Packing List Question: Paddling Shoes

Question: What do you recommend for paddling shoes?

In the eight years since I started paddling regularly, I have tried any number of pairs of shoes as paddling shoes. I share some of my lessons learned in this post.

I’ve tried old running shoes, KEEN Newport sandals that I’d owned for over a decade, rubber boots, tie-on specialty shoes, Chaco sandals, etc. I hate slipping on wet rocks (whether they’re wet because they’re under water, there’s weather, or we’ve made a mess getting out of the canoe) and how fast shoes can stink to high heaven if I’m not careful. So I keep these in mind when it comes time for a new pair of paddling shoes.

Features You May Be Looking For:

The features you’re looking for will really depend on the type of paddling you’re doing. Are you trying out whitewater or are you a flatwater paddler? Do you have a lot of portaging in your future? Do you paddle in cold weather or warm weather?

Whatever type of paddling you’re doing, the one thing I recommend you consider is you’re going to get your feet wet. No matter how hard you try not to. So have a pair of shoes to paddle in and have a pair of shoes to wear around camp (a subject for another day).

Sticky, Grippy Soles:

One of the reasons I went looking for new paddling shoes was because I had completely worn down the treads on my running shoes. (I used to run a lot more than I do now.) With the treads gone, I found myself slipping on wet rocks with a canoe on my shoulders. No one needs an accident like that in the backcountry. However if you have decent treads left on your running shoes and you don’t need them for running anymore, a pair can be an inexpensive way to go. Running shoes typically have some form of  proprietary, durable, rubber compound as their sole so that wearers can get lots of miles out of them.

The NRS Crush are my go-to shoes at the moment for both whitewater and flatwater. There are other brands and models out there like Astral (also owned by NRS) who offer similarly super sticky, sipped rubber soles. I have a lot of confidence moving around wet rocks with heavy packs or canoes on my back. And because they’re a completely closed (yet drain-able) shoe, I’m also happy to portage short distances in them, say under a kilometre.


My Chacos (picture below) check the breathable box as well as the grippy box. Because they’re so open, I choose to portage in a different shoe to keep my feet safe. Most sandals or water shoes with mesh uppers (the part of the shoe that isn’t the sole) are inherently breathable. That doesn’t necessarily make them stink-free as a I found out with my KEENs.

Other features, tips, and tricks:

  • You will likely want shoes that drain easily, unless you like paddling in a pair of hiking boots. (Some people do!)
  • If you can leave your shoes in the sun to dry after a day of paddling and when you get home after trip, that helps manage (but doesn’t always eliminate) the stink. If your shoes come with insoles, take those out to aid in a speedier drying.
  • Neoprene (socks/booties/boots) can get particularly stinky if you don’t take care of it properly. Here’s a good article on how to clean and deodorize Neoprene shoes, from NRS.

Some of our Favorite Pieces of Advice on Paddling Shoes:

In no particular order…

Now that we’re all ready to get out there and get our feet wet… Do you have more questions about paddling shoes or your own favorite pair? E-mail us!

If you love falling asleep to the call of loons, book a trip with us.

We look forward to slowing down with you.

paddling shoes