There was a time when sandals were reserved for the beach or the public shower. Blessedly, those days are long gone. Outdoor-oriented companies have taken the same core DNA of your standard flip-flops and leveled it up with features like a beefier sole, more secure webbing, greater arch support or some combination of all three. […]
There was a time when sandals were reserved for the beach or the public shower. Blessedly, those days are long gone. Outdoor-oriented companies have taken the same core DNA of your standard flip-flops and leveled it up with features like a beefier sole, more secure webbing, greater arch support or some combination of all three. All that adds up to a sandal that’s just as at home on the trail as it is the pool—but which is best for you?
We enlisted the feet of 17 testers across the country to put this year’s crop of hiking sandals through their paces. Our testers scaled peaks, crossed rivers and suffered more than a few blisters to bring you the six best technical sandals of the year.
Best for multisport days
Test Results: Any gear framed as “two-in-one” tends to be the industry’s version of fake news, but Merrell bucks that trend with the aptly named Choprock Shandal (not a typo: shoe + sandal = shandal). Wicked, 5mm-deep lugs and a Vibram® Megagrip outsole—one of the rubber company’s stickiest—gripped dry shale and gullies shellacked with mud as well as any hiking boot. “I set the course for a trail race in the Adirondacks and the Choprocks chewed up the slick sections without issue,” said a New York-based tester. “I never had any reason for concern.” The cushy EVA midsole makes for a comfortable ride, but doesn’t offer much in the way of support (we recommend capping pack weight at 25 pounds).
But what really ups the ante for the Choprock is its aquatic capabilities. Water channels run through the midsole with four drainage ports on either side to dump water. The synthetic-and-mesh upper dries in well under an hour, even after fully submerging the Choprocks in New York’s Cranberry Pond during a canoe trip. Bonus: Breathability is top shelf, thanks to 12 ventilation holes that pepper the upper.
Fit is cozy, too. Integrated webbing throughout the upper cinches with the laces, creating a secure, snug fit. The TPU heel counter prevents slippage, although one Colorado-based tester still noticed hot spots on her Achilles.
Bottom Line: Top-notch breathability and all-day comfort combine with burly traction to create a multisport shoe equally suited for the seas and the summits.
Best for long hikes
Test Results: Hiking sandals and backpacking have a reputation like oil and water, but times are changing. Enter Chaco Nation. Thanks to a cushioned footbed, a contoured arch and a dual-density PU midsole (firmer than EVA foam and more durable), the Mega Z/Cloud can withstand miles of abuse under a heavy load without breaking down. That puts these Chacos toe to toe with burlier, mid-cut boots. “I covered 6 miles while trekking the Nuuanu-Judd Trail while carrying my son, and my feet never felt fatigued,” said our Hawaii tester after a day hike with her 2-year-old son. Trade-offs: Our testers with flatter feet didn’t love the massive arch support, and multiple testers noted frequently struggling to pick debris out of the sandal.
Chaco moved to a proprietary rubber for the outsole in 2016, and our testers claim that it works well on wet and steep terrain. The sandals gripped slippery rocks fine after an afternoon squall left the trail to Blue Lake in Colorado’s Indian Peaks sloppy: “I felt confident stepping from rock to rock on a creek crossing without a trekking-pole assist,” a tester affirms. Still, the shallow (3mm) lugs faltered on loose gravel and dust near Alaska’s Little O’Malley Peak. The oversize sole (roughly 1 inch thick) creates a stiff platform that supports heavier loads, but it does come with a caveat: added weight.
Thicker-than-usual webbing (1 inch wide) sets the Megas apart from the regular Z/Clouds. Though it looks stiff upon initial inspection, it offers more torsional support than expected, thanks to the crisscrossed strap over the midfoot. The wider straps add comfort too: “They don’t dig into my feet like previous models,” said our Alaska-based tester after a 12-mile day on Anchorage’s Chester Creek Trail. Still, the webbing created a small blister on the outside of one tester’s heel after it was saturated from a river crossing. Fit note: whole sizes only (size up if you’re unsure).
Bottom Line: Ample arch support and a durable midsole make the Mega Z/Cloud the only sandal in the test built for high-mileage pursuits and heavy packs.
Best for sloppy trails
Test Results: Slippery terrain ahead? Reach for your Bedrock Sandals Cairn 3D Adventures. Testers praised the geometrically patterned footbed for its noticeable skin traction: “I could almost feel the soft patterning holding my foot in place during river crossings,” said one tester after a 4-mile hike in Colorado’s Brainard Lake Recreation Area. The same plush footbed was lauded by testers plagued with extra-sweaty feet. (“Usually I can’t wear hiking sandals because I slide off the shoe, but that’s not the case with these,” one attests.)
The unique Y-strap also keeps tootsies secure. Taking a cue from flip-flops, the Cairn 3D Adventures use nylon webbing with a “toe post,” a paracord strap between the first and second toes. (Think of it like a flip-flop with a heel strap—providing the airiest feel in the test.) Lateral slippage is minimal when combined with the three-point adjustment system (one Velcro strap around the heel, a hook on the interior for large adjustments and a sliding buckle on the outside of the foot to cinch the sandal tightly). On slick terrain or when sidehilling, we ratcheted down the heel strap for an ultrasecure fit that kept our feet in contact with the sandal for plenty of purchase.
At just a hair over a pound for a pair, the Cairn 3D Adventure is one of the lightest shoes in test, and it showed: “I don’t ever want my feet to feel weighed down while crossing a sketchy river, and I never felt the burden of their weight,” said our Montana tester. The XS Trek rubber outsole isn’t the stickiest in Vibram’s lineup, but it offers a great blend of traction and durability. (Typically, the stickier the rubber, the quicker it breaks down.) The Cairn 3D Adventures held fine during river crossings and gripped very well on dry and steep terrain during a 12-mile hike of Montana’s Nasukoin Mountain. (They did slip on moss-covered logs along the Flathead River.)
Support is variable, depending on your foot. A minimalist design (0mm heel-to-toe drop) doesn’t offer any support (Bedrock Sandals doesn’t claim to), and testers with heavy packs noticed. “My feet felt sore after hiking with my 2-year-old daughter in a backpack,” said one Colorado tester after humping a 40-pound load on a 6-mile hike on North Table Mountain. Unlike traditional footwear, minimalist sandals allow for a full-foot splay and a natural, midfoot gait that relieves heel striking. So long as you hit your midfoot first, your feet should be fine in the Cairn 3D Adventures, though we recommend slowly ramping up distance in minimalist sandals if you haven’t tried them before. Fit note: As with Chaco, whole sizes only (size up if you’re unsure).
Bottom Line: Superior footbed traction and a unique carriage hug your foot in mucky and slick conditions when you want top-notch security.
Best for adventure travel
Test Results: It’s rare for testers to unanimously agree on anything, so we took note when they all lauded the ECCO Yucatan’s unmatched comfort. “I felt like I was walking on a fancy hotel pillow,” said one Colorado tester. “These sandals wrapped my foot in a well-ventilated hug,” said another. The secret is in the footbed. It’s made of EVA and covered with microfiber, making it cushy underfoot and delightfully soft against skin.
Three adjustable hook-and-loop Nubuck leather straps (one each at the forefoot, instep and heel) move well and conform to a variety of foot shapes, but those with wider feet may feel constricted. One tester noted that the Yucatans were just as comfortable at the end of a long travel day, after his feet had swelled. The spandex-and-nylon liner feels great against skin, albeit a bit warm on days above 90°F. Caveat: Leather doesn’t dry nearly as fast as synthetic webbing, so plan on wet shoes for well over an hour if you dunk them.
The Yucatan’s firm PU midsole and full-length fiberglass-and-TPU shank offer up more support than the majority of sandals in the test. We felt solid under overnight loads up to 40 pounds and even when hefting our tired kiddos.
ECCO uses proprietary rubber and shallow, 2mm-deep lugs that grip well on dry and rocky terrain: “I watched my friends slip and slide while I was able to skirt around them,” said our Colorado tester after lugging her 30-pound son up to the Devil’s Head Fire Lookout near Larkspur. (Though we didn’t encounter steep trails mantled with sand or mud, we expect that the Yucatans would slip in such terrain.)
Trade-off: The aesthetics aren’t for everyone.
Bottom Line: The pillow-soft footbed and firmer midsole provide unparalleled comfort for anyone looking to wear sandals from the plane to the city to the trail.
Test Results: The KEEN Clearwater CNX water shoes tip the scales at barely 1 pound per pair, meaning your sandals likely weigh less than your trail lunch. However, they boast more support than expected for such a slim-and-trim design. Though the sole itself is about as thick as your pinky finger, KEEN fit a PU midsole and TPU shank inside. The whole bundle supported our testers well under loads up to 30 pounds. In addition to stiffening the sole, the shank also adds underfoot protection: “I crossed rocky terrain with jagged stones and rolling boulders and never felt unstable or sore,” said one Colorado tester after a 7-mile hike on the Roaring Creek Trail in Roosevelt National Forest. Trade-off: The streamlined design is best for folks with low-volume feet; testers with wider feet suffered hot spots.
Test Results: Ounce-counters looking for an ultralight setup down to their feet will love the minimalist design (and weight) of the Xero Shoes Z-Trails. Not only do the Z-Trails sport a 0mm drop from heel to toe, but there’s only 10mm of shoe between your foot and the ground: a sandwich of a rubber outsole, a firmer foam midsole and a comfy foam footbed. “They are so flexible that you can literally twist them in a spiral,” said one Montana-based tester. That creates unparalleled ground feel—the closest thing to actually being barefoot in the test. (Hikers who use minimalist shoes like the Z-Trails tend to prefer the balance and agility that come with such a natural, barely there fit.) In wet conditions, the Z-Trails gripped well, our Montana tester noted after fishing in the North Fork of the Flathead River. But the adjustable hook-and-loop heel strap was finicky when wet, occasionally coming undone. (Tip: Transition to barefoot shoes slowly to save yourself from achy muscles.)
In general, hiking sandals are open, often-airier shoes that enable you to hit the trail sans socks. But depending on your preferred type of trail time, you may opt for different features. Traditional hiking and backpacking sandals boast firmer outsoles and midsoles for underfoot support, which allows you to carry heavier loads. Comfortable webbing (or straps) is paramount for long-haul comfort.
If you anticipate hiking on slippery terrain, look for a sportier sandal with above-average traction. (Careful: The stickier the outsole rubber, the quicker it will break down. That means the lifespan for an amphibious shoe will often be shorter than that of a traditional hiking sandal.) Of course, if you’re planning to actually sluice through creeks and waterways (something like this), you’ll need more than good traction. Look for a water shoe or shandal with ample drainage ports (for comfort and quick-drying) and a patterned footbed (to prevent your foot from slipping around).
Finally, travel sandals may be less technical than the other types here, but if your hiking is light, you’ll appreciate the comfort. Travel sandals highlight cushion over performance, and their firm-yet-squishy midsoles provide comfy support for walking, but not necessarily hefting big loads. (They also won’t dry nearly as quickly as the other types here.)
Hiking sandals are different than regular sandals thanks to three components: the midsoles, the outsoles and the lacing systems.
The support of a hiking sandal depends on its midsole. The midsole is the layer of material sandwiched between the outsole and the insole. Typically, the midsole is constructed from one of two materials: ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) or polyurethane (PU). EVA foam tends to be lighter and softer, but not as durable. PU is firmer and more supportive, but it is less squishy. Hikers carrying lighter loads (less than 30 pounds) will be fine with an EVA midsole, but hikers and backpackers with heavier packs (more than 30 pounds) should consider PU midsoles for added support. (Read more about hiking shoe components here.)
The outsole (commonly just referred to as “the sole”) is the bottommost layer of the shoe. Since it’s what makes contact with the ground, the outsole is usually made from a sticky rubber compound. As with your running shoes or hiking boots, you want a technical, sticky outsole on your hiking sandal for traction. The knobs or shapes in the outsole—lugs—vary in size and shape. In general, deeper lugs offer more traction. Pointy shapes are great for toeing off, while flat and blunt lugs are for braking.
Traditional laces are only found in hybrid sandals like the Merrell Choprock Shandal or the KEEN Clearwater CNX. These sandals use lacing like traditional hiking footwear for added security, which makes them great for higher-mileage pursuits. (They also have uppers like traditional hiking footwear.) The majority of hiking sandals, however, use webbing instead of lacing. There are usually three main straps: two that cross the foot and a third to secure the heel. Some brands (like Chaco) offer a fourth strap that runs diagonally for added security. Toe straps are entirely dependent on user comfort. Some hikers prefer a circular strap to isolate the big toe while others opt for a toe bar similar to the style used in the Bedrock Sandals Cairn 3D Adventure.
Our 17 testers tallied more than 750 miles, putting 10 top-selling and top-rated hiking sandals through the gauntlet. After a two-month period, each tester rated the sandals they tried on a 100-point scale for support, traction and overall comfort. Total scores listed above are a cumulative average. The six sandals listed here are their favorites: The Merrell Choprock Shandal, Chaco Mega Z/Cloud, Bedrock Sandals Cairn 3D Adventure and ECCO Yucatan performed best in the test overall, while the KEEN Clearwater CNX and Xero Shoes Z-Trail scored high in one or more (but not all) of the categories. Thank you to each of our testers; sorry for the blisters.
All photos by William M. Rochfort, Jr.