I’ve had a pair of Rasslers since they were introduced in 2013. They’re my favorite all-terrain, wet and dry hiking, kayaking, canoeing, and fly fishing boots.
Shoes are personal. Everybody’s feet are different and everybody has a story to tell about their foot problems. When Cristi worked in footwear at REI she came home every day with a new story about a customer who unburdened his soul about bunions or dropped arches or hammer toes. Footwear therapy she called it. Sometimes people would cry.
Footwear is one thing that unites us. In dissatisfaction. We’re all looking for shoes that are comfortable and capable. We all have our foot problems to overcome. I’m no exception.
[Now comes the part where I tell you all about my foot problems. Pull up a bench. I’ll sit over here on this chair…]
My foot problems are really ankle problems, because they stem from an accident I had on January of 1994. I fell ice climbing on a small waterfall just north of Green Bay. Since I was close to the ground (and stupid) I didn’t tie into a perfectly good toprope that we had rigged on the climb.
I’d been ice climbing maybe three times before this. I was figuring it out. About six feet above the base of the climb I set one tool and reached up with the other for a new placement. Doing so I raised up slightly on the front points of my crampons.
Those of you who have climbed ice know what happened next. My front points sheared out. I fell.
My second tool popped. I remember having just enough time to think about bending my knees as I landed on the stalagmite of ice at the base of the climb.
I hit. My right ankle exploded. I flipped over backward, smacking my helmeted head on the ice.
A moment later I collected myself and assessed the damage. I moved the leg. Felt the grinding of crepitus in the joint. Broken. Definitely broken.
What followed was a 9-month ordeal of surgery, an external fixator, a walking brace and crutches as I tried to heal. In the end it turned out that the severity of my fracture (technically a trimalleolar comminuted fracture of the distal tibia and fibula) left me with a mostly rigid right ankle. I have extremely limited flexion and extension.
Spending nine months on crutches also shrank my right foot. It’s now nearly a full size smaller than my left. And it has a pronounced arch, while my left foot is a bit flatter with more of a tendency to elongate and pronate while walking.
The upshot is that footwear a huge problem for me.
Too stiff and they wear a blister on my right heel because of my limited range of motion. Too much of a heel aligns my ankle so any irregularities in the trail jerk it out of position. This amounts to a micro-sprain anytime I misstep. It’s extremely painful.
Then there’s the size thing. My left foot was always a little bigger than my right. Now it’s a lot bigger. If I size for the left, I’m swimming in the right. If I size for the right, my left is crammed.
It’s the rare day that I find shoes that I really love. When I do, I hang on to them. Sometimes I buy a second pair.
Rasslers are that kind of shoe.
The design fundamentals of the Rasslers make them ideal for my busted-up ankle. They also make them perfect for boating, hiking and wet wading.
Rasslers have a flexible EVA midsole and a wide, rounded toebox that lets your digits spread. The boots have only 1mm of drop from heel to ball, so your foot is positioned in a flatter, more neutral position that allows for a natural gait. Astral calls this midsole design Balanced Geometry.
These three features put the Rasslers solidly in the category of what could be called barefoot or natural geometry footwear.
When most people think of barefoot shoes they probably imagine the toe shoes popularized by Vibram. These sit at the extreme end of the category. Not all natural geometry shoes are toe shoes.
Some natural geometry shoes have minimal paddling. Others have a more cushioned sole. All have more room for your toes and less lift in the heel. All are intended to correct the foot problems that can be caused by conventional footwear.
Conventional footwear, the theory goes, visits a host of ills on our feet. Pointed shoes prevent our toes from spreading and naturally stabilizing our gait. Raised heels shorten our Achilles tendons. Toe rocker shortens our plantar facia tendons. After years of wearing tight fitting, high-heeled, pointy-toed shoes we end up with feet that are painful and unstable.
Maybe we all have foot problems because we all wear shoes that hurt our feet.
The conventional solution to this problem is orthotics, stabilizing footbeds and more structured shoes. The barefoot hypothesis suggests an alternative. Simpler footwear rather than more complex. Less heel. Wider toeboxes. More flexibility. Wear shoes that slowly allow your feet to return to their natural shape and function.
I’ve discovered that this design approach works for my ankle. A lower heel helps prevent accidental sprains from abrupt extensions on the trail. The wide toebox improves comfort and stability. The flexible sole allows my forefoot to flex somewhat to compensate for the loss of mobility in my ankle. This prevents my heel from lifting so I don’t get blisters.
In minimalist shoes I twist my ankles (good and bad) much less than I did when I wore shoes with stiffer soles and higher heels. There’s less of a lever to yank my bad ankle into an unwelcome position, so I need less height in my footwear to stabilize the joint. The flexible sole gives me a better feel for the terrain so I’m less likely to misstep. It’s a change that has massively improved my comfort on the trail.
And in the boat?
It should come as no surprise that the low heel and flexible sole of the Rassler make it a perfect fit inside the cockpit of a kayak. These boots are about as low-profile as you can get without resorting to something with no paddling at all. The low heel gives you more room in the boat and the flexible sole helps cram the boots into tight spots. I can’t get Rasslers into a playboat or surf kayak, but I have no trouble comfortably wearing them in sea kayaks, creek boats and river runners.
Features and Construction
I’ve already talked about some of the most important features of the Rasslers: The wide toebox, flexible sole, low profile heel and no drop from heel to ball . Let’s dig into a few specifics.
First off, the Rassler is a more of a boot than a shoe because of the above-the-ankle upper. The reason that I bought Rasslers in the first place is that I had been boating and hiking in Brewers for a year and kept banging and scraping my ankles during portages and scrambles. The Rassler eliminates this problem by wrapping the ankle in a padded collar. The uppers offer a lot of protection even when worn loose, and cinching the collar tight provides solid support and stability for lateral motion.
The ankle collar is cut away behind the heel to provide more flexibility when seated in a kayak. I wasn’t sure if this would work for me at first. I was concerned that the cut away upper wouldn’t do enough to stabilize my ankle against abrupt extension. It’s not a problem. The low heel doesn’t set me up for a sprain. The mechanics of it are different. I rarely find myself surprised by an unexpected tweak.
Rasslers have a semi-stiff plastic heel counter that helps secure your heel firmly in the boot. This adds a solid feeling to the fit. It also provides a bit of protection for your heels in the boat without adding a bunch of padding that would be slow to dry.
The uppers are sewn from breathable, uncoated, 1000 denier nylon canvas. They have a lace closure and a broad, paddled mesh tongue that does a decent job of keeping sand and debris out of the boots and letting water flush quickly out. There are a couple sewn grommets on each side of the upper that help the boots drain and don’t suck up too much silt from the stream bed.
Heel and toe are armored with TPU guards. This stuff really works. My ancient Gen I Rasslers have had hours of use inside kayaks rubbing against the floor of the cockpit. You can see the wear on the heel patches but it isn’t even close to wearing through.
Rasslers started out shod with Five Ten’s dot Stealth rubber. This sticky rubber was the standard for amphibious footwear at the time. It did a great job of sticking to rocks.
It also did a great job of making black marks all over your kitchen floor. And it wore pretty quickly. And it had one more problem. Stealth rubber didn’t stay glued to your shoes.
At least it didn’t stay glued to mine. I’ve reglued the soles of my original Rasslers multiple times. Sometimes more than once in a season.
I asked Spencer Cooke (Astral’s Southeast sales rep) if this was one of the reasons Astral moved away from Stealth. The story he heard was that in the early days of Astral footwear they had some inconsistent batches of Stealth rubber come through. Slightly different rubber compounds meant that adhesives didn’t always bond consistently to soles. At times they had to switch adhesive compounds between production runs to get good results.
Challenges with Stealth led Astral founder Phillip Curry to start working on his own rubber compound. Something that would be sticky on wet surfaces, non-marking, hard wearing and easier to work with.
Astral’s development program went into overdrive.
The result was G Rubber.
G Rubber is super sticky, non-marking and consistently bonds to the EVA midsole on Astral’s shoes. G.ss (super sticky) is, as you might guess, the stickiest. It’s a slightly softer compound that’s used on water-focused designs. G.15 is a harder compound that’s a little more durable but not quite as sticky. G.15 is used on trail shoes.
Since 2015, Rasslers have come with G.ss soles. The tread is razor siped for extra grip on smooth surfaces. This stuff is sticky as hell.
On the river I’ve found G.ss to stick to anything that has a little bit of texture. Wet or dry. It doesn’t grab onto the slimiest rocks, but that’s not the fault of the rubber. I’ve never found a rubber that will stick to extreme rock snot. For that you need cleats. Or felt.
Even on slimy stuff if I can find a little bit of texture I can almost always step up onto the shoes. I’ve climbed up (and down) some pretty ridiculous stuff in the Middle Prong Wilderness chasing brook trout in my Rasslers.
The rubber also holds up well to trail use and hiking, which is what I use my Rasslers for half the time. Rasslers are my go-to wet wading boot for summer fly fishing and there’s usually a fair bit of trail time mixed in with the wading. They keep me connected rock hopping and clear mud and dirt well enough to be surefooted on the trail.
The sizing on Rasslers is just right for me. An 11.5 is just long enough for my left foot. That means it isn’t massively big on my right. It’s a close to an ideal fit as I can get in a shoe.
The toebox in the Rassler isn’t as wide as those in some of the real clown shoes out there. Most of the time when I’m in street shoes it’s a pair of Altra Lone Peaks. The Altras have a slightly wider forefoot area and give my toes a little more room to spread. That being said, the Rasslers have plenty of room, especially compared to other paddling footwear that I’ve tried. And my feet are pretty wide. I’ve been going the natural footwear route for a while now and my feet are squashing out into a really solid Fred Flintstone shape.
This means that I feel a tiny amount of constriction at the ball of my left foot when I first put the Rasslers on. My foot just doesn’t line up perfectly with the toebox. I would probably be happier with a 12 on the left, but then I would be rattling around in the right.
Like I said, we all have foot problems.
I find that the feeling of constriction disappears almost immediately when I get the Rasslers wet or after I’ve had them on my feet for a few minutes on the trail. The uppers have just a touch of stretch in them when they get wet or sweaty and this naturally accommodates my wandering toes.
My size 11.5s have enough room that I can wear them over the rubber socks in my drysuit for cold weather boating. I have to loosen the laces way up, but they work. There’s even enough room for me to wear a midweight wool sock under the latex booties. Every spring when cold water paddling season comes around I’m tempted to buy a pair of 12s to use with my drysuit and stocking foot waders. So far I’ve managed to resist the urge. But it’s tempting…
When I hike trails and wet wade in my Rasslers I wear a thin wool sock. It helps to have a little bit of sock inside the boot to manage sweat and keep dust and dirt from abrading my feet on the trail. This winter sea kayaking down on Tybee I’ve worn them mostly barefoot. Either way they’re comfortable.
Rassler vs Rassler 2.0
Let’s get one thing straight right away. I don’t have a pair of Rassler 2.0s. Which might make you wonder why you are reading this review. I’d like to think its because of my clever writing and technical expertise, but I get the point.
Thing is, I don’t have a pair of Rassler 2.0s right now, but I WILL have a pair. When my current Rasslers meet their end. Which is going to happen, despite how durable they’ve been. And I know enough about the boot from wearing the previous two versions for the past 7 years that I can offer some insights into the changes that Astral has made to the Rassler and how they will impact performance and durability.
To make sure I got the details right, I called Spencer. He ran me through the most important upgrades to the Rassler and a little bit of back story. We followed up with an email to make sure I had my facts straight. Spencer was also kind enough to shoot me some pics of his well-used Rassler 2.0s so we can take a look at how they compare to previous versions.
Here we go.
Midsole and Drains
The original Rassler midsole had a modestly supportive arch shape and a bumpy texture inside that helped water drain away from your foot. Integrated drains within in the midsole itself forced water out as you walked. These drains were a series of small holes around the perimeter of the forefoot in older Rasslers. Rassler 2.0s have 3 drains under the center front of the toebox.
My first Rasslers had a heel drain between the upper and midsole similar to that found in early Brewers. It drains water like crazy when you sit in the boat, but it lets in a fair bit of sand and grit. If you’re wearing a drysuit with booties that grit can abrade the socks and lead to an early replacement. In the second version of the Rassler (Gen 1.5?) Astral removed the heel vents for better dry sock protection. The Rassler 2.0 adds a heel drain back in. Now a midsole drain at the center rear of the heel. The midsole drain clears some water while seated without letting in a bunch of sand. It also drains while walking like the forefoot vents. Its a good compromise.
Previous versions of the Rassler had the upper sewn to the midsole. Part of the objective in using this construction style was to reduce the amount of adhesives used in the shoe to create a greener product. Unfortunately, the stitching turned out to be a wear point and a source of warranty and repair problems. Eliminating the exposed stitching was a logical move to increase durability under hard use even if it meant using a little more glue. The upper is now stitched to the midsole on the inside of the boot and bonded to the midsole on the outside.
Moving the stitching to the inside of the midsole means adding a sockliner over the midsole to separate your foot from the stitches. Earlier versions of the Rassler came without a sock liner. You put your foot right on top of the midsole. The Rassler 2.0 comes with a thin fabric sockliner that’s sewn and bonded into the shoe. It’s only lightly padded and sheds water and dries quickly. The Sockliner incorporates Polygiene anti-microbial treatment, which should help keep the bootie stink down to a minimum for those of us who wear our Rasslers barefoot in the summer.
The Rassler 2.0 has a slightly redesigned G.ss outsole with a little more open space. This is intended to improve grip on the worst rock snot. The outsoles are still razor siped for extra connection on smooth surfaces.
Here’s where I truly cannot make a comparison. I haven’t tried on the new boots myself. That said, I know that the Astral hasn’t changed the last or sizing. The new Rasslers should fit significantly similar to the previous versions. When I need a new pair, I’ll order an 11.5.
I’ve got a thing about simplicity. If you’re going to buy just one thing, what should it be? What is the one piece of gear that does everything that I need? It isn’t easy to pare things down to the minimum, but it’s fun to try.
You start by looking at your actual needs across a range of activities. Then dig down to see if there’s one piece of gear that you can use across multiple domains. Baselayers that work for hiking and boating. A standard set of outdoor gear that’s easy to grab regardless of whether you’re jumping in a kayak or strapping on a pack. A single system of clothing for all seasons. A favorite pair of shoes that goes with you on all your adventures.
With shoes, it’s a little more complicated. Everyone’s feet are different and small changes in design can have a big impact on comfort. We all have our foot problems. Mine seem to be solved by shoes and boots with natural geometry. I imagine would be true for a lot of folks if they made the change.
In the end, sometimes you find a single piece of gear that becomes your go-to. That lets you eBay a bunch of stuff that was cluttering up your closet and confusing your mind. Simplify.
Rasslers are like that.
I’ve had a lot of water shoes through the years. It wasn’t until I tried on the Rasslers that I was able to find one wet boot that I can use for everything. They’re comfortable. They fit my feet and don’t tweak my ankle. I can wear them whitewater boating and sea kayaking. They stick to rocks well enough that they’re my choice for scrambling tenkara adventures. I can hike miles in the things on the way to and from the stream. They have enough support and stability that I’ve decided they’ll replace the ancient pair of jungle boots that I’ve been using for Boundary Waters trips since 2004.
[UPDATE: Confirmed. The Rasslers are in and my jungle boots are out. I did a quick trip to the BWCA in September 2020. Three days and about 2000 rods of portaging later I’m convinced that the Rasslers are the best wet-foot portage boot out there.]
Simply put, the Rasslers are the single most versatile piece of amphibious footwear I’ve ever worn. They’ve earned a permanent place in my gear closet. If you already have a pair, you know. If you don’t you should try them out.
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