Published May. 3, 2021

Swim in the ocean—or a river, lake, or any other natural body of water—long enough, and you’re bound to step on something unpleasant. Sharp rocks, slippery seaweed, unidentifiable mush, and the like hide under the surface, posing a threat to any two-legged landlubbers who trod unaware. At best, running into one of these underwater hazards will make you say, “Ouch!” At worst, they’re a recipe for a serious cut and/or infection. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t splash around in natural bodies of water. Just make sure you have a quality pair of shoes to protect your feet. The best water shoes will protect your feet from stubbing your toes, stepping on something sharp, and slipping on wet surfaces, and will add a little style to your beach and shore days to boot. Read on for our guide to swimming shoes for the whole family. 

Factors to consider when choosing the best water shoes

You could try wearing an old pair of sneakers as your swimming shoes. But we don’t recommend it. Your standard pair of land-shoes will stay wet for a long time, leading to funky odors and blisters. The best water shoes, on the other hand, are designed specifically for that purpose, so they’re comfortable to wear wet or dry, and dry quickly once you’re out of the water. Many have mesh sections or drain holes so water can escape easily. Swimming shoes are also lightweight, so they won’t weigh you down like a regular old waterlogged shoe would. 

When shopping for swimming shoes, first consider where you’d like to use them. If that will primarily be the ocean, you’ll want a shoe that stays put, like a full-coverage slip-on or lace-up shoe. A stiff sole and toe caps will offer the most protection. If lakes are more your style, durability and traction might not be as important (but don’t forget about how slippery a wet pier or dock can be). Rivers and creeks demand shoes or sandals that stay in place with sturdy straps or laces. 

Do you want to wear your water shoes in and out of the water? Some pairs do very well on dry land, too, thanks to quick-drying, quick-draining properties. This is helpful for river runners or tubers who need to jump in and out of the river to portage sections and scout rapids, or hikers who’ll be exploring very wet trails. It’s also great quality in kids’ water shoes, as little ones might be dashing from splash park to lake to puddle to backyard on a given summer day. Look for more cushioning and support in a dual-purpose shoe like this.

The level of protection water shoes bring is always superior to bare feet, but does vary depending on the design. Soft, stretchy aqua socks are fine for sandy bottoms with calm water, but you’ll want firm soles with solid traction if you’ll be scrambling around on wet rocks. And in very swift water, toe caps add even more coverage. Of course, sturdier, more durable shoes will last longer than something lighter, though they might be more expensive.

Finally, who will be wearing the shoes? Baby water shoes should be flexible for beginner walkers (or crawlers), but still, provide protection from underwater hazards. Toddler water shoes and kids’ water shoes should have more heft to them, while still remaining easy to get on and off. Water shoes for men and water shoes for women come in many more styles, so use your intended activities and locations to narrow down choices.

Tiny feet need protection, too

If your mini-me is ready to join you in the water this summer, protect those tiny toes with a pair of baby water shoes. Little feet need feel and flexibility, so a softer pair works best. After all, beginner walkers are still getting a sense of how to move, so they need to be able to feel the ground a bit. You’ll also want something that’s comfortable to wear all day if necessary; no parent needs a day of wardrobe changes as kids move in and out of the water.  

The best baby water shoes are easy to get on and off, yet still stay put on your kiddo’s feet in the water: That means yes to Velcro straps or slip-on styles. 

Do you need toddler water shoes?

All parents know that once a kid graduates from those tentative first steps into full-on toddling, the whole game changes. Toddler water shoes for this crowd should be sturdier than baby shoes, as this age group is notoriously hard on apparel. Look for a style that won’t slip off when your kiddo is splashing around in the water or running around at the park. Consider a pair that doubles as comfortable summer sandals, too. Let’s face it, toddler feet grow quickly, and do you really want to replace more than one pair of footwear every summer?

Are you looking for hiking water shoes?

Some trails are just plain wet, whether by design or by accident. Think desert slot canyons, mountain paths with countless creek crossings, or any trail on a rainy summer day. For these places, hiking water shoes—that is, sturdy, full-coverage that can easily handle going in and out of the water all day—are essential. (They’re not a bad idea for paddling or boating, either.)

If you need your hiking shoes to do double duty as water shoes, make sure they’re comfortable and supportive on dry trails, too. You’ll need excellent traction and uppers that will keep dirt and rocks out. The best hiking water shoes will handle water with quick-drying synthetic mesh fabric and/or drainage to make sure no water gets trapped inside. 

Do you need river shoes?

When you’re rafting, kayaking, canoeing, tubing, or just splashing around in rivers, you’ll need specialized footwear. No loose slip-ons will do: River shoes should close with durable straps, buckles, or laces so you won’t worry about losing them in a swift current. River bottoms are notorious for sharp rocks and submerged branches, so you’ll also want to choose shoes with tough soles. 

River sports often involve a lot of jumping into and out of the water as you launch your boat, portage around tricky sections, and scout the river ahead. So a pair that can handle hiking is a smart pick. 

Want to save some money and grab some cheap water shoes?

If you balk at the idea of paying $80 or more, fear not: There are plenty of bargain options out there, too. When you don’t need to worry about highly athletic pursuits or turbulent water—think lounging at the beach or lakeshore, or more casual boating—then a more affordable pair will do just fine. 

When shopping for cheap water shoes, keep in mind the tradeoffs you’ll likely need to make. Shoes with a lower price tag probably use cheaper materials, and therefore won’t last for years. Support and traction won’t be as good, and you might not get the most secure fit. On the plus side, they’re often more lightweight and packable than beefier shoes.

Best baby water shoes: BMCiTYBM Baby Shoes

BMCiTYBM Baby Shoes

These adorable mesh baby water shoes provide the perfect balance of support and comfort for tiny feet. BMCiTYBM

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Available in a rainbow of fun colors, these breathable baby water shoes make for a great water-filled day. A flexible sole aids balance while still protecting toes and the bottom of baby’s foot. A light foam cushion feels great underfoot.

Best toddler water shoes: KEEN Unisex Kid Newport H2 Sandal

KEEN Unisex Kid Newport H2 Sandal

The popular adult style works well for small feet, too, thanks to its supportive design and easy-to-clean properties.

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The Newport’s rugged sole is strong enough for hiking and all-day playing, with a signature protective toe cap to prevent stubs. The polyester uppers dry quickly and add coverage to the top of the foot. With straps as well as a cinched-lace system, your toddler won’t leave them behind while dashing around the park or the shore.

Best hiking water shoes: Merrell Hydrotrekker Water Shoe

Merrell Hydrotrekker Water Shoe

With great support and traction, these fast-drying mesh shoes will let you plunge into any water source with confidence.

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A truly amphibious shoe will have anti-slip soles for both dry and wet terrain, protection against dangers both above and below the waterline, and easy-draining fabric to let your feet dry out. The Hydrotrekkers deliver on all fronts, plus boast a secure lacing system. 

Best river shoes: Chaco Z1 Classic Sport Sandal

Chaco Z1 Classic Sport Sandal

There’s a reason these durable, strappy hiking sandals have been the choice of rafting guides and paddling enthusiasts for decades.

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Chacos have become synonymous with “river shoes,” thanks to their grippy rubber soles and custom-fit polyester webbing that wraps around the foot for a snug fit. These tough sandals are comfortable for hiking, too, and an antimicrobial treatment keeps sweat and river gunk from stinking them up. 

Best cheap water shoes: Nautica Athletic Water Shoes

Nautica Athletic Water Shoes

These slip-on aqua socks give just the right amount of support, and shield your soles from rough surfaces, for less than $30.

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Ultralight, quick-drying, and streamlined, these affordable water shoes—you might know them as aqua socks, which remain a great product name—have light rubber soles and stretchy, comfortable uppers. Made for lighter activities like beach walking, gardening, and pool parties, they’re also very compressible for easy packing and travel.


Q: Should water shoes be tight or loose?

Ideally, the best water shoes will be neither tight nor loose: they should have a snug yet comfortable fit. You want them to stay on your feet as you kick, splash, and bump against underwater rocks, after all. A tighter fit will also help prevent sand and gravel from getting inside the shoe and irritating your feet, and makes the shoes much easier to walk in. 

Q: Should you wear water shoes in the ocean?

Yes, it’s a great idea to wear water shoes in the ocean. The ocean bottom is uneven and murky, and you might step on rocks, glass, and other undesirable items as you’re wading. Water shoes provide plenty of protection for your feet with sturdy soles and toe caps, so you can enjoy the waves without worrying about what’s underfoot. 

Q: How do I choose water shoes?

Choosing water shoes can be tricky. First, think about where you’ll be going and what you’ll be doing there. Calm lakes, casual boating, and pools? A lightweight, flexible (and usually, very affordable) aqua sock-style water shoe is a good bet. Raging rivers, the ocean, or desert canyons? Look for water shoes with good traction, thicker soles, toe caps, and secure lacing or straps. All of the above types of water shoes should be made of quick-drying synthetic materials and feature drain holes or ports so your feet stay comfortable when you step out of the water, too.

The final word on choosing the best water shoes

No more stubbed toes, sharp pokes, or “eew, what was that?”s: The best water shoes will make your summer swimming sessions in rivers, lakes, and the ocean all the more fun. When considering your options, make sure to match your favorite water activities with the style of swimming shoes. Think about how the shoes stay on your feet, comfort, traction, and level of protection. Also, make sure baby water shoes are flexible and comfortable, and that toddler water shoes can keep up with energetic littles ones on dry land and in the water. 

Related: Throw some shade (the good kind) with the best beach tent.