If You Have to Wear Shoes
I’ve seen lots of folks on different platforms asking about footwear for paddling so I thought I’d weigh in. Just my personal thoughts after years of paddling all kinds of craft in a variety of conditions and places.
As a paddle instructor for a large outdoor company, I was often constrained by the corporate legal beagles when it came to footwear. When I first started teaching SUP, we were required to mandate footwear be worn on the board. That requirement was eventually relaxed, much to my great pleasure. In most circumstances, I feel quite strongly that barefoot is the way to go when it comes to standup paddling. Here’s why:
1. Board feel: your feet are your connection with the board and hence the water. You will learn how your board reacts to difference water conditions much, much better if the “communication channels” are clear and wide open and not encumbered by rubber and other materials.
2. Board Trim: being about to manipulate your board with your feet for efficiency, speed and balance (the board’s balance in the changing, moving water, not yours) is much easier to learn and to do if you are barefooted.
3. Balance: your own. Your feet are one of the keys to balancing. You don’t wear shoes in yoga class for the same reason.
Being barefoot on the board is key especially when surfing or downwinding, when all of the things mentioned above come into play big time.
That said, there are times and places when you really need to have something on your feet. Wintertime when the water is cold is the most obvious. Then, good booties are essential if not annoying. But booties in the summer? No way! I can barely stand neoprene in the winter. Last thing I want is to parboil my tootsies in warm weather.
The other most obvious instance when shoes are a necessity is whitewater paddling – or even just river paddling. You may encounter rocks, logs, woody organic material that could rip your feet up when paddling in the river or at the very least when putting in and taking out along a river bank. I’ve tried a number of types of shoes and water sandals for river paddling and hands down, my favorite are the Astral Brewers. While they may look like a boat shoe or casual sports shoe, they are extremely lightweight, they have amazing drainage holes, and they are surprisingly easy to walk around your board in. Board trim is very important in whitewater and I have no trouble moving my feet in my Brewer’s.
Another good choice is Astral’s LoYak. With a much more flexible, “thinner” sole and upper, you almost feel completely barefoot with these kicks on. These were my go-to teaching shoe for leading classes in one of our lakes, where the bottle was leafy and full of small logs and tree branches. Same great drainage, but super comfortable on both board and land.
The LoYaks are a great choice for lakes and calm rivers, and for both SUP or kayak paddling, however for durability, they are not as substantial as the Brewers. Choose the Brewers or the top version of the LoYak, the HiYak, for whitewater sup.
What if a sport sandal is your thing? Sport sandals are great for getting to and from the water and are easy to remove once you’re on your board. They are super easy to secure to bungees and they are of course the coolest form of footwear in the summer. But if you want to paddle with them on, choose a sandal with a thinner, more flexible footbed and sole, and can be custom tightened to your foot and can be made secure on the foot. My favorite paddle-friendly sandal is made by Bedrock. Second place would be Xeros. Avoid Chacos and even Tevas because of the thickness and inflexibility of the footbed. Chacos are especially difficult to walk around your board in and I have seen them impede the balance of some of my students. Once they took the heavy sandals off, they did much better.
Shoe choices are extremely personal. Try out different brands and designs and see what works best for you and your feet. Got a great suggestion? Post it in the comments!