Flip Flop Buying Advice

Buying Advice
By Brian Blum ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Thursday December 12, 2013

The best advice we can offer in your search for a pair of flip flops that meet your lifestyle needs is to take a moment and reflect (maybe grab a pen and paper and write it down) on the pairs of flip flops you have owned in the past, what you liked or didn't like about them, and most importantly, why you eventually retired them. We recognize that there is a huge difference in need between the typical shopper purchasing a pair of flip flops for the occasional beach sojourn and the outdoor adventurer considering flip flops their main means of transportation. Many of us buy flip flops on impulse, choosing a pair that looks good or feels comfortable enough after a few paces around the store. Others buy without stopping to think what percentage of your day you will be in them. If you are in the market for a pair of flip flops that you will absolutely love (as we assume you are), read on for a breakdown of what to consider when purchasing your next pair.

After reading the rest of this article, be sure to check out our Flip Flops Review where we put the best best sandals head to head.

If you are looking for a flip flop for the beach, walking around the house, or for an occasional stroll we recommend focusing on overall comfort and fit. Look for soft cushiony material that is soft in every place it touches your foot. For someone planning on doing a lot of walking and even some light hiking in your flip flops, consider wear and tear, especially the fact that some flip flops will stretch, and get your pair snug to your foot. A pair that is heavy duty, non abrasive, and will last a long time works best if you are in this category. For adventurers that want a pair that will serve them wading through rivers, on climbing approaches, and in a wide range of activity we recommend sacrificing some comfort for stability and versatility, purchasing a pair that will not stretch over time, is not abrasive and difficult to break in, and offers excellent traction in a range of wet and dry conditions. If you are adventurous we also recommend you think about purchasing a more stable sandal that secures to your foot in several places and is built for more intense activity.
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Reef Fanning's don't climb splitters, but I know they want to
Credit: Brian Blum

What makes a flip flop comfortable?
Let's work from the ground up on this one. Starting at the sole, we like a flip flop that offers a formed footbed. The material that makes up the sole is critically important. Extremely cheap flip flops will be made mostly of plastic foam. We recommend staying away from this type as they do not offer a contour that supports your feet where it is needed (specifically arch support comes to mind). Cheap foam also compresses to a thin layer offering very little protection from sharp objects and wears away quickly. A better material is EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate), a copolymer of ethylene and vinyl acetate, which compresses while simultaneously offering resistance, is soft, flexible, and gives where appropriate. Rubber offers similar characteristics, is strong, and can be sourced sustainably from farmed trees or from recycled products. Overall the best footbeds tend to comprise a combination of these materials. Look for flip flops that are clearly engineered to offer resistance (arch support) where it is needed and try to stay away from gimmicks (e.g. air pockets) or marketing which distracts you from what is most important.

For optimized comfort we prefer a thicker strap on a flip flop. Thinner straps have the tendency to cut into the skin during more aggressive activity. Thinner straps will also be more likely to stretch than thicker ones, resulting in a less snug and less functional shoe. Also look for soft cushiony material on the inside of the strap if you are focused specifically on comfort. It is key that a strap fits well, especially when the material is slightly abrasive as a loose fitting strap is more likely to cause abrasion or blisters on your feet.

What makes a flip flop strong?
Anyone who has worn flip flops for more than a few years has experienced a broken toe strap. If this occurs during intense activity the moment the flip flop breaks could actually cause a potentially dangerous situation. The strongest material for this purpose tends to be Nylon. Also make sure that the toe strap is sewn directly into the sole and doesn't simply pass through with a catch (button) on the underside of the flip flop. This cheaper alternative has the tendency to pull through as the sole of the shoe wears over time. Watch out for flip flops that mention a "synthetic" strap but don't go into specific detail regarding the material that it is made from.

Another common flip flop failure occurs after months to years of heavy wear when a hole rubs through the front center of the sole. How quickly this happens depends a lot on the sole and footbed's material. EVA and other polymer plastics combined with rubber make a good strong durable combination. Foam and thin polyurethane soles have a tendency to wear out fast, so look for a combination of materials engineered to work together for traction, strength, flexibility and durability.

A final reason many abandon their current pair of flops (aside from just being outright wasteful) occurs when the toe strap stretches over time and no longer offers a snug, stable fit. This tends to happen with cheap plastic material. Nubuck or leather and nylon polyurethane combinations generally provide a solid footstrap that will maintain its structure, last a long time, and provide a comfortable material that will not rub a hole in your toe.
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Side profile of our top five flip flops tested. Top to bottom: Reef Fanning, Reef Phantom, Crocs Modi Flip, OluKai Ohana, Rainbow Single Layer
Credit: Brian Blum
What makes a flip flop versatile?
We've used our flip flops for everyday walking and lounging, short hikes, biking around town, jogging through a city, bouldering up rocky slopes to get to the base of climbs, wading through rivers, and a lot more. It is worth taking a moment to consider your lifestyle choices and what you may do (possibly without forethought or planning) in your flip flops. The more active your lifestyle the more we recommend trading comfort for a solidly built, well engineered shoe. You are going to pay more for a high quality flip flop (please do not buy a $10 pair in the local surf shop every 2 months contributing to the growing waste problem). Built to last is worth it - you will save money over time and avoid the dangerous situation where your flip flop toe strap breaks on you while precariously balanced on the side of the cliff in what would have otherwise been an easy approach.

Beyond strength a flip flop will improve in versatility if it provides solid support in the footbed. Avoid getting a shoe with a thin sole that has the tendency to wear out quickly and does not protect your feet from sharp rocks and potentially dangerous sharp objects, especially after several months of intense use. Look for a layered sole that is approximately 1/2 inch in thickness and made of several different layers of material. Good traction on the bottom of your shoe will require a different material than a center layer designed to compress an appropriate amount where it is required. For extra versatility look for a layer of material on the top of the sole specifically designed for traction and comfort. A flip flop will be most versatile when there is a solid balance of strength and comfort, allowing you to wear them all day in a wide range of activities.

The more stable a flip flop feels on your foot, basically the tighter the connection between the movements of your foot and the shoe under it, the more you will be able to do in them. Again when you purchase take note of the material and whether or not you expect the toe strap to stretch out, and given the option opt for a size smaller. Flip flops tend to run in full sizes so 50% of you will have the option to size down. For those whose foot run on an integer size we recommend considering a full size smaller if the toe strap is a synthetic material, and remaining with your size for a leather strap that will stretch much less over time.

Good traction is crucial to a versatile sandal. It is not always obvious from a product description or website picture what kind of traction a flip flop will offer. In general we found that the deeper the grooves and the more multi-directional the pattern, the more grip you will get. Seems obvious but it is something that can easily be overlooked. Obviously the material is going to greatly influence traction, but often it is hard to know what material "Eco Tread" or "Happy U" is. We like to think that a flip flop advertised specifically for having good traction should be designed to do so, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Your best bet is to read the reviews and pay careful attention to how the shoe performs when wet. Which brings up another often overlooked area of traction, essentially how well the bottom of your foot will traction to the footbed. In this respect you will get the most out of a material that is somewhat absorptive of water. Avoid a leather or plastic sole if you want your flip flops to perform at all in wet conditions.
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The Crocs bottom offers excellent grip on rock and other surfaces
Credit: Brian Blum
What makes a flop flop stylish?
As a final point we highly recommend getting a flip flop that meets your style needs. After all, if you think they are ugly, you are probably not going to wear them - so what's the point. Beyond checking with some friends whose opinion you value and reading reviews if you are swayed by "popular" opinion, we don't have too many suggestions to offer with respect to style other than simple is good, people tend to dislike lots of "bling" in a men's flip flop, and earthy colors are always safe and will show less dirt over time.
Brian Blum
About the Author
In February 2011, Brian Blum quit his Corporate job as a Product Marketing Engineer in the pursuit of being truly alive. Since this time he has explored Permaculture, learned how to grow food on land and through aquaponics, and pursued a deeper connection to natural systems and to ourselves. Brian loves rock climbing, yoga, Acro-Yoga, slacklining, juggling, poi, and the combination of any and all of these things. Brian presently teaches yoga and volunteers with several organizations in San Diego, CA. In 2013 Brian will be traveling on a way ticket to Central and South America.

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