Reviews You Can Rely On

How to Choose Sandals for Women

These sandals pair just as well with a dress as they do with your favo...
Photo: Miya Tsudome
Tuesday June 16, 2020
Our Editors independently research, test, and rate the best products. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Learn more

There are endless sandal options on the market today, so how do you choose the best one for your feet and your lifestyle? Throughout this review, we've provided as much detail as possible about how each sandal fits and which foot types each model will accommodate. But unlike Camping Stoves or Water Filters, footwear is dependent on your unique foot shape and desired comfort level. So while we know you'll get a lot of value out of reviews like ours, no amount of reading and research can replace trying on a variety of sandals to see which fit you best. We hope you can use this review to narrow the field down to a few options, then head to your local retailer (or to the internet) to try them on before you commit.

Do you need the burliness of the Cairn 3D PRO II Adventure (left)...
Do you need the burliness of the Cairn 3D PRO II Adventure (left)? Or will the regular Cairn Adventure (right) suffice? This Buying Advice guide will help you choose.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

To find your perfect sandal, think about where you'll be wearing them. Are you looking for a burly beast to take you into the depths of the backcountry, perhaps replacing your hiking shoes for summer adventures? Or maybe you're looking for an around-town shoe that can handle getting dirty on occasion? Perhaps you're just looking for something that will last at the beach for a few seasons without disintegrating? This article will walk you through choosing the right sandals for the activities you do most.

Let's Talk About Footbeds


The terminology used to describe sandal materials and construction is completely non-uniform, so we'll attempt to demystify some common materials and designs to give you an idea of what might come your way once you click "purchase."

Footbed Materials


Many sandals have footbeds or midsoles that consist of some type of foam. EVA (that's ethel vinyl acetate, if you're interested) is one of the lighter foam options, but it's also quite compressible. This means that sandals made with EVA — like the Teva models in this review — will be light but will lose some of their spring and cush over time. In contrast, PU (which stands for polyurethane) is a heavier, less compressible material, so it's more durable. Sandals made with PU — like Chacos — will weigh more but will last longer.

The Original Universal is made of EVA foam, so it's super light but...
The Original Universal is made of EVA foam, so it's super light but may wear out with extended use.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

Many brands use their own proprietary foam or rubber blends to construct their footbeds, so it's harder to tell exactly what they're made of. For instance, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure has a "Granite Grip" rubber footbed, and the Xero Z-Trail EV uses "BareFoam." The Luna Oso Flaco Winged is designed with "Monkey Grip Technology" — huh? For sandals like this, it's best to read the manufacturer's descriptions carefully to see if the product is designed to be squishier or firmer. You can also check out all our articles, where we describe the feel of each sandal in detail.

Six footbeds, each unique. The Upena (back left) and Z/1 Classic...
Six footbeds, each unique. The Upena (back left) and Z/1 Classic (front left) use PU, while the Original Universal (middle right) and the Rose (front right) are EVA all the way. The Cairn 3D PRO II Adventure (back right) and the Oso Flaco (middle left) use their own proprietary rubber blends.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

Footbed Construction


Some sandals are completely flat, while others are designed with contours that mimic the natural shape of the foot. The flattest options, often described as minimalist, are designed to be barriers between your foot and the ground, but they're not there to give you a ton of support. Models like this include the Bedrock Cairn Adventure, the Teva Original Universal, and the Luna Oso Flaco.

The Oso Flaco, left, is pancake-flat, while the Cairn 3D, right, has...
The Oso Flaco, left, is pancake-flat, while the Cairn 3D, right, has contouring.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

Some models offer light contouring, meaning the footbed has a bit of topography to help keep your foot in place and provide a small amount of support. Models in this category include the Xero Z-Trail EV, the Bedrock Cairn 3D PRO II Adventure, and the Keen Clearwater CNX.

Finally, some models have footbeds that look more like a topo map of the PCT because they provide aggressive contouring to fully mimic the foot's shape. The Chaco models are most famous for this, to the point that they're often uncomfortable for wearers with low arches.

Chaco models, like the Z/1 Classic, have super molded footbeds made...
Chaco models, like the Z/1 Classic, have super molded footbeds made of a PU compound that won't break down over time. This is great if you have high arches and want a lot of support.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

Manufacturers' photos and product descriptions should help you figure out which category your prospective sandal falls into, and of course, we've included this info in our reviews.

Choosing Your Activity


After spending many miles evaluating the products in this review, our testers agree that which sandal is right for you depends almost entirely on what you'll be using it for. It would be wise to decide which metrics are relevant to you and your planned activities, then focus on the models that perform best in these areas.

Where are you hoping to wear your sandals? Are you looking to replace an existing shoe in your lineup or fill a gap? Answering these questions will help narrow down the sandal type that will best suit your needs.

We've assigned each product to one of three use categories to help you find your most appropriate fit: urban use, water activities, and hiking. They all fit into at least one of these categories, and some of the models we wore fit into more than one. One rare breed of sandal (our Editors' Choice winner) fits into all of the above.

The one sandal to rule them all: the Bedrock Cairn Adventure.
The one sandal to rule them all: the Bedrock Cairn Adventure.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

Urban Use


If you're looking for a sandal to slip on daily during the summer as you go about your life around town, start here. When considering sandals for urban use, prioritize comfort and style above all else. Generally, people looking for footwear in this category want something that blends in rather than something that looks aggressively outdoorsy, and they care more about a comfortable footbed than they do about straps that dial perfectly for an ultra-secure fit. Since stability is inherently less important on smooth, paved terrain, a flip-flop might be another appropriate option for ladies looking for a sandal to wear exclusively around town. But if you're looking for a slightly more substantial product with more control, consider the products in this review.

The Olukai Upena shines here. This model is supremely comfortable, looks great with a range of outfits, and is supportive enough for a walk to the coffee shop or a bike ride to dinner. The Xero Z-Trail EV, our Top Pick for Camp Sandals, is another sleek, stylish option that will serve you well around town. This is the lightest sandal we tested and has a thin, minimalist footbed, so steer clear if you're looking for an option with lots of support. But we found this model to be super comfortable, and our lead tester wore it around town for weeks with nary a complaint from her feet or legs. It also has a less technical vibe than some of the more outdoorsy models, so it pairs well with a wide variety of outfits.

Whether you slip these on with a pair of socks while resting between...
Whether you slip these on with a pair of socks while resting between bouldering burns, or wear them out on the town, they'll pair nicely with most outfits and styles (in our opinion).
Photo: Miya Tsudome

Several other products are notable in this category. The Chaco Z/Volv X2 looks great and comes in various fun colors. Some might find the Chaco Z/Cloud 2 or Z/1 Classic options slightly less stylish than the Z/Volv X2 due to their thicker, less feminine straps, but for many, these classic Chacos are the last word in mountain town fashion. The Teva Tirra is another model with a comfortable footbed and an airy, lightweight feel. It wouldn't be our first choice for any venture that requires lots of trail miles, rock hopping, or water crossings because of its uncomfortable heel strap, but it's a go-to choice for urban travel.

If you live in a mountain town, chances are you're seeing a lot of...
If you live in a mountain town, chances are you're seeing a lot of Chacos around the office. Here, our tester sports the Chaco Z/Volv X2.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

Last but not least, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure, winner of our Editors' Choice Award and its close sibling, the Cairn 3D PRO II Adventure, are high performers in the fashion metric. They come in neutral colors with flattering, low-profile straps that make them attractive as well as useful. Throughout our testing, we received a borderline weird number of compliments from strangers and friends alike while wearing these models. Add in easy adjustability and superior traction, and you have a couple of comfortable options in any environment.

Water Activities


Those searching for a shoe that performs in the water should prioritize traction and water resistance. This includes beach-goers, boaters, rafters, and those hiking in warm, wet environments. Improved performance means increased safety and confidence on wet surfaces. For increased comfort, a shoe that dries faster is appreciated. The Chaco Z/Cloud 2 dries quickly, has good traction, and has hearty straps that feel secure.

Whether you're romping over rough trails or kicking it lakeside, the...
Whether you're romping over rough trails or kicking it lakeside, the Z/Cloud 2 will keep your feet happy.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

However, our testers almost all favored the Keen Clearwater as an option for a water shoe. Although this shoe does not dry as quickly as the Chacos, it outperforms them in comfort, and the full coverage derived from the closed-toe design is a big benefit. It provides protection that open-toed sandals cannot match. This is the most pared-down of the Keen models, and it suits regular to narrow feet.

The Clearwaters are surprisingly light and sleek while also being...
The Clearwaters are surprisingly light and sleek while also being durable adventure shoes.
Photo: Miya Tsudome

The Teva Original Universal is another excellent option here. It has outstanding traction in slippery, watery environments, and it's comfortable and versatile enough to transition to use on the trail or in town.

Tevas have been water sport standouts for decades because of their...
Tevas have been water sport standouts for decades because of their great traction and quick drying time.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

Again, we highly recommend the Cairn Adventure in this category. Because of the minimalist design, the Cairn dries quickly, and when wading in water with a sandy bed surface, its open design allows users to work pesky pebbles out from between their shoe and foot, unlike the Keen models. Although the Keen Clearwater is a great water shoe, it's significantly bulkier.

Great traction and a quick dry time make the Bedrock Cairn Adventure...
Great traction and a quick dry time make the Bedrock Cairn Adventure a perfect water shoe.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

Hiking


If you're looking for a summer sandal that will let you leave your hiking boots at home on occasion, you're in the right place. Our testers are big fans of letting their toes see the sun, even on multi-day backpacking trips and technical day hikes. A great hiking sandal should have the performance capabilities of a hiking shoe, but would ideally offer more versatility at a lighter weight. It should excel on all kinds of terrain while still being packable.

In our test group, we couldn't find a better hiking sandal than the Chaco Z/Cloud 2, which we named our Top Pick for Distance Hikers. The Z/Cloud 2 provides the support and comfort needed to spend long days on rough terrain, even with a heavy pack. Its straps are minutely adjustable so that they can dial in perfectly to your unique foot. It has some of the best traction in our group in both wet and dry conditions, so we feel as secure in our Chacos as we do in lace-up hiking boots. It always has to be noted, though, that Chacos have molded footbeds that don't tend to be comfortable for users with flat feet. If that's the case for you, consider the Z/Volv X2 — it has a slightly less pronounced molded footbed than the Z/Cloud 2, which will be more comfortable for those with low arches. The Bedrock Cairn 3D PRO II Adventure is another excellent option here — it has light contouring to support the arch and great traction for rough terrain.

Has your trail turned into a stream? That's no problem in the...
Has your trail turned into a stream? That's no problem in the Z/Cloud 2. This sandal provides great traction over all surfaces.
Photo: Joanna Trieger

If you have low arches and you don't mind a thin, flexible sole, the Cairn Adventure is a great hiking shoe. It feels incredibly secure not only because it has such good traction but because its straps are so ergonomic and sturdy. There's no chafing or sliding when wearing the Cairn on steep surfaces, and the toe strap doesn't cause any discomfort. Crucially, its open-toed design means that debris can fall more easily out of the shoe rather than collecting beneath your foot (a frequent complaint among the Chaco and Keen crowd). This is also a slim, packable shoe, so it's great to take along on backpacking trips as a secondary shoe for day hikes.

If you're really into minimalist footwear, you could consider the Xero Z-Trail EV as an ultralight hiking sandal. After lots of testing in various conditions, we ultimately don't think this model is up to steep trails and heavy packs. Either way, this super slim model is great to tuck into your pack as a camp sandal.

While we might not choose to hike far in the Xero Z-Trail EV's, they...
While we might not choose to hike far in the Xero Z-Trail EV's, they are great for light hikes or as camp shoes.
Photo: Miya Tsudome

Although not the "standard" summer footwear look, close-toed models, like our Top Pick for Adventure Travel, the Clearwater CNX, are particularly useful for individuals who want to hike a lot in their sandals. The following section provides more information on the pros and cons of close-toed construction.

Finally, our Top Pick for Minimalist Trail Running, the Luna Oso Flaco sneaks into this category, though we recommend it for running rather than hiking. This very thin-soled sandal has outstanding traction and a secure strap system that makes it ideal for folks looking to dip a toe into the barefoot running scene.

Foot Protection & Close-Toed Construction


In addition to considering what activities you'll do when wearing your sandals, you may want to think about how much protection you need. Rocky terrain increases the need for coverage, but so does individual clumsiness and confidence level on steep, rough trails. Sun protection is another perk of having a more covered shoe. Or maybe you want to cover up unsightly toes or an unfortunate foot tattoo (though we say let your freaky feet fly!). Whatever the need, close-toed models are the best option for people who want more coverage.

The Keen models are the only close-toed options we tested. The added security of the additional fabric in a closed-toe model makes some wearers feel more comfortable off-road. In contrast, others simply enjoy these models as hiking shoes with increased ventilation. These models come with Keen's foot bumper technology, which protects against stubbed toes, but also means that you have a particularly bulky toe box.

The closed-toe design of these Keen Clearwater sandals makes river...
The closed-toe design of these Keen Clearwater sandals makes river crossings comfortable and secure.
Photo: Miya Tsudome

The biggest downside to closed-toed products is that they are open enough to allow debris to enter the footbed but closed enough to trap this detritus in. This means frequent breaks to stop and clear out the amazing amount of pebbles and twigs that seem to collect between your foot and the footbed. The open-toed models are even worse at keeping out debris than the close-toed versions, but their open construction is such that the debris can more easily escape. The extra fabric on the Keens also makes them significantly heavier than the open-toe models when wet. The only other possible downside to these shoes is that they aren't as protective as they feel. They are a more protective option than open-toed models but are definitely no substitute for hiking boots or shoes.

No substitute for hiking boots, but KEEN closed-toe sandals like the...
No substitute for hiking boots, but KEEN closed-toe sandals like the Astoria West definitely protect your feet more than open-toe models.
Photo: Miya Tsudome

Even an exhaustive review can't tell you which model will fit your foot the best. But it can tell you everything else. So check out our full review and let us help you find your perfect sandal!

  • Share this article: