My biased opinion
I don’t want to spoil it, but the best shoes for whitewater rafting (2022) are Chacos. Okay, I am biased, and what kind of review would this be if I didn’t research other options. Recently, I wrote briefly on why I love Chacos in a recent article found here, but I will also give a deep dive into those shoes.
There are a lot of shoes you can use whitewater rafting, and they will all get you down a river. It comes down to what you are looking for and what you plan on doing in addition to whitewater rafting. Are you going to hike? Do you plan to make an overnight trip and spend time in camp? What time of year do you plan on rafting? Answers to the previous questions can decide the best shoes for whitewater rafting.
Rafting shoes are water shoes.
Whitewater rafting shoes are designed with being submerged in mind. I know what you are thinking, “way to state the obvious.” However, I have been on many river trips where clients showed up in cowboy boots, slides, and plain old socks. Remember, rafting shoes are water shoes.
Tennis shoes are okay if you plan on rafting a couple of times a year, but if you are going to be a river-runner, you will want to get shoes that will hold up over time. They also take a long time to dry, and it can be miserable wearing them around at camp. Tennis shoes can be uncomfortable wearing without socks too.
Flips, or slides, are not a great idea because you can’t secure them to your feet, and you can kiss them goodbye if and when your boat flips. They are great for wearing around camp. So pack them in your dry bag, but keep them off the raft!
Rafting shoes are walking shoes.
The best whitewater rafting shoes have to protect your feet while wading in a river and on land. Some boat launches can be tricky to wade out in, and you need shoes that won’t slip easily on the rocks. There have been times that I got to the take-out at dusk, and seeing where I was walking was hard. My buddy was wearing flips and was having a hard time staying upright. On the other hand, I was able to move slowly towards the shore. Having good wading shoes proved their worth that night.
I pulled over to scout Whitehorse Rapid on one of my first trips down the Deschutes River. I found a break in the foliage on the river bank to nestle my raft and secure it to a large boulder on the bank. I bushwacked through the brush and climbed up the shale to the old railroad tracks that took me a viewpoint of Whitehorse Rapid. It wasn’t a very long hike, but I am glad I wore river shoes that I could also hike in. The brush or shale could have easily cut my feet.
To cover or not to cover . . .
Some whitewater rafting shoes provide toe protection, while other shoes are open-toed sandals. Toe protection can be nice, especially if you do a lot of rivers walking. Banging your toe against a rock isn’t always fun. However, if you use them for side hikes, they tend to collect a lot of mud or small debris.
What brands make the best whitewater rafting shoes?
Keens makes a closed-toe sandal that is a popular option for river runners. They are great to hike in, comfortable to wear all day, and affordable at $130. My wife loves that they typically run wide in their sizing as well. The drawback is they have poor traction for walking in the water and are bulky to swim in.
Due to their versatility, Keen sandals are an excellent option for multi-day trips where you only want to pack one set of shoes.
Chacos are open-toed sandals with a few strap variations that can be modified to fit your specifications. They are great to hike in and hold tight to your feet while swimming. People swear by their durability and Chaco tan! I have had some friends that have gotten blisters from their straps, and they don’t offer any toe protection.
Chacos offer excellent traction while walking in a river and dry pretty quickly. They are a great option for both day and multi-day trips.
Bedrock Sandals is a relatively new company that makes good whitewater rafting sandals. They are lightweight, have secure straps, and are fast-drying. They are reasonably durable, and their designers have continued to create their soles with hiking in mind. They also have a cool strap design, if you are into that sort of thing. My only drawback is that they offer less protection than Chacos.
I have seen more and more of these sandals on the river over the past couple of years. A buddy of mine guides the Middle Fork of the Salmon and is a firm believer in these sandals.
For years, Tevas was the top whitewater rafting shoe that people wore. Since 1984 they have been making sandals for the outdoor enthusiast, and I bought my first pair in the 90s. However, they didn’t hold up well throughout the season. The soles would break down quickly, and the velcro straps frayed. Over time, other companies, such as Keen and Chacos, started designing shoes outperforming Tevas. It appears that, in my opinion, they have switched to an everyday sandal rather than outdoor use. They don’t make my cut for the best shoes for whitewater rafting in 2022.
Astral water shoes probably offer the best traction, both in and out of the water, of any shoes I have worn. Their sticky rubber sole clings to wet rocks and makes them easy to hike in. They also provide significant protection for your feet since they are not a sandal. They surprisingly dry quickly, making them another great “one shoe” option.
The only drawback I have for them is their durability, and I have not seen a pair last a season yet. However, if you are a weekend warrior, that shouldn’t be a problem for you. You also would only wear these shoes while rafting, whereas you could wear the sandals in other settings.
The best shoes for whitewater rafting (2022)
If I had to pick just one pair of whitewater rafting shoes, I would have to go with Chacos. The Bedrock Sandals are a close second, but Chacos hold up so well. I have climbed mountains, been on long multi-day backpacking trips, and been in office settings, all while wearing my Chacos.
Please email me your thoughts on the best whitewater shoes. Maybe you have a brand that I haven’t heard about yet. I am always excited to try out new whitewater rafting gear.
Until next time, all forward!