit less, you can snag a shoe like the Astral Loyak, which sacrifices some versatility and durability while still providing an excellent shoe. In general, to get a good value, you need to know what you'll use a water shoe for.
Comfort is often the most important aspect of a water shoe. In wet environments, you're subjecting your feet to harsh conditions, and uncomfortable shoes only compound that harshness. Unlike many other shoes, though, water shoes need to keep you comfortable both on and off the water.
We spent long days walking over a variety of surfaces both in and out of the water to see how well these shoes supported and protected our feet over rough terrain. For long walks over river cobbles or scrambles through boulder fields while carrying our boat, we definitely preferred the protection and stability of burlier shoes like the Adidas Hydro_Lace or Astral TR1 Junction. Soft booties like the NRS Paddle or NRS Kicker Remix didn't support our feet as well, and as a result, got uncomfortable after long walks. That said, the NRS Paddle is hands down the comfiest shoes we tested on the water, with a soft, fleece lining that made them feel like slippers.
For a water shoe to perform well during longer periods off the water, it needs to drain well. While drainage negatively impacts warmth, it's essential for managing moisture and avoiding immersion-related injuries on longer trips. Shoes with lots of drainage, like the Astral Loyak, Adidas Voyager, or NRS Vibe, ejected water quickly once we stepped on land, then dried out fast. Surprisingly, we found that mostly mesh, airy-feeling shoes like the Salomon Crossamphibian Swift 2 or Teva Terra Float Churn It Up only drained marginally faster than more protective shoes like the Astral TR1 Junction.
Flowing water can do a number on your feet, whether you're swimming a rapid, stubbing your feet in murky shallows, or jamming them between boulders while wading. We looked at the stiffness of uppers and midsoles to evaluate how well shoes protected our feet. The burly Adidas Hydro_Lace kept our feet happy in canyons that would have torn through weaker shoes (and probably our feet, too). While not nearly as burly, the Astral TR1 Junction provided a good balance of all-around comfort and foot protection, especially stepping over uneven terrain.
Traction can mean the difference between an uneventful trip and a major injury. In whitewater, shoes need to be able to grip confidently to wet rocks during portages or rescues. In canyons, traction can mean the difference between a controlled downclimb and an unintended slide. On wet hikes and runs, traction keeps your feet on the ground and your face off the ground.
It's notable that the Astral TR1 Junction balanced hard and soft surface traction better than any other shoe in our review, making it an excellent all-around performer.Hard Surfaces
On hard surfaces, like the logs and rocks you might encounter on the banks of a river, soft, sticky rubber is key. The Adidas Hydro_Lace and Adidas Voyager, with their Stealth rubber outsoles, and the Astral Hiyak, with its G.ss rubber, all stick equally well to wet, slick rock. In fact, these shoes stick better than any other shoes we tested. This stickiest of rubber tends to be a bit less durable than harder, less sticky rubbers, but we tend to find that uppers wear out faster than lugs wear down in wet environments.
Close behind, the NRS Paddle, NRS Kicker Remix, and Astral Loyak all stuck just as well to wet rock and logs, and only marginally less well than the Hydro_Lace. Their only advantage over the Hydro_Lace is their more flexible soles, which allow feet to wrap around logs, maintaining a bit more balance.
The Astral TR1 Junctions lagged behind these super sticky shoes just slightly, but not enough to make them a liability for canyoneering or boating.Soft Surfaces
The Merrell Choprocks, with their super deep, aggressive, and widely spaced lugs, dug deep into mud and dirt, although their hard surface traction was relatively poor due to having low surface area contact. The TR1 Junction also had deep, aggressive lugs that kept us upright on muddy trails better than most shoes we tested.
Close behind, we liked the Salomon Crossamphibian Swift 2 as a trail running shoe, where it performed well on dirt and sand. However, it's worth noting that the Crossamphibian performed worse than all other shoes in this review for grip on hard surfaces, like wet rocks or logs.
Water saps energy away from your body rapidly, and much of the water people like to play in is much colder than normal body temperature. Water shoes need to either have plenty of insulation to work without thick socks or be adjustable enough to accommodate lots of added insulation without feeling cramped.
In our testing, we immediately loved shoes that had lots of built-in warmth for extremely cold days. The fleece-lined NRS Paddle and the neoprene-lined Adidas Hydro_Lace pack on lots of insulation and have no drainage, so they limit water movement through the shoe to keep feet warm even in frigid water.
On the other hand, it can be really nice to have a water shoe that is comfortable on warm days or on land (i.e., drains well) and allows you to stay warm on cold days. For that to happen effectively, shoes need to have a roomy toebox, adjustable midfoot, and, ideally, a removable insole. We found the Astral TR1 Junction to be remarkably comfortable with both bare feet and three layers of socks due to its well-designed lacing and roomy fit. The NRS Vibe and Adidas Voyager are close seconds in this regard, with nicely adjustable lacing, although the Vibe does not have an easily removable insole, which can make stuffing in lots of insulation somewhat tricky.
Shoes provide much more value when they can work for a few activities, instead of being overly specialized. While we like super-specialized shoes for the most demanding adventures, most of the time, we just want a shoe that will keep up regardless of what we decide to do.
A significant reason we awarded the Astral TR1 Junction the top honors is due to its versatility. Through our testing, it became our go-to shoe for water sports as well as things like running and mountain biking, which speaks to its superb design and performance. The Astral Loyak, another high performing paddling shoe, also did well in this metric due to its comfort and super low weight, which made it easy to bring it along on trips.
For water shoes, versatility means performing well both on land and on the water. Good drainage, found on shoes like the NRS Vibe or Adidas Voyager makes this easy. Those shoes are comfortable and adjustable enough for paddling, but also work great on land, drying quickly and keeping feet happy with plenty of support.
We valued shoes that we could use for multiple sports. The Salomon Crossamphibian Swift 2 turned out to be a great cross between a water shoe and a running shoe, with plenty of support and cushioning. While its poor hard surface traction would make us hesitate to use it for paddling, it would work well on a rafting trip, especially when spending a lot of time doing side hikes or hanging around at camp. We also liked the Astral TR1 Junction for running and hiking, although it has a more flat-soled, minimal drop-height feel more reminiscent of minimalist running shoes.
Sensitivity is key when walking over rough terrain. Because water shoes so often have to get over terrain like river cobbles, sandy beaches, and logs, it's key that they provide good ground feel. Being able to feel the ground beneath your feet translates to better awareness of body position and balance, and can mean the difference between being upright and being flat on your back. High sensitivity, though, generally translates to lower comfort when hiking longer distances.
During our testing, we walked over varied surfaces to evaluate how well we could feel the ground and react to uneven terrain. Neoprene booties like the NRS Paddle and NRS Kicker Remix feature thin but stiff soles that provide excellent ground feel - perfect for short jaunts over boulders to scout rapids or get to a put-in. These shoes, along with the super low-profile Astral Loyak, also felt great while swimming due to their low drag and uninhibited ankle flexion.
For more amphibious activities, where walking is as important as being in or on the water, we found that multiple shoes offered decent sensitivity while also providing adequate foot protection, unlike more flexible shoes. The Adidas Voyager and Astral TR1 Junction have moderate stiffness, but with enough cushioning, they give decent ground feel and still maintain a relatively low profile underwater.
Swimming rapids, running along beaches, and canyoneering all do a number on your shoes. Durable materials and smart construction keep your shoes going on long trips and, in the case of canyoneering, can be essential if you like shoes that last more than a day or two.
While we couldn't test these shoes to failure during our test period, we looked for materials and construction that indicated either durability or the lack thereof. At the top of the heap, the super-tough Adidas Hydro_Lace takes the cake for maximum durability. Close behind is the Astral Hiyak, with minimal mesh and lots of extra reinforcement. Our lead tester has tortured these shoes in canyons that would eat flimsier shoes in a matter of hours. However, if you don't need high performance in canyons, shoes like the Astral TR1 Junction and NRS Vibe held up well during our testing due to their durable upper materials and quality construction.
For boating-focused shoes, we were impressed by the reinforcements that made the NRS Paddle more than just a neoprene sock bonded to an outsole. Like its little sibling, the NRS Kicker Remix, it held up well during our testing. We subjected the Astral TR1 Junction to a lot of hard use, only to find mainly cosmetic damage at the end of our test period.
While it didn't do well in most respects, we found the Merrell Choprock Shandal to be surprisingly durable throughout our testing. Although it's mostly a sandal, it has the burly outsole of a hiking boot, and its thick, stiff upper material seems to take a lot of abuse, despite the fact that it doesn't really keep that abuse from reaching your feet.
Water shoes make time spent on rivers, lakes, and wet places much more fun. We bought and rigorously tested top models to see how well they kept feet happy, performed in a variety of environments, and hold up to both demanding water sports and the lounging around that usually follows. Water shoes can make or break your experience paddling or canyoneering. We hope this independent review can steer you towards a shoe that will fit with your style and the needs of your watery adventures.
— Dan Scott