How to Choose The Best Sandals

The full fleet of sandals  in their state-of-the-art organizational storage device.
Article By:
Tommy Penick
Review Editor

Last Updated:
May 29, 2014

Before investigating which shoe to purchase, it is vital to make an important choice: do you want an open design or a closed design? There are a lot of factors which can help you decide this, like how much time you'll be spending in the water, how much protection you will need from rocks and sticks, and more.

Sandals may be one of the most ancient shoe designs out there. Based on some quick research, we found out that the oldest known pair were (appropriately enough) found in Oregon, 10,000 years ago. Since then, we've made pretty big strides as humankind, but also in sandals. Outdoor-oriented designs came about as a solution to being split between flip flops, which offer no support, protection, or any other technical features, and actual shoes, which could have you hanging out with the fish at the bottom of the river if you're using them in the water. While water use may have been the original idea behind sandals, you'll see them anywhere from climbing approaches to coffee shops. If you like to let your toes breathe during the summer months, or want to ditch the weight and lack of water performance in your hiking shoes, you need a pair of sandals.


Testing out the Newport H2 by wet-wading for trout in Montana. The Newport held less water than other closed-design shoes.
Testing out the Newport H2 by wet-wading for trout in Montana. The Newport held less water than other closed-design shoes.
Men's models essentially boil down to open designs (such as the Chaco and Bedrock models) and closed designs that closely resemble a shoe (such as the Keen Newport H2). In this test, we looked both categories. Each category has pros and their cons.

Open Design

The Teva Terra-Fi 3 handing some roots  thanks to its solid support and good traction.
The Teva Terra-Fi 3 handing some roots, thanks to its solid support and good traction.
Open design shoes are generally lighter, more simplistic and lower volume. They easily can be slipped into a backpack to use as camp shoes, have a long life and are incredibly breathable. For example, we frequently grabbed our Teva Hurricane XLT as a go-to camp shoe during backpacking trips based on its lightweight design and how little room it takes up when attached to the exterior of our packs. If we crossed a creek in them they would dry quickly, and even swimming around in them wasn't a big issue. However, what they make up for in durability and portability they lack in support and protection. Obviously, the large toe cap on a shoe such as the Keen Newport H2 offers superior protection in comparison to the webbing-based designs, but they also add weight.

To combat the growing market for closed-designs, the makers of open-design models have grown their products by trying to add in features that eliminate the need for a closed shoe. For example, the toe-loop available with Chaco's entire line of shoes almost substitutes the need for a closed-design shoe if you are seeking stability. Of course, your foot is still at risk from debris and rouge rocks trying to knock off your toenails.

If you'll be using yours as a non-technical/short-distance hiker, water shoe or casual shoe, you'll be fine with an open design. A sure-footed experienced hiker can take an open design shoe to some burly limits, but you might find yourself with bloody toes after taking a wrong step.

Be reasonable with your needs. Are you hiking technical trails that require protection, but don't want to sacrifice the summery feel of a moderately open shoe? Then take a look at shoes like the Keen Newport H2. Or alternately, are you going to be sidewalk cruising and walking the dog? Then let your toes breathe and enjoy the fresh air with an open design shoe. We jokingly said in our Chaco z/1 Classic review that "If you're that guy who needs the burliest everything, then step right up to the Chaco z/1 Classic." We were serious about that claim, but when choosing gear it really is important to be reasonable with your needs. If you don't need the extra support, thickness and heft, you'll be unhappy with your purchase, wondering why they are so heavy. While all of us want to think we're climbing Kilimanjaro in sandals on a weekly basis, the truth is that we unfortunately have to spend more time waiting in line for coffee or walking the dog or catching a quick after-work hike than on massive expeditions.

Closed Design

The Teva Dozer  stylishly paired with a drysuit while kayaking.
The Teva Dozer, stylishly paired with a drysuit while kayaking.
Shoes with a closed design offer protection from sticks, rocks, briars, or whatever else you may be hiking through. Adversely, the closed design also can hold in those pesky items if they do breach the shoe's security, and the also take forever to dry.

Some users can even use a closed design shoe as a medium-distance hiking shoe, and some might even opt to use them with socks. Typically, these shoes boast stronger soles, more features such as advanced lacing systems and are consequently heavier.

Keep in mind that these shoes, with added features, introduce more failure points. You can't expect a shoe with laces, buckles, Velcro straps, an insole, a midsole and a toecap to have the same level of durability as an open shoe. Also, closed shoes are covered with exterior stitching, panels of cloth that may or may not be necessary and have a tendency to break down faster than more simplistic designs.

Closed design shoes are best for very specific applications. If you just want to hike and have a breathable shoe, there's probably a better alternative out there for you in the lightweight hiking shoe category rather than sandals. If you would like to be swimming around and jumping off cliffs, you are better off with an open design sandal that is easier to swim with. But, if you're crossing lots of creeks, or using your sandals as a make-shift wader boot for fly fishing, closed designs are great. Additionally, wearing them as a sandal for whitewater kayaking is great, though you need to make sure you can safely escape your cockpit in times of need.

Open Design vs. Closed Design

Obviously, we see the benefits and drawbacks of each shoe, but we felt like the open design sandals we tested overall outperformed the closed design sandals. While closed design sandals have their places, we felt like open design sandals split the difference between flip flops and shoes better. With closed designs, we felt like we were wearing a compromised shoe, which lost the original idea of sandals. If you really need lots of protection, take a look at closed design sandals. But if you're looking for a casual wearing sandal, a river sandal, or a light hiking sandal, check out the open designs.

While generally we prefer the open designs, closed designs really made us happy for one very specific use--drysuits. As whitewater kayakers, we seem to spend half our lives in drysuits, especially here in the Sierra. Snowmelt never feels warm, and that always make a drysuit critical. Open design shoes work, but not that well. With so much money invested in a drysuit, kicking a rock in a swim isn't an option. Additionally, big swims with insufficient footwear can lead to nasty injuries, which can compromise your safety in a remote area. Surely, this isn't the only reason to go with a closed design shoe, but it's a good thing to keep in mind while making your decision.

Additionally, you've got to get honest with yourself one more time: are you clumsy? It's ok if you are, plenty of us are. Some of the most athletic people I know I've seen face-plant on a seemingly flat trail. If you've got the tendency to catch roots, rocks, or sticks with mis-steps, stick to closed designs if you're determined you need to hike in sandals. However, at that point, you may be better checking out some lightweight hiking shoes. If you're looking for a casual shoe to let your toes breathe, then get an open design shoe, you won't regret it.

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