Will New Studded Rubber Soles Kill Felt – Before It’s Legislated Away?

NOTE: Because the I posted this on a Friday (so it would be four posts deep by Monday), I’m making it “sticky.” It will remain atop the stack until Monday…

Now that Alaska’s announced a statewide felt sole ban – and with a Vermont ban already in the works (plus New Zealand, plus…) – one thing seems clear.

Some of you may not be wearing felt-soled wading boots much longer.

The topic of felt soles and bans led to a spirited debate on the Underground, and while the necessity of anti-felt legislation is debatable, the future will likely include bans for at least some of the Undergrounders.

And another reality intrudes; even though I’m not yet legally obligated to wear rubber soles, some of us abandoned felt long ago, and haven’t looked back.

In my case, felt was fine when new, but wore quickly on the sharp-edged rocks of the Upper Sac’s railroad tracks. After a few months of hiking along the rails, the grippy felt largely disappeared, the studs protruded, and I was left wearing boots with a truly distressing tendency to skate on smooth, angled rocks.

It’s the kind of thing that made both the L&T and my insurance company break out in a rash.

And dry land performance? Winter performance? Let’s not go there.

In simple terms, I haven’t conducted a yearlong test of rubber and studded rubber soles because I may one day be forced to wear it.

Instead, I believe it may already be a better all-around choice than felt.

No guides were harmed over the course of our wading boot test (though I thought about it)

In fact, I’ll go a step further: It’s possible felt bans may be unnecessary; the bulk of the market could simply move to rubber/studded rubber sans legislation.

That’s not what you’d call a universally accepted view – and I’m wary of marketing-driven “green” campaigns against felt – but given my recent testing, it’s an idea whose time may have come.

Some Background

For two years after swearing off felt, I wore studded rubber boots from Weinbrenner, which didn’t offer anything near the grip of today’s rubber soles.

Last year’s initial tests of “sticky rubber” soles were promising, but ultimately, plain rubber soles by Simms, Patagonia, Korkers and others didn’t make the cut on tough freestone rivers.

In easier wading situations – like the Bitterroot or Roque (and most of the Upper Sac), plain sticky rubber worked well enough (better for me than some others, apparently).

And on small streams – where dry grip is as important as wet grip – the soft Patagonia sticky rubber soles were superb (and light, and comfortable).

In other words, modern rubber wading boots have something to offer – but not in hard-to-tough situations.

So What About Studded Rubber Soles?

My on-the-water experience with studded rubber soles is pretty clear; compared to plain rubber, studded rubber soles offer a practical, all-around substitute for felt and studded felt.

The grip on soft surfaces – like slimy, snotty rocks – is much better than straight rubber (as you’d expect).

They also last longer and clean easier than felt (though clean soles are hardly the final solution in the invasives issue).

In my experience, studded rubber also outperforms felt in winter, in icy situations, in mud, and in a few other situations.

And yes, the durability issue means they should offer far more bang for your buck.

But do they grip well enough? Let’s see.

Our Lab Rats

I tested the Simms, Korker and the new Orvis studded rubber boots on a notoriously slimy portion of the Upper Sacramento.

(Disclosure: I bought the Patagonia Riverwalkers, but the Simms, Korker and Orvis boots were sent for review. And I’ll send ’em back if they want.)

I could have added studs to the Patagonia boots, but like them just the way they are, so I didn’t. With studs, I expect they’d work as well – or as poorly – as the boots I tested.

I also tested some screw-in studs from a company called Grip Studs. They feature an interesting design and drop-dead easy application tool, and they’re worth a look, though you probably won’t be able to buy them at your fly shop.

Grip Studs look very secure, and the mounting system is easy. Might be a great way to add studs to non fly fishing shoes too...

On the river, I waded through what amounted to an underwater obstacle course, and tried to grade the performance of the boots.

I toured bowling-ball sized snot rocks, climbed on dry, steeply angled bankside granite, hit what I called “the Muck Run” and tromped on a few other substrates.

Included was a distressingly effective test where I climbed up on an angled, slippery underwater rock, then tried to see how much downward “oomph” it took to slip the boots.

How’s that work? Well, I’m happy to report no one was there to video the scene.

And thrilled to say I got all the boots to finally let go, though never went in over my waders (I am Catman).

Just to make it interesting, I also took the tour with a pair of studded felts (older Weinbrenners), and my old Weinbrenner studded rubber.

Added to the mix were my impressions from all the studded rubber trips taken in the fall and winter. They weren’t head-to-head tests (I was fishing after all), but they provided useful information.

The Results

Prepare to not be surprised.

Basically – as you might expect – the modern studded rubber boots delivered similar experiences.

The studded Weinbrenners were exactly as I remembered – solid boots, but lacking grippy rubber, a lugged sole, or much in the way of grip from the small spikes.

In other words, they didn’t measure up.

The studded felts did wonderfully on the smooth, curved snot rocks (the soles flex to fit the contour, increasing grip), yet caused me to wish I was wearing a highly absorptive undergarment on the smooth, slanted granite and the big dry rocks.

Was there an Absolute Grip Winner (barely) among the studded rubber contenders?

Barely. But yes.

The Orvis Studded Rubber EcoTraX Soles

The Orvis sole delivered grip similar to the other boots on the firm stuff (rocks, etc), but on softer surfaces (like really thick algae, mud, etc), they clearly outperformed the others (even the studded felt).

The reason for their grip? I’m guessing it’s not their sole, but their aggressive, four-bladed stud design.

We call that aggressive; The four-bladed Orvis wading boot stud.

You can see why they’d grip – and why you’d probably only wear these on your brand-new hardwood floors once.

The Orvis soles offered limpet-like grip on the really snotty stuff, and didn’t exhibit the less-desireable characteristics I expected (on smooth, dry, angled rocks, they didn’t skate).

They’re new, so I can’t speak to the longevity of the studs.

Yet I can say with some certainty that they’re not what you’d call “quiet” on pavement and rocky surfaces.

That said, grip is grip, and these have it in spades.

Notes about the Orvis Boots: Though nicely constructed, these boots ran large. I’m normally a size 11, but needed thick socks and a thick neoprene bootie to make these size 11 boots work (and just barely).

Wearing a normal sock and a thinner neoprene bootie (for wet wading) was a nonstarter – my foot positively swam inside them. Order small, or better, try them on.

The Simms Headwaters Boot

The rubber-soled Simms boots are sold without studs, which are purchased separately and installed. (Note to Simms: How about a stud placement chart?)

I tested the Simms Hard Bite Studs (see below), though they also now offer a more aggressive Hard Bite “Star Cleat” (see below below).

Their interesting pebble texture held better than expected.

The Hard Bite Studs feature “welded carbide pellets), which seem to offer good all-around performance (especially if you forget and wear them someplace you shouldn’t).

The Star Bite studs received positive reviews from several Undergrounders, and their rounded, low-profile design didn’t really penalize me in the grip area (I thought they might).

Instead, they were well-behaved, and clearly less damaging to things like car floors, brake pedals, wooden steps and other places you probably shouldn’t be wearing them in the first place.

I don’t have a set of the Star Cleats available for testing, so I won’t comment on them except to say they look aggressive:

We didn't have these available for testing, but they look interesting.

Notes About Simms Boots: The Simms Vibram soles are quite stiff (some like that aspect, though I didn’t), and for a “lightweight” wading boot, they offer a very protective environment. The Simms fit relatively true to size, and are rightly famous for their all-around comfort.

The Korkers Guide Boot

The studded rubber soles of the Korkers Guide Boots feature a more “conventional” pointed stud design, though in some ways, these boots were the most revolutionary tested.

Sure, you want to stone them for the name, but it's hard to argue with interchangeable soles.

The soles are interchangeable, so you can switch between plain rubber, studded rubber, felt, studded felt, and a wicked-looking, massively spiked “mossy rock lug” sole.

The Korker’s changeable soles might ease what I’ll call Felt Separation Anxiety Syndrome, though let’s be clear; changing the soles is not a 30 second operation, and the extra soles aren’t free.

That said, these might be the boots to own if you travel or fish wildly different varying rivers.

Or maybe if you’re indecisive and prone to second-guessing (the Underground caters to all fly fishermen).

The Korker soles gripped well; the Kling-on rubber (Korkers fails the Star Trek Geek Test) might be a bit softer than the stiff Vibram soles of the Simms and Orvis, though probably not as soft as the Patagonia boots.

Notes About Korkers Guide Boots: The Korkers featured the BOA lacing system, which eschews shoelaces in favor of a steel cable and ratchet. Adjusting the tension was very easy – even while wearing gloves. That’s good because they needed to be tightened a few times before reaching an equilibrium – not an unusual occurrence when dry wading boots get wet.

These boots are also very light and very protective, though they ran a little small (thin socks and thin neoprene make them workable, but you’ll want to try these before buying).

A Few Conclusions

It’s likely the differences in grip between the boots I tested had more to do with the design of the studs than the rubber soles.

Tom Rosenbauer of Orvis added a layer of mystery when he said via email that: “The key lies in the stud design AND the placement of the studs.”

According to him, their studs (and apparently, the placement of them) was the subject of a lot of testing.

I can’t swear it’s true, but if I was adding studs to a pair of boots and lacked other guidance, I’d be tempted to copy their stud placement.

I’d also suggest the rapidly evolving design of metal studs was narrowing whatever gap still existed between felt and studded rubber.

In most circumstances, studded felt didn’t hold much of an edge (if any), and in many ways, the new studded rubber simply outclassed the felt.

Some Good, Lightweight News

All the boots tested were far lighter than my old Weinbrenners, yet offered better protection and stability.

In fact, the Orvis and Simms boots weren’t even their most-protective (or heaviest) models, and the Patagonias and Korkers are very light to begin with.

Yet my feet have never felt so sheltered.

And while heavy boots may feed some macho instinct, at the end of a long day of hiking, rock scrambling and wading, lighter is better.

Clearly, not just the soles are seeing improvement.

The Role of Wading Technique

Valuable Tip #2? Learn to wade on a flat foot.

Most people wade like they’re walking down the sidewalk; heavy heel strike, feet far apart, and a constant shifting of balance along a narrow line.

That’s great for covering a lot of ground in a hurry, but it’s pretty much a guaranteed dunking on the river.

Wading so your foot meets the stream bottom relatively flat (the ball of your foot hits about the same time your heel does) might make more difference than any grippy sole ever will.

When wading “normally” it’s easy to lose your balance; when you wade on a flat foot, your whole boot tends to squirm down into a solid footing.

The flat foot was why I avoided dunkings with my not-so-grippy Weinbrenner boots, and probably why I’m happier with the straight rubber Patagonia Riverwalkers than other folks.

Add a wading staff to a flat-footed wading technique, and you may never fall again.

The Final Load Out

I think the new studded rubber boots are ready for prime time – at least on my waters.

Over the course of the last year, those waters have included bouldered small streams, meadow streams, spring creeks, and freestone rivers like the Rogue, Bitterroot, McCloud and Upper Sac.

(Perhaps some of our Northwest readers can chime in with their experiences on the NW’s hard-to-wade steelhead rivers.)

Some anecdotal evidence suggests studded rubber’s also workable on even the “widowmaker” Pit River, though – just like felt soles – every rubber wading boot sole is going to have its good and bad moments

My own personal take? I’m keeping my Patagonia Riverwalkers un-studded – they’re just too good to mess with, and I’d happily fish the Upper Sac with them sans studs.

Still, I also fish the McCloud, Klamath and Pit Rivers, and I think a pair of studded rubber boots is in order.

If you’re waiting for me to pick one out of the scrum, get ready for a massive letdown.

I suggest choosing the pair that fit you the best.

The exception might come in the form of the Korkers, which offer a flexibility the others don’t – but at a price.

Acclimating to studded rubber will require a few changes in thinking. They’re better in some areas, but worse in others, and those with hardwired wading reflexes might have to adjust.

That said, they work, and work well – and should last a lot longer.

The first time you wear them, keep in mind what an industry veteran told me on the phone: “The first time someone wearing rubber soles slips, they immediately forget all the times they fell wearing felt.”

See you with the rubber side down, Tom Chandler.

Patagonia's Sticky Rubber

Other Posts in the Wading Boot Review Series Include (in chronological order):

Gear Review: Are Patagonia’s Riverwalker “Sticky Rubber” Wading Boots Grippy or Gimpy?

The Great Rubber-Soled Wading Boot Test Continues: The Guides Weigh In

The Underground’s Wading Boot Review Begins a New Chapter

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Thoughts On Sticky Rubber Wading Boots, Small Streams, And Marketing

Another Step in the Underground’s Ongoing Wading Boot Test

Bans on Felt Soled Wading Boots Gathering Steam: How Long Until You’re Wearing Rubber (And Practicing Safe Wading)?

Some of our lab rats.