Outdoors: Making wading sandals

I have fished the French Broad wearing chest waders when I was extremely intimidated by the water conditions. But it’s difficult to focus on fishing when—in the back of your mind—you keep repeating the mantra, “If you tread, you are dead.” But with wading sandals (coupled with a Personal Floating Device), I feel reasonably invulnerable in tough water.

I’ve come up with a system for gluing outdoor carpet securely to the sandal or sneaker treads. If you buy the cheap high-top canvas sneakers at the family-discount store, wading sneakers are very economical to make. You can buy them even cheaper at the local thrift store. Kids love them because wading sneakers provide such excellent traction on stream bottoms, and they’re safer because kids won’t be encumbered by weighted hip boots if the adventurous urchins fall in. (As a side note, it’s worthwhile to have your kids wearing jackets any time they’re wading in fast-moving or deep waters.)

Wading sandals work, too. For as little as $8, you can make them with strap-on sport types from the family-discount store. My current pair of wading sandals is an old pair of beloved Tevas that had holes worn in the bottom rubber layer from many miles of use. The glue I used to repair the split bottoms also attached the carpet. The layers of cured glue and carpet will result in a considerably thickened sole. I average about 80 hours of use before I need to re-carpet my wading sandals, and I’m continually amazed how the bottom-heavy nature of their construction makes them extremely stable on rough and slippery river bottoms. The carpet treads also provide plenty of purchase when scrambling around the smooth, dump-truck-size boulders that fill the more obscure tumbling wild trout waters I sometimes fish in the Southern Appalachian region.

The Velcro straps keep the sandals on my feet—even when I inadvertently wade into muck while paying more attention to where I’m going than where I am. And they’re comfortable, providing plenty of support at the end of a long fishing day when I need to hike out several miles.

There are several makers of action-oriented strap-on sandals similar to Teva, and they’ll supply significantly better support at the arch and heel than discount-store sandals. If you can find them at the local thrift store, used high-performance sandal types also often make wading footwear superior to new discount-store sandals. But any of the sport-style types will give you really serviceable wading footwear. Thrift-store action sandals are usually in excellent condition (especially those in for children who outgrow them before they wear them out), and they can often be found for less than $3. I keep an extra pair of sandals so my Tevas can dry out completely when I’m fishing on consecutive days; it seems to make the carpet wear better if the sandals are allowed to dry out between trips. This way, I can go through a season of weekly warm-weather wading—from May thru late September—before I need to re-carpet both pairs at my leisure in the winter.

While preparing to go fishing last fall, I found that I had misplaced one of my wading boots. In a pinch, I used my wading sandals with my stocking-foot waders and found them to be lightweight and very comfortable during three days of fairly rigorous stream fishing in brisk weather. That’s given me the idea of rigging a pair of high-top basketball shoes with carpet bottoms that are big enough to cover my neoprene stocking-foots; I could carry them on outings when I take my chest-waders, but weight or bulk is at a premium.

My godson, a frugal student at Duke University, usually gets to Western North Carolina a couple times during the winter to fish with me. Forrest has never invested in chest waders or hip boots for winter fishing (though he fishes with a $400 fly rod). Instead, he wears Neoprene booties under his carpet-bottomed sandals and rolls his pants up. It makes me cold thinking about it, but in the reasonably shallow streams that we usually fish in this region, his frugal methods make sense for a young buckaroo who knows how to spend his money wisely.

With either the sneakers or sandals, the process is the same: Attach a piece of indoor/outdoor carpet to the soles, making sure the glue has the greatest amount of surface area covered. I have found that the only secure method for making the carpet-to-sole glue connection absolutely bomb-proof is to temporarily screw the connection tight—up through the tread and penetrating the insole foot-bed—before the glue sets up. This is accomplished by installing numerous screws across the bottom; this method secures the carpet tightly to the irregular surface of the sole. (My photo shows colored screws, but the common black ones are fine as long as you screw them in just below the head.) The screws will effectively secure the carpet to every curve and crevice of the sole or tread and allow the glue to set up in a completely controlled position. The result will resemble some sort of torture apparel until you remove the screws 48 hours later, which allows the glue to set up. At that time, remove the screws, trim the carpet up to the edge of the sole and head to your favorite river. The screws, when removed, leave pinholes in the insole, which makes no difference for wading sandals.

Alas, you can’t use this method to put carpet on the bottoms of rubber-soled hip boots. They’ll leak.

The Materials:
• One pair of sandals or appropriate canvas sneakers (laces temporarily removed), cleaned of any oil, dirt, or debris.
• One piece of indoor/outdoor carpet. You can purchase a 2-by-3-foot piece of runner carpet at the local home-discount store for less than $4, which will give you enough material to cover four pairs of sandals or sneakers. You usually have the choice of two nap thicknesses, and they both work great. I prefer the thicker ribbed style for my sandals because they have a greater surface area for traction. Just make sure you don’t buy carpet that has a foam pad material attached to the underside of the carpet; the underside should be integral to the woven portion on the topside, which will be the new tread. In addition, this carpet generally has a pattern of heavier nap that I install perpendicular to the front, which might provide a little better traction.
• Two tubes of polyurethane glue. Gluing up smaller pairs of sandals usually requires one tube of glue, but you don’t want to run short midway through the glue-up. Two tubes of “polyurethane construction adhesive” (there are several brands on the market) will cost about $7. Use the type that dispenses with a caulk gun. I’ve used shower fiberglass wall adhesive and found it to hold well, but from my experience it won’t cure completely for two months—entirely too long for folks as impatient as me to into a stream and go fishing. The thicker consistency of tube adhesive tends to fill the gaps between carpet and sole more completely than the poly-based glues, which can have a more syrup-like consistency that tends to run out the sides (“Gorilla Glue,” for example).

The Tools:
• Cordless drill or reversible variable speed electric drill with a No. 2 Phillips-head driver.
• 1.5-inch sheetrock screws (to be sure you have enough, get a box of100)
• Caulk gun
• Heavy scissors or utility knife with new blade

The process:
• For each shoe, rough cut pieces to be one inch larger than the shape of each shoe.
• Cover the bottom as completely as possible with beads of glue, making sure to go to the very edge of the sole with the glue to insure a solid edge connection.
• Using the drill, drive the sheetrock screws through the carpet, setting each screw head into the carpet as deep as it will go. Cover the surface with screws approximately a half-inch apart, making sure screws run around the perimeter of the tread where you’ll see the most damage during use, as the carpet tries to pull away from the tread after rough days on the river. If you start in the middle and work out to the edges as you place the screws, you can avoid air bubbles.
• Allow the glue to set up at least two days, then reverse the screws out, removing all of them completely. Chances are, you’ll miss a screw or two that didn’t penetrate completely (If you wear them around the house for about 10 minutes before you take them out on the river, you’ll find them).
• Using a utility knife or a heavy pair of scissors, cut the excess carpet off up to the tread. If you use a disc grinder to smooth around the rim of the tread, you can make it pretty.

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One thought on “Outdoors: Making wading sandals

  1. DonV

    You recommend polyurethane glue and fiberglass adhesive for sandals repair. I’m concerned about using them on my Tevas. Will those glues maintain their flexibility?

    So my question to you, is, how long have you been able to use your glued footwear without having to repair it?

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