We have spent countless days on canoe trips. We know what it is like to portage on a small trail, carrying a canoe over your head. The only thing standing between your body and the rough trail are your shoes.
As either an experienced or aspiring canoe and paddling enthusiast, you know that paddling lakes, rivers, and streams is one of the most fulfilling things you do outside. From its numerous health benefits and the ability to relieve stress to achieving a sense of peace while providing closeness to nature, this hobby is extremely rewarding for the body, mind and soul. Canoeing is a beautifully simple form of transportation, one that has been around for almost as long as mankind. But, in order to fully enjoy this experience, you have to choose gear that will make the excursion safe and comfortable.
Everybody knows that you need to find the right paddles, life vests, and the like. Besides the canoe itself and the obvious gear, choosing the right footwear is also very important. Footwear is often an under appreciated piece of paddling gear.
When you’re out exploring the waters, chances are that you’ll also find yourself walking on some beautiful trails or you’ll be portaging overland for short or long stretches. If you are paddling in the rugged parts of Minnesota and Maine, you may also find yourself portaging, a unique and demanding activity. Unlike stand-up paddle boarding where you might expect to be barefoot, canoeing requires that you have capable footwear. It calls for shoes that can provide you the kind of support and protection you need while being in your canoe, on the beach, and on ‘wilder’ paths and portages.
What to look for in shoes for canoeing
Here are some key aspects to take into account when you’re in the market for a brand new pair of shoes for canoeing.
The quality of the material. Always choose shoes that are made of top-notch materials. This way you’ll be sure that they’re comfortable and lightweight, yet very sturdy. This makes perfect sense since we’re of a mind that you need something reliable and long lasting that will offer you optimal protection and keep your feet warm. At the same time, canoe footwear shouldn’t weight you down or be uncomfortable.
Footwear type. You might have noticed by now that there are 2 main types of paddling shoes out there: low-profile and high-profile. The low-profile pairs leave a significant area of your foot exposed and they’re great if you’re going paddling in warm weather or if you don’t plan to do much walking during your canoe trip. High-profile pairs cover the whole foot; sometimes even go past the ankles. They’re perfect if you want your feet warm and protected, as well as if you’ll be wandering a lot off your canoe and exploring nature.
Consider the weather. It’s very important to wear shoes that are suitable for the weather you’re going to be paddling in. Therefore, when it’s warm or hot outside, go for low profile footwear that will allow your feet breathe. When you’re going canoeing in a cold, rainy, or winter day, choose shoes that are high-profile and will keep your feet warm.
To Portage or Not to Portage? Anytime you will be portaging — getting out of your canoe or kayak and carrying it across land before you launch again in the next body of water — your footwear needs to be up to the task. Portaging calls for footwear that is sturdier, more versatile, and can handle a trail that often includes everything from inclines to declines to rocks to mud (often in the same portage). Sure, there are some short, flat, easy portages, but we have also seen some portages that have challenging footing and quite long. If you aren’t sure, be sure to find a detailed, made-for-navigating portage map (like the ones offered here) of the terrain before you go.
Your feet will almost always get wet, so be sure to choose something that feels good when it is soaking on your foot. Trust us on this one.
Here is a list with some of the best shoes for canoeing available on the market:
Chaco Classic Sport Sandal Shoes
Paddling Comfort: Very Good. Portaging Comfort: Good.
Featuring a timeless design, these sandal shoes are perfect for paddling in warm weather. Their adjustable, durable straps will flawlessly custom-fit to your foot and offer awesome support. The toe-loop is a nice addition that will provide great forefoot control for the entire time you’re both in your canoe and walking about in nature. These shoes are ideal for long canoeing days, as they feature the brand’s renowned LUVSEAT PU footbed that’s podiatrist approved, reliable, and very comfortable.
Chaco has been making the Classic since 1989, and it has always been one of their most popular models. That tells you something. Find the Chaco Classic here on Amazon.
Keen Newport H2 Sandals
Paddling Comfort: Very Good. Portaging Comfort: Very Good.
An absolute favorite among both rookies and pros, Keen Newport H2 Sandals are extremely comfy, versatile, sturdy and rugged. They offer a solid traction (thanks to their razor-siped soles) and their wonderful covered toe box will protect you from rocks. Another cool thing about these sandals is that their very lightweight, yet offer amazing toe protection. Plus, the footbed keeps your feet rested and relaxed throughout the day.
One thing we like about all Keen models is that the footbeds are treated with a probiotic, creating an eco-friendly way of keeping the shoes from getting stinky prematurely.
The Keen Newport was based on the first sandal that the Keen founders ever built, and can be found here on Amazon.
NeoSport Wetsuits Paddle Low Top Boots
Paddling Comfort: Very Good. Portaging Comfort: Good.
The lightweight NeoSport Wetsuits Paddle Low Top Boots are extremely durable thanks to their sewn and glued seams which also keep them considerably watertight. Regarding their soles, they are made of a flexible, soft thermoplastic rubber and feature an integrated hardened insert that makes them resistant to punctures. In addition, the aggressive tread pattern these boot feature offers amazing traction. These low-profile canoe shoes come with shock cords which are easily wrapped around your ankle, providing a tight fit. Overall, they’re stylish, affordable, warm and snug. You can slip them on and off with ease and stick well to your feet.
A great paddling shoe, but perhaps not our first choice if we expect some tough portages. Find them here on Amazon.
O’Neill Reactor Reef Booties
Paddling Comfort: Very Good. Portaging Comfort: Poor
O’Neill’s Reactor Reef Booties are highly appreciated for their affordable price, lightweight, warmth, and the ability to fit without falling off. These are low-profile footwear made out of neoprene that adds durability and keeps your feet cozy and warm. Therefore, if you were thinking of going canoeing in colder waters, this is a pair that will be a great choice. They also have good resistance to damage thanks to their top-notch rubber soles which also offer a nice firm grip.
These are going to be great shoes if you plan to have your feet inside a kayak most of the trip, or perhaps planted on the wet floor of a canoe. If you need to portage, though, they won’t be the best choice.
If you mainly plan to use them inside your vessel, then find them here.
NeoSport Wetsuits Premium Neoprene Pull On Boots
Paddling Comfort: Very Good Portaging Comfort: Moderate
Now it’s time to talk about some superb high-profile canoeing boots. NeoSport’s pair is renowned for its durability, lightweight, softness, flexibility, and the ability to keep your feet warm and snug. The neoprene makes them resistant against damage of any kind and awesomely warm; you can wear them during cold weather and when paddling across cold water. Their reliable zipper keeps all the water away from your feet and their soles are specially designed for maximum grip, puncture resistance as well as great protection.
These booties are an outstanding choice for paddleboarding. If you plan to use the boots for that as well as paddling, they might be a good choice — just as long as your portages aren’t intense. Find them here.
Your old tennis or running shoes
We once asked an experience Boundary Waters canoe guide in Minnesota what he recommended we wear on our feet for canoeing and portages. We were expecting to hear him say some highly technical product made by Orvis or REI. We were wrong. He said “I wear an old pair of running shoes.”
The great thing about them is that you’ve worn them in, so they already offer a comfortable fit. Plus, as they’re intended to support active feet that run, jump, and walk a lot, they’re grippy and very breathable. And they’re already old, so getting them wet isn’t going to be a big deal. And they perform well when wet, something that is critical for those you might find themselves portaging.
All shoes we’ve talked about in this article are great for both canoeing newbies and seasoned paddlers, but some are going to be a better fit for certain situations. We’ve made the list, now it’s your turn to compare, analyze, and choose the pair that best suits your needs. Enjoy your time aboard!