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Water shoes vs water socks: gearing up for aquatic adventures

Surfer's feet in the water
We compare water shoes vs water socks to help you choose the best option for your saltwater and freshwater escapades (Image credit: photo by Pam Susemiehl)

From casual splashing around in waterfalls to serious wild swimming, foot protection is a good idea to shield your toes from icy currents, abrasive rocks, slippery surfaces and stinging jellyfish. But what kind of footwear do you need? The answer, of course, lies in what exactly you’re going to be doing in the water, but we compare water shoes vs water socks to help you choose the best option for your saltwater and freshwater adventures. 

A swimmer's feet in the water

Foot protection is a good idea to shield your toes from icy currents, abrasive rocks, slippery surfaces and stinging jellyfish (Image credit: Kryssia Campos)

Water shoes vs water socks: what’s the difference? 

Let’s start at the beginning – what are water shoes and socks anyway? The best water shoes are slip-on shoes that look a lot like your gym plimsolls from elementary school. They feature a rubber sole and a tight, stretchy mesh upper. They have a narrow cuff that encircles your ankle snugly, right where it meets your foot. 

Water socks, on the other hand, look pretty much like a regular sock except they're made from the same materials as wetsuits – typically neoprene – and come in different lengths. Water socks have historically been used by snorkelers and surfers for protection and insulation in the water, whereas water shoes tend to be favored for hanging out on a rocky shore or moving between land and water, but increasingly people are using them for wild swimming and kayaking too. So, are the two interchangeable? Let’s compare them side by side to see which is best for your aquatic adventures.

A neoprene water sock

Water socks look pretty much like a sock except they're made from the same materials as wetsuits  (Image credit: Aneduard)

Water shoes vs water socks: weight 

Because water shoes have a rubber sole and water socks do not, your water shoes are going to be the heavier of the two when you’re on land, which can make them a little more burdensome for swimming. That said, remember we explained that water shoes have that mesh upper? That means water moves in and out of them, whereas water socks will trap water next to your foot, which then makes them a little heavier when you’re actually in the water. 

Water shoes vs water socks: insulation 

What if you’re primarily looking for something to keep your feet warm in icy water? Well, that water that your water socks trap gets warmed by your body heat, and insulates your feet the same way your weight suit does the rest of your body. While you’ll probably feel a little happier wearing water shoes rather than having bare feet in cold water, they don’t insulate per se. 

A swimmer's feet in the water

Water shoes are best for rocky or slick surfaces (Image credit: PATSTOCK)

Water shoes vs water socks: protection 

Really, the main reason to use water shoes or socks at all is for protection against sharp shells and rocks, broken glass and rough coral. Because water shoes have a sole, they’re great for walking around on such surfaces. Water socks also provide some protection, but not as much, and even if they prevent anything sharp from actually piercing your foot, you still might be pretty uncomfortable walking around on rocky beaches in them. That said, if you’re diving and your main concern is coral reefs and jellyfish stings, water socks provide ample protection. 

Water shoes vs water socks: traction 

There’s another type of surface that you need protection from, and that’s a smooth, slippery surface, which you’ll often encounter when swimming in rivers and lakes. This where water shoes definitely take the lead. Though the amount of traction depends on the shoes themselves, the rubber sole is meant to help keep you from slipping, and water socks don’t provide much support in this department. 

Free diver aligning ankle wetsuit panels

For diving where your main concern is coral reefs and jellyfish stings, water socks provide ample protection (Image credit: RuslanDashinsky)

Water shoes vs water socks: versatility 

So what can the two actually be used for? Well, water shoes are great for walking around on the beach, water sports like kayaking and paddle boarding, fishing and crossing rivers. Some people are happy wearing them to walk around on dry land, and they can be useful for canyoneering too. Though they’re not amazing for swimming long distances in, you can definitely paddle around in them quite happily. 

Water socks, on the other hand, are ideal for swimming and also great for diving, snorkeling and surfing. They’re not much use for dry land, however.

Water shoes vs water socks: price 

When it comes down to price, you can definitely pick up a pair of water socks for under $20 / £20, whereas you could fork out twice that or more on water shoes, although they do run the gamut from budget-friendly to premium pricing. If you’re looking for something where either version will do, you’ll probably save money with a water sock. 

Water shoes vs water socks
Water shoesWater socks
WeightLightweight, but the rubber sole makes them heavierLightweight
InsulationNot insulatedTrap water which is warmed by your body heat to provide insulation
ProtectionGood protection against sharp shells and stonesGood protection against coral reefs and jellyfish
TractionDecent, or better, traction on slick surfacesNot much traction
VersatilityWalking, paddling, kayaking, paddle boarding, canyoneeringSwimming, surfing, snorkelling
PriceCan be budget-friendly or premium pricingGenerally cheapWater shoes vs water socks: the verdict

Water shoes vs water socks: the verdict 

By now, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you need. If you’re mostly going to be swimming or spending long periods in the water and are looking for some insulating power and light protection, you can save money with a pair of water socks. If you want something that provides good protection when you’re walking around but also works in the water, you need a water shoe and it’s time to check out our list of the best water shoes out there. 

Finally, if you need lots of protection from sharp objects and you want to be able to stay in cold water for a long time, you actually can wear water socks together with water shoes, so don’t feel that you have to limit yourself to just one here.

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.