Hiking boots are becoming a less common sight on trails as more and more people opt to hike in trail runners instead. Well, there’s a new trend gaining traction on the trail that might surprise you – hiking in sandals. No, we are not talking flip flops or crocs. There are a wide variety of technical sandals with lugged soles, arch support, and all the things that make a trail-worthy piece of footwear. Not a believer yet? Well, your author thru-hiked all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Chaco sandals.
WHY HIKING IN SANDALS IS GREAT
No more blisters – Boots and trail runners mean your feet are cooped up in socks and shoes all day. No matter how breathable your shoes claim to be, you aren’t going to escape foot sweat. Wet feet plus friction equals blisters, and blisters equal a miserable hike. With sandals, your feet can breathe and benefit from a breeze and the sun to keep them dry. While hotspots can still occur where straps rub on your feet, it’s much easier to take preventative measures in sandals. Adjusting where the straps sit on your foot can provide relief, and we always carry some athletic tape with us to use as a barrier between hotspots and straps to prevent blisters.
Weight – The more weight you carry, the more energy you expend carrying it. That part is simple. But weight carried on your feet is actually much more significant. Weight on your feet will zap 4-6 times more energy than weight on your back. So, swapping a 3-pound pair of boots for a 1-pound pair of sandals will be the energy saving equivalent of removing 8-12 pounds from your pack. Seriously? Seriously. It’s science. Here’s a breakdown of how the weights of some of our favorite footwear stacks up:
Water crossings, simplified – No more removing shoes and socks before crossing a river. No more lashing them to your pack and then sitting on the other side to dry your feet and put your shoes and socks back on. With sandals, you can trudge right across any body of water and come out on the other side feeling refreshed! The ability to dunk your tootsies into cold streams is one of our favorite things about hiking in sandals. We recommend having a small pack towel handy to blot excess water off your feet on the other side to prevent hot spots from forming, but the sun and outside air will generally dry your feet out quickly.
It’s easier to remove little pebbles and debris caught in your shoe – You know how sometimes you’re hiking along, minding your own business, when all of the sudden you feel the tiniest rock in your shoe? You think you can just hike through it, but eventually you know you’ll give in and have to sit down, take your shoe off, and remove the little nuisance. With sandals, a well-executed shake of the foot or the properly placed finger between the toes is generally all you need to dislodge the pesky little pebble.
We know what you’re thinking – won’t I get more pebbles stuck under my foot if I’m wearing sandals? The short answer is yes. However, most pebbles will come out on their own when you move or you can shake your foot as you step to get rid of them.
Sweet tan lines – Alright, so a great tan isn’t going to help you hike up a mountain, but it is a pretty fun bonus.
WHY HIKING IN SANDALS ISN’T GREAT
Sandal straps can be abrasive – We mentioned earlier that blisters are much less likely with sandals, but there is a caveat. If your hike is in a really wet area, or a really sandy area, or a really wet and sandy area, you may experience a good amount of hotspots on your feet. Water and/or sand can turn the straps of your sandals in to sandpaper and can cause real discomfort. We recommend blotting your feet dry with a small pack towel after water crossings and always keeping a roll of athletic tape handy to doctor up any hotspots that develop to prevent them from turning into blisters. Check out our guide on how to prevent and treat blisters for more information.
Exposed tootsies – The ability to let your toes wiggle unencumbered is great, however it does leave your little piggies exposed to all sorts of potential dangers. Sun, loose rocks, thorns, poison ivy, the cold, and snakes are just a few of the potential hazards you leave yourself open to when hiking in sandals. You can reduce the risk from most of these perils with a few precautions.
- Sun – Make sure you carry a good SPF sunscreen and apply it every few hours to keep the tops of your feet from burning until you get a solid base tan.
- Loose rocks – One of the worst pains I ever felt while hiking in sandals was when I was going downhill and I kicked a large loose rock in to my heel. It bruised immediately and the impact was great enough to break skin. The only way to prevent injuries like this or mishaps during rock scrambles is by stepping carefully.
- The cold – The fear of cold feet is one of the most common concerns we hear about hiking in sandals. This one is easily prevented by committing one of the worst fashion crimes humanly possible: wearing socks with your sandals. For mildly chilly hikes, we like to bring a pair of Smartwool PhD Outdoor Light Crew socks. For winter and short snowfield or glacier crossings, we bring a pair of Smartwool Mountaineering Extra Heavy Crew Socks to keep our tootsies toasty. Toe socks can also be a good choice for hiking sandals depending on your sandal straps. For more awesome sock options, check out our list of the Best Hiking Socks.
- Snakes – Snakebites are rare no matter what footwear you have on, but sandals do leave more exposed skin at risk. The most important thing to remember is that snakes don’t want to interact with you, so long as you don’t try to interact with them. Never approach wildlife – give all critters a wide berth on the trail. For more information on snake safety, check out our Snake and Cougar Safety video.
If a strap fails, you could be really out of luck – When hiking in shoes, you may wear a hole in them or break a lace, but this is typically not the end of the world. With sandals, you need all the straps to stay intact in order for the shoe to function. High quality hiking sandals use really durable strap materials and are generally pretty difficult to break, but it can happen. It’s always best to have a length of duct tape with you for field repairs when backpacking.
Ready to give hiking in sandals a try? The hiking sandals market is growing rapidly, and options are becoming plentiful. Here are a few of our favorite hiking sandals:
- Chacos – The Chaco Z/1 Classic (men’s and women’s) model is our top pick for hiking sandals. They are sturdy and comfortable, and they have an impressive amount of arch support. If you like a softer sole try the Chaco Z/Cloud (men’s and women’s). For those who are seriously serious about sandals hiking, Chaco offers more aggressive outsole options and custom color patterns through their MyChacos custom sandal builder.
- Bedrocks Sandals Cairn 3D Adventure Sandals– The Bedrock Cairn 3D Adventure Sandals (men’s and women’s) are a more minimalist trail sandal with a sticky Vibram outsole.
- Keen Newport H2 – The Keen Newport H2 Sandals (men’s and women’s) feel more like a shoe than a sandal with their closed toes and thick straps that cover most of the foot. These sandals are more budget-friendly, but they’re heavier than the other sandals on this list.
Hiking in sandals has a lot of advantages over hiking in more traditional shoes or boots. We love how easy water crossings are when wearing sandals and that we can easily eject pebbles that find their way between our feet and the footbed. You’re also much less likely to get blisters and 100% more likely to have awesome tan lines.
If you’re ready to give hiking in sandals a try, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Break-in – Remember, many hiking sandals do a have a short break-in period, so it’s a good idea to wear them around town for a couple of days before hitting the trail.
- Start small – We recommend starting out with shorter hikes to get used to hiking in sandals, it’s quite different from hiking in shoes.
- Avoiding blisters – bring along a roll of Rock Tape to address any hot spots that form.
- Try more than one – If the first pair of sandals you try isn’t exactly right, try a different one! There are so many options out there and they all perform quite differently. REI has a great return policy that allows you to try shoes and then be able to return or exchange them if they don’t work.
Do you have a favorite pair of hiking sandals that we missed? Let us know in the comments below. If you liked this article, you’ll probably enjoy this other popular CleverHiker content:
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