When you think of water shoes, you might picture a colorful mesh material upper and a flimsy rubber outsole bottom — those kicks you’d slip on as a kid to play in the wave pool. But these days, brands have reinvented the water shoe, giving it more durability underfoot while maintaining that breathable, quick-dry construction up top. The pay-off? Not only can you wear this footwear while kayaking, fishing or trekking across streams and rivers, but you can also wear them for light hikes, giving you even more freedom to explore new spots mixed with wetlands and dry trails.
Matt Schroer, a gearhead and account manager for the outdoor e-retailer Backcountry, spent a lot of time on rivers as an aquatic biologist. He’d often hike to bodies of water and then spend the day boating or standing in them. In other words, he’s had plenty of experience testing out the shoes that get you through both uneven paths and wet patches. “A lot of people go to the river in boots, or trail runners or, if they’re kayaking, paddle shoes with neoprene and just a little rubber underneath,” he says. “But I’ve never found any of those to work that well.”
The type of water shoe Schroer does say suits amphibious adventures and dusty hikes alike: a closed-toed shoe with ankle support, sturdy rubber lugs for a no-slip step and construction that lets H2O out, so your feet dry fast. One thing he says you probably want to skip: Gore-Tex finishes, because while they work wonders on keeping water out, they’re good at keeping water in, too.
For those days you plan to hit the trail, trek through water or take a hike to your kayaking, boating or cliff jumping destination, here are the top water shoes to protect your feet and keep you comfortable.
Best for a Lightweight Fit: Merrell Choprock
This shoe might sound delicate at less than two pounds, but it’s super durable thanks to the grippy Vibram lugs on the bottom. The rubber reinforced toe also helps protect against trail debris like rocks and sticks. To make it quick-dry, you get a synthetic mesh material up top — which provides airflow for hot days and plenty of stretch for a soft feel — and vents under the midfoot to let water out. Tested on a particularly wet hike, walking through rivers and streams and reaching a waterfall pool, these shoes stood up to slippery rock traverses and dried quickly between crossings. You can easily go sans socks with these, but Schroer suggests a neoprene slip-on for an added shield against sand or pebbles. (Try the NRS Hydroskin 0.5 Sock.)
Best for Ankle Support: Astral TR1 Merge
Schroer’s number-one go-to for being on a river all day, then trekking through the wilderness: this ankle-height hiker. The water-friendliness is all in the canvas construction and mesh tongue, which allows it to dry out fast. You can also remove the odor-controlling insole if you get soaked and have a little time to bask in the sun. And thanks to laces up the ankle and an extra grippy sole, you can still take on technical hikes after you explore streams or lakes. Schroer even likes the high cut for cliff jumping.
Best for More Breathability: Keen EvoFit One
When you’re walking along a shoreline or hanging at the beach post-hill climb, you probably want a lighter shoe that allows for air to fly through and your feet to breathe easy. Enter this sturdy sandal from Keen, which has extra traction on the bottom so you won’t slide around on light treks. The sock-like design means they fit your foot, offering seamless stretch for any direction you step. You also get water repellency, odor control and no-tie laces. Schroer suggests this option for days you’re spending lots of time kicking back on a boat, especially when you want to chill out and enjoy the breeze and a beer pre- or post-activity. Just be aware you may catch some pebbles during walks, in which case you can give ’em a little shake out.
Best for a Sneaker-Like Feel:Olukai Inana
If beach running and training are as much your speed as trail hopping and river navigating, this shoe is for you. Tested and approved by lifeguards in Hawaii, the Inana offers everything you need from a water shoe, including a mesh upper, a perforated and water-repelling footbed and a midsole with drainage holes. The rubber lug-laden outsole and soft cushioning underfoot ensure a combo of performance and comfort, too.
Best for Arch Support: Chaco Odyssey
“I love Chacos; they take years of abuse,” says Schroer, who suggests them for easier trail treks and time on the beach or in a kayak. While most of Chaco’s lineup does not have toe protection, this pair offers more than your typical sandal with synthetic reinforcement. It also has a lightweight mesh and polyester webbing overlay, which doesn’t take away from the shoe’s barely there feel on top. Underneath, you get a strong foundation for the toes, right up to the arch and down to the heel. To finish it off, there’s a gender-specific midsole and antimicrobial coating—perfect for sweaty, salty days.
Best for All-Over Protection: Salomon Amphib Bold
These Salomons may look like trail running shoes, but don’t doubt their water-handling capabilities. The lightweight mesh upper hugs your foot so everything stays in place when you’re on the move, but it also dries out quickly, especially with its anti-water liner. The cinch lacing system means you don’t have to worry about tying them when you go from water to land. What’s more: say you take ’em off for a boat ride and you’re done adventuring for the day — you can slip them right back on, thanks to the collapsible heel that makes for even easy on-and-off wear.
Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.