I love to photograph waterfalls, rivers, and seascapes. Those subjects make up nearly 50% of my portfolio. And when photographing those, I need to have proper footing to move around freely and focus on the subject and composition. So the topic of this article is proper water shoes that I finally found after testing several brands over the years.
I'm aware that this is not the typical equipment review you'd expect here because it's not about a new camera, some fancy lens, a tripod, or a camera bag. But for me, water shoes also fall under the category of essential photography equipment. Without those, it would be hard to take some of the photos, for which I have to get into the water.
Take this photo of the La Fortuna waterfall in Costa Rica. I was standing right in the middle of the river on a mix of sharp and slippery rocks when I took this photo. I have done such photoshoots barefoot, but it was never a pleasant experience. In the end, I'd be focused so much on where to put my feet that the photos I'd take would usually be lacking.
Requirements for Water Shoes
To find the right water shoes, I had to set some requirements:
As with all shoes, they should be comfortable to wear. It is something where my previous water shoes were lacking. I used a pair of Vibram FiveFinger shoes with seams inside, which cut into my feet when sand and water got into the shoes.
They should be easy to put on and off because I often have my water shoes in my backpack when I do a longer hike to a photo spot. Once I'm on location, I don't want to be fumbling with my water shoes. I want to slip in and head into the water.
Water shoes need to sit firm. If the shoes slip off while wading through a rushing river, they're lost. This requirement stands in contrast to the previous one. Often, if shoes are easy to put on, they don't sit particularly firm. For my Vibram shoes, the opposite was true: They sat very firm but were a hassle to put on.
I want lightweight shoes for my travels, and I found that barefoot shoes with a thin sole are usually the best bet with their low weight and small packing size. In the past, I even used socks made from Dyneema material. Those were from FYF and a bit too minimalistic for my taste.
Water shoes have to dry quickly. If I put them in a warm room overnight, they should be dry on the following morning.
A good grip is necessary. But there is usually a compromise to be made. Some shoes use hard rubber for a robust sole, which lasts for a long time. Those slip easier on wet surfaces. On the other hand, there are shoes with a softer sole. While such a sole wears off much quicker, it often provides better friction. For me, the sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle. Ideally, I can use my water shoes also for short to medium hikes, so they need a good profile and durable sole.
Now that looks like quite a list. Until recently, I wasn't sure if I'd find shoes that would fulfill all of those requirements. I ordered a couple of different shoes for testing, one pair fresh from a Kickstarter campaign. None of them felt right. But after I returned from Costa Rica a couple of weeks ago, I finally found a good solution.
Xero Shoes Aqua X Sport
What I Like
By going with the gray version, I now have water shoes, which look like casual shoes. And they are super comfortable to wear. I wore them during a trip to Venice, where I walked more than 10 kilometers each day. In addition to that, I had them on some trails, where they held up nicely.
The shoes have many tiny holes in the upper fabric to let water flow out quickly. Those holes also provide ventilation on warm days when I wear them for activities outside the water.
The elastic laces allow me to put the shoes on and off quickly, and I can secure them properly for activities in the water. Once the laces are tight, I don't need to worry about losing them to a rushing river. They also sit tight around the heel, which offers additional stability. For a good fit, I found that going with my typical shoe size worked pretty well.
Weighing just 7.5 ounces per shoe for a size 10, the Aqua X Sport is also very lightweight. Hence, bringing them along on my travels doesn't add much weight to my luggage.
And what about their quick-dry capabilities? They come with a removable inner sole that dries quickly, as does the thin, breathable mesh that makes up most of the shoe. Only at the padded heel did I find the shoes to still be a bit damp after having them sit throughout the night — but a few minutes in the sun should usually solve that.
Now let's talk about the grip. First of all, the shoes have quite an aggressive sole profile, which gives them good traction on trails. But how do they fare on wet rocks? I tested them during a day of waterfall photography with plenty of different surfaces, and they gave me proper footing in most situations. Smooth, wet rocks are problematic though, and I get more friction when barefoot. As I wrote above, there's always a compromise. But for me, the Aqua X Sport still hits the sweet spot.
In addition to all of that, I can use thin neoprene socks with the Aqua X Sport if I remove the inner sole. And this is a game-changer for me because I can endure freezing water for much longer now and take my time composing my photos.
What Could Be Improved
It would be nice to have a version with a different sole profile to increase the surface area with which the sole connects to the ground. It might increase the friction. On the other hand, it might come at the cost of the shoes' capabilities on trails.
With a price tag of 130$, the Xero Shoes Aqua X Sport are some of the more expensive water shoes you can buy. But considering their features and versatility, I think they are worth the money because they are more than a water shoe. I will also use them to explore cities, for short to medium hikes in a warm climate, and even when going to restaurants during my travels. Also, with the ability to use them together with neoprene socks, photographing in cold water is now much more pleasant.