Yesterday we had a bit of a disaster in Aravaipa Canyon.
Padre was in an unworn pair of “water shoes” when after about 4 and a half miles the mid-sole came clean off. Careful inspection of the other foot showed that it was only a few steps from the same predicament. Luckily he had a pair of Chaco’s in his pack, and thus we began the KEEP-THE-GRAVEL-OUT-OF-MY-SHOES shuffle back to the car.
Lest we blame this specific pair of shoes, I’ve had similar experiences with outsoles detaching from reputable brand’s “water shoes” on this hike before. As anyone who has
had to endure my insufferable pre-Araviapa emails been lucky enough to come on one of these trips knows, footwear in the water is a genuine problem with no real solution. Serious water hikes demand a shoe that is light, sealed, durable, sticky, and drains well. This is an absurd list of things to ask one shoe to do, but shoes are expensive, technology is neat, and we want gear to push, not constrain, the goals for the trip.
For the last two years the best solution we have found are the Arc’Teryx Arcux FL.
I like the Arcuxs very, very much. While you can go look at all the details in my long term review, suffice it to say that they are tough, grip well, drain exceptionally, and feature just enough of a “seal” around the top of the shoe to keep junk out. I have not been kind to them.
The Arcuxs have been my constant companion for everything from light canyoneering
To wet wading
And everything in between.
Unfortunately, for reasons I will never fully understand, the Acrux FLs are no longer on Arc’Teryx’s website. This is very sad. The Acruxs were a water shoe that actually worked, but my pair are finally falling apart. An alternative must be found.
What does a good water shoe look like?
It must drain
The most important thing a water shoe can do is get the water out. I have worn shoes both with and without midsole drainage, and honestly haven’t found that there is much of a difference as long as drainage ports are located fairly low on the outer.
It must fully enclose the foot
Many “water shoes” are really “water sandals.” This might be fine for short distance hikes or quick creek crossings, but long days in the water require keeping the gravel out of the footbed. At the very least, a water shoe should be a shoe. Bonus points for integrated gaiters that are unobtrusive, yet effective.
It must be durable (and dry quickly)
Submerged rocks are hard to see and you are going to kick a lot of them. In general it is nice to have a shoe that will both protect your foot from these incidents and hold up to day to day abuse. Traditional solutions to this problem, such as leather, either don’t drain well or deform after repeated soakings. Therefore a good water shoe should have a synthetic outer.
It must handle the miles
Most fishermen who are wet wading are doing so because they don’t want to carry waders with them on a long hike. Many canyons, at least those that aren’t extremely technical, require more walking than climbing or swimming. Water shoes are going to have miles put on them, many out of the water. Hiking shoes have progressed far enough in the past 20 years that finding a reasonably light, reasonably durable, reasonably stable hiking shoe is not a challenge. These lessons should be applied to water shoes.
It must have an outsole that is sticky
Moss covered rocks are slippery and I don’t like falling in creeks.
Put all these things together and you have a great water shoe. If it sounds like I just described the Arcux FLs, well, that isn’t a coincidence. That being said, what are the alternatives on the market today?
The first thing that jumps to mind are strict canyoneering shoes. Unfortunately canyoneering shoes (rightfully) come with climbing biased outsoles, which have historically favored stickiness over durability. Unless climbing rubber has changed radically in recent years I doubt they will stand up to the I-CANT-BUY-A-NEW-PAIR-OF-SEVERAL-HUNDRED-DOLLAR-SHOES-EVERY-SIX-MONTHS-WITHOUT-MY-SIGNIFICANT-OTHER-KILLING-ME durability test.
Next are the newest batch of wet wading shoes, such as the Simms Intruder and Orvis Andros Flatts Hiker. On first glance the Intruders look the part, but unfortunately they come with an “integrated” neoprene bootie. This makes no sense at all. The only time any sane person walks in the water is when it is warm enough not to need a neoprene bootie. If someone, like the idiot below, is stupid enough to do a water hike in the winter sockless boots retain the ability to fit neoprene socks
and still have the flexibility to wear regular socks on warm summer trips.
The Orivs Andros Flats hikers look very promising, indeed. Unfortunately I do not own a pair or know anyone who owns a pair. I find nimbleness to be particularly important in the water, and from the pictures online they look a little too “boot” for my liking. That being said I’m planning to try these out when then Acruxs give up the ghost. I’ll let you know how they do.
Last we have regular old hiking shoes. As of right now, I find these to be the least bad option– they are enclosed, generally drain acceptably, have good stability, and are usually durable. Unfortunately the narrow lug patterns and tough rubber compositions used in most hiking shoes fail to provide the grip needed for wet rocks. Worse, the glue used for mid- and outsole attachment are not always resistant to long term submersion, which can result in catastrophes like we had over the weekend (Editor’s Note: Always, always have a pair of back up shoes with you on water trips until you know your shoes are reliable in the water. Many aren’t.). These are easy fixes, should any company endeavor to fix them.
Let me finish with a plea: Please, someone, anyone, make a water shoe that isn’t garbage.
Is their a giant market of people demanding shoes for light canyoneering, all day water hiking, and back country wet wading? No. However, the cupboard is bare and the few of us who are out there doing this stupid stuff need shoes. Please help us.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.