In the pursuit of warm feet while kayaking, I have tried many many different types of footwear. Kayaking presents a number of problems for warmth.
Here are the brief characterizations of the problems.
- The sole-the sole must be firm enough so that when you get out of the kayak onto an unfamiliar rocky shore you are not saying, “ouch, ouch, ouch” with every step.
- Size-The bootie must be small enough to fit in a small volume sea kayak or surf kayak. Because kayaks have a closed deck there is always a limit to the size of the footwear.
- Warmth- will the footwear be warm enough. We often wear drysuits and still have cold feet when it is hovering around 20-30 degrees.
First is the thickness of the sole of the bootie. Based on past experience I don’t like having sandals, or flip flops while kayaking, I prefer to have a shoe I could run in for a mile or so. I want something that has a solid sole on rocks, slippery surfaces, and maybe even broken glass. We don’t always get out of our kayaks in ideal locations. It’s good to have a shoe you know you can trust. I like to be able to pop out of my kayak on uneven terrain and help others hike their boats over slippery rocks and rebar etc. A lot of kayaking shoes, or rodeo socks have been made with the idea that you will be wedging your feet inside a low volume white water kayak. I understand that, but the problem remains, when you’re out of the kayak, what then?… The size of the footwear and the sole are sometimes tied together.
The second is the size of the footwear is limited by what you can fit inside your kayak. Unlike other watersports, the size of the footwear doesn’t matter. For kayaking it presents unique problems. Because of the closed deck on the kayak there is a limit to how big the booties can be and still fit on the foot pegs in an active position. I have fairly average size feet for a man. I am size 10.5. Inside my current sea kayak a nigel foster silhouette, I can barely fit a full size wet shoe, the toes catch on the deck and my feet are pretty wedged in there.
The last is warmth. For some in warmer climes, warmth is secondary, here in michigan, it is pretty important. Kayakers are pretty stuck on drysuits, for better or worse the goretex garbage bag is the best way of staying warm on long journeys. Problem is, the gore-tex sock that comes on the Kokatat Drysuit models, and the Immersion Research drysuit models makes footwear selection push a size up in order to fit your foot with any sort of warm sock inside a tight neoprene bootie.
This causes a chain reaction where the footwear then hits against our other constraints of size and sole thickness. My article on Drysuits vs Wetsuits for kayaking actually didn’t cover this problem.
So in order to really have fun with this issue here is a short list with pictures of the kayaking footwear that didn’t work.
The Teva Avator was burly in the sole, but not warm and too big to fit inside the kayak without getting my feet stuck. There was not a substantial enough layer of neoprene.
The Chota River Runner bootie was warmer, using 3mm neoprene. It was small, and able to fit even in my surf boat. But it lacked significant thickness in the sole to make it useful when carrying loaded sea kayaks over rocks in Pukaskwa National Park. It is not as warm as a 5mm wetshoe obviously. This shoe flooded easily and would essentially collect rocks.
The NRS Paddle wetshoe was actually a bit better than most. Only problem was, it wasn’t quite as warm as it would let on, it is 5mm neoprene in some places, but this is still not as warm as a 7mm. This shoe did not have a good fit at all. The zipper was ridiculous and would jamb with sand and rocks. I lost one in the surf on a nasty swim. After I lost one shoe, I never bought a replacement pair.
The NRS Attack Shoe is a great fit for two out of three parameters. It fits well inside the kayak, it has a rock solid sole, but it is not very warm. It has no insulating warmth at all.
So where does that leave us?
Paddle wetshoes are designed to work with a variety of apparel, including drysuits. They also attempt to do a number of different things, protect and insulate. The problem is that they do none of these things particularly well. A neoprene bootie is useful when combined with a wetsuit. But it loses some of it’s efficacy when paired with a drysuit, due to the issue I outlined above. A goretex sock is needlessly bulky. In my drysuit I have twice as much sock as what I need, and a neoprene bootie over the top mainly fills with water more than it insulates and separates me from the elements. As a result I still end up with cold feet. A paddler uses their feet inside the kayak to keep contact with the footpeg, but is otherwise dry, why can’t it be warm during winter paddles?
There are two problems specifically for paddling shoes for warmth, fit inside the boat, and the fit to the foot and legs. If the bootie doesn’t fit over a drysuit sock you can’t wear it, and if it doesn’t fit snug to the leg it will fill with water if you step in the water, or take a swim.
The answer is that no product out there is really designed to keep your foot warm in sub freezing temperatures if you are wearing a drysuit.
There are two possible solutions. One is to use a mukluk that is a knee high boot by Chota and hope it fits inside your boot. Or while wearing a wetsuit wear one of these.
Xcel’s 7mm round toe bootie. The surf bootie is designed to be worn under a wetsuit and lies snug against your skin with a special seal at the top. It is 7mm neoprene with welded seams. I got a pair to try with my wetsuit and used them a few times so far. I can say they are toasty warm even in a snow bank. Problem is they don’t fit over my drysuit socks. So it’s a bit of problem for serious cold weather paddles so far, but only because I have a 4/3 suit and not a 6/5/4. The sole is very stiff and it fits even in my super low volume surf kayak.
If you have a wet suit shoe you love, let me know in the comments. What is the coldest weather you’ve paddled and kept your feet warm, what was the other clothing you were wearing and how big is your kayak.
I should have mentioned that inside the goretex bootie I wear a very thick pair of smartwool socks. My feet still get pretty cold. Another solution I didn’t mention is to wear wellingtons. Terrible if you swim, but otherwise warm.
Maybe the solution lies in what is between the foot and the shoe. A good pair of wool socks can a least partially redeem even a lousy pair of booties. I’ve not done it, but getting booties a size too large and layering two pairs of thinner wool socks or perhaps matching a pair of speciality waterproof socks with wool socks might do the trick.
I have the NRS Paddle Wetshoe but prefer my decade-old NRS Comm-3 wetshoes. The Comm-3 lacks the full insulation you want, but I’ve paddled and tromped around in the snow with them in relative comfort, relying on good wool socks for warmth.