The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How to Choose The Best Sandals

New sandals are rugged and ready to roll thanks to inspiration and technology from hiking/climbing shoes.
By Rob Woodworth ⋅ Review Editor
Tuesday September 4, 2018

Nowadays, sandals are incredibly capable thanks to advanced sole materials and intuitive designs that are both supportive and performance-oriented. These sport-tuned sandals have transcended from simply being open-air footwear to serving unique and specified purposes. Not surprisingly then, there are a seemingly overwhelming amount of options when it comes to choosing the perfect sandal.

Sandal options abound. The market now offers a range of 'zero-drop' models  like the ones above  that attract the minimalist and barefoot crowd.
Sandal options abound. The market now offers a range of 'zero-drop' models, like the ones above, that attract the minimalist and barefoot crowd.

We've been exhaustive in our testing and review process to ensure that we provide the greatest amount of detail regarding fit, performance, and most suitable use. But ultimately, it is up to the user to determine which sandal will suit their needs best. Unlike Binoculars or Portable Grills, footwear has considerations that are highly dependent on user preferences and anatomy. Your foot shape, desired support or comfortability, and your intended use should be primary factors in helping you find the best sandals.

Your Chosen Activity


Knowing which sandal to purchase first starts by knowing how you intend to use it. Even if you're looking for an all-around performer, it's good to consider what type of activities you regularly engage in before starting to browse. Not all sandals are made equally for every use, and you'd be wise to pay close attention to the metrics that are most closely related to your favorite activities.

What do you need from a sandal that you don't get from other shoes? What sports or activities will your sandals be used for? Knowing the answer to these questions should begin your path to the perfect pair.
We outline three fundamental categories of sandal use that will help you decide which models to begin considering. While most of the contenders fall explicitly into one area of usage, some models, like our Editors' Choice, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure, managed to bridge the gap between all categories.

With impeccable traction  great stability  and a comfortable fit  there isn't much that the Cairn can't do.
With impeccable traction, great stability, and a comfortable fit, there isn't much that the Cairn can't do.

Hiking


For many of us, a sandal's greatest utility is getting us from point A to point B while traversing varied terrain. People have been blazing trails in sandals for millennia. Hiking in sandals avoids hot feet and keeps toes and soles well-ventilated, which is great news when hiking in the hot summer heat. They are also less weight than boots or shoes.

If you're looking to nab a pair of sandals that could stand in place of your hiking boots or trail shoes, then you're in luck. Our testers have a preference for hiking-oriented models because they tend to be comfortable on long days where you might encounter a wide variety of demanding conditions. Hiking sandals should be sturdy, comfortable, and resilient. Ideally, they should also be lightweight and packable.

The Luna Oso is capable of taking you off the beaten path provided that you can find a fit that works for you.
The Luna Oso is capable of taking you off the beaten path provided that you can find a fit that works for you.

Our favorite hiking sandals are the Chaco models, specifically the Z/1 Classic and Z/Cloud. The beefy soles and intuitive webbing provide high stability and comfort for long pursuits. Additionally, the Chaco lineup has excellent traction and versatile tread that adapts well in changing conditions. Though these models aren't the lightest or most low-profile sandals in the lineup, they offer unparalleled performance on extended tours where other models may have left our feet tattered.

Not surprisingly, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure is also a great option for a hiking sandal. Our testers are more inclined to bring this model on backpacking outings where the luxury of additional footwear must be lightweight and packable. Another option for hikers is the Teva Terra Fi 4, which has an exceptionally comfortable and supportive footbed—it can also be worn with socks.

Watersports


If you don't wear sandals as everyday footwear, you most likely still have a pair on hand for beach days, lake days, or any outing that gets you close to the water. The breathability, quick-drying construction, and easy on and off of sandals make them a perfect option for aqueous adventures, though sometimes flip-flops don't quite cut it.

Like the rest of the offerings from Chaco  the Z Cloud is right at home in the water. The webbing and ChacoGrip sole also make transitioning from wet to dry a breeze.
Like the rest of the offerings from Chaco, the Z Cloud is right at home in the water. The webbing and ChacoGrip sole also make transitioning from wet to dry a breeze.

When engaging in watersports, your main considerations should be traction and water resistance. Super grippy soles not only keep you safe on slick rocks but also enhance performance in wet conditions. Furthermore, water resistant materials and design help to keep your feet comfortable during aqueous outings. Minimalist designs will have less material to dry but also less protection from rocks and snags.

The XLT 2 is a water-friendly sandal that can also handle rugged dryland adventuring in moderation.
The XLT 2 is a water-friendly sandal that can also handle rugged dryland adventuring in moderation.

Again, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure was our preferred model for this category. The Vibram sole keeps your feet locked in on wet surfaces, and the minimal amounts of webbing and materials mean that your feet will air out to dry very quickly. Additionally, it is very easy to remove pebbles and sand from the insole of the Cairn. If you're worried about the dangers that lurk beneath the surface, or if you're looking to accommodate wetsuit booties, we'd recommend the Keen Newport H2 which has a wider construction and greater protection.

Travel and Urban Use


If you're looking for a do-it-all utility sandal that can be easily slipped on or tossed into a beach bag, this is the category for you. A sandal that you intend to wear around town should be comfortable and versatile. It's also a huge bonus if they are low-profile and stylish. But since style is highly subjective, we chose to not rate that as a metric and instead let you decide what the most flattering type of footwear. In some cases, a pair of flip flops is all you need to get to where you're going. However, if you plan to get off the beaten path in your new sandals, we would recommend something with more support.

Lightweight  flexible  and with ample adjusting capabilities  the Z-Trail is a very comfortable sandal that can pack easily in a variety of settings.
Lightweight, flexible, and with ample adjusting capabilities, the Z-Trail is a very comfortable sandal that can pack easily in a variety of settings.

Because of their classic design, relatively low pack weight, and versatile comfort, the Teva Terra Fi 4 and the Hurricane XLT 2 are both great options for traveling and urban use. They keep your feet comfortable and supported all day, on asphalt or otherwise. Walking on hard, flat surfaces usually requires burly soles that offer both support and comfort. And for that reason, Chaco's also fit well into this category. Thinner models like the Cairn and the Xero Z Trail don't offer much cushion on asphalt but are incredibly packable and well-suited for travel.

Closed Toe Design


Knowing which activities you plan to employ sandals in is a great start to choosing the right pair. At some point, though, you'll have to ask yourself how much protection you need from your sandals. Depending on your intended use, an ultra minimal pair of sandals may be just fine. Or, you might need extra protection if you're managing exceptionally difficult, bushwhacking terrain or traversing rivers where you can't see your exact foot placement. Additionally, you may opt for greater coverage if you're accident-prone, stub toes frequently, or podophobic (afraid of feet).

This review only included two closed-toe models, the Keen Newport H2 and the Teva Omnium, both of which were heavily researched before our testing process. We are well aware that some folks have an almost vehement opposition to closed-toe sandals, yet it's prudent to include some representation from this less-popular but very necessary category of shoes. You may ask yourself: "At what point does a sandal become a full-on hiking shoe?" It's is a fine question, but let us explain why closed-toe sandals and hiking shoes are wildly different things.

Closed-toe sandals are great for watersports but have an unjust reputation as "dad shoes." Dad jokes aside  we favored the Newport H2 for its comfort  style  and functionality.
Closed-toe sandals are great for watersports but have an unjust reputation as "dad shoes." Dad jokes aside, we favored the Newport H2 for its comfort, style, and functionality.

A closed-toe sandal still has a substantial amount of draining and breathability when compared to a hiking shoe. While they can still be worn with socks, we suspect that most of the time you will not. One of the drawbacks to a closed-toe design is that the same holes allowing water to drain will also allow debris to enter your footbed. In our experience, this debris is much more difficult to get out than in a traditional sandal. So, think carefully about whether you plan to use your sandals in wet or dry conditions. Closed toe models excel in the former.

The Teva Omnium feel more like an aquatic shoe than a sandal...not necessarily a bad thing  but we prefer breathability in our summer footwear.
The Teva Omnium feel more like an aquatic shoe than a sandal...not necessarily a bad thing, but we prefer breathability in our summer footwear.

Ultimately, we grew much more fond of the Newport H2 than we were the Omnium. The Newport is an overall much stronger performer with a more intuitive design. They both offer about the same amount of protection from trail snags and toe jams. However, the Newport is more comfortable and thus protected our feet from getting sore when long in the saddle.

Getting the Right Fit


Along with style, this is where sandals get personal. While there isn't a perfect substitute for going to a brick and mortar store and trying on every pair you fancy, we also realize this isn't how everyone shops these days. It's time-consuming, and it's much easier to find deals online.

Knowing your foot shape and what is comfortable in your daily footwear can guide you toward a great fit. Folks with flat arches will probably feel more comfortable in a less-contoured (and flatter) footbed, like the minimalist models from Luna, Bedrock, and Xero Shoes. If you have high arches, Chaco models fit the bill. For wide-footed adventurists, there are a few models offered in both wide and regular sizing, so be on the lookout for that. Unfortunately, it's quite rare to find an outdoor sandal available in narrow sizes. However, the high adjustability sandals offer can accommodate narrow feet better than most shoes. If you have unique feet that often struggle to find footwear that fits, focus on the most adjustable sandal models.

Conclusion


We hope that this guide helps you to understand what exactly it is that you're seeking. Before making a purchase decision, we implore you to check out our Best in Class comparative review of the market's top sandals. Then go get the pair that fits your lifestyle, adventures, and feet!


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