When you picture a pair of boat shoes, what comes to mind?
Tan or brown loafers your grandfather wore when weighing anchor back in the day? (Especially if your grandfather was, in fact, John F. Kennedy.)
The Original Boat Shoe
Before breaking down our boat shoe choices, let’s talk about boating shoe history (which is shorter than you’d expect).
Far from relics of the Age of Sail, traditional boat shoes were invented in 1935 by Paul Sperry, the man whose name is synonymous with the leather and/or canvas shoes designed for use on a boat.
Tired of sliding on wet boat decks, Sperry cut tread patterns into the soles of leather shoes. This quick-thinking ingenuity added the traction he needed while scurrying around on swell-rocked boats.
With Sperry’s brilliance, the boat shoe was born. And it’s been popular ever since.
Essential Items of Nautical Apparel
Boat shoes are extremely important, but they’re only one component of a boater’s apparel. Don’t get aboard a boat without the right gear for the potential conditions.
Whether I’m climbing into a canoe or boarding a boat, there are three clothing items I carry, regardless of the trip’s length or weather conditions: A good hat, a rain jacket and sunglasses.
On the water, a good hat is worth its weight in gold if it protects you from the sun and rain. I use a Headsweats Boonie Hat. Its wide brim shades my face and neck from the sun’s rays, and it can also be rolled and stuffed in a pocket when not needed.
Getting soaked to the skin is no fun. It can even be dangerous and develop hypothermia in cold conditions. Stay dry with a Columbia Sportswear OutDry Ex Shell (Available on Amazon).
Finally, when the sun comes up, it’s bright on the water. Protect your eyes from UV rays and make sure you can see with a pair of Sunski Classics Polarized Sunglasses (Available on Amazon). They look great, work well and the brand recently released frames made entirely out of eco-friendly recycled plastic.
How to Choose the Best Boat Shoes for You
When aboard a boat, you’re not always in a perilous situation, but you still need to consider safety. When considering a boat shoe, performance must outweigh appearance.
Siping & Tread Pattern
Any boat shoe worth considering should offer decent traction.
Start by looking at the siping (tread pattern) on the shoe’s soles. If you’re going for a leisurely cruise, even a modest tread is fine. But if you’re crewing a racing sailboat, you need more aggressive siping to keep surefooted during white-knuckle keeling action.
A boating shoe’s main materials should be fabrics either water-resistant or quick to dry.
Ironically, fully waterproof boat shoes not what you want either. Once the water gets inside, it’ll become trapped there and prune your feet. Instead, consider options with built-in drainage ports.
Keep in mind how some materials, like leather, require additional care and maintenance. While other materials, like neoprene, can be treated roughly and is washing-machine safe.
Finally, a pair of slip-on boat shoes is great for those casual bayside trips or for some deep sea fishing. But if you’re engaging in high-energy marine activities—like kayaking or the aforementioned racing—you need a boat shoe to stay securely on your foot.
The best fasteners for your boat shoes are laces and, oftentimes, velcro.
Boat shoes should have a sole that’s either white or at least light in color.
Avoid leaving scuff marks on the white decking featured in most boats. If you’re considering shoes with dark-colored soles, it might be a red flag it’s not a true boating shoe!
A Matter of Style
As in other areas of life, when it comes to boat shoes, looks do matter. When in doubt, it’s sometimes better to be overdressed, so go with a classic brown leather or canvas boat shoe if unsure what the occasion calls for.
But on the other hand, a pair of traditional top-siders can also get funny looks from, say, a community of laid-back paddlers.
My top pick is a great go-between when it comes to boat shoes that are casual yet handsome.
The 5 Best Shoes for Boating in Comfort and Style
Now let’s talk five specific pairs of boat shoes from brands that know their way around the water. Keep in mind there may well be room in your closet (and lifestyle) for two or more of these options.
The Classic Boat Shoes
For many boaters, the best choice is still the classic Sperry Top-Sider Leather Boat Shoe (Available on Amazon).
These timeless shoes slip on and off with ease. Thanks to their natural leather’s durability, they stand up to salty brine and sunshine that often dry out a shoe’s materials.
The soles offer a decent grip on both wet or dry decks. Although you shouldn’t trust a pair on super slick surfaces, such as those coated with mud or oil. But chances are, you’ll probably be wearing Sperry’s to the club during cocktail hour, not while out on the ocean.
The Best Boat Shoes for Paddlers
I love kayaking, but I prefer to paddle the harbor and explore coastlines. I don’t run rapids or launch off waterfalls. And I’m certainly no adrenaline-junkie drainage ditch kayaker. Thus, my casual water shoes have always served well.
But for those who seek more aggressive outings, a pair of Vibram KSO Evo Cross Training Shoes (Available on Amazon) offers the support for firm paddling control of a kayak (while staying inside of the cockpit). These Vibrams have superb grip and a natural feel, helping paddlers become a veritable extension of their ‘yak.
The Best Active Water Shoes
These snug, slip-on Speedos offer grip underfoot and protection against scrapes everywhere else. Plus, they’re quick to dry after and quite affordable!
They’re excellent for gripping surfboards and work tucked inside diving fins while scuba diving.
The Best Dressy Boat Shoes
If you need classy boat shoes to accompany a button-down ensemble with khaki slacks, your best bet’s the Docker’s Vargas Leather Boat Shoe (Available on Amazon). These Docker’s offer similar moderate performance specs as the Sperry Top-Siders, but can be polished to a high shine if you need to sport a more refined-casual style.
The Best Boat Shoes Overall
My go-to favorite boat shoes are my Astral Brewer 2.0 Water Shoes (Available on Amazon).
They’re a blend of a classic boat shoe and a casual sneaker, featuring laces and a comfortable built-in sock liner (making them comfortable without socks). The tread pattern keeps you surefooted even on slippery boat decks and docks.
Best of all, these shoes feature toe and heel drain ports, and a highly breathable mesh upper panel so your foot stays nice and dry even after total immersion. I wear mine in my canoe and kayak and on boats and docks and they never feel out of place.
Remember, it may behoove you to own two, or even several, pairs of boating shoes. “The best boat shoe” is very relative: What might be right for one boater, is not practical for another.
And if you’re serious about life on the water, your feet need options. You have more than one pair of shoes you wear on land, don’t you?