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Are you seeking the best water shoes? After researching over 60 top options on the market, we purchased 12 pairs to test side-by-side. We wet our feet while paddling, swimming, and canyoneering throughout the Pacific Northwest and Colorado Front Range. We rigorously tested through a wide range of water sports with many different testers. We evaluated key performance metrics to see which shoe will keep your feet warm, comfortable, and happy, whatever the water temperature. Whether you're trying water sports for the first time or you're already a pro, we've got the top recommendations for your needs and budget to add to your footwear collection. See our in-depth testing by female reviewers in our women's specific review.
Editor's Note: We updated this review on April 29, 2023, to remove a discontinued shoe and ensure our lineup is otherwise up to date.
Weight per pair: 1.2 lb. | Drainage: Front/side holes, top mesh
REASONS TO BUY
Adjusts to fit insulation well
Excellent balance of support and flexibility
REASONS TO AVOID
Good, but not the best traction available
Could be more durable
The Astral Brewer 2.0 is a shoe built to do it all in the water and on land. This was a frequent favorite that we reached for often on our water-based pursuits. It's comfortable and adjustable enough to accommodate nearly any additional insulation needed for different conditions. Its outsoles handle rough terrain better than nearly all tested models. The sole is both firm and flexible, able to handle rougher terrain yet sensitive and flexible enough to provide a good feel of the ground beneath you.
While these shoes are great for most water activities you can throw at them, they aren't quite as warm as paddling booties with thick insulation, like the NRS Paddle Wetshoe. The smaller lugs on these shoes were a bit difficult on slippery terrain. If you need a purpose-built shoe for more narrow usage, look beyond this shoe. If you want one shoe that can do it all, the Brewer 2.0 is ready to take on a variety of missions.
If your goal is to find the best shoe on a tight budget, look no further than the Speedo Surf Knit Pro. The top mesh upper is a simple slip-on design and stretchy enough to accommodate additional insulation. The simple outsole is good enough traction for portages or around the deck of a boat, plus it is incredibly lightweight.
While they work well for kayaking and even swimming, these slips are thin and have minimal construction with little support. If you only need simple shoes for warmth, short distance, and protection of your feet and dry suit socks, then for the price, these simple, lightweight water shoes are a solid contender.
Don't be fooled by the casual, stylish looks of the Astral Loyak. These high-performing water shoes have a well-designed, sock-like fit, superb drainage, and sticky, siped outsoles. They are comfortable on foot, whether in the water or on land. Their thin, neutral soles have a great ground feel that helps maintain balance and makes them fun to swim in.
However, these aren't the most durable option. They're also not as adjustable as higher-performing models that offer more insulation on chilly days. The Loyak is a good value for a paddling or river walking shoe versatile enough for chilling around camp, traveling, or going from water to watering hole.
A favorite for paddling, the NRS Paddle Wetshoe offers a super stretchy neoprene upper and a fleece interior, providing superb fit and warmth even on super cold days. Their sticky rubber kept us stable when 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 swimming around.
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 have one job, keep your feet warm in the water, and they do it splendidly. Outside of that job, they fall short.
Weight per pair: 0.9 lbs | Drainage: Front/back/side holes, top mesh
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
These shoes may look like a normal minimalist shoe, but don't be misled; the Xero Aqua X Sport performs just as well on land as in water. These high-performing water shoes have great drainage and versatility, are lightweight, and have superb traction. They're thin and lack inherent warmth in the water but can adjust to fit additional inside insulation. Out of the water, they perform well over a variety of terrain. Their main drawback is their minimalist-driven design that offers less cushion and stability.
The Xero Aqua X Sport will serve your needs on and off the water while feeling like there is barely anything on your feet. However, other shoes may suit you better if you need more supportive or cushioned shoes off the water.
Why You Should Trust Us
We spent over two months testing for this review in the super-wet Pacific Northwest and the Central Coast of California, paddling, river walking, running, hiking, and canyoneering to evaluate how these shoes measured up. We also waded up and down frigid, snowmelt streams in the Colorado Rockies. We often used a tried-and-true shoe testing method: we wore different shoes on each foot and constantly rotated shoes the same day, making it easy to figure out which foot was happier and which shoe was higher performing.
We performed more than 15 individual assessments on each shoe. During testing, the comfort and traction tests were the two most important metrics, each corresponding to 25% of the overall weighted score. Throughout testing, we kept in mind what paddlers, canyoneers, and water-loving folks like about their shoes, often asking friends for their thoughts on the variety of water shoes.
Our water shoe testing is divided across six different performance metrics:
Comfort tests (25% of total weighted score)
Traction tests (25% weighting)
Warmth tests (15% weighting)
Versatility tests (15% weighting)
Sensitivity tests (10% weighting)
Durability tests (10% weighting)
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 worldwide, 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 time collecting data on and around rivers.
In addition to Dan, tester Jacob Clark is an avid kayaker and ocean enthusiast. Jacob has spent a few years guiding in and around Santa Barbara oceans, canoeing on the Colorado River, and kayaking throughout CA glacial melt rivers.
The value proposition depends greatly on the use of each shoe. For paddlers, a bootie-like shoe such as the NRS Kicker Wetshoe is a great option for half the price of others but lacks out-of-water performance, where others excel. For a little more, you can get a more versatile kayaking shoe like the Astral Brewer 2.0 or Xero Aqua X Sport. For canyoneers, the higher cost gets you durability and sticky rubber. In warmer climates, water shoes based on warmth are not as needed, and a sandal or minimalist option like the Keen Newport H2 is a good choice. While many moderately priced shoes like the Speedo Surf Knit Pro will work for canyoneering, it's probably cheaper to get a burlier model in the long run, as it will likely last two to three times as long.
For more general water sports use, a higher price often buys comfort, effective drainage, and a leg up in durability, as exemplified by the Astral Brewer 2.0. For a fair bit less, you can snag a shoe like the Xero Aqua X Sport or even the Speedo Surf Knit Pro, which sacrifices some versatility and durability while still providing an excellent shoe in a lightweight package. You need to know how to use a water shoe to get the most out of it.
Comfort is often the essential aspect of a water shoe. You're subjecting your feet to harsh conditions in wet environments, and uncomfortable shoes only compound that harshness. Water shoes, in particular, call for both comfort on and off the water.
We spent long days walking over various surfaces, both in and out of the water, to see how well these shoes supported and protected our feet over rough terrain. We preferred the protection and stability of burlier shoes like the Astral Brewer 2.0 or Merrell Speed Strike Leather Sieve for long walks over difficult and treacherous terrain. Bootie-style shoes like the NRS Paddle Wetshoe or NRS Kicker Wetshoe didn't support our feet either, which over longer walks on difficult terrain proves uncomfortable quickly. With this in mind, the NRS Paddle Wetshoe is like a cozy glove, our most comfortable option for a long day in a boat.
Drainage is an important part of comfort. Soggy water-soaked feet get uncomfortable quickly if a shoe doesn't drain well. While drainage negatively impacts warmth, managing moisture and avoiding immersion-related injuries on longer trips is essential. Shoes with lots of drainage, like the Crocs Literide Pacer or a sandal like the Teva Terra Fi 5, ejected water quickly once we stepped on land, then dried out fast. Surprisingly, we found that mostly mesh, airy-feeling shoes only drained marginally faster than more protective shoes like the Astral Brewer 2.0.
Whether swimming quickly through water or jamming your feet between boulders while walking up a shallow creek, flowing water can do a number on you. To evaluate each shoe's protection, we assessed the stiffness of uppers and midsoles. While near sandal-like water shoes look less protective, the Merrell Speed Strike Leather Sieve provided a good balance of all-around comfort and foot protection due to their stiffer uppers and thick stiff soles.
Traction over any dry or wet terrain is often the determining factor between a safe, injury-free trip and an unfortunately eventful one. Shoes must grab onto the rocks and logs in whitewater settings without slipping. In canyons, gravity drags you down, or the shoe does its job and slows the descent.
With excellent all-around traction, the Xero Aqua X Sport flat hard and soft surfaces well while leaving a solid connection to the ground.
Soft, sticky rubber is key on hard surfaces, like the logs and rocks you might encounter on river banks. The Astral Hiyak, with its G.ss rubber, sticks well to wet, slick rock. They stick better than any other shoes we tested. This stickiest rubber tends to be a bit less durable than harder, less sticky rubbers, but we find that uppers wear out faster than lugs wear down in wet environments.
The NRS Paddle, NRS Kicker Wetshoe, and Xero Aqua X Sport all stuck just as well to wet rock and logs. A more flexible sole allows feet to wrap around logs so that you can maintain better balance.
The Teva Terra Fi and Merrell Speed Strike Leather Sieve both have deeper, aggressive lugs that dig in and bite muddy trails, better than most shoes we tested.
We liked the Under Armour Micro G Kilchis as trail running shoes. They performed well on dirt and sand and dryer soft surfaces. However, the don't feature deep lugs or sticky rubber and therefore perform poorly in the traction metric.
Water absorbs massive amounts of heat from your body, and rarely is the water warmer than our own body. Water shoes either need to accommodate additional layers or, by themselves, need to be insulated and warm.
We loved shoes with built-in warmth for extremely cold days, such as the fleece-lined NRS Paddle Wetshoe. This bootie brings a bunch of insulation with its thick neoprene construction but lacks drainage. That helps keep them warmer in even the coldest water.
On the other hand, a more adjustable shoe with solid comfort and support can allow for additional insulation. We need these shoes to have larger toe boxes, adjustability throughout the whole shoe, and, ideally, a removable insole. With well-designed lacing systems and roomy fits, shoes like the Astral Brewer 2.0 were surprisingly comfortable with bare feet or triple-layered insulation.
Shoes offer a higher value when you can use them for various activities. While super-specialized shoes can be excellent for demanding adventures, we need a versatile shoe that keeps up regardless of the activity.
Its versatility is a major reason we awarded the Astral Brewer 2.0 the top honors. Throughout testing, it became a go-to shoe for water sports and things like running and mountain biking, which speaks to its a winning design with superior performance.
For water shoes, versatility means performance on the water and dry land. To perform well on both, there must be a solid balance between drainage, comfort, and adjustability.
We valued shoes that we could use for multiple sports. With plenty of support and cushioning, the Under Armour Micro G Kilchis was a solid cross between water and running shoes, similar to the Xero Aqua X Sport. The Micro G Kilchis works well for a packrafting trip with time spent at camp. We also liked the Aqua X Sport for its ability to perform well on land and water.
Sensitivity is key when walking over rough terrain. Because water shoes often have to get over terrain like river cobbles, sandy beaches, and logs, it's key that they provide a good ground feel. Proprioception is key to whether the object is solid before it becomes fully weight-bearing. Sensitivity does have a downside, and that is comfort. High amounts of sensitivity, as when barefoot, is uncomfortable over the long term or in particularly sharp or rugged terrain.
We walked over varied surfaces during our testing to evaluate how well we could feel the ground and react to uneven terrain. Neoprene booties like the NRS Paddle Wetshoe and NRS Kicker Wetshoe feature thin but stiff soles that provide an excellent ground feel — perfect for short jaunts over boulders to scout rapids or get to a put-in. Due to their low drag and uninhibited ankle flexion, these shoes and the minimal Xero Aqua X Sport also felt great while swimming.
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 providing adequate foot protection, unlike more flexible shoes. The Astral Brewer 2.0 has moderate stiffness but remains relatively low profile and has some cushion to protect from the ground without sacrificing too much sensitivity.
Swimming rapids, running along beaches, and canyoneering all do a number on your shoes and feet. 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. The Merrell Speed Strike scores well for durability, with some mesh but a leather upper with solid stitching and plenty of reinforcements throughout the whole sandal. Our lead tester has tortured these shoes in canyons that would eat flimsier shoes alive. If superior durability and high performance aren't a big deal for you, shoes like the Astral Brewer 2.0 and Keen Newport H2 held up well to our testing.
We were impressed by the reinforcements that made the NRS Paddle Wetshoe more than just a neoprene sock with an outsole. It held up quite well.
Water shoes make time spent on rivers, lakes, and wet places much more fun. Happy feet equal a happy trip in our book! We bought and rigorously tested top models to see how well they kept feet happy, performed in various environments, and held up to both demanding water sports and the lounging around that usually follows. Water shoes can make or break your experience when paddling or canyoneering. We hope this independent review can steer you toward a shoe that will fit your watery adventures' style and needs.
Are you an avid paddler or a water lover? Our list of the best water gear features top-ranking products, including the best SUP boards and top PFDs. Don't forget about proper sun protection when out on the water. A pair of top sunglasses can help improve visibility and prevent sun damage to the eyes, and a protective sun shirt can help keep the sun's rays off your skin.
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