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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Bottom Line

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

By Tamia Nelson

April 26, 2005

The River ran high and hard under a brazen sun. I clambered out on a rocky promontory above the lip of the falls and looked upstream. The strident voice of the hurtling water reverberated in my ears. Suddenly, I saw them — a whole flotilla of creek boats bobbing downriver. I'd come for the waters. They'd come to run the falls. One by one they eddied out at the little island that divides the stream in the last seconds before it takes the final plunge. Unfolding themselves from their tiny boats like butterflies emerging from brightly colored chrysalises, they made their way over algae-covered boulders to the brink of the drop. There they convened an earnest assembly to scout the best way down.

While they looked at The River, I looked at them and their gear. Apart from the radical designs of their boats, the most striking thing was the paddlers' surefootedness. They stood on rocks just inches from the lip of the falls. Rushing water surged over their knees, yet none of them tottered, slipped, or fell. How did they manage? I'd waded rivers all my life, but I'd never have dreamed of attempting what they were doing. Clearly, it was time for me to rethink what I put on my feet.

My standard river footgear had long been old-fashioned Converse high-tops worn over wool or neoprene socks, depending on how cold the water was. This combination, which I whimsically christened the "dynamic duo," worked well enough, to be sure. It gave me adequate traction much of the time while keeping my toes warm most of the time. But I kept looking for something better. Other boaters wore neoprene socks alone. Still others preferred low-cut running shoes to high-top sneakers (and sometimes lost one or both when they took an unexpected dip in a rapids or dropped into a mud hole on a portage trail). Paddlers who seldom ventured out on fast-moving water wore pacs of the type popularized by Leon Leonwood Bean in the early years of the twentieth century, or else they donned wellies, the close-fitting rubber knee boots favored by the British field sports fraternity, the so-called "Landy (as in Land Rover) aristocracy." James Bay Cree and other working watermen — along with a few canoeist-anglers who enjoyed living dangerously — wore waders.

Until recently, that was all there was. But times have changed. These days, exploring the shoe section of a good outfitter's shop is an adventure in itself. With so much on offer, though, how can you be sure you'll make the right choice? It's easier that it seems. As always, it pays to start by narrowing the field. Your footwear should match the kind of paddling you do. What works best for a gonzo boater on a meltwater-swollen whitewater river won't necessarily suit the paddler stalking wily brookies on spring-fed ponds, or warming herself in the tropical sun aboard a sit-on-top, let alone the expedition canoeist tracking a heavily loaded freighter up a muscular Arctic river. Still, no matter where she's headed, every paddler demands the same three things from her footwear: dependable protection, adequate traction, and good fit. These don't need much explanation. All of us have gone barefoot at some time in our lives, and most of us have the scars to prove it. Many of us have had our footwear let us down unexpectedly, too. (Few things are slipperier than an algae-slicked cobble, after all.) And while nearly everyone's suffered from shoes that didn't fit, paddlers have an additional dimension to consider. It's not enough for your shoes to fit your feet. They have to fit your boat, as well. This isn't just a problem for creek boaters and the owners of Greenland-style sea kayaks. Even canoeists need to make sure that their shoes won't wedge tight under the seat when they kneel, no matter how much they twist and turn.

Protection. Traction. Fit. With these watchwords in mind, it's time to check the state of the mart. Let's start with…

High-Tech Footwear

The engineers and chemists have been busy. Synthetic fleece, neoprene, and similar materials have the remarkable ability to keep feet reasonably warm without undue bulk, even when wet. Flipping through one outfitter's catalog, I find no fewer than sixteen examples of high-tech footwear. Even the humble sock has had a make-over. Fleece socks absorb only small amounts of water, stay warm when wet, and can be paired with a favorite river shoe. And if that isn't enough, you can step up to a sock made from neoprene or a composite fabric. You can go from thin to thick, too, and some socks now come with zippers and drawcord closures.

Want to dispense with the shoe altogether? You can. Manufacturers have mated engineered socks and sturdy outsoles to get a sort of Supersock hybrid. You'll have a lot of choices. Soles vary from simple doubled fabric to rugged wraparound lugs that wouldn't look out of place on a climbing boot. And as the boaters I saw at the falls proved, many of these soles stick to just about anything. The uppers vary, as well, from simple sock-like tubes to complex structures with buckle, lace, or Velcro® closures. Low-cut pull-on hybrids might be all the shoe you need for flatwater or sheltered bays. On the other end of the spectrum, expedition models with reinforced heel counters, box toes, and deep lugs ought to take you almost anywhere. In this category you'll also find the new-fashioned mukluk, a hybrid with a lugged sole and knee-high neoprene upper. I suppose it's the twenty-first century's answer to the wellie, and it's an attractive option. But it comes at a price. You'd better be prepared to pay more than it costs to fill the tank of a big SUV.


Or maybe you're one of those folks in whom hope repeatedly triumphs over experience. Are you tempted to wear nothing at all on your feet? Well, best of luck to you. Even if you never paddle in waters where coral or sharp stones lurk, you probably can't escape the ubiquitous broken beer bottle. But there's one way to come close to the pleasures of barefoot boating while minimizing the dangers. Just get yourself some…


We've come a long way from bath thongs, baby. Armies have marched and fought on sandals, after all. With contoured footbeds, strong lashing systems, and sticky soles, sandals can be just the ticket for many kinds of paddling, particularly if you pair them with neoprene or fleece socks for protection from cold and sun. You can even find sandals with toe caps, further blurring the distinction between shoes and sandals. But wherever you draw the line, there's no denying the utility of the modern incarnation of this ancient footwear. If you can pay the price, that is. If you're a pinch-penny, however, or an elective anachronist — and most paddlers are, at least some of the time — you may want to consider…

Traditional Footwear

Admittedly, "traditional" is a slippery word, but rubber boots have been showing up at the water's edge since the middle of the nineteenth century. That's traditional enough for me. And old-fashioned wellies remain my boot of choice when messing about on beaver ponds, poking along lake shorelines, and paddling shallow streams. They're also ideal in places where every mile of paddling is purchased with another mile of portaging, and where portage trails not infrequently resemble sinuous bogs. Sadly, though, and despite the fact that backcountry travelers often wear wellies or pacs on moving water, these high boots are NOT good choices for whitewater river trips. No, they won't "pull you down" if you dump. The water in a pair of flooded wellies weighs no more than the surrounding water. But the added mass at the ends of your legs nonetheless makes swimming mighty awkward. Moreover, the weight of water in your boots will make itself felt anytime your feet aren't immersed. This does nothing to help rescue and salvage operations. In short, if you need to be light on your feet, both in and out of the water, wellies aren't for you.

Despite this, wellies still have a place in my closet. I like mine to have a snug ankle, a high toe, and just enough room to accommodate thick socks and synthetic insoles. There's just one problem. After a brief fling with the mass market, wellies are returning to their upper-class origins. Most pairs now cost as much as a good paddle. And what of L.L.Bean, long my supplier of choice? Last time I looked, the only cheap wellie they sold was an abbreviated women's model. To my mind, the availability of pastel colors can't compensate for the lost four inches at the top. (You can still see the old green wellies used as props in the catalog photos, though. I guess that's something.) Ah, well. Combing other outfitters's catalogs will turn up the real thing now and then, and at a reasonable price, into the bargain. Nor are wellies the only alternative. L.L.Bean's pacs — aka "Maine Hunting Shoes" — can be found on many feet in lake country. Not on mine, however. The seam joining the leather top to the rubber bottom chafes the hell out of my bony ankles. Still, if the shoe fits you, I say wear it.

Or is a whitewater river your destination? Then don't rule out canvas high-top sneakers. They're back in the stores, and they remain a good choice, especially when worn over neoprene socks. (Be sure to check the fit with the socks you plan to wear.) The flexible rubber soles are often quite sticky, too. Looks like the dynamic duo hasn't lost all its magic, and it's still the economy king.


Whatever you wear on your feet, though, never lose sight of…

The Bottom Line

Take care of your feet, and they'll take you wherever you want to go. Abuse them, and they'll make your life a misery. No high-tech fabric can substitute for ordinary TLC, and if you'll be spending day after day wading in and out of cold water, give your feet a break. Dry off and change your socks whenever you can. Set up camp early, too, while you still have plenty of time to dry your paddling footwear. Then towel down and change into camp shoes. The penalty for neglecting these simple precautions can be severe. "Trench foot" is a progressive, disabling cold injury that got its modern name in the sodden hell that was the western front in World War I. Before then, it dogged Napoleon's Grande Armée on the disastrous retreat from Moscow, and it was still causing casualties during the 1982 Falklands War. Paddlers are not immune. You don't need to venture out in subfreezing weather or spend weeks in the trenches. Any prolonged exposure to cold and wet is enough. Luckily, as with the more familiar hypothermia, prevention is easier than cure. It's also much less painful.

Whatever and wherever you paddle, you always want to put your best foot forward. Decide what shoes you need for the waters you frequent, take time to get a good fit, and give your feet a little TLC every day you're under way. It's an easy prescription to follow — easier than it's ever been before. There's a quiet revolution afoot. Now there's no reason for any paddler to be ill-shod. And that's the bottom line.

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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