Foot protection is very important when kayaking. Even in idyllic conditions: white sand beach, tropical waters over sand bottom, parking 20 feet from the water, you still have to get the boat to the water. Then your feet will spend a long time in contact with hard plastic, foot braces and other items that cut and scratch. If you are sure of the conditions to be encountered, know what you are doing and enjoy paddling barefoot, by all means do it.
But let me tell you about the time I lost a canoe in class 4 whitewater and made the shore alive but stripped of shoes and all other apparel by the current. The shore was the edge of a lava field along a deserted stretch of the Deschutes River in Central Oregon, 6 miles of gravel road from the pavement. For longer paddles and challenging conditions, footwear is required. Here are three things to consider when choosing the best for your needs.
Consider the Temperature
Cold weather and/or cold water will require footgear. For very cold water, neoprene booties will be a must even in summer. If you will wear a wetsuit, choose footgear to match. Zippered booties are easier to get on and off, especially when wearing socks underneath. But zippers let water in and they can also cause pressure points. For warm conditions, many paddlers like simple, cheap water shoes. Just don’t walk far or get sand in them. River sandals are popular, but strappy footwear should generally be avoided due to the chance of getting caught on something, particularly in a sit-in boat.
Bear the Terrain in Mind
Consider the kind of shoreline you will encounter and how much time you will spend there. The tabi-style split toe booties can make it easier to maneuver on rocky shorelines. For clambering over slippery rocks on a regular basis, consider felt soled fishing booties. If you will be around sand and small gravel a lot, choose high, tight-fitting booties to keep it out. In warm sandy conditions look for water shoes that flush easily and completely. The most expensive, high-tech water shoes are useless if they constantly catch pebbles. River trips that involve portages or expeditions that include shoreline exploration call for shoes that you can put some miles on. Look for crossovers that combine drainage and quick-drying materials with the features of an all-terrain running shoe. For muddy river banks, many paddlers like Vibram-soled FiveFinger-type booties.
Choose Apropriatley for the Right Type of Paddling
For running whitewater, choose low-profile footwear that fits in the bow, gives good grip and feel for the boat, and slides in and out easily during wet exit or entry. But remember, you may have to come ashore unexpectedly, climb over rocks, and do some hiking. Whitewater and surf alike call for shoes that strap or tie on securely. Long river runs and overnight tours require a shoe that can remain comfortable all day and into the night while going back and forth from water to land repeatedly as well as doing a bit of walking.