Keep upright and protect your home waters at the same time
River bottoms are treacherous terrains. At best they are partially obscured, slick and mossy, inconsistent, and unstable with loose stones and "rocker" boulders. In a worst-case scenario, you have all that plus stained water that hides your next step—is it a deep hole or a footstool-size rock that will send you headfirst into the drink?
In the world of outdoor adventure, only glacier travel is more tenuous than wading deep in fast, bouldery rivers. The right boots will leave you laughing—not wet and limping—at the end of the day.
Concern number one should be comfort. If you wade mostly shallow, gravel-bottom rivers, or fish from a drift boat, lightweight boots will leave you less fatigued and are easier on the wallet.
If you walk long distances, fish in the winter, wade in tricky rivers with large bowling ball stones or ledgerock, or you like to tempt fast water and wade "where no man has gone before," you'll need a premium boot with a wide, sturdy footbed and the ankle support of a hockey skate. This will protect your joints from twists and sprains, keep your arches intact, and most importantly help you stay upright.
Our editors and field testers love the Boa Lacing System used on some Simms and Korkers wading boots. The same system is also used on ice-climbing boots, snowboard boots, performance cycling shoes, and hunting boots. Boa laces don't come undone, the stainless cables don't break or wear out, there are no hanging loops to catch on branches or trip you up, and you can tighten them, and release them, wearing mittens.
Most importantly, when you crank the dial, the cables tighten evenly from the ankles down through the toes for the best possible support, comfort, and performance. Some lace-ups leave you with loose toes or no circulation in the ankles.
Another benefit is that the Boa Lacing System is nonporous and easy to clean—which brings us to the topic of aquatic nuisances such as Didymosphenia geminata (didymo), whirling disease, New Zealand mud snails, and other unwanted hitchhikers that can be carried from one watershed to another using wading boots as transport.
There is no silver bullet boot that will stop the spread of these types of nuisances. The only way to slow their spread and protect your favorite waters is to clean, dry, and inspect your boots before and after every outing.
Felt soles are difficult to clean, dry, or inspect since organisms can survive for long periods out of sight inside the porous material. For that reason, we don't recommend felt soles, and some manufacturers don't make them anymore.
Rubber soles are also "cleaner" in your boat, car, or convenience store. They provide better traction while hiking, on snow, mud, silty river bottoms and lakes, and along grassy riverbanks. Rubber is also far more durable. Gone are the days of throwing out a pair of boots when the felt wears down, or of trying to glue on replacement felts.
On rivers with large rocks and moss, plain felt has better purchase on the rocks than plain rubber, but rubber with metal studs trumps everything. Our testers agree that the new sticky rubber soles with tungten-carbide studs—available from Simms (Star Cleats), Chota (CTC250s), Orvis (EcoTraX), and Grip Studs—provide better traction and safety than the felt of yesteryear.
The drawback is that studs can damage fiberglass and aluminum boat decks. Carry a piece of indoor/outdoor carpet to stand on in a boat. A mat is also convenient to stand on while changing in and out of your waders.