Wednesday, April 3, 2019

River Footwear

As a bit of a follow up to my earlier post about developing some river footwear and with the prospect of river trips starting to loom large in people's minds I thought I'd share my very-biased opinions regarding river footwear.  I could have also titled this post:  "Why sandals suck!" but that probably would have turned people off enough to not open it....

As everyone knows, good footwear is key to many outdoor pursuits, and kayak/raft trips are no exception, with some significant challenges to overcome:  foot protection, drainability, good outsole traction, grit/sand barrier, quick dry time, and durability in a harsh environment.   But unfortunately, in my notso humble opinion the footwear companies have created an entire industry that is….wrong.   

Simply put, I think that the concept of wearing sandals on the river, which has been at the heart of the footwear industry for some time, are actually are pretty big liabilities on a river trip.  All the way from flip flops to $100 Chacos and Keens, sand and and grit get under the straps where it abrades against the tops of your feet, that sand and grit also gets under your feet and abrades against the more-tender/sensitive bottom of your feet (thereby creating the need for the famous one-footed “Chaco Dance”), exposes the tops of your feet to be fried by the sun because sunblock wears off that much more quickly in the water (and Skin Cancer Boy Tom says that the Teva Tan is not that cool and is even stupid):

Note the burn over the peeling skin!  
and most importantly your toes are exposed.  Particularly on the desert rivers, EVERYTHING in the river corridor at foot level loves to destroy toes, from cholla and barrel cactus to mormon tea to scorpions and rattlers to the most evil toe-predator:  sharp rocks.  The GC is stuffed with razor sharp limestone, abrasive sandstone, and every other sharp rock known to man.   
A nice river sandal injury.  
Additionally, dry boxes, coolers, ammo cans, etc all are foot-abusers.  I’ve seen plenty of painful cactus pricks, torn toenails, badly-sunburned feet, and also was on a Grand trip with a guy who broke his toe on a rock hauling a load up a beach; believe you me, the inability to walk puts a huge damper on a GC trip.  
The Keen Newport has been a staple in the sandal world for at least a dozen years, and this ad was on the back cover of the American Whitewater magazine that arrived today.  I learned my lesson with these on an Escalante river trip some years ago when I butchered both the bottoms and the tops of my feet with grit under both my foot and the straps that I couldn't get out (Screens or no screens; I guess that's what they are trying to invoke here? not sure)  Perhaps the sandals are good to protect this guys feet from getting slapped on this huge 15 foot jump....  
I think that a lot of the popularity associated with sandals on river trips comes from guides, who proudly wear not only sandals but actually take it a step further and wear flip flops.  But note that guided trips rarely leave the river corridor, and when they do they take people on the mellowest hikes in the canyon. I have a friend who was a GC guide for 15 years and she’s never been more than a hundred yards up the Grand's Elves' Chasm (a gorgeous and somewhat complex mile or so of terraces and waterfalls).  Also, river guides in the US are typically guiding on easier rivers where they run the mellowest lines, and thus the odds of them coming out of the boat and losing their flip flops is really low.  But getting barefooted in the river environment - even if you're on the Snake or the Arkansas and not on the Stikine - is a huge safety liability; I've seen lots of people get pretty much paralyzed when they are trying to navigate river rocks barefoot when they need to be mobile but have lost their sandals.  

Ironically, sandals are also heavier than shoes.  When I was facilitating testing for Merrell and Chaco (Merrell owns Chaco) I could always tell when a carton showed up if it was shoes or sandals, because the carton of sandals was so much heavier.  Chacos - with their polyurethane midsole and thick rubber outsole - weigh about a pound apiece in a men's size 9 or so, whereas most running shoes are in the 11 oz range and there are plenty of lighter running shoes that are in the 8-9 oz range.  And they tend to hike much heavier in the sand thanks to the turned-up toe that acts as a sand shovel every step.  

But at least sandals are also more expensive:  according to the super-random, woefully-outdated, and byzantine "Harmonized Tariff Schedule" sandals typically have a 37.5% duty rate, whereas most imported athletic shoes have an 8-10% duty rate.  Here's an example of what shoe companies have to navigate:
I once heard one shoe company owner say: "We don't design shoes that people want, we design shoes according to custom codes."
So even though sandals are less expensive to make (they don't have an upper that requires sewing) the tariff costs are passed on via the markup to the dealer and again to the consumer.  

So what about "Water Shoes" that are supposedly the happy medium between a less-protective sandal and a non-water shoe?  Having done lots of testing with such models as the
Salomon Tech Amphibian, the Merrell Waterpros, and Chaco Torrent Pro  I’ve found a few critical problems:  
  • Usually water shoes are characterized by having a more-open mesh on the upper, which creates an even worse sand/grit motel where the sand checks in, but it don’t check out (and “shandals” such as the Keen in the ad above (you can use the link to get to a bottom view) are even worse in this regard)  
  • The manufacturers can't seem to decide if the shoes are deck shoes -where "siping" (razor cutting) is helpful: 
Siping is good for nice flat fiberglass decks, but it doesn't help at all on uneven rocks.  
  • They do the siping on lugs that are too big and too closely spaced together to make essentially just a uniformly flat sole, ala the Chaco Torrent or the Keen Newport (if you look at the bottom views of those two shoes).  Traction mostly comes in two forms:  the outsole lugs (depth, design, angularity, and the space between them) and rubber compound.  So more widely-spaced, angular, and deeper lugs have the ability to contour around and grab onto rocks, mud, and dirt better than close-together and shallow lugs with siping.  
  • Many of these water shoes have fancy drainage systems integrated into the sole, which looks great in the displays where water is pouring in the top and draining out the bottom.  However, those displays are missing a critical component:  a foot, which fills up the entire volume of the shoe (so there's little opportunity for water pooling between the shoe and the foot) and your foot is basically is covering over the drainage ports anyway.  This isn't necessarily a negative...other than those systems are difficult to execute in the manufacturing process and thus makes the shoes that much more expensive.  
The dirty secret that the shoe companies don’t want you to know - or even admit to themselves, which is more likely the case is this:  The Best River shoes are.....running shoes.  Most running shoes have the right amount of tight/fine mesh to not let sand in but also drain water out very quickly, and the synthetic materials dry plenty fast, and their outsoles typically provide better traction.     

Trail runnning shoes in particular typically have fairly widely-space aggressive outsole lugs that  provide good tractio.  Note, however, that particularly road running shoes typically sport a rubber compound that is harder/more durable than it is grippy (traction and durability typically are opposing factors).  I’ve complained to companies that I’ve worked with that their soles outlive their uppers, which they freely admit.   I can guarantee that in a river environment with fun side hikes, no matter how sticky your rubber is there will be at least one point and maybe points daily where you’ll desperately be hoping that your outsoles hold well on whatever slab/edge or underwater/shoreline rock are relying on to keep from slipping. Good sticky outsoles are used on La Sportivas (note that they have 3 different stickinesses), Salomon SpeedCross, and I’ve found that Vibram’s MegaGrip sole compound is really good (here is a more comprehensive list that REI carries).  Note that some of the shoes listed on that site with the MegaGrip are “puffy” shoes – ie Hokas and an Altra or two. I love Hokas and have run a zillion trail miles in them (and the Hoka Speedgoat has MegaGrip) , but for river and bank and ledgy scrambling I find them to be a little too unstable and have no edging capabilities, which is at times handy: 
Greg Hanlon prefers the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor; a bit burlier than their true running shoes, but has Sportiva's stickiest rubber. He also prefers to climb in the hot sun in his drysuit.....
Note that new-school lightweight/flexible shoes like Nike Frees have a mostly-foam sole with rubber only on the heel and toe areas, which has the worst traction of all and isn't very durable in a river/outdoor environment, but at least it's soft enough to let cactus needles poke all the way through to your foot! 

A great combination of light, low profile, quick drying, and protective shoes that fit inside a kayak, pack raft, or under raft thwarts or floor straps are the Merrell Glove series.   
Merrell Trail Glove 5 Men's High RiseDespite the fact that the barefoot running craze very much waned at a larger level, there are still enough enthusiasts that Merrell has continued with their line and have done well with them, and they are totally fine for many of the medium-sized hikes that are found on rivers.  

If you're not a runner and are accustomed to using “hiking” and not “running” shoes per se, that's fine since there are good versions there (the soles are likely a little stiffer so you won't get the same ability to contour your foot around rocks), but don’t get lured into using real leather or Goretex hiking shoes/boots; they will never dry (leather and Goretex footwear another vast conspiracy that I’ll wait for another post to rant about!).  

It's also tempting to bring your old, beat up running shoes, but be wary of this: river/hiking trips put plenty of wear on a pair already, so you don’t need to give the shoes a head start on blowing up on the river (which I have had happen; duck tape doesn't provide much drainage or traction!).   

My enthusiasm for running shoes aside, for most trips it's probably a good idea to bring two pairs and commit one to being wet (many rivers' side hikes are short and walking in wet/drying shoes is fine) and one to being dry for longer hikes and in camp.  Wearing socks  - even in the water - also goes a long ways towards avoiding foot abrasion from the sand. 

On my last Grand Canyon trip I sent out a somewhat truncated version of this post to our crew and.... literally everyone brought sandals!  Chacos, Tevas, flip flops...they were all there.   And those who brought running shoes brought….Nike Frees!  Of course it worked out just fine (other than I was one of the ones who cut my big toe while walking barefoot on the beach!), but that August trip was damn hot, we had a bunch of young kids, it was fiarly short trip, and our crew wasn’t that motivated for blistering-hot side canyon adventures so we spent virtually all of our time in the river corridor and I think our biggest group hike was up to the Nankoweap granaries.  

The fact that our crew ignored my rant was a good reminder that with this opinion I am definitely shoveling shit against the tide, and there's no doubt that pretty much everyone will still take their sandals on river trips, but you might at least want to throw in a pair of running shoes....

See you on the river!