These days, the trend in hiking footwear is toward minimalism. Lightweight and breathable options are preferred. Many hikers have switched from heavy hiking boots to lightweight trail runners over the past few years. A new trend that is quickly growing in popularity is hiking in sandals. This guide outlines the pros and cons of hiking sandals to help you decide for yourself whether or not they are the right footwear choice for your next hike.
What are Hiking Sandals?
Hiking in sandals doesn’t mean simply wearing a pair Crocs or a $1 pair of plastic flip flops to hike in. Hiking sandals are designed specifically for use on the trail. They include arch support, rugged lugged soles, and durable straps to keep your feet firmly in place. Some varieties include toe protection as well. They are all designed to get wet. Hiking sandals are the lightest and most breathable hiking footwear option available.
Hiking Sandals Pros
- Fewer blisters– No matter how breathable your boots or trail runners may be, your feet will still sweat all day. The combination of wet feet and friction cause blisters. Hiking sandals solve this problem in two ways. First, your feet stay dryer in sandals. The open footwear allows plenty of airflow. The sweat evaporates away before it has the chance to accumulate. Second, you can usually adjust the sandal straps to prevent abrasion. This means you’ll suffer far fewer blisters while hiking in sandals.
- Lightweight- Hiking sandals weight less than hiking boots and around the same as trail runners. The average pair of hiking boots weights around 2.5 pounds (a little over 1 kilo). The average pair of trail runners weighs in around 1 lb 6 oz (around 625 grams). An average pair of hiking sandals weighs between 1 and 2 pounds (around 450-900 grams). The lightest pair of hiking sandals that I’m aware of are Xero Z-Trail sandals which weight only around 12 ounces (340 grams). This is probably your lightest hiking footwear option without going barefoot.
- Breathability- Sandals, being completely open, allow air to easily circulate around your foot. They also allow the sunlight to hit your feet. This helps the sweat evaporates away so your feet stay dry and fresh. Dry feet are less likely to develop blisters and fungal growth. Having dry feet is also much more comfortable.
- Sandals make water crossings easy and fun- This is probably the best part about hiking in sandals. You can trudge across a stream or river without a second thought. You don’t have to avoid getting your feet wet by negotiating slippery rocks that are sticking out of the water. Just walk through the water instead. Over larger crossings, there is no need to stop to remove your boots and socks and strap them to your pack then wait for your feet to dry on the other side. You don’t have to worry about stepping on a sharp rock while crossing barefoot. Dipping your feet into a stream on a hot day is a refreshing bonus. To help prevent blisters, you may want to dry off your feet on the other side before continuing.
- Your feet stay cooler in sandals- While hiking in hot weather, your feet heat up fast. Sandals provide very little insulation so the heat just radiates away rather than building up in your shoes and socks. This greatly improves comfort in hot climates.
- Versatile- Hiking sandals have uses outside of hiking. Use them as your summer footwear. Take them to the beach. Wear them on vacation. Walk your dog in them. Wear them around the house. You won’t get this much use out of your hiking boots.
- More efficient- Because hiking sandals weigh less than boots, they take less energy to hike in. Every step takes a bit less effort because you don’t have as much weight to lift. This means, your heart also stays slightly lower. You can hike further and faster without tiring out as quickly. Cutting a pound from your footwear can save you a significant amount of energy over the course of a long hike. For more info, check out this interesting article about hiking efficiency.
- Sandals are better for foot health- Hiking can cause a number of foot problems. Sandals can remedy some of them. For example, some through-hikers lose toenails. This is caused by the toes rubbing against the front of the shoes. Eventually, the nails die and come off. Most hiking sandals are open toe so you won’t suffer from this problem. Trench foot is a problem that develops when your feet stay wet for an extended period. Sandals solve this by allowing sweat and water to evaporate away. Sandals also help reduce blisters. To read more, check out this article about foot problems while hiking from The Trek.
- No need to clean and dry out socks- While hiking in sandals, most of the time you won’t be wearing socks. This is one less item you have to worry about keeping clean and dry. Not having to wash your socks every couple of days saves you time. Of course, you should still pack hiking socks. They can keep your feet warm add a bit of protection from bugs and debris when you need it. One pair is probably sufficient. Packing fewer bulky hiking socks saves some space in your pack as well.
- It’s easy to remove pebbles and debris that get caught in your sandal- If, while hiking along, you feel a small rock caught between your toes, you can usually get it out by strategically shaking your sandal. If that doesn’t work, you can almost always stick your finger up under your foot to extract the problem stone. You don’t have to stop and remove your shoe or boot. Of course, you will get more pebbles and debris stuck under your foot while hiking in sandals than you would with hiking boots because the sandals are open. Luckily, stones almost always roll right out as you walk.
- Hiking sandals can often be resoled- Some manufacturers offer repair and re-sole services when your sandals wear out. I know Bedrock and Chacos offer this service. Other brands probably do as well. This can save you a nice chunk of money. It’s also good for the environment because you’re not throwing away your whole sandal every time the sole wears out. Trail runners, on the other hand, go straight in the trash when they wear out.
- Hiking sandals take up less space- If you travel to your hiking destination, a pair of hiking sandals take up far less space in your luggage than trail runners or hiking boots. They’re also easy to pack. After all, sandals are essentially just slim slabs of rubber with straps. Saving space is particularly important if you’re flying to your destination. Airline luggage limits are pretty strict these days.
- Hiking sandals are trendy and cool- The current trend in hiking footwear is minimalism. Everybody is going ultralight these days. Hiking sandals fit that trend perfectly. I’ve been seeing more and more on the trail. If you care about looks, hiking sandals are a great choice.
Hiking Sandals Cons
- Broken and stubbed toes- This is my biggest worry about hiking in sandals. While researching before buying my first pair, I encountered a surprising number of stories about people breaking toes while hiking in their sandals. I concluded that if I hike enough miles in sandals, eventually, I’ll catch my foot on a rock or root and break a toe. This is not guaranteed of course. People have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in sandals and not suffered a single injury. It’s just something to consider. You are taking a small risk of injury when you hike in sandals.
- Sunburn and tan lines- While hiking in sandals your feet are exposed to direct sunlight. Over the course of a day, you could develop a pretty severe sunburn if you’re not careful. Particularly if you’re hiking in an open area where there isn’t much shade or if the sun is very intense. Be sure to apply sunscreen to the top of your feet while hiking in sandals. Remember to re-apply every couple of hours or after a water crossing. You’ll probably develop some funny looking tan lines as well. Personally, I don’t mind this but others might.
- If a strap fails, the sandal may become unusable- Sandals can catastrophically fail. If the wrong strap breaks, the sandal simply won’t stay on your foot anymore. This can happen unexpectedly. Boots and trail runners don’t really fail in the same way. The sole may begin to un-bond from the upper. Maybe you wear a hole in the side. These problems are usually slow to develop. You have time to make repairs or get replacements. If a lace breaks, you can just tie it back together. While hiking in sandals, you should inspect the straps periodically to make sure they aren’t fraying or coming loose. Also consider carrying a sewing kit and some duct tape to make field repairs with. Hiking sandals are very durable but, after enough use, everything fails.
- Your feet can get cold- Hiking sandals don’t offer any insulation. If it’s cold outside, your feet will get cold. For this reason, sandals aren’t ideal for winter hiking or hiking in the rain. You can wear a pair of socks for a bit of insulation in chilly weather.
- Sandal straps can cause blisters- Even though hiking sandals can reduce blisters, they can’t eliminate them. If you are hiking in a wet area and your sandal straps stay wet, you may develop blisters where the straps contact your feet. Friction and wetness is not a good combination. If possible, dry off your feet after water crossings and keep your sandal straps as dry as possible to prevent blisters. You can also apply athletic tape to the parts of your foot that contact the sandal straps. Socks can also help.
- Sandals aren’t ideal for hiking in sandy conditions- If sand gets caught between the straps and your feet, your sandal straps basically turn into sandpaper. Over a few miles, the sand cause abrasions and rub your feet raw. If you’re hiking in a sandy area, you’re better off either going barefoot or wearing high top boots or gaiters that will keep the sand out. If you are hiking through a sandy area in sandals, wear socks or apply athletic tape to the parts of your foot that come into contact with the straps.
- Rocks and debris can easily enter- Because sandals are open, it’s easy for a sharp rock to get caught underfoot. Twigs and thorns and other debris can easily enter as well. Usually, this is just an annoyance. In some cases, they can cause bruising, splinters, or cuts if you step wrong. This is just part of hiking in sandals.
- No ankle support- Hiking sandals don’t offer any kind of protection against sprain injuries. If you step in the wrong place, there is nothing to stop your ankle from twisting. Hiking boots, on the other hand, offer ankle support to help protect you from these types of injuries. Having said this, there isn’t really any solid scientific evidence that proves that ankle support prevents hiking injuries. To read more, check out the comments section of this article about ankle support from Section Hiker.
- Less grip- Hiking sandals offer surprisingly good traction. Most are designed for use in water so they work particularly well on slippery surfaces like wet rocks. Having said this, hiking sandals aren’t quite as grippy as a good pair of hiking boots. The lugs are usually significantly smaller and the tread pattern is less aggressive. For rugged backwoods hikes, sandals aren’t ideal.
- Relatively long break-in period- Some may disagree with this but in my experience, sandals require quite a bit of time to break-in. When they’re new, the soles are very stiff and hard. Over time, the soles loosen up and form to your feet. Of course, the break-in period depends on the brand and materials used. Some hiking sandals will be ready for the trail after just a couple of days of walking around the house. Some take much longer. Trail runners generally take less time to break in. Hiking boots take more time to break in.
- Snakes and bugs can bite your feet- Being open, hiking sandals leave your feet exposed to critters. Snakes bites are rare but can happen in some destinations. Bugs bites are common. Tics crawl right on your feet and up your legs. Mosquitoes can feast on the tops of your feet. If the bugs are out, the best solution is to wear thick hiking socks with your sandals.
- The weight savings is not that great- An average pair of hiking sandals weighs about the same as a pair of trail runners. You’re not gaining much, weight-wise. One of the most popular hiking sandals, the Chaco Z/1 Classic weigh in at 1 lb 15 oz. That’s just one ounce under 2 pounds which is around the weight of many hiking boots. Of course there are much lighter options available. What I’m trying to say is that you’re not always cutting weight when you switch to sandals.
- Your feet can get scratched up- If you’re hiking in the backcountry off-trail, sandals won’t protect your feet from twigs or brush that rubs against your feet. It’s not uncommon to suffer small scrapes or cuts on your feet.
- You may get some funny looks or comments from other hikers- Some hikers think hiking in sandals is dangerous or just plain stupid. Some just don’t get the appeal. While out on the trail, you’ll probably get some questions about your footwear choice. Particularly from old school traditional hikers with heavy boots and heavy packs. Some hikers might just be curious about how the sandals are treating you.
A Few Things to Consider When Shopping for Hiking Sandals
Not all hiking sandals are built the same. You have a number of styles and design options to choose from. The main three decisions you need to make include closed-toe vs open toe, minimalist vs regular, and between the toe straps vs over the foot straps. Below, I’ll outline the benefits and drawbacks of each to help you decide.
Closed Toe Vs Open Toe Hiking Sandals
Some hiking sandals offer toe protection. These are built like a shoe in the front with a sturdy rubber toe cap. There are openings along the sides and in the back of the upper for airflow. Rather than straps, these sandals usually use some kind of quick lace system or bungees. These are like the mullets of footwear with their business in the front and party in the back design.
The main benefit of closed-toe sandals is that they protect your toes from rocks and roots in the trail. This can save you the pain of a broken or stubbed toe. Closed-toe sandals also tend to offer more support and protection than open toe sandals because they have more material surrounding your foot.
The main drawback is that this style isn’t very fashionable. If you only plan to hike in your sandals, this doesn’t really matter. If you plan to wear your hiking sandals around town and on vacation, this may not be the best choice. Another drawback is that closed-toe sandals are often heavier because they use more material.
Minimalist Vs Standard Hiking Sandals
A number of companies make ultralight minimalist sandals that weigh less than a pound. Some models weigh as little as 12 ounces. If you want the absolute lightest hiking footwear available, this is it. The light weight is achieved with an ultra-thin sole and lightweight straps.
Minimalist sandals would be a great choice for someone who likes to hike in boots or trail runners most of the time but also wants to have the option to hike in sandals. On days where you’re doing multiple water crossings or the weather is very hot, it is nice to have the option to wear sandals. Minimalist sandals pack down small and the weight penalty of less than a pound isn’t too bad. They would also make great footwear for around camp.
Of course, you are making some compromises when you choose minimalist sandals. Thin soles can’t offer the same lug depth or tread pattern that thick soles can. The traction suffers. Thin soles also allow you to feel every rock underfoot. This can be painful in rugged environments. They offer minimal protection.
Between the Toes Strap Vs Over the Foot Strap
Sandal strap designs vary widely. Some sandals strap over the top of your foot. Some straps go between your big toe and the toe next to it. These could have a flip flop like design or a loop for your big toe. Most hiking sandals have a strap behind the foot for added stability.
The main benefit of having a between the toe strap is that it can give you a bit more control and stability. The toe strap helps to hold your foot in place better so you don’t slide around on the sandal’s rubber sole. You can also manipulate your big toe to adjust the sandal slightly while stepping. The strap may also reduce blisters by preventing your foot from moving and rubbing against the straps too much.
There are two drawbacks to having a toe strap. First, it makes putting the sandal on slightly more difficult. You have to put your toe into the strap. Like threading a needle. You can’t just slide your foot in as easily. The second drawback is that toe straps make it more difficult to wear socks with your sandals. You may need a pair of toe socks to go with your sandals if you ever plan to wear them with socks. I like the Injinji Run 2.0 Lightweight No-Show Toe Socks.
This choice really comes down to personal preference. It is a major debate between those who wear Chaco sandals. For technical hiking, having a toe strap is probably best. To read more, check out this great article about toe straps from Outdoorzer.
A Note About Arch Support and Cushioning
One main difference between hiking sandals and regular sandals is that hiking sandals offer much more support for your feet. The soles aren’t just flat slabs of rubber. They have an arch and are made of materials that form to your feet over time. The soles are often thicker as well. This helps to protect your feet from sharp rocks and roots. The supportive soles make hiking sandals much more comfortable and allows you to tackle more rugged terrain.
Hiking Sandal Recommendations
As hiking sandals grow in popularity, more and more styles and designs are being released. A few of the best at the moment include:
If you’re looking for a pair of sandals that are capable of some serious hiking, Chaco Z2 Classic is an excellent choice. These durable sandals offer excellent arch support and an adjustable strap for a custom-like fit. They also have 3.5 mm lugged rubber soles which provide solid traction when the terrain gets technical. The thick soles provide protection from sharp rocky surfaces. These sandals are on the heavier side for hiking sandals but the features and comfort are worth the additional weight in my opinion.
Xero makes some of the lightest, most minimalist hiking sandals on the market. These sandals are designed to give you a barefoot feel with the added protection of a sandal. They offer zero heel to toe drop and a 5.5 mm sole. They come with a 5,000 mile warranty. Because they are so compact and lightweight, these would make for great sandals to carry in addition to your hiking boots or trail runners.
If you’re looking for a closed-toe sandal, the KEEN Newport H2 is an excellent choice. These waterproof sandals offer rubber soles with a multi-directional 3 mm lug pattern for great traction. These are a great choice if you spend a lot of time in the water. The material dries quickly as well. As far as the fit goes, these sandals and fit more like a shoe. This is great for people who don’t really like the feel of sandals but want the benefits. The toe cap can protect you from stubbed or broken toes.
These classic three-strap sandals offer an excellent combination of comfort and performance. They feature an EVA foam footbed to cushion and support your feet. The polyester webbing dries quickly, making these an excellent choice for hikes where you expect to encounter wet conditions and water crossings. The durable rubber outsoles are designed to give you plenty of traction in wet environments. These sandals do not have a toe strap.
This company launched after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2011. These days, they make some of the best hiking sandals on the market. Their Adventure line features sticky and durable Vibram soles as well as multiple adjustment zones for a custom-like fit. These sandals have been used by through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail.
A Few Hiking Sandal Tips
- Make sure you have room to wear hiking socks under your sandals- Adjustable straps allow you to do this. Occasionally, you’ll want the added warmth or protection of a thick sock. It’s not stylish but it is functional.
- Lighten your load- Hiking sandals don’t provide the same support as heavy-duty hiking boots. This means you can’t carry as heavy of loads when you hike in sandals. To avoid unnecessary pressure and stress on the joints in your feet, try to lighten your pack before switching to sandals. Getting your base weight under 20 pounds is ideal.
- Break your sandals in and start small- Sandals can take a decent amount of time to break-in. They aren’t that comfortable right out of the box like trail runners. Particularly if they have thick soles. Start out with short hikes so you can get used to the feel of your sandals and get them properly broken in.
Final Thoughts on the Pros and Cons of Hiking Sandals
As you have seen, hiking in sandals offers a number of advantages over boots or trail runners. Sandals are breathable, reduce blisters, and make water crossings easy and fun. The main drawback of hiking in sandals is the lack of protection for your feet. It’s easy to stub a toe or cut up a foot on a sharp branch.
When getting started hiking in sandals, start small. Take a short hike in an area with easy terrain so you can get used to the feel of your new footwear. Put your sandals to the test to gain some confidence in the grip and traction that they offer. After you get your hiking sandals broken in, you may never go back to hiking boots until the winter.
What are your thoughts on hiking sandals? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!
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