For the first time visitor and seasoned explorer alike, the tropical rain forest can be a source of endless fascination. The mysterious call of an unseen bird, a brief glimpse of movement high in the canopy, or the kaleidoscopic colors of a caterpillar on a trailside leaf are all common and enchanting experiences. To best enjoy these moments, the visitor to the tropical forest should carefully consider what footwear to bring. The most important criteria for evaluating rain forest footwear are comfort, traction, waterproofness, and safety.
Shoes should obviously be comfortable, but it’s important to consider that the ideal shoe for trekking through a temperate wilderness may not work well in the rainy tropics. Muddy trails or frequent stream crossings can turn even a short hike into a miserable slog without the right shoes.
Safety is the most important quality. Luckily, there are few dangerous animals to worry about in Costa Rica. Big mammals like pumas and white-lipped peccaries are retiring and extremely rare, none of the spiders and scorpions in the country are lethal, and crocodiles can be avoided by simply not swimming in areas where locals know them to be found. Yet visitors to Costa Rican forests should always be wary of poisonous snakes, especially the infamous fer-de-lance (terciopelo) which is inactive by day and rarely encountered, but can be provoked to bite if accidentally stepped on while resting under a pile of leaves. Every visitor should make sure their shoes protect them as much as possible.
With these criteria, let’s examine some common options.
Hiking boots have good traction in drier conditions, but on trails that sometimes become slick or muddy, their grip is diminished. They are comfortable, but because they are not waterproof this strength is weakened owing to the fact that along rain forest trails it’s often necessary to cross tiny streams. Sometimes it’s possible to skip over the water on rocks, but sometimes it’s not, and just one slip can make hiking boots wet and heavy.
Because they are a closed-toe shoe, hiking boots provide some protection from poisonous snakes, and so are better than other choices in regards to safety, but skin above the ankles is still exposed. Hiking boots make an adequate option overall, but especially during wetter conditions have the potential of becoming more of a cumbersome burden than anything else.
Sandals make surprisingly good shoes for hiking through the rain forest because they’re comfortable and light-weight, and many have remarkably good traction in wet or dry conditions. Most conveniently, sandals can get soaked and quickly dry up again, so stream crossing is not troublesome.
However, sandals completely fail when it comes to safety. They’re an open-toe shoe, and these should always be avoided in the rain forest. Even closed-toe sandals still leave a lot of exposed skin. Although the risk of encountering a dangerous snake is slight, sandals should not be worn into the rain forest for this reason.
Sneakers provide many of the same advantages as hiking boots, like being comfortable and closed-toe, but they sacrifice good traction and are not waterproof. Sneakers weigh less than hiking boots, so they won’t be weighed down as much if soaked, but are still not ideal.
Rain boots may seem more like a garden shoe, but they’re well equipped to trample through even the muddiest of trails, and are surprisingly light-weight and comfortable, even after long hikes. Rain boots also ace the waterproof test, turning the annoyance of crossing a stream into something quick and fun.
Most importantly, rain boots provide the best protection against snakes because of their calf-high rubber frame. Because of these advantages, and no obvious drawbacks, it might not come as a surprise that most Costa Ricans, whether rural workers or naturalist guides, wear rain boots when exploring or working in the rain forest.
Rain boots make the best overall option, and carry the bonus of blending in with the locals. They can often be purchased at local shops and sometimes even grocery stores in more rural areas. Ask any local where you can purchase botas de lluvia and you’ll be well prepared for visiting the rain forest.
Additional Footwear Tips
Especially during longer hikes, it’s always a good idea to bring a tiny amount of duct tape. Placing a small square over a blister is incredibly effective at reducing the pain.
Shake Before Wearing
Before putting shoes back on, especially after any overnight camping, be sure to turn them upside down and knock them together. It can be surprising what animals might hide in the cozy sole of a shoe.