Best Shoes For Kayaking And Packrafting

Before you run out and buy just any shoe for kayaking or packrafting, read how to find the best shoes for kayaking and packrafting.. Although it’s obvious that you’ll need a shoe to fit your feet, that’s not the only thing to consider. Your kayaking shoe should also fit your boat, the terrain you may be hopping out onto, your clothing and the weather.

In fact, it’s very likely you’ll have multiple best shoes depending on the variables of the day. So let’s go over those variables and what to consider before making your purchase. Then we’ll list a couple of recommended shoes based on those criteria.

 

Types of kayaking shoes

Kayaking shoes can really be broken down into two main categories, open and closed-form shoes.

Within each category there are degrees of openness or closeness. For instance, open-toed and closed-toe sandals both fall in the open shoe form but provide different levels of protection. On the other hand, closed-form shoes can be rigid or flexible and be made out of completely different materials. Then there is the level of waterproofness of any shoe.

Open-form shoes

Open-form shoes for kayaking will be your sandals. They can come with either an open or closed-toe.

Closed-toe shoes are the preferred choice for river running as they’ll offer more protection for your feet. In a marine, lake or open water environment, you can get by with a completely open sandal or really no shoe at all if the temperatures are right. However, river runners must protect their feet from hazards incase of an unwanted swim.

Closed-toe shoes also protect paddlers during difficult portages on rocky river banks. Not to mention, many of our rivers have wood and other debris in them (floating or deposited), some even have rebar or spikes in them due to their industrial past. Aim for closed-toe shoes on moving water.

Closed-form shoes

Neoprene booties

The most typical closed-form shoe for kayaking is the neoprene or wetsuit bootie. During the warmer months you can wear these directly over your bare feet. If the weather is cooler out you may pair with some neoprene or wool socks. Remember to size these to fit over your dry suit booties.

Neoprene booties also easily complement a full wet suit or farmer’s john. Most neoprene booties have soft, thin soles with some tread on them. Make sure the ones you purchase have decent traction, as you’ll want that on slippery river rocks. Most booties have vulcanized rubber outsoles which provide decent — but not amazing — traction. These shoes are fully waterproof, in fact they work best when wet. They are stretchy and often comfortable to wear all day in a boat.

They can come as high or low cut boots.

The only con with them is drainage. Since there are no pre-drilled holes in them, you’ll have to take off to drain or tilt you leg up.

NOTE: Avoid the swimmer style water shoe if you can, they don’t handle boating very well.

Sneaker-style kayak shoe

The next type of common kayaking shoe is the sneaker. Sure you can take an old pair of sneakers, drill some holes through the bottom for drainage and use those. But they won’t dry very well and will get destroyed quickly.

Luckily, there are other sneakers made specifically to get wet and dry fast. Usually made out of a mesh material with plenty of synthetic material framing the shoe. They’re basically water-resistant running shoes with pre-drilled holes for drainage. You can even find these shoes with toe cutouts if you’re into that.

The minor con with these are it’s laces or elastic bands that can run afoul on you, loosen up or get stuck on something. They also don’t dry nearly as quick as they’re advertised to. However, they’re a great option if you spend lot of time portaging and time outside your boat. For this reason, they’re an excellent all around shoe for packrafting and rival the closed-toe sandal with tread.

Make sure your shoe fits your boat

Sit-inside kayaks and packrafts

Believe it or not, your preferred shoe might not fit inside the bow of your sit-inside boat. Its for this reason most kayaking-specific shoes — not just waterproof shoes — are both thinly soled and flexible. If the sole of your shoe is too thick or rigid, you may have a hard time fitting them in your boat.

Most kayaks get narrower at the bow and stern. Couple that with the larger foot size for most men and you can see how difficult it would be to squeeze your thick-soled shoes all the way to the bulkhead or foot pedal.

This issue is less pronounced in packrafts with spraydecks due to the flexible material used to construct the decking. Packrafts also do not get as narrow in the bow or stern as kayaks do. Plus, there is plenty of vertical space for your foot in a packraft since you heels dig into the floor some, providing greater clearance. The rigidity of plastic kayaks prevents you from making extra room for your thick shoes.

The shoe that I prefer to wear packrafting is not the shoe I wear kayaking. For packrafting in the warmer months, I prefer the closed-toe Keen sandal with an aggressive outsole. This is perfect for rugged riverside portaging or lining rapids and hiking. However, I can’t seem to get this shoe into any of my kayaks. So for kayaking I recommend thinly-soled neoprene booties or flexible water sneakers instead.

Sit-on-top kayaks and open packrafts

The good thing about open boats is you’re not restricted in footwear very much. You can wear the aggressive-soled shoe and not worry about it fitting it inside your kayak.

For sit-on-top kayaks and open packrafts, any shoe that provides the protection you’re looking for should work. If there’s the possibility for cold water immersion, opt for the neoprene bootie otherwise any water shoe or sandal should do.

Shoes to pair with a dry suit, wet suit or no suit

Most high-grade dry suits come equipped with booties that go over your feet. However, you don’t want to rely on these built-in booties when kayaking, not even getting to an from the river. Your dry suit was likely expensive, so you’ll want to protect it more than that.

You can pair your dry suit with either an open or closed-form shoe. Neoprene booties and kayak-specific sneakers are the preferred choice here but certain close-toe sandals work as well. Remember that in a sit-inside kayak you’ll want thin-soled shoes otherwise you may have difficulty getting your feet into the bow of your boat.

For wet suits, neoprene booties work best. They should be put on over the wet suit, just like you would with the dry suit booties.

Packrafting shoes

It’s always a good idea to buy gear that serves multiple purposes. This is especially the case with packrafting, where, in certain cases, every ounce matters. For this reason, I believe shoes with thicker soles that can be comfortably worn on land and in the water are best.

For packrafting, I recommend closed-toe hiking sandals — ones that are treated to be waterproof — or kayak/water shoes for cold water. You can still wear neoprene booties, especially if you’re pairing with a wetsuit, but they tend to have the least aggressive tread and softest outsole of any water shoe. I’d save those for kayaking, really, unless you don’t need to hike or portage very much in them.

There aren’t many great closed-toe water sandals. Here is one that gets my full recommendation — particularly for packrafting and sit-on-top kayaking.

KEEN Men’s SOLR High Performance Sport Closed Toe Water Sandal

KEEN Men's SOLR High Performance Sport Closed Toe Water Sandal

 

KEEN Women’s SOLR High Performance Sport Closed Toe Water Sandal

KEEN Women's SOLR High Performance Sport Closed Toe Water Sandal

This sandal features a super aggressive, thick sole that is perfect for multi-sport adventuring — like packrafting. However, the thick sole is not great for sit-inside kayaks.

The Keen SOLR works well in both open or decked packrafts and hiking on river banks and land.

Mens sizes run a little smaller, so size up if necessary.

  • 100% synthetic material
  • Waterproof
  • 1″ heel and firm, rubber outsole
  • Extreme traction on slippery river rocks
  • Extreme toe protect with pronounced toe bumper
  • EVA midsole for all day comfort
  • Best worn barefoot, though could be worn with neoprene socks and dry suit booties (size up)

There are a lot of great neoprene booties unlike the few good, close-toe water sandals. It’s hard to pick a best, many of them depend on what your budget is or what grade shoe you’re looking for. Many good shoes also get discontinued or are not available (like the highly recommended Stohlquist Tideline boot), so we must also look at what is currently available. Here is our top, mid-grade recommendation based on what’s available on amazon today.

NRS Comm-3 Wetshoe

NRS Comm-3 Wetshoe

 

This shoe has everything you’re looking for in a neoprene bootie.

Priced reasonably. This would be your most affordable, high-quality neoprene shoe.

It features a mid-cut style perfecting for kayaking with vulcanized rubber, flexible sole.

Best paired with a dry suit or wetsuit.

Perfect for sit-inside kayaks.

  • 100% stretchy neoprene
  • 3mm neoprene upper, 5mm neoprene midsole
  • Decent tread on the outsole for traction on wet grounds
  • Flexible, thin sole to fit square in your kayak
  • Side zipper closure for quickly getting on/off
  • Works barefoot, with neoprene socks or with a dry suit bootie (though you may want to size up a half size for the bootie)

NRS 3mm Men’s Paddle Wetshoe

NRS 3mm Men's Paddle Wetshoe

 

If you can get it in your size, the NRS Paddle Wetshoe is very good.

Like the NRS Comm-3 Wetshoe above, you get a mid-cut here with a flexible outsole.

They do not drain though, you’ll have to drain them manually.

Perfect for sit-inside kayaks.

  • 100% stretchy 3 mm neoprene upper
  • 3 mm thick Rubber outsole
  • Decent tread on the outsole for traction on wet grounds
  • Flexible, thin sole to fit square in your kayak
  • Side zipper closure for quickly getting on/off
  • Works barefoot, with neoprene socks or with a dry suit bootie (though you may want to size up a half size for the bootie)

NRS Men’s Vibe Water Shoe

NRS Men’s Vibe Water Shoe - best shoes for kayaking and packrafting

 

The NRS vibe water shoe is one of the most popular kayaking shoes.

If this is the style of water shoe you are looking for, you won’t go wrong here in terms of function and performance.

This shoe drains and dries surprisingly quick for being a sneaker.

  • Flexible rubber outsole
  • EVA foam insole with drainage holes
  • Quick drying 1000D nylon upper
  • Quick drying laces for perfect fitting
  • Works barefoot, with neoprene socks or with a dry suit bootie (though you may want to size up a half size for the bootie)

NRS Kinetic Water Shoes

NRS Kinetic Water Shoes best shoes for kayaking and packrafting.

If the sneaker style of the NRS Vibe is not your thing, the NRS Kinetic water shoe may be.

This is a high quality water shoe that can worn in comfort all day.

It’s perfect for kayaking (sit-inside or sit-on-top) and long days on the water. It’s outsole is sufficiently firm enough for protection but not too firm to get in the way of things.

Sizes run small, so size up.

  • Flexible 3 mm neoprene upper and insole
  • Thin, 1.5 mm rubber outsole
  • Draw cord for tightening fit
  • Features armor patches on the upper to minimize abrasion and provide greater protection for your feet
  • Decent tread and traction
  • Made to get wet

 

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