The Best Sole for Wading
October 6, 2014
"My boots are wore out, and I need a new pair. I've heard about those new rubber soles and was thinking I should try them. What do you think?" I've answered about 4 questions in the past week that were all very similar to that. I've also had 3 really good opportunities to try some different boots and sole options over the past couple months, which gave me some great insight into offering advice on this growing dilemma. First off, felt is legal in WA, OR, ID, MT, and Canada, and that is not likely to change anytime soon. If you are travelling to AK, felt is illegal there, so a rubber sole option is required. That being said, my preferred wader for the past decade has been Simms boot foots (with built in felt soled boots). Simms had originally used Muck boots in this design, and have now switched to a Bogs boot. I have been very happy with felt soled boots, and found the early vibram options to be very slippery in comparison.
I had scheduled a trip to Bristol Bay AK for Silvers the last week of August. In preparation, I began researching rubber boot options. I tried to order a pair of the Simms boot foots with Bogs rubber boots (aka lug sole), but they were out of stock until mid September. So I brought up a pair of Simms Rivertek BOA with vibram sole, and several pairs of Redington Skagit sticky rubber boots. The wading in the river where we were at was super easy, with lots of small, clean gravel in the river bottom. I was satisfied with the comfort and traction from both boots, but what impressed me was the ease of putting the boots on, and particularly in taking them off with the BOA lacing system. I absolutely love it! So the week in AK went great. We caught tons of Silvers, and even shot some ptarmigan.
The next opportunity for me to try out boots came a week later, when I travelled to the Steelhead rivers of Northern BC. The Skeena and Bulkley rivers are NOT what I would call wade friendly. The river bottom is comprised of smooth bowling ball sized rocks that leave nothing to get traction from! After floundering around for the first 2 days, I went to a pair of felt boots that were brought along as extras by a friend. I didn't think it would make much difference, but boy was I wrong. The slips stopped immediately, and I concluded right there that there is still no substitution for felt soled boots.
Since returning, though, I've been playing around with cleats. I am normally adverse to cleats, as I spend a lot of time in boats. However, after the BC episode, I'll do whatever it takes to feel in control of my wading! I've found that any of the vibram soled boots, when upfit with the star wading cleats, will provide traction that is better than felt by itself. Studded felt is even better, but that is getting harder to find, and does tend to wear out quicker. I did like wearing the vibram soled boots for hiking, around the lodge decks, and in the boats. The traction was fine in AK where we fished Silvers, but was not sufficient in BC. Therefore, I'd probably wear the vibram boots with studs only when necessary. They are easy enough to install and take out (just 8 Phillips head screws per boot).
Just today, myself and one of our other shop guys, Roger, tried another product. The Simms Vapor boot. This boot is built like a hiking boot, with the interior sole assembled in 3 separate pieces (you don't notice it from the outside). This allows each area of the foot to flex independently and not as an entire flat sole. What this allows is more surface area of the sole to stay in contact with the river bottom. We put star cleats on the Vapor sole and tried them on the Yakima, which is low and slimy right now with drifting moss. The results were great, and both of us concurred that the Simms Vapor boot with the vibram sole and star cleats is truly a front runner in the "best boot for wading" combination.
Here is a quick summary of the experience I have compiled in the past 6 weeks has given me:
1. Naked vibram vs. naked felt? Felt is hands down winner. Felt is best option if you're in and out of boats regularly (especially inflatables), but not as durable as vibram overall.
2. Bring studs into the equation (especially star shaped cleats with some traction), and the traction edge shifts to vibram.
3. For treacherous places that you may visit someday (Wenatchee River, Thompson River, etc...), I would go ahead and get a set of stream crampons: Patagonia or Yaktrax make good ones.