I love photographing waterfalls, rivers and seascapes. These subjects make up almost 50% of my portfolio. And when I’m photographing these, I need to have a secure footing to be able to move freely and focus on the subject and the composition. So the subject of this article is proper water shoes, which I finally found after testing several brands over the years.
I’m aware that this isn’t the typical gear overview you’d expect here, as it’s not about a new camera, fancy lens, tripod or camera bag. But water shoes are also indispensable photo equipment for me. Without them, it would be difficult to take some of the photos that require me to go into the water.
Take this photo of 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 picture. I’ve done barefoot photoshoots like this, but it’s never been a comfortable experience. I ended up getting so focused on where to put my feet that the photos I would take were usually missing.
Requirements for water shoes
To find the right water shoes, I had to make a few requirements:
As with all shoes, they should be comfortable to wear. It’s something where my previous water shoes were lacking. I was using a pair of Vibram FiveFinger shoes that had inseams that cut into my feet when sand and water got into the shoes.
They should be easy to put on and take off as I often pack my water shoes when going on a longer hike to a photo spot. Once on site I don’t want to fumble around with my water shoes. I want to slip in and into the water.
Water shoes must be tight. If the shoes slip while wading through a raging river, they are lost. This requirement is in contrast to the previous one. Shoes that are easy to put on often do not fit particularly well. My Vibram shoes were the opposite: they were very snug but difficult to put on.
I want lightweight shoes for my travels and have found that thin-soled barefoot shoes are usually the best choice due to their light weight and small pack size. I’ve even used Dyneema socks in the past. They were from FYF and a bit too minimalistic for my taste.
Water shoes need to dry quickly. If I put them in a warm room overnight, they should be dry the next morning.
A good grip is required. But usually you have to make a compromise. Some shoes use hard rubber for a sturdy sole that lasts a long time. These slide more easily on wet surfaces. On the other hand, there are shoes with a softer sole. While such a sole wears out much faster, it often offers better friction. For me, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Ideally, I can also use my water shoes for short to medium hikes, so they need a good profile and a durable sole.
This looks like a whole list now. Until recently, I wasn’t sure I would find shoes that met all of these requirements. I ordered a few different shoes to test, a pair fresh off a Kickstarter campaign. None of them felt right. But after coming back from Costa Rica a few weeks ago I finally found a good solution.
Xero Shoes Aqua X Sport
After some research, I ended up on the Xero Shoes homepage, where I found a wide range of barefoot shoes, including the Aqua X Sport, a shoe for water activities.
What I like
Thanks to the gray variant, I now have water shoes that 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 every day. Also, I’ve had them on a few trails where they’ve held up well.
The shoes have many small holes in the upper so that water can drain away quickly. These holes also provide ventilation on warm days when I wear them for out of water activities.
The elastic laces allow me to put the shoes on and take them off quickly and I can tie them properly for activities in the water. Once the laces are tight, I don’t have to worry about losing them in a raging river. They also sit snugly at the heel, which provides extra stability. For a good fit, I found 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 light. Therefore, taking it with me on my travels does not add much weight to my luggage.
And what about their quick drying abilities? They feature a removable insole 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 still a bit damp after standing in them all night – but a few minutes in the sun should usually fix that.
Now let’s get to the grip. First off, the shoes have a fairly aggressive sole pattern that gives them good traction on trails. But how do they fare on wet rocks? I tested them on many different surfaces in one day of waterfall photography and they gave me a good grip in most situations. However, smooth, wet rocks are problematic, and I get more friction barefoot. As I wrote above, there is always a compromise. But for me the Aqua X Sport still hits the sweet spot.
Also, I can use thin neoprene socks with the Aqua X Sport if I remove the insole. And that’s a game changer for me because I can now endure ice cold water for much longer 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 could increase friction. On the downside, it could come at the expense of the trail capabilities of the shoes.
Priced at $130, the Xero Shoes Aqua X Sport are among 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 for exploring cities, for short to medium hikes in a warm climate, and even for dining out on my travels. The ability to use them with neoprene socks now makes cold water photography much more comfortable.