The Best Women's Water Shoes of 2020
Best Overall Water Shoe
Chaco Torrent Pro - Women's
The Chaco Torrent Pro is the do-it-all shoe. We love it for rafting, hiking, light canyoneering, and for wearing around town. Chaco's Luvseat Footbed technology makes it feel like you're walking on a cloud without sacrificing sensitivity. The outsole, ChacoGrip Plus rubber compound, sticks great on wet, hard surfaces, and has deep enough lugs to dig into mud and sand. This makes it easy to transition to scrambling around a rocky shore to crossing a sandy beach, and back to a raft. It was adjustable enough via a quick-to-use elastic lace and stretchy mesh to add extra insulation without having to wrestle the shoe on or causing the feet to feel cramped or toes go numb. The elastic lace remained secure after a long day on the river or a side hike, tightening the shoe around the whole foot for top-notch snugness. This was in contrast to other models tested that only tightened around one portion of the foot, causing a loose heel or uncomfortable arches.
While these shoes were superior in comfort and versatility, they have great but not the best traction. They also started to show signs of wear - separation between the mesh uppers and outsole - lacking the durability you might want for a more intense mission like canyoneering. Their potentially short longevity is worth considering too if you're into rafting, where you'll be jamming your feet under thwarts day after day. Yet, if you're looking for a shoe that checks the boxes for almost any water activity as well as dry land, we recommend the Torrent Pro.
Read review: Chaco Torrent Pro - Women's
Best Bang for the Buck
NRS Vibe - Women's
For the shoe that performs well on the water and looks good on land, we reached for the women's NRS Vibe. It looks like a trendy skate shoe, but has the performance elements of a classic low-kayaking shoe. It has a low-profile design for fitting into your boat and no heel to toe drop. Its siped rubber outsoles adhered great to a wet raft and slick rocks, helping us navigate a slippery scout mission and scramble around a gear boat with confidence. It has deeper lugs than other models we tested, keeping purchase in mud and sand as well. The lugs are even in the shape of NRS's home state of Idaho, a cool addition if nothing else. It's comfortable with bare feet for those warm summer paddling days, with synthetic insulation and a padded ankle cuff. We could wear them all day since they dried quickly in the sun, transitioning from a deep creek walk to lounging around camp.
While it's a comfortable pair for short scouts or a quick excursion down a canyon, they don't have the arch support or cushion for longer hikes or portages. The stiffness of the outsole, while durable and protective, makes them quite a bit less flexible/sensitive. They can't curve around rocks, logs, or rubber thwarts as well as other, more flexible shoes. While comfortable with sockless feet, it was hard to cram in extra insulation outside of a wool sock. While the sort of sticky EVA foam midsole was great for helping your foot's sole stay in place with bare feet, it made it hard to remove your foot when adding layers. A drysuit and neoprene sock fit into the shoe, but it took a bit of wrestling and left the foot cramped. For the boater looking for a comfortable, low-volume shoe that they can wear lounging around camp for a reasonable price, we recommend the NRS Vibe.
Read review: NRS Vibe - Women's
Best for Kayaking
Astral Loyak - Women's
Our favorite minimalist women's water shoe is the Astral Loyak, our runner-up to the Editors' Choice winner. The low profile and lightweight canvas uppers are preferred by our testers for a day of kayaking on a river or lake. The siped outsole has a lot of surface area contact with the ground. As a result, it boasts the best traction of any model we've tested when it comes to gaining purchase on wet rocks. They are also quite sensitive due to a thin and removable insole. To most of our testers, they look and feel like a shoe but perform similar to neoprene booties.
The main drawbacks of the Loyak lie in their warmth and durability. Our lead tester found it tough to fit any significant layers inside this shoe, and the thin upper itself doesn't provide much insulation. Depending on when and where you prefer to paddle, this may not be an issue for you. Also, after our testing period of a few months, this pair showed noticeable signs of wear. These things considered, we still love these light and low shoes that any kayaker and more would appreciate.
Read review: Astral Loyak - Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is led by Monica Nigon. A passionate whitewater raft guide on the Arkansas River of Colorado, Monica grew up kayaking and canoeing on the rivers and lakes of her home state of Minnesota. Thus, she is familiar with water activities in extreme weather conditions. Now an avid boater, Monica has rafted all over the world, from afternoon trips in New Zealand to multi-day expeditions in the Grand Canyon. She has taught flat-water kayaking and canoeing to all ages.
For this review, we spent a lot of time splashing around in the water. From hikes on muddy trails to a 24-day trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, we made sure to thoroughly evaluate what the shoes could handle along defined performance metrics — comfort, traction, versatility, warmth, sensitivity, and durability. We wore them on short canyoneering adventures, strode around sandy beaches, waded through shallow creeks, navigated mossy shorelines, and scrambled about an 18-foot rubber gear boat. We encountered everything from 80 degrees and sunny to 25-degree (F) days with icy put-ins. We sought out opinions of fellow water enthusiasts for what is important to them in their water shoes, keeping these in mind as we evaluated the products.
Related: How We Tested Water Shoes for Women
Analysis and Test Results
Following our months-long testing period, we reviewed our notes and assessments to determine which shoes work best for specific purposes, as well as which shoes work well off the water. Below, we describe our six scoring metrics and which models stood out in each. Keep these in mind as you choose the best shoe for you: one metric may be more important than another depending on your water activity of choice.
The value of your shoe depends on how you want to use it. You can get a neoprene bootie for a lower price than a more versatile shoe, but it's really only worth your cash if you're using your shoes purely for boating. If you need shoes that can protect your toes on a side hike, you'll want something more versatile, but with a potentially higher price tag. In this case, you might want to go for the Astral Loyak or Torrent Pro for excellent use both on and off the water. If you're doing more of a water-accessed canyoneering or hiking trip, it's worth spending the extra money for a more durable shoe that sacrifices a bit of sensitivity and flexibility on the water.
At lower price points, you may lose out on a sticky outsole and durability. For example, the Sea to Summit Ultra Flex Booties give exemplary sensitivity at a very affordable price but aren't as durable nor versatile as many of the other models we tested. They don't stretch to service beyond the boat — you'd be very unlikely to go on a long side hike with these. The NRS Vibe packs excellent performance for the price, with notable durability and comfort, which won it the Best Buy Award. It satisfies the needs of the average user without costing a premium.
Comfort is usually the first thing to consider. You're often subjecting your feet to extreme environments, with potentially cold water, sand, rocks, roots, and mud. We also want our water shoes to be comfortable on dry land.
We wore the shoes extensively both in and out of the water. We evaluated how they felt on variable terrain, including slippery trails, wet rocks, and mossy logs. We took adjustability into account, which determines how comfortable a shoe may be when adding warm layers to the feet. For hikes with creek crossings and slippery scrambling, we preferred the Torrent Pro or Vibe. Their sticky rubber outsoles helped us trust our footing while having enough cushion to go longer distances. While the Ultra Flex Bootie is incredibly comfortable sitting in a boat, it lacks the cushion for longer scouts and portages. Its sensitivity and sock-like fit were a boon for being on the water but are not as ideal for on-land use.
A shoe isn't comfortable if your feet are sloshing around in water for the whole day; they need to drain well and dry quickly. For this, we like the Astral Loyak, which utilizes outsole drainage and quick-drying mesh. Likewise, the Torrent Pro features quick-drying drainage through the sole as well as mesh. They drained instantaneously, and it took much less time than other models to dry once we were on land.
Being able to trust your shoe will hold you in place on slippery terrain is critical. In whitewater, you want to be ensured a simple scout on wet rocks won't result in an unintentional swim or an injury. You want to be able to navigate a raft without fear of falling and hitting your head on an oar frame. You don't want to run in place on a wet, slippery path while your friends charge ahead.
We tested these shoes on many surfaces with the potential danger of slipping. This included a wet, icy trail, slick rafts that we scrambled around to strap in gear, slippery rocks on shore, and soggy and muddy side hikes. It's important that shoes can grip into both hard and soft surfaces, given you might be just as likely to walk along a rocky river bed as a muddy takeout.
We found the Chaco Torrent Pro able to perform well in both soft and hard surfaces. Their sole had an ideal lug depth for this versatility, allowing us to trust our feet on a wet raft as well as a short descent in a canyon where we navigated smooth rock. While the Astral Loyak took the cake in stickiness for hard surfaces, it lacks the lug depth for something like a sandy scout. Other top performers regarding traction include the NRS Vibe and Sea to Summit Ultra Flex.
The Salomon Amphib Bold had great lugs for soft surfaces, but it wasn't so reliable walking along the tubes of the raft or down a slippery granite canyon. The virtually flat outsole of the Teva Terra-Float gave us the least purchase on surfaces overall, although it did OK on wet, hard surfaces due to its substantial surface area contact.
For the general water enthusiast or those looking for a shoe that performs well across a variety of activities, versatility is key to getting the most out of your dollars. Often, we want to wear our shoes for off-the-water activities as well.
While a more sport-specific shoe like the Sea to Summit Ultra Flex Bootie is the best choice for in-water use due to its sock-like fit, flexibility, and swimming performance, most of us want one shoe that can do more. The Torrent Pro won our Editors' Choice because we reached for it when hiking, on the approach to the crag, and to our post-river watering hole. They're comfortable and effective for all these other pursuits without sacrificing performance on the river. Likewise, the Loyak thrives both in the water and for casual wear. Its Flexi-grip outsole sticks like adhesive to a raft or rocks, and its design passes as a regular street shoe. However, it lacks the cushioning and support for long hikes or hours standing on your feet.
For a shoe to be versatile, we want to be able to wear it all day. This means it must drain efficiently and dry quickly. This is why we enjoyed the NRS Vibe. Because of its quick-drying Cordura and nylon uppers, it dried out quickly enough and drained almost instantaneously, letting us enjoy the post-trip hangout without the discomfort of soggy feet. We put them on in the morning, took down camp, rafted all day, and set up a new camp, and kicked it around a campfire without exchanging them for other shoes.
You're likely to be slogging through water of varying temperatures on both sunny and frigid days. We looked for shoes with sound insulation and adjustability for layering. We either want to be insulated while barefoot or able to add thick wool socks, neoprene, or a drysuit without feeling pinched or struggling to get the shoe on and off.
We liked the Ultra Flex Bootie for keeping our feet warm with bare feet. The neoprene utilizes your own body heat to warm the water and insulate your feet. That being said, it fits like a sock, so it was difficult to add anything more than a wool sock for those truly frigid mornings when you really need an extra layer. The Chaco Torrent Pro is the most adjustable, its mesh stretching well, and the quick, elastic laces staying secure throughout the day. It didn't pinch the toes or cramp the foot when our lead tester wore thick wool socks and a drysuit.
We also appreciated shoes that were comfortable on warmer days and dry land, draining, and ventilating well without our skin becoming irritated by the seams. For this, the Astral Loyak and Torrent Pro were our favorites, our feet getting good airflow on more toasty floats in the desert, and drying quickly enough to prevent pruny toes. The Salomon Amphib Bolds, however, were comfortable with socks, but walking around in sockless feet led to rubbing and blisters of our lead tester from the seams and tongue.
River shoes are subject to a lot of abuse, but you still don't want to have to buy a new shoe every year because of holes, broken laces, or separated outsoles. Walking along abrasive rocks, swimming rapids, and exploring canyons can wear shoes down quickly. Even if a shoe has an impressive warranty, it's a hassle to send them in and wait for a new pair, potentially missing out on an excursion.
The Vibe won our Best Buy Award partially due to its durability in relation to other models we tested. The Cordura mesh stood up against punctures from rocks and sticks, and the thick rubber rand for the toe bumper allowed us to kick and stumble over obstacles without fear of injury or ripping. After exposure to extreme environments, it showed only minor fraying on the mesh. It had sound stiching between the mesh, nylon, and tacky glue to hold the rubber rand secure.
The Salomon Amphib Bold is notable in its durability as well. Since it secondly performs as a trail-running shoe, it's important that they hold up against sticks and roots, a boon for use as a water shoe. However, the thin mesh made us a little nervous around really poky sticks or sharp rocks.
In water sports, you'll often have to navigate uneven and rough terrain on scouts, portages, and canyons. Good balance and body awareness in this situation is critical. Differences in sensitivity can mean the difference between a wipeout and deftly navigating a shallow riverbed. Yet too much sensitivity can mean pain in the arches and lack of versatility.
The Sea to Summit Ultra Flex is the most sensitive of the shoes we tested. The neoprene sock-fit of the booties allowed them to curve around logs and rocks with ease. We deftly navigated a rocky walk to the kayaking play wave. Anything longer than that 100-yard approach would have caused pain and irritation, however. The Astral Loyak scored high for sensitivity as well, with a thin its midsole just 7mm thick. They were flexible enough to bend around obstacles, with bit more protection than the Ultra Flex. They're a classic low-profile kayaking shoe: sensitive enough to navigate shorelines and put-ins, but too sensitive to wear for long scouts, and not protective enough for canyons.
We found the NRS Vibe or Chaco Torrent Pro the top choices for activities where you're likely to be walking as much as floating. The Vibes have an EVA Foam midsole, adding much more cushion than shoes like the Loyak. The Torrent Pros balanced sensitivity and comfort the best. The Chaco Luvseat EVR provides comfort and the rubber rand protection without sacrificing significant sensitivity.
On the water, your kicks can either enhance or detract from your experience. We tested six of the best models in the market, evaluating them on criteria that most river rats find most important. We hope our in-depth independent analysis will help you buy the best shoe for your watery pursuits. Happy paddles!
— Monica Nigon