When we chase waterfalls, we typically encounter water on our hikes, especially if the waterfall has good flow. So we often ask ourselves this question. Which is the best footwear that we should choose on our waterfall hikes? Should it be waterproof hiking boots? Water shoes? Water-resistant shoes? Trail running shoes? Or something else? Indeed, there’s a lot of selection out there, and it’s hard to definitively say which shoe is best in general. After all, everyone has different preferences regarding comfort, function, and even fashion. Furthermore, picking which shoe to use on a waterfall hike depends on things like the trail conditions, length, terrain, weather, climate, and more.
Therefore, we’ll discuss how we consider which hiking footwear to use on our waterfall hikes. That way you have a reference point on what we do, and then you can tailor your decision to your own situation.
Why Do We Need To Consider Which Shoes To Wear For Hiking In Water?
Because waterfall hikes typically involve hiking in water, we have to consider the following issues.
Regarding comfort, we’ve had hikes ruined by discomfort resulting from poor footwear selection or poor fit. And by discomfort, we don’t necessarily mean something superficial where we should just suck it up and press on. Indeed, discomfort could lead to bigger problems like open infection-prone wounds, debilitating injuries, and risk to our general safety on the trail.
For example, we’ve faced issues like chafing (rubbing), which caused open (bleeding) cuts or wounds that could cause infections, especially when you think about how disgusting the inside of a shoe can be while hiking.
In addition, we’ve also faced blisters, which are not only painful, but they can also get infected when the blisters burst.
Julie has even had problems with new callouses that formed on her feet as well as foot pain or numbness due to a combination of improper fit or insoles that didn’t seem to work for her.
We’ve even had experience wearing improper shoes on hikes like an old pair of basketball sneakers in cotton socks on a river hike, which not only made my feet pruny and miserbable, but it also made climbing onto wet boulders very challenging due to poor traction.
As a result, these issues have further complications regarding the health and safety of our feet as well as our body, which brings me to the next aspect of why we care about which shoes we wear on our waterfall hikes.
Another critical aspect of why we care about selecting the right footwear for waterfall hikes is safety. Not only do we care about having feet that are healthy and fully functional, but we also care about maintaining balance and control while hiking.
So the things we look for regarding safety are:
- traction – how well the boots grip the surfaces we walk on
- feet health – minimizing fungus, blisters, pressure points, etc.
- foot protection – preventing injury from kicking rocks, from getting stabbed by sharp objects, from twisting ankles, from poisoning by snake or insect bites, etc.
Indeed, we wouldn’t want to slip-and-fall around a cliff or have that happen to us while crossing a stream or river (especially with carrying expensive equipment like a DSLR camera or phone).
And we definitely wouldn’t want to have our feet rot from within through fungal infections like athletes foot or even trench foot.
We’ve even witnessed people with improper footwear have slips-and-falls on sections of trail that we had little or no difficulty with. Moreover, we’ve witnessed a hiker break her ankle on a trail and we’ve also heard of deaths around the same trails that we’ve done.
So we definitely take our safety very seriously, and it’s a major consideration when we try to weigh the benefits versus the cost of purchasing the right footwear for our waterfall hikes.
Finally, we consider cost when we choose which footwear to use on our waterfall hikes, but we’re not just talking about the cost of the footwear itself.
We also consider long-term cost like how long the boot or water shoe (depending on the situation) is going to last.
Moreover, we look at the potential costs of infection, injury from broken bones or torn ligaments or tendons, search-and-rescue from incapacitation, etc. We even consider potential damage to precious cargo (e.g. a toddler or expensive camera gear) from a bad slip-and-fall.
Obviously, we’d like to prevent those potential costs from happening. That’s why we tend to invest upfront in footwear quality, good health, and injury prevention so we wouldn’t have to pay through the nose in emergencies or injuries later on.
What Types Of Footwear Do We Consider For Waterfall Hikes?
We consider hiking shoes in much the same way as the tools we’ve got around the house. After all, household tools are designed to make specific household tasks easier and safer. In the case of hiking footwear for waterfall hikes, they’re essentially tools that enable us to reach waterfalls more easily and safely.
So with that in mind, the types of footwear that we consider for waterfall hikes are the following:
- Waterproof Hiking Boots
- Waterproof Day Hiking Shoes
- Water Shoes for Hiking
- Trail Running Shoes
- Canyoneering Shoes
There’s a bit of overlap between these types of hiking shoes so what we’ve listed here aren’t all that’s out there on the market. Nevertheless, we’ll relay our experiences with what we’ve used to better inform your own decision making.
Waterproof Hiking Boots
Waterproof Hiking Boots are primarily high-top hiking boots with a membrane (like Gore-tex or GTX) that keeps water on the outside away from our feet. In other words, we can cross creeks or rivers (which we encounter quite frequently on waterfall hikes) as long as the water doesn’t get higher than our ankles.
That said, if we wear such boots, we also wear wool hiking socks to wick away moisture from the sweat of our feet given how less breathable the waterproof membrane can be.
There’s generally a trade-off between breatheability (i.e. how sweaty the feet become) and leakiness (i.e. how much water from the outside makes it past the membrane and into the boot).
If water somehow got into the boot from the top, then the Gore-tex would work against us by trapping and pooling the water in the shoe making them even heavier and forcing each leg to lift more weight with each step.
Moreover, the persistent moisture would create conditions that would compromise the integrity of our feet from fungal infections to blisters as well as cuts from chafing.
While waterproof hiking boots have sturdy ankle support and good traction, they also tend to be heavy.
- Waterproof up to ankles (possibly higher)
- Sturdy and well-built
- Good Foot Protection
- Good Ankle Protection
- Good Traction
- Stiff and Bulky (need to break them in when new)
- If water gets in, it doesn’t come out
- Need to wear with hiking socks (not ordinary cotton socks)
Over the years spent waterfalling, I tend to wear my Vasque St Elias boot more often than not. It’s pretty much my go to boot for almost all of my waterfall hikes. While I use it on overnight backpacking hikes, I also use it on shorter day hikes even if it might be a little overkill (sometimes I’ve gotten surprised by the conditions out in the field so it’s better to be overprepared). For more information about my experiences with this boot, I’ve written up a detailed Vasque St Elias GTX Boot Review.
Prior to using the Vasque St Elias boot, I have also worn the Vasque Talus boot.
Waterproof Day Hiking Shoes
Similar to the waterproof hiking boots, the waterproof day hiking shoes also have a waterproof membrane to keep water out of the shoe. However, in order to save on weight, compromises have been made in terms of ankle support and the water entry point of the shoe.
While I tend to favor the waterproof hiking boots for our waterfall hikes, my wife actually prefers waterproof day hiking shoes in this category.
She typically finds then to be more breathable and lighter, but she does have to figure out ways to stay dry on creek crossings given the lower point of water inundation inside the shoe.
- Flexible and more forgiving than hiking boots
- Foot Protection
- Good Traction
- Waterproof only up to breathable mesh (e.g. up to arch of foot)
- Less ankle protection due to low top
- Mesh is only water-resistant and needs treatment to repel water
My wife tends to wear her KEEN Targhee II low top on our waterfall hikes. She really only wears the high top waterproof hiking boots when she knows she has to.
There are also water resistant (as opposed to waterproof) day hiking shoes for even more breathability. So there’s a bit of overlap between waterproof day hiking shoes and other shoes like trail runners or water-resistant day hiking shoes.
Case in point, our daughter hikes in a KEEN Oakridge Waterproof Hiking Boot, but it seemed more water-resistant than waterproof in her experience.
The key difference between a shoe made for kids versus shoes made for adults is that they’re easy to put on. More specifically, there was no need to tie shoe laces as they had pull-strings to tighten the fit.
Of course, the shoe also had other desirable features like being quick-drying, having decent traction, and having decent ankle support.
Water Shoes for Hiking
While waterproof hiking boots and shoes are designed to keep our feet dry during our waterfall hikes, water shoes allow water to get in and get out. This means that water depth is not an issue on our hikes.
In our experiences, water shoes almost act like sandals with toe protection so they’re very light, flexible, and they’re very breathable given how exposed some parts of the foot are to the open air.
The only drawbacks to this scheme are that every so often, we get a pebble, rock, or sand underfoot which causes us to have to remove the shoe to get rid of them. I’ve also had to deal with persistent dampness on the shoe causing chafing on a long-distance hike to Union Falls, where I didn’t bring a change of shoes.
Finally, the vibram or spider rubber soles on the bottom of water shoes tend to make them pretty grippy, especially in streams and creeks where we’d have to walk on slippery boulders or rocks.
- Water depth not an issue
- Toe protection
- Good Traction on wet surfaces
- They chafe on longer hikes
- Rocks, pebbles, sand, etc. can get under foot
- They get smelly after use
- Minimal ankle protection
Both my wife and I tend to use the KEEN Arroyo II Hiking Sandal primarily when we go on tropical trips abroad where we know that we’re going to hike in a jungle environment.
In the past, we’ve also hiked in KEEN Newport Hiking Sandals, which have an open heel for even more breathability at the cost of less ankle support.
Moreover, if I’m really lazy, I have also done hikes in Classic Chaco Sandals though it has minimal ankle support, no toe protection, and treads wear out fast given how much I walk in them in my day-to-day life and in my travels.
A very specialized class of water shoes are Canyoneering Shoes. They have very good grip on slippery surfaces, they have ankle protection, and they’re sturdy since they’re built for rugged use on technical canyon adventures.
However, they’re costly and we don’t do canyoneering often enough to buy them. Thus, we’d rent these at outfitters nearby water-based hikes like the Zion Narrows and Kanarraville (Kanarra Creek) Falls. These outfitters also provided neoprene socks to keep the feet warm even though the water would be painfully cold.
Trail Running Shoes
Trail Running Shoes are built for running on trails, which can involve stream crossings, rocks, and other types of terrain we’d expect to see on less-developed paths.
Personally, my wife and I don’t use these on our waterfall hikes (which we might reconsider one of these days), but we’ve literally seen almost everyone else wear some form of running shoes or tennis shoes on waterfall hikes.
I honestly couldn’t tell if they were wearing just regular sneakers or if they wore a trail runner, but that goes to show you their appeal as far as looks or fashion are concerned.
That said, we’ve witnessed quite a few occasions where people in these shoes have slipped and fallen due to poor underfoot traction so that’s one of our biggest hesitations with trail runners, and it’s why we have yet to commit to these.
Besides, if trail running shoes work better when you’re running, in my mind, that kind of goes against the principle of being in the moment and spending time on the trail in addition to the destination. So that’s another reason why we haven’t committed to wearing trail running shoes on waterfall hikes.
- Maybe Water Resistant
- Maybe Breathable
- Less Durability
- Less Ankle Support
- Less Foot Protection
- Traction may not work well if going slow
- Designed for going fast (i.e. not being in the moment)
Since we don’t have personal experience with trail running shoes, we can’t recommend a particular shoe. However, this article might shed some more light on whether trail runners might be the right shoe for you.
When and Where Do We Use Which Shoe On Our Waterfall Adventures?
As you can see from the pros and cons of the various types of hiking footwear, we often have to consider when we want to use which type of shoe.
When it comes to general purpose hiking, I like to use my waterproof hiking boot for most of our waterfall day hikes as well as overnight backpacking trips where I want to keep my feet dry. Even if hiking boots might be overkill on some of the shorter waterfall hikes that we do, I at least have the piece of mind knowing that if there’s any unexpected off-trail scrambling or shallow crossings involved, I don’t have too much trouble with them.
In general, I use waterproof hiking boots on mountains, in canyons, deserts, and in temperate rainforests. I might even use them in jungles if I knew in advance that I wouldn’t have to cross deep water.
On the flip side, my wife prefers day hiking shoes for general purpose hiking so water crossings can be more of a problem for her. She only uses waterproof hiking boots if she knows that she needs to.
As far as tropical destinations and anticipated jungle hikes are concerned, we use water shoes. Sometimes we only use these shoes for the whole trip. We don’t often use these shoes for other occasions on hikes domestically.
There’s also no hard-fast rule for picking one shoe over another on an entire hike or trip. Sometimes we bring more than one type of shoe if we find it worth packing the extra weight.
For example, if I knew that I went on a hike that was mostly dry except for a deep river crossing or two, then might just bring along sandals just for changing into them on those deep crossings while wearing waterproof hiking boots the rest of the time.
In my wife’s case, she would bring water sandals for crossing streams while primarily hiking in her waterproof day hiking shoes. In fact, she did just that on a recent visit to Bonita Falls where we had to cross Lytle Creek, which was running pretty high.
Finally, for our travels that involve flying in an airplane, we do have a hack that allows us to get around some of the weight and builk restrictions of our luggage. Therefore, we can bring both hiking boots as well as more comfortable sandals or street shoes.
The hack is this.
We would wear our sturdy hiking boots on the plane and pack the smaller, more flexible street shoes or sandals in our luggage. We’d also wear hiking socks to keep our feet warm when we would take off our hiking boots in the plane.
If you’re wondering how we could get past airport security checks where we’d have to take off our shoes quickly, we generally keep our laces untied and tucked under our feet while wearing the boots. That would allow us to slip in and out of our boots quickly and easily.
However, we do have to be careful about these shoe laces protruding from the boots and potentially getting caught in escalators or conveyor belts.
Final Thoughts / Conclusion
Indeed, hiking to waterfalls (or hiking in general) depends a lot on our comfort and safety, especially on our feet. So it makes total sense why we would want to make sure that we don’t skimp on finding the right footwear for the job of ensuring we have a successful waterfall hike.
Speaking of finding the right footwear, this is something we don’t want to rush, especially when it comes to buying them.
Therefore, we generally go to our local REI Co-op store to try on the hiking boots or shoes before buying them. If you’re not in the West Coast of the USA, there may be other local outfitters that can provide similar services and benefits in addition to the products they sell.
Anyways, while trying on shoes or boots, we also take advantage of a simulated boulder or rock that REI usually provides to at least try out how well the new boots or shoes perform on inclines.
Even though they’re not the cheapest, REI has a generous 1-year return policy, which is important because you really don’t know if the footwear is right until you try them out in the field.
We also feel comfortable going to REI because they usually have helpful staff who know the outdoors. So they tend to be pretty good at answering our questions or providing sound advice. In fact, some employees even run classes or short training sessions on various outdoor topics or skills worth having in the field. If you’d rather do more research, REI employees have written up guides to help you with various other aspects of hiking boots to consider.
As far as saving money is concerned, we’d only consider buy hiking footwear from Amazon if we know the exact size, brand, and model of the footwear to buy. That said, manufacturers tend to change the shoe design from time to time or phase out old product lines.
Amazon also has a more stringent return policy while the returns process is a bit lengthier if things don’t work out (not to mention the environmental impact from all the boxing and bubble wraps involved for every shipment). As a result, the cheaper price often comes with some risk.
Finally, while this article discussed in depth about choosing the right footwear for the job of waterfall hiking, we have to emphasize that there’s no substitute for good decision-making, good preparation, and a good sense of our own capabilities.
After all, we could be wearing the best hiking shoes on the market, but if we make poor decisions or don’t prepare well, we can still increase the chances of having accidents and getting injured. And we have some scars to further drive home this point.
The bottom line is we always want to consider safety and health in everything we do, including chasing waterfalls. Using good hiking footwear for waterfall hikes is only one consideration.
It should complement knowing our limits, knowing what to expect, and considering risk versus reward before doing something foolish.
Come to think of it, waterfalling (and hiking in general) is all about good decision making to reap the rewards of having a good experience and living to tell about the adventure.
If you’d like to learn more about how what kind of hiking boots or other footwear that you’d like to use to improve your waterfall hiking experiences, click on the REI button below. It takes you to a series of articles that their experts have written about everything there is to know about hiking footwear.