Walmart Aqua Socks (a.k.a. water shoes, water socks, aqua shoes, calzado acuático, or whatever you want to call them) are an often-recommended minimalist shoe for new and experienced barefoot/minimalist shoe runners. Do they live up to the hype?
To find out, I requested a pair from Walmart for this review. After months of cutting through the bureaucratic red tape, I was on the verge of procuring a pair when their background check on me revealed that I am a pseudo-officer in my professional trade union. Instead of receiving a pair of aqua socks, I received a letter warning me that Walmart would eliminate all "Barefoot Runner" positions in stores world-wide if I continued my subversive organized labor tactics.
Well, it appeared as though I would have to buy them myself. I returned a garbage bag full of beer bottles (the benefit of Michigan's $.10 deposit on recyclable cans and bottles) to afford the steep $8 price tag. We'll see how the 2010 incarnation of the Walmart Aqua Socks fare.
My History with Walmart Aqua Socks
I'm very familiar with Walmart aqua socks. When I began my barefoot journey, I stumbled on the idea of using these on terrain that was too rough for barefoot running. I bought about 10 pair of aqua socks from various stores, including four pair from Walmart.
Those early versions (circa 2006) weren't very good. They lasted about 150-200 miles, didn't fit well, and were butt-ass ugly. Their single redeeming value- they were cheap. At only $5, I could afford to buy A LOT. As soon as one pair wore out, I could replace them with minimal expense.
I even ran a 50 mile trail ultra in these shoes. It was during this experience that I fully realized the benefits and shortcomings of Walmart aqua socks.
The 2010 Version
The 2010 version isn't significantly different than the earlier version. They now have a single velcro tab that does nothing to modify the fit of the shoe. It appears to have been added for aesthetics and differentiate the shoe from a slipper. Like the old version, this model consists of a rubber sole with fairly aggressive traction and a stretchy fabric upper.
Sizing is tricky. They are sold in a S,M,L, and XL version, each with an approximate size. I normally wear a size 11, so I chose the "L" (11/12 according to the tag on the shoe.) This size is too large, but the "M" is too small. A good rule of thumb with any minimalist shoe- go with the larger size.
As I do with all minimalist shoes, I removed the insoles for testing. I tried the shoe with socks and without. I ran on asphalt, technical trails, non-technical trails, hills, an indoor track, on snow, and through a grassy field. This testing period confirmed that the Walmart aqua sock has not changed in regards to function since my first experiences a few years ago.
Ground feel- This shoe ranks among the best I've tested in regards to ground feel. Without the insole, it ranks slightly better than Vibram's KSO. If ground feel is important, this would be an excellent shoe. If you are looking for a shoe that offers superior protection, this shoe would be a poor choice. I could easily feel every rock on the gravel roads.
Price- They cost $8. Do I need to say more?
Potential for Cold Weather Running- As of right now, I have not reviewed a shoe that works very well in snow. This shoe has fairly aggressive traction. When paired with a thermal sock, it is one of the better winter shoes I've tried. Prior to finding KSOs and now Terra Plana's EVO, this was my preferred winter running shoe.
Weight- Surprisingly, these are the lightest aqua socks I have found to date.
Quality- They cost $8. Do I need to say more?
Actually, I will make a few comments. I averaged about 160 miles from my previous Walmart aqua socks. The sole would wear through after about 200 miles on asphalt, but the upper had a tendency to fall apart earlier. The 2010 version suffers from the same lack of craftsmanship. This is a poorly made product that is worth about $8.
Fit- Unless you happen to have feet that fit perfectly in one of Walmart's four sizes, this will be problematic. Aqua socks are good minimalist shoes because they are light and flexible. They allow your foot to move in a natural way by clinging like a glove. These particular aqua socks work more like huaraches- they are loosely held to your foot. Your foot will move around inside the shoe. The inner lining may cause significant friction (i.e. blisters) as a result.
Aesthetics- These are the ugliest of the aqua socks I have found. They look very similar to bedroom slippers.
Hills- This is related to fit, but deserves it's own section. Running uphill in this shoe is not necessarily troublesome. Running down hill is. The poor fit of this shoe allows your foot to slide forward inside the shoe. This causes the top of your toes to strike the inside of the toe box. Even though the shoe is constructed of a thin, flexible fabric, it causes enough impact force to cause blackeded toenails. This was the primary reason I switched to the better quality minimalist shoes (VFFS and EVO.)
Performance in wet conditions- This shoe performs about the same as my KSOs. If they get wet, they drain quickly and will dry within about 30 minutes if no socks are worn. Wet weather performance is good, but a few other aqua socks perform better. Some have drainage holes in the sole, which dramatically improve wet weather performance. The Walmart aqua socks could benefit from that feature.
This is not a good shoe. However, the price makes it desirable to a few groups. Brand new barefoot or minimalist shoe runners that are not running significant mileage could use these instead of making an investment in the pricier options. Road runners could use these if they do not encounter many hills. Trail runners should avoid this particular aqua sock unless the fit is perfect.
Aqua socks can be a very good option. I will be reviewing another aqua sock in the near future (produced by Wave Runner.) It is only $2.00 more than the Walmart version, but offers many significant improvements. If you decide to try aqua socks, shop around. The Walmart version should be a last resort.