With the ice off the rivers and starting to recede from lakes, paddling season is here. As I find myself without proper footwear for the first time in ages, I've found myself engaging in an internal version of the oldest debate among paddlers: What's the best footwear for a multi-day trip?
Skimpy sandals are comfortable in a boat, but can be scary on portages. Heavy boots offer protection, but can be inconvenient. Runners offer medium ground but stink after a while.
Over the past decade, there's been an explosion in the variety of footwear built specifically for water sports. But this has only made the decision more complicated.
To help myself figure out the options, here's what's out there:
If you're going on a canoe trip where the portages are reasonably clear and relatively short, you can get away with using an old pair of runners or a cheap pair of new ones.
Runners are light and easy to slip on and off. If they happen to have mesh panels that allow water to drain out the sides, all the better.
Runners do not, however, offer sufficient ankle support for moving quickly over uneven terrain. For the same reason, they're a poor choice for gruelling portages.
Runners also offer little protection from underwater rocks; a sharp piece of slate or granite can slice right through 'em. They also fall apart over the course of a trip or two, so consider them a disposable option.
Cost: The cheaper, the better. You're not going to bring brand-new Nikes into the bush.
If ankle support is your main concern, you can't beat an old pair of hiking boots on a portage trail. A stiff boot will allow you to scramble over rocks without worrying too much about foot placement and will also forgive the occasional misstep.
Hikers also allow you to shoulder heavier loads, offer good underwater protection and will keep your feet warm, if you line them with insulative socks.
Most hiking boots, however, do not drain. This means you need to remove them between portages to prevent blisters and infections. This can get annoying quickly if you're engaging in frequent portages, making hikers more practical for flatwater than whitewater.
Hikers are also like runners in that they actually aren't intended to be used underwater. They will fall apart with regular use -- although not as quickly as runners.
Cost: Close to zero. While there's no such thing as a cheap pair of good hiking boots, the idea is to use beat-up old ones.
In the most pleasant of conditions -- that is, warm water as well as warm air -- canoeists and kayakers may find themselves most comfortable in a pair of closed-toe water sandals.
Some of the most robust ones, such as Teva's Kimtah, Dozer, Omnium and Barracuda Sport varieties, offer decent ankle support. Closed toes are a must: The more coverage for your feet, the better, as one bad laceration will end your trip.
Cost: $50 to $100. Take the time to find the right fit, or you'll need to wear socks to protect yourself from blisters.
A river shoe is like a cross between a runner and a water sandal: It offers the support of a running shoe and drains almost as quickly as the sandal. The sides are fully enclosed like a runner, but are made of mesh.
River shoes also offer more protection for your feet than sandals and should keep you warmer. The main drawback is they're slightly more expensive - you need to consider how much you'll actually use these things before you buy them.
Cost: $80 to $120
Neoprene boots and slippers
If ankle support is of no concern, consider neoprene footwear. Neoprene slippers, booties or even full boots are designed to keep your feet warm when wet -- and offer the flexibility kayakers crave when they're stuck in their boats all day. Standup paddleboarders also use slippers or Vibram Fivefingers when it's too cold to go barefoot.
If you're not going on any portages, slippers or booties can also work for canoeists. Some even prefer the added dexterity of minimalist footwear: I have one friend who wears Fivefingers on portages.
Cost: $15 to $110. Slippers are the cheapest.
If you're looking for the grippiest of all possible shoes and need a lot of ankle support, consider a pair of wading boots.
These things are designed for fly fishing, which involves less exertion than paddling. But they drain quickly and will last longer than a pair of similarly sized hiking boots.
The drawbacks include the heavy weight and a relative lack of flexibility. Another word of caution: I've never owned a pair, so I can't attest to how well they work on long portages.
Cost: $70 to $170.