When you think about what surfers normally wear, you don’t picture them with shoes on. After all, who wears shoes in the ocean? Flippers maybe, but shoes?
However, it’s not as strange as you think. There are shoes designed to be worn in the water. Water shoes, or booties as they are commonly referred to, can be worn to keep your feet warm and provide a level of physical protection much like a wetsuit can.
Surf shoes are made from the same materials as wetsuits are and therefore offer similar benefits but for your feet. In addition to providing warmth, they also protect your feet from coral, sharp stones, and shells when entering the water.
In this article, we go over the benefits and downsides of wearing surf shoes and why it may be a good idea for surfers to wear them.
Why should surfers wear surf shoes?
As mentioned, surf shoes are not commonly worn, but maybe they should be.
You can think of surf shoes kind of like waterproof socks that you can wear in the ocean. Why might a surfer want to wear booties when so many others are okay with going barefoot? There are many good reasons:
While a wetsuit covers a majority of your body, you can lose a lot of body heat through your head, hands, and feet.
Unless you only plan on surfing during the summer, at some point the temperature will drop and you will be surfing in increasingly colder waters. If you aren’t protecting your exposed areas, then you can begin to feel them getting more numb until the cold is unbearable.
By wearing booties, you can keep your feet warm so that you can surf in colder waters and surf longer in general without feeling cold.
The ocean is full of dangers even without considering the risk of drowning. You could collide with other surfers, and since most surfers don’t wear any protective headgear, that could lead to a nasty concussion or even worse.
You are also very likely to get nasty cuts just walking into the ocean if you happen to be surfing over a reef or a rocky point break. Similarly, you might fall off your board and come into contact with sharp rocks or coral reefs, and a wetsuit provides some level of protection here.
Similarly, by wearing booties, you have some level of protection walking to and from the ocean, and we aren’t just talking about from the cold.
If there are wildlife in the area that are prone to stinging, such as jellyfish, sea lice, and blue bottles, then your feet will be protected along with the rest of your body when worn with a wetsuit. For total protection, consider wearing gloves and a hood as well.
An additional benefit, though rarely the reason why a surfer would choose to wear booties, is the extra grip they provide.
If you are running low on surf wax (or just don’t want to deal with your hair getting pulled off, then a pair of booties with good traction can help you stay on your board.
That said, you could also just make use of both surf wax and surf shoes for the most grip of all.
Downsides of wearing surf shoes
There aren’t that many downsides to wearing surf shoes unless you are wearing them during the wrong conditions or are wearing a poorly fitting one. Here are some issues you might encounter:
Much in the same way that wearing a wetsuit on a hot summer day can cause you to get too warm, you can contribute to this problem by also wearing booties when it’s already warm outside. Seeing as how most surfers spend their time above the water on their surfboards, they are exposed to the sun’s blazing heat and are at risk of a heat stroke.
If you feel that you are really starting to heat up, a quick fix is to let the warm water out and let new fresh water in for some temporary relief. However, at some point the water will warm up again, so you will have to keep doing it again every few minutes.
Reduced sensation of your board
Unsurprisingly, wearing shoes while surfing reduces the feeling of the surfboard on your feet.
This may be advantageous to some people who would prefer not to feel the surf wax on their feet, but more often than not it creates a feeling of disconnect between the surfer and their board. Rather than feeling like the surfboard is an extension of yourself, you may instead lose that feeling.
Particularly if you typically surf barefoot, you may need an adjustment period before you get used to surfing with water shoes.
Loss of balance
For similar reasons as above, you may lose your balance when wearing booties. Our toes are used to a large degree for balance, and reducing some of that sensation by wearing booties can make you fall off your board more easily.
You can experience this very easily by having someone gently push you while you’re barefoot; you will immediately feel your toes try to curl up as it tries to grip the ground for balance. Try doing the same thing with shoes on and it’s just not quite the same.
Again, there will be an adjustment period as you figure out a new way to maintain your balance with water shoes on. Experienced surfers will likely be able to switch back and forth easily, but newbies may struggle.
An additional expense
Don’t you hate it when you’re just trying to enjoy a hobby, but then you find out that you supposedly need a “crucial” accessory to make things easier, and that accessory can be further supported by more accessories, and it feels like you are going down a never ending rabbit hole of wasteful spending?
Thankfully, surfing is a relatively cheap hobby to take up, and surfing shoes are not costly, but this might get you started down a path you don’t want to go down. Maybe next you’ll “need” gloves, then a hood, then you need better booties, etc. At some point you just need to say, “No thanks, I don’t need that” and rein in your spending.
With that said, booties are hardly a bad investment if you plan on surfing in colder waters. However, it might be a waste if you only surf during idyllic conditions.
Are surf shoes for you?
Now that you know the pros and cons of wearing surf shoes, now it’s time to decide whether you need it or not. In this section, we will go over some of the questions you should be asking yourself before you finalize your decision.
Are you forced to end your surfing session because your feet are always cold?
It’s always a shame when you have to end a surfing session for reasons other than that you’ve had enough fun for one day. Wearing a wetsuit goes a long way in increasing the time you can spend in the water, but if you have any “weak links” such as feet that are getting too cold, then consider wearing water shoes as well.
Are your feet taking a beating?
If you are worried about entering or exiting the water over reef and rocks, or you are worried about stepping on something pointy, then booties will make this process painless.
Similarly, if you’re worried about sea life stinging your exposed feet, then most water shoes are thick enough to prevent the stingers from reaching your skin.
With that said, water shoes have their limits as well. You should not wear them like regular shoes; concrete and gravel will quickly wear down the outsole. Similarly, if you step on something really pointy, it can still pierce through the water shoe and reach your skin. Don’t throw caution into the wind just because you’re wearing water shoes!
What is the ocean floor like and will you be standing on it?
Knowing what’s at the bottom of the ocean and how close you are to it goes a long way in ensuring your safety.
If it’s just sediment then you’ll likely be fine even without booties. However, if there are rocks, coral reefs, or any other jagged or sharp obstacles, then surf shoes are an option to protect your feet.
Questions you may have regarding surf booties
What types of booties are there?
There are two main types of surf booties on the market: a standard boot with no fancy features, and a split toe design which is the bee’s knees
Starting off with the standard one, it is cheaper and therefore more widely available but it’s nothing special. As mentioned, it can take away some of the sensation of the board on your feet and makes it a little more difficult to surf.
Conversely, the split toe booties give you more balance and control on your surfboard compared to the standard design. The split toe makes a huge difference, allowing you to use your big toe to help maintain balance. It seems like a small detail but it makes a noticeable difference.
If we had to recommend one, we recommend the split toe design because more control of your board means a safer and more fun experience.
How should surf booties fit?
Just like how a wetsuit should fit: extremely tight, almost painfully so (keyword: almost). There’s a method to this madness: once the booties are exposed to water, they will expand and become a perfect fit. Trust me on this. If you get one that fits comfortably when dry, it will become a little loose when wet.
Wetsuit booties need to fit perfectly. If they are too loose, which can happen if you make the mistake described above, then you will end up tripping over your loose and baggy footwear. It will also further take away control of the surfboard and make it harder to balance.
So wetsuit booties stretch over time?
They stretch considerably when they are wet. They can stretch a little bit and loosen up over time which is what breaking them in does. However, there is a limit to this, so don’t worry about your neoprene gear stretching to the point that they don’t fit you anymore. Start with surf booties that are tight when they are dry, and they will stretch into the perfect fit.
How do I put on my booties; they are so tight?
Put them on as you would a sock. Make sure that both your feet and the booties are dry. If either one is wet, that increases the friction making it harder to put on.
Additionally, put on your water shoes after you’ve donned your wetsuit. Doing it the other way would result in your wetsuit bootie getting stuck in the leg of your wetsuit due to the increased friction.
Make sure that your wetsuit booties are worn under your wetsuit. They will need to be tucked under the leg of your wetsuit. Thus, around the leg opening of your wetsuit, the wetsuit booties are worn over your skin, and the wetsuit is worn over the booties. If not, then water will constantly flush into the booties and fill them up; they might even come off.
How thick should my wetsuit booties be?
A good rule of thumb is to get a pair that matches the thickness of your wetsuit. So if you happen to be wearing a 5/4 wetsuit, then get 5 mm wetsuit booties. You probably have leeway to go 1 mm above or below, but I wouldn’t go more than that.
Water keeps filling my surf booties!
In addition to getting wetsuit booties that fit tight when they are dry, you should also get a pair that has at least one strap on them, if not two. If there are two straps, one should be around the lower shin, and the other around the middle foot.
Water will likely still enter the booties, but the straps will limit the amount and also keep them from expanding and ballooning in your boots.
Though most surfers do not wear shoes while surfing, that does not mean that there is no reason to do so. When you are surfing in colder water or rocky breaks, you would be wise to protect your feet with surf booties.
The primary function of surf booties is to keep you warm and protect you from injury. With that said, they are not necessary depending on the weather conditions and the location you’re surfing at.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide if the benefits are worth it or if you even need to wear a pair at all. Even if few other surfers wear water shoes, do what you need to do to stay safe and ignore what the other surfers are doing.
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