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How to Choose the Best Shoes for Water Hiking: 8 Things to Know

Everything you need to know to choose shoes for water hiking

Southern Utah holds many amazing hiking opportunities. If you love red rocks, imposing cliffs, and the stark magic of the desert, Southern Utah is for you.  A standout feature of hiking in Southern Utah is the ability to find adventure amidst soaring canyon walls. No matter if it’s an easy hike, a mild scramble, or a technical canyon descent with ropes and rappel devices: they’re all spectacular.
 
Canyons, of course, are carved by water, and water is a frequent feature of these canyon hikes.  Just think of the Narrows, Zion Canyon National Park’s second most famous hike, where the “trail” is in fact the knee-deep water of the Virgin River.
 
Comparing various water hikes, the Narrows sits at the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to both the prevalence of mandatory wading and the hike’s popularity, but there are many other water hikes that are less well known yet equally stunning: the Paria Canyon, Coyote Gulch, Death Hollow, Kanarraville Falls and the Escalante River are just a few examples of magical water hikes to be found in Southern Utah.
A question that tends to stump first-time water hikers is what shoes to wear. It’s easy if you are hiking the Narrows: several gear shops in Springdale offer complete Narrows gear packages that include poles, sturdy boots and dry suits.  But what if you choose to hike Coyote Gulch, the Paria or Death Hollow? Should you be looking to source your own dry suit for these adventures, and what type of boots should you bring?  This article is here to answer the very question of what to expect on a water hike and how to choose footwear for water hikes.
 
You’ll walk away from this post understanding why sandals, water shoes and waterproof boots are NOT the right footwear for hiking in the water.
 

What is a water hike? 

A water hike is any multi-mile hike that requires frequent stream crossings and/or prolonged stretches of wading in at least ankle-deep water.  The distinguishing characteristic of a water hike is that you have no option of keeping your feet dry: the stream crossings on a water hike are frequent and wide enough that you can’t skip across on logs or rocks, and the water is deep enough that waterproof boots are of no help because water will enter your boot above the ankle. 
 

Recommended shoes for water hiking

 

1. Can I just wear Tevas, Chacos, or other sandals?

shoes for water hiking

The short answer is no, sandals are not the right choice for water hikes.  Hikes like the Narrows, Coyote Gulch and Paria Canyon involve challenging creek beds and difficult footing with big river cobbles, submerged logs and roots, slippery mud, and possibly even rocky scrambles.  Would you choose sandals for that type of hiking on a dry trail? For the vast majority of hikers, the answer to this question is no.  Sandals are not a good solution for water hikes because they offer no protection for your toes, they are prone to trapping pebbles and sand between the shoe and the sole of your foot, and the tread of most sandals does not offer good traction for slippery condition.  On top of all of that, the footbed of most sandals is not designed to support your feet on a multi-mile hike. There is no good reason to wear sandals for a water hike.

 

2. There are brands that make water shoes. Isn’t that the ideal solution?

Here’s a statement that is counter-intuitive for many, yet important to remember: water shoes are not good for water hiking. Water shoes are typically designed for boating or lounging by the water. They protect your feet for as you get in and out of the water or during limited movement on a water craft, but they are not designed to put down miles of hiking. Water shoes typically don’t have soles with a profile appropriate for hiking, and they aren’t built to support your feet and legs on multi-mile hikes.  That’s why water shoes are NOT the right solution for a water hike.

 

3. Can I just bring an extra pair of water shoes or sandals… to change into when I have to cross the stream so I don’t get my hiking shoes wet?

Once again the answer is no, you should not plan to switch into sandals or another dedicated pair of water shoes for “just” the water portions of a water hike.  If your water hike entails prolonged wading, sandals aren’t the right choice for all the reasons listed in the prior paragraph.  If your water hike includes frequent river crossings, changing shoes at every crossing is entirely impractical simply due to time: water hikes like the Paria and Coyote Gulch typically feature dozens of water crossings in a single mile of hiking.  If a hike has infrequent enough stream crossings that switching shoes for those crossings is practical, the hike is not considered an actual water hike.
 

4. What about water-proof trail shoes or GoreTex hiking boots? 

If you are going on a multi-mile water hike, you should wear trail shoes or hiking boots but they should not be waterproof.  Here’s why: remember the distinguishing characteristic of a water hike is that you have no option of keeping your feet dry because the water is deep enough that it will enter your boot above the ankle.  Since water will enter your footwear from the top, waterproof footwear doesn’t help keep your feet dry in this scenario; on the contrary.  Once water has entered a waterproof boot from the top, it is contained within the boot and can’t escape through the fabric – which means that you are now walking around inside your very own personal miniature lakes around your ankles.  This is not only heavy and uncomfortable; it also makes you more prone to blisters and trenchfoot as your feet don’t get a chance to dry out in between wading sections and water crossings.
 

5. What shoes should I wear for water hiking? 

The ideal footwear for water hiking is a trail shoe or boot that is designed for hiking and that can get wet but will dry quickly.  Look for a lightweight, synthetic trail shoe or boot that is NOT waterproof. Avoid leather, GoreTex, and other waterproof fabrics. Here are some examples of brands and models that are favorites among desert guides and experienced water hikers.  Not none of them features “GTX” or “All-Weather” in the model name.

 

6. Isn’t it problematic to hike in wet socks and shoes?

Even though newcomers to water hiking often cringe at the thought of putting down miles in wet socks and shoes, hiking in wet footwear can be surprisingly comfortable and sustainable.  Just like hiking in dry conditions, it is important to break in your boots and ensure proper fit for both your footwear and socks. Blisters are usually no more of an issue than they are in dry conditions; if you know that you are prone to blister development, pre-taping your feet with KT tape or climbing tape can help. Here are a few pro-tips to make hiking in wet boots and socks as comfortable as possible:

  • Ensure your boots and socks fit well.
  • Use lightweight synthetic or wool hiking socks.  Cotton and heavyweight ski socks are not a good choice for water hikes (even in cold conditions).
  • Stop as needed to empty your shoes of accumulated sand / rocks.
  • For full-day hikes it doesn’t hurt to take your shoes and socks during a longer break at midday to give your feet a chance to breathe.
  • For backpacking trips…
    • … make sure to bring a lightweight pair of camp shoes that you can change into after you are done hiking for the day.
    • … rinse your socks and footwear at the end of the day to ensure they are clean of debris in the morning.
    • … bring a dedicated pair of dry socks to wear around camp and in your sleeping bag.
    • … be aware that your shoes may not dry over night.  That’s ok – you’ll just get them wet again immediately anyway!

7. What about neoprene socks? 

First let’s clear up a myth: neoprene socks do not keep your feet dry on a water hike.  Just like a wetsuit, neoprene socks work by effectively trapping a small amount of water near your body and keeping it there which allows your body to heat up this layer of water and have it (plus the neoprene) act as insulation.  That means neoprene socks do have a place in cold conditions.  Just like wet suits, neoprene socks range in thickness.  If you decide to hike in a 2-3mm neoprene sock, be aware that you will need to size up your footwear to avoid pressure points and blister issues.  Generally speaking, there are few hikers who find hiking long miles in stiff neoprene socks comfortable; this author avoids hiking in neoprene socks whenever possible, but will carry them on extremely late/early season water hikes to be used only where absolutely necessary.

 

8. Since you’ll ask: gaiters and waders. 

  • Gaiters generally don’t seal tightly enough to the top of your boot to help with waterproofing.  Few experienced water hikers wear gaiters, though they can be useful in helping to keep debris out of your footwear.  Keep in mind that gaiters also make it more cumbersome and time-consuming to remove accumulated debris that made it past the gaiter in the first place – a commonplace occurrence in a water environment.
  • Waders can indeed help keep your feet dry in higher water, but they are designed for fishing rather than hiking.  They are not breathable by design, and not a layer that makes sense for active cardio exercise (i.e., hiking).  Waders are not appropriate for long hikes in shallow water courses that go in and out of the water a lot such as Coyote Gulch, the Paria Canyon, or Death Hollow.  They can make sense in cold conditions in a place like the Zion Narrows, where you are immersed in a knee-deep cold stream for 90%+ of your hiking time which means that overheating is not a concern. In fact, the gear rental packages that Springdale outfitters offer for cold weather Narrows hikes typically include dry bibs.

 

In summary: Water hiking is awesome, and doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. 

Having the right tools to hike in water can open up a whole new world of far-out exploration.  Once you get past the mental barrier of hiking in wet boots, it doesn’t take long to stop worrying about wet feet entirely.  Keep in mind, though, that water hiking is a skill like any other: it’s best to start small and figure out what works and doesn’t work for you before you commit to a long day of wading or a big multi-day backpacking trip in a water course.  Try out your footwear and socks in a local stream.  Bring blister care, a backup pair of socks, and be proactive about footcare. And, most importantly: have fun, and get ready to be awed by the places that your feet can take you if you’re just willing to get them a little wet.
 
 

Curious? 

Come water hiking with us!  Our favorites are Coyote Gulch and the Lower Paria River Canyon, both multi-day backpacking trips that are absolutely stunning.  Join one of our regularly scheduled trips, or inquire about a private trip just for your group. 

 
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