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How to Choose Sandals

From Left to Right: Xero Z-Trail  Luna Leadville Pacer  Teva Original Universal  Chaco Z/Volv 2  Bedrock Cairn Adventure.
Friday May 24, 2019

The current market for men's sandals has become filled with many incredibly capable pieces of adventure footwear, thanks to advanced sole materials and creative designs that are comfortable, supportive, and performance-oriented. These sport-tuned models have transcended from simply being open-air footwear to serving unique and specified purposes, and can help you tackle your next objective in comfort and style. With a seemingly overwhelming number of options for choosing the perfect product for your next adventure, we're here to help break it down.

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.

With a diverse and growing footwear market, part of the responsibility ultimately falls on you, the user, to determine which types will likely best suit your needs. Unlike certain tools like Binoculars or Portable Grills, footwear has many personal considerations that are highly dependent on user preferences and physical anatomy. Your foot shape, desired support or comfort level, and intended use should be the primary factors in helping you find the best product to suit your needs. We're excited to help you get started!

What Are Your Intended Activities?


Determining the best product for your needs starts with you deciding your most common usage. Even if you're just looking for a solid all-around performer, it's still a good idea to consider what type of activities you regularly engage in before narrowing down your choices. Not all products are created equally for every different use, and you'd be wise to pay close attention to the metrics that are most closely related to your favorite activities.

The OG Universal was quite comfortable for running around on flatter surfaces.
The thin soles and slippery footbeds on the Leadville Pacer weren't as comfortable for us on uneven or technical terrain.
The contoured footbed and pull-through webbing strap system combined for a comfortable fit.

What do you look for in a sandal that you don't get from other shoes? What sports or activities they be used for? Knowing the answer to these questions will help set you on the right path to finding the perfect pair.

We will outline three different fundamental categories of use that should cover most of your forecasted activities and help you decide which models to add to your list for consideration. While most of the contenders pretty clearly fall into one of these categories, some models, like our Editor's Choice Award Winner Bedrock Cairn Adventure, managed to bridge that gap admirably as a top all-around performer.

The Editors' Choice Award Winner from Bedrock on the move.
The Editors' Choice Award Winner from Bedrock on the move.

Hiking


For a lot of us, the greatest utility in a sandal is getting us from point A to point B across varied terrain, with more comfort and less weight than most other types of footwear. Humans have been blazing new trails with sandals on their feet for millennia, and today is no different. They can help you avoid hot, sweaty feet by keeping your toes and soles well-ventilated, they typically weigh less than most other hiking shoes or boots, and they're easier to get off and on when you stumble upon that perfect swimming hole (or you can even jump in without taking them off)!

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 found that today's hiking oriented models are plenty comfortable for long days where you might encounter a wide variety of demanding conditions, and have the performance to keep up with all but the most extreme terrain or weather conditions. Hiking sandals should be sturdy, resilient, and have adequate traction, and ideally should also be comfortable, lightweight, and packable.

Hiking sandals should balance performance and comfort.
Hiking sandals should balance performance and comfort.

Our favorite hiking models that we tested were the Chaco models, specifically the Z/1 Classic, Z/Cloud, and Z/Volv 2. Their sturdy soles, supportive molded footbeds, and secure webbing systems provide plenty of comfort and stability for all-day pursuits. Additionally, the Chaco lineup has excellent traction with a versatile tread material that adapts well to changing trail conditions. Though these models aren't the lightest or most low-profile shoes in the lineup, they offer unparalleled performance on extended tours where other models may have left our feet wanting more. Check out our individual product reviews to learn about the small nuances that differentiate the Chaco models from each other.

All the Chaco models we tested  including the Z/Volv 2 shown here  received impressive scores for stability.
All the Chaco models we tested, including the Z/Volv 2 shown here, received impressive scores for stability.

Not surprisingly, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure is also a great option for hiking with its great adjustability and impressive traction. We were blown away by the Vibram MegaGrip soles that can hold their own in almost any conditions against nearly any pair of shoes. While the Cairn doesn't quite have the same overall comfort and support of the Chaco models, its lighter weight and excellent packability would make it a great option to sneak in the pack for that luxurious extra pair of shoes on backpacking trips. Another good option for hikers is the Teva Terra Fi 4, which has an exceptionally comfortable and supportive footbed, and makes a great camp shoe that can be worn with socks.

Watersports


If you don't wear sandals as part of your everyday footwear, you most likely still have a pair on hand for beach days, lake days, river days, or any outing that gets you close to the water. The open-air breathability, quick-drying construction, and easy on and off of this type of footwear make them a perfect option for watery adventures, and sometimes flip-flops just 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 wet traction, water resistance, and the ability for water or sediment to drain from your footbeds. Super grippy soles will not only help keep you safer on slick rocks, wet boat docks, or muddy trails but will enhance your overall performance in these wet conditions. Furthermore, the water-resistant materials and design help to keep your feet comfortable during these soggy outings. Minimalist designs will have less material to get wet, but will also provide less protection from rocks and snags, especially compared to closed toe designs.

The Cairn was our top performer for traction  including making easy work of these wet  slippery beach steps in our new "Slime Test."
The Cairn was our top performer for traction, including making easy work of these wet, slippery beach steps in our new "Slime Test."

Again, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure was our preferred model in the watersports category. The Vibram MegaGrip soles do a great job of keeping your feet locked in on wet surfaces, and the minimal amounts of webbing and materials mean that your feet can dry out very quickly. Additionally, the wide open design makes it very easy to remove pebbles and sand from the footbed of the Cairn, without sacrificing too much comfort or stability. If you're worried about the hidden dangers that lurk beneath the surface, or if you're looking to accommodate wetsuit booties, we'd recommend the wider construction and closed toe protection of the Keen Newport H2.

Some of the other lightweight models we tested, like our Best Buy Award Winner Teva Original Universal and the Top Pick for ultralight touring Z-Trail from Xero struggled with wet traction because of their shallow tread designs. While these products certainly perform well in their intended applications, we'd recommend looking elsewhere if your primary use will be a watery one.

Travel and Urban Use


If you're looking for a model to do-it-all, that can be slipped on for a quick walk 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 also doesn't hurt if it is stylish, to help make a smooth transition to happy hour or dinner after a day spent out and about. But since style is highly subjective, we chose to not rate that as a metric and instead let you decide the most flattering type of footwear to suit your tastes. In some cases, a pair of flip flops may be all you need to get to where you're going. However, if you plan to venture off the beaten path in your new kicks or to keep them on all day, we would recommend something with a bit more support.

Though it struggled a bit in more technical situations  the Original Universal by Teva was one of our go-to picks for everyday comfort.
Though it struggled a bit in more technical situations, the Original Universal by Teva was one of our go-to picks for everyday comfort.

Because of their classic design, relatively low pack weight, and versatile comfort, two of Teva's options, the Terra Fi 4 and the Original Universal are both great options for traveling, neighborhood, 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, the Chaco models also fit well into this category. Thinner models like the Cairn and Xero Z-Trail don't offer as much plush cushioning for long days on pavement, but are incredibly light and packable and well-suited for travel.

Closed Toe Designs


Knowing the activities in which you plan to use your footwear is a great start to choosing the right pair. At some point, you'll be asking yourself if you need the extra protection of a closed-toe design. Depending on your intended use, an ultra minimal pair of might be just fine, or, you might need extra protection if you're bushwhacking through challenging terrain, or traversing rivers where you can't see your exact foot placement. Additionally, some of us may opt for greater protection because we're accident-prone, stub toes frequently, or are podophobic (afraid of feet)!

This review only included two closed-toe models, the Keen Newport H2 and the Teva Omnium 2, 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 essential 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 two 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 provides the user with a substantial amount of drainage 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 go without them. One of the drawbacks to a closed-toe design is that the same holes that allow water to drain through can also potentially become filled with sediment and debris. In our experience, this debris is much more difficult to get out in closed-toe models than in a traditional open-toe model. So, think carefully about whether you plan be out and about in wet or dry conditions. Closed-toe models will excel in wetter or more rugged conditions.

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 did of the Omnium 2. 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 after long days on the move.

Getting the Right Fit


Along with all the different available styles and aesthetics, finding the right fit is where sandals get really personal. While there isn't a perfect substitute for going in person to a brick and mortar store to try on different pairs, we also realize that this isn't how a lot us shop in this day and age. Shopping around in person can be inconvenient and time-consuming, and you can typically find a much broader selection of styles and prices on the world wide web.

From left to right: Teva Original Universal  Chaco Z/Volv 2  Bedrock Cairn Adventure  Xero Z-Trail  Luna Leadville Pacer
From left to right: Teva Original Universal, Chaco Z/Volv 2, Bedrock Cairn Adventure, Xero Z-Trail, Luna Leadville Pacer

Knowing your foot shape and biomechanics, and what type of footwear styles typically are most comfortable for you can be a great start to guiding you towards 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 and need more stability, models with contoured footbeds and arch support, like from Chaco, would fit the bill. For wide-footed adventurers, there are a few models offered in both regular and wide sizes, so be on the lookout for those.

Though tricky at first  we are very fond of how well the Cairn adjusts to fit different foot types.
Though tricky at first, we are very fond of how well the Cairn adjusts to fit different foot types.

Unfortunately, it's quite rare to find an outdoor sandal available in narrow sizes. However, we've found that the high adjustability that this type of footwear provides can usually accommodate narrow feet better than most other shoes. If you have uniquely shaped feet that often struggle to find footwear that fits, it might be worth searching for a model with highly rated adjustability scores. Our Editors' Choice Award Winner Bedrock Cairn Adventure scored highly in this metric, with its simple and intuitive strap adjustment system.

Bottom Line


We hope that this buying guide is a good resource to help you understand the current sandal market and to help get you started with determining which products might be best suited for your needs. Before making a final purchase, we recommend that checking out our Best in Class comparative review of the market's top offerings. Armed with the knowledge of the best products that will meet your needs, you'll be ready to snag a new pair of kicks for your next hiking, water, or urban adventures!


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