Paddling footwear has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years.
Gone are the floppy neoprene booties with soles like paper and the need for hardened river boaters to have to don their hiking boots in search of some descent support and a grippy sole.
The modern paddler now has a wealth of top-notch footwear designed specifically with the river environment in mind.
To help you find the right shoes for you, we’ve showed the test team five pairs of cutting edge river shoes to find out which models have real sole and which have flat feet!
The 5 Best River Shoes
1. KEEN Hood River Boot
The Keen Hood River Boot is designed to provide complete water protection and traction.
The simple design means that they are easy to pull on and the quick-adjust strapping system then provides a snug, secure fit.
Constructed in neoprene with drainable mid-sole and outsole, KEEN’s removable dual density foot-bed offers exceptional cushioning that is also antimicrobial to keep feet fresh and comfortable, and despite being left sitting in a damp dry bag between uses none of our test pairs have yet begun to produce the usual kind of pongy paddling boot odours!
The Hood Rivers also feature KEEN’s unique patented toe protection.
This looks a bit strange, but is we found it to be excellent at protecting your toes from nasty sharp rocks etc.
For us the most important part of any paddling footwear is the sole.
It needs to be flexible enough to be able to fit comfortably inside our kayaks, but robust enough to provide solid protection from rough ground and a stable platform for your foot.
They need to have good grip too!
On the Hood River this comes in the form of a razor-siped (cross-cut) textured sole and we found that it provided more than adequate grip on wet surfaces and mixed terrain.
We were also big fans of the clean design.
The two tensioning straps secure the boots and give support but sit cleanly to the boot once tightened, removing any chance of snagging or catching.
Our only gripe would be that we’d like just the slightest more support around the ankles, but we’re talking the smallest of niggles here.
The Hood Rivers felt solid, yet light, which also increased our confidence while moving around quickly on rocky-river banks they were comfy and flexible right out of the box.
It was a tight run thing between these and the Palm Gradient boots, but the clean, lace free design means that the Hood Rivers just nick it to take our Best in Test Award.
2. Palm Gradient Glacier
There has been a lot of talk about these boots of the last few months and the paddling public hotly anticipated their arrival in the shops.
Top paddle-sports gear manufacturers Palm Equipment have teamed up with top footwear manufacturers Merrell to produce the Gradient.
Having now tried a set we’d say that they were almost worth the hype.
There are some really fantastic features on the Gradient, but one or two things about them that just made us wonder why?
They have a very sleek, clean profile and the Gradients felt really light and agile to wear, and they were great for rock hopping when inspecting rapids.
Ankle support is stiff and offers a great stability on wet rocks, something that we really like.
At the business end they have an excellent super-sticky razor cut outsole formed from Vibram climbing compound, which offers great traction, support and just the right amount of stiffness.
These could well of been our perfect paddling river shoe if it wasn’t for their fastening system.
The Gradients are fastened with a simple lace pull cord, and although simple to use once they were done up we were then left with long, flappy laces, which had to be tucked away or tied off.
We’re not massive fans of laces on river shoes, but we really don’t like long laces at all.
OK you could cut them down, but why should you if you’ve just shelled out nearly seventy quid?
Apart from the lace issue the Gradients tick all the right boxes for us.
Palm and Merrell have done a good job at creating a clean profile solid soled shoe, and when they produce a version with straps instead of laces they’ll be top of our pile, but until then they’ll have to settle with a Recommended Award instead.
3. Five Ten Canyoneer 2
The Five Ten Canyoneers are now in their second version.
Originally designed, as the name suggests, for canyoneers, whose idea of fun is climbing up and sliding down wet rock.
These biffters have been the choice for many steep creekers and whitewater coaches for years now and are still going strong.
The Five Ten Stealth Rubber sole is the key to the success of the canyoneer, derived from the rubber used on Five Ten’s range of climbing shoes its grip on wet rock is unrivalled and when added to the great support around the ankle these will give confidence to any paddler who wants to look after those ankles whilst on bone crunching portages.
The Canyoneers are fastened with two hefty buckled straps, which means they’re snag free, but their sheer size and weight can be a bit off putting and can make getting in to some kayaks difficult.
4. Helly Hansen Manifesto Breathe
Helly Hansen are well known in the paddling world for their excellent base layers and thermals, but they sent us a set of their Manifesto Breathe river shoes to put to the test.
These lightweight shoes were designed with the rigours of adventure racing in mind, but we’ve found them to be adept on the river too.
The sole has got plenty of tread and is stiff, so no worries on flying over sharp rocks, but they’re not as good on wet rock as the rest of the shoes in this test.
The other moan is that the Manifestos are secured with laces, although they are fairly short and can be easily tucked out of the way.
They have a quick self-draining system allowing them to dry super-quick and to let sand and grit drain through.
A nice enough shoe, that will also be happy on the trail or at the bike part, but the laces and less than perfect grip on wet rock just don’t do it for us.
5. Teva Lava Falls River Shoe
Teva have been making footwear for the river environment forever and they’ve turned out some excellent and innovative over the years.
The Lava Falls have a siped Spider Rubber outsole, which certainly provided plenty of great grip on wet rocks and the injection moulded EVA mid-sole wraps up into the toe and heel to provide more stability for your foot and to give added protection.
The upper has breathable mesh sections to allow quick draining and drying and the shoes secure using a quick-pull elastic lace system.
The sole on the Lavas made us happy, it had good traction for walking over mixed terrain, was firm enough to give good protection and gripped like the proverbial to a blanket on wet rock.
The low profile let them down a bit in the ankle support department and we did find that we knocked our anklebones on the odd rock. That low profile did mean that they fitted in to boats with ease and we could even get in to the odd playboat in them.
The laces are about as clean as you can get, and there was no spare lace to be tied off or tucked away, so we could live with them, just!
In summary we’d say that these are good river shoe with a great sole.
If you found this group test useful, be sure to check out our other river shoe reviews and other group tests.