I think that every confirmed canoe tripper that I've talked to has had their own opinions about what the "right" thing is to wear on your feet. For every person who loves a particular type of footwear, whether it's shoes, sandals or hiking boots, there's someone else who absolutely detests them. So I'm going to tell you what footwear I like to use and leave it up to you to decide what's right for you.
There are a few practical considerations to keep in mind that I think make sense for any canoe trip:
My summer footwear choices are pretty typical. I use a mix of water shoes, hiking shoes and hiking boots depending on the route and the weather.
These days I'm most likely wearing a pair of Keen's in the canoe and in the water. The Keene's are a lot like an "average" sandal but with a couple of features that I really like when it comes to canoe trips. The first is that they have a closed, rubberized toe. This makes them a lot safer than sandals for stumbling around campsites or walking into sticks and rocks with. The second feature is that the heel on some of the Keen's, and also on some Teva's, is anchored down at the back. This doesn't give as much support as a hiking shoe would, but it can give a fair bit more support than in a typical sandal. The Keene's also come with a Vibram sole which is common across most of the higher quality shoes and boots out. You can still choose between different tread patterns, but the vibram soles are definitely some of the longest lasting and most durable out there.
Some of the other good water shoes including many of the Salomon water shoes go with mesh sides rather than sandle style straps. The benefit of the mesh sides is that they provide more protection from rocks or sticks getting into the shoe in the first place. The downside is that smaller sand, gravel and stones can't get out as easily once they are in the shoe. My personal preference is to stick with the sandal style straps although I have learned to choose the nylon webbing over the leather as it doesn't stretch as much.
Foam Crocs sandals are another popular choice for water shoes. They are very popular and relatively inexpensive, so I understand why people like them. That said, they just don't work well for me. I find that my foot slips around too much and they don't give me much traction. I do have a pair of Crocs and the one place I really like using them is at the cottage in the winter. Indoors on a flat (ok, mostly flat) floors, that thick foam sole provides great insulation from the unheated floor. The other downside (or should I say upside?) to Crocs is that they float. That might sound like a good thing should they slip off in the water, but I can tell you from experience that if it happens in a river, the last time you might ever see you Crocs is as they float on downstream and out of sight.
Many of the most heavily used portages in Algonquin have been developed to a point where they are relatively smooth walking. On those portages, I'll usually just keep wearing my Keene's for the portage and not worry about changing into shoes or boots. Of course, not all the portages are that easy, so there are times I'll pull out the heavier footwear.
Hiking shoes are pretty common for everyday use now and in fact I'm usually wearing a pair of Merrell hiking shoes myself. Being completely closed in and having a full heel, hiking shoes give you more protection and more support than even a good pair of water shoes will give you. Most of the better quality hiking shoes will have a Vibram sole, the same as you will find on the hiking boots and on the better water shoes. Some other good brands for hiking shoes include Garmont and Salomon.
If these are the shoes that you are most likely to wear when going out for a day hike or even just taking the dogs out for a run, then they really are a good choice to bring along on the canoe trip. In the summer I usually do bring my Merrell's along as my "dry shoes". These are the ones that stay in the canoe pack most of the day and I bring them out once we get to camp so that I can change out of my wet Keen's and give my feet a chance to dry out.
Speaking of drying out, you will find quite a few hiking shoes available with Gortex linings. While I love Gortex for waterproof, breathable coats and rain pants I don't particularly like it in shoes or boots. The material for the shoes is quite a bit thicker than the material in a coat and I don't find that the shoes with Gortex breath very well. I also find that I wear through the Gortex lining pretty quickly, especially at the toes, so the shoes don't stay waterproof for very long.
Of course not all of the portages out there are nice smooth trails. On our Petawawa trip from Lake Travers to McManus Lake, we knew there would be some rugged portages and it was a given that I was wearing my hiking boots for the full day. That didn't mean I was getting away without stepping in the water, it just meant that I knew from the start of the trip that I'd be wearing wet boots. Wearing a couple of pairs of merino wool socks inside the boots helped to wick as much water as possible away from my feet and protect from blisters.
I know there has been a big transition to "light" hiking boots such as a lot of the Hi-Tec boots over the years and there are some good manufacturers out there. When moving up from a hiking shoe to a hiking boot, the big thing I'm looking for is more ankle support. Even if you are in good physical condition and running or hiking regularly, ankle support is still something to take seriously when you are planning to portage over rough, rocky terrain carrying a heavy pack and possibly even carrying the canoe and your pack at the same time.
My personal preference is still for a pretty solid full leather hiking boot. Currently I'm using a pair of Asolo hiking boots that I've had for about 3 years. The pair before that was a pair of Garmont hiking boots. A good leather hiking boot can be pretty expensive but the good news is that this is one place where the higher price usually does result in lasting longer. Instead of buying $60 - $100 boots and having them fall apart in under a year, the $250+ boots have actually been lasting me 3 years or more
The spring is the time when I am most likely to get strange looks at the put in and on the portages. Our first trip of the year for the last 10 years or so has been a trout fishing trip to Algonquin either the last weekend in April or the first weekend in May, right after trout season opens up. Ideally that will be only a week or 2 after the ice has gone out and the water will still be cold which lets the trout feed in fairly shallow water. By cold, I mean the water is still anywhere from 5° - 12°C. At that time of year my goal is to keep my feet dry.
During the day, I'm most likely going to be wearing a good old pair of rubber boots. Now rubber boots are known for giving nasty blisters and not providing much ankle support at all, so that does make my choice sound a little strange. However, I find that with a couple of pairs of wool socks and a fairly snug pair of rubber boots that they work out pretty well for me. Just keep in mind that all boots have at least one hole in them - at the top - so while I don't go looking for waders, I do look for rubber boots with a couple extra inches of height.
There are other options for cold water boots and footwear, including Chota mukluks and other neoprene boots or even neoprene socks for inside your boots. I've heard mixed reports on the neoprene socks and while the Chota mukluks do seem to have a good tread on them, I don't think that they will provide any more support than my usual rubber boots.
For around camp, I still recommend something waterproof for the spring. While we have had spring trips with temperatures up above 20°C, we have also had several trips where we got a few inches of wet snow. After learning the hard way that running shoes aren't too comfortable in wet snow, I started packing a pair of duck boots. These have worked really well for me, especially if I need to make a trip outside in the middle of the night.
©Loon Island Outdoors 2013