Hiking in minimalist footwear like sandals seems like it would be a fantastic way to lighten your overall gear weight when hitting the trails. Giving you a sense of lightness and freedom over wearing big bulky hiking boots is definitely a tempting idea… but, this begs the question:
Are sandals good for hiking? Sandals can be good for hiking provided that they are designed for it. The terrain you tackle should not be too rugged, while the weather conditions will also affect their suitability. Some sandals come with outstanding traction – even on wet ground and across riverbeds – but you need to ask yourself if you will be happy hiking with wet feet. In cold climates or in winter months, I would not recommend using sandals for hiking.
Now, let’s dive into the specifics and cover the pros, cons and specific brands of sandals that could work for your next outing.
The pros/cons of sandals for hiking
Great for warm weather: In milder climates and in the summer months sandals can be a fantastic addition to your trekking inventory. They dry quickly and are easy and fast to remove if you need to cross a river. Or don’t even bother, just wade on through!
Hiking sandals are ultralight: For those looking to move quickly, or if you just cannot stand having heavy, burdensome boots on your feet, then sandals could be the answer. Also, when you arrive at camp for the evening, you are already wearing your camp shoes (maybe just change out of those smelly socks). This cuts down on both weight and space in your pack.
Less contact with your feet: If you are used to wearing sandals, then you are less likely to experience blisters than with boots. However, as with all items of footwear, we highly recommend that you go through the necessary breaking-in period before hitting the trail.
Less ankle support: This is a bit of contentious issue, but sandals provide less ankle support than traditional mid or high set hiking boots. It is contentious because there is a school of thought that if the muscles and tendons around your ankles and calves are strong, there is no need for ankle support, and that wearing hiking boots actually decreases your strength by taking the emphasis off these muscles.
Whatever your opinion, I would not be caught in a pair of sandals on rough terrain in the back country.
If your ankle muscles and lower calf muscles are strong, then why not give it a try. People that are used to hiking in high set heavy boots should transition slowly, starting with small walks around the block, before taking your new purchase out on the trail with you.
Little or no toe protection: Although some hiking sandals come with extra toe protection (more details below), the bottom line is that most of them do not. So, if you happen to smash your toe on a rock, then you are not going to be a happy hiker. You may even be forced to limp your way off the trail.
Snakes: Right, so the chances are small, but I am an Aussie and we have over a hundred species of venomous snake, so I have to say it: hiking sandals provide much-reduced protection from snakes and other creepy crawlies.
Rocks in your shoes: You know how annoying it is when a little stone finds its way into your boot? Well, depending on the terrain, that can happen a whole lot more when you are wearing a pair of sandals.
High Quality Hiking Sandals – Our Top Picks
To save you the time we have chosen five of the best brands (Teva, Chaco, Keen, Merrell and Bedrock) that manufacture high quality hiking sandals, and have included them below. And because we are really good to you, we have then chosen what we believe to be the best hiking sandal from their array of models, and summed them up with some pros and cons to help you decide.
Teva – Omnium 2
Pros: We have chosen the Teva Omnium 2 over some stiff competition from highly sporty models. And the reason is the enclosed toe, which offers improved toe protection from all those aforementioned sharp rocks.
The sandals feature a buckle closure that is easy to un-clip, while the fabric stretches gently to the shape of your feet, making them exceedingly comfortable. The EVA foam mid sole provides excellent cushioning, while the nylon shank provides your feet with strong support on the more difficult terrains.
They also feature an effective water-drainage system and come with a good, grippy outsole. They have even been treated with a zinc-based product that will help to kill bacteria. So, if you have stinky feet, these are the sandals for you.
Cons: Due to these sandals having a larger-than-normal contact area with the foot, there is a decent break-in period akin to some of the tougher hiking boots out there. As a result, there have been a lot of reports of people experiencing terrible blisters for the first couple of weeks.
I think this is probably due to people ignoring the “breaking-in period” advice for the product and over wearing the sandals, rather than there being a defect with the sandals themselves.
If you have a wider foot than the average person, make sure you try on these sandals before purchasing. Although the material is stretchy, the amount that it stretches outward is limited.
Chacos – Z/Cloud
Pros: These Chacos are unbelievably comfortable, straight out the box. That does not mean you should ignore the breaking-in advice, as this will not be true for 100% of owners.
The sandals feature a ChacoGrip rubber outsole with 3.5mm lugs, so you are going to experience superb traction on an array of slippery terrains.
They are airy yet tough and are almost feather-light. They will fit so well that you will barely notice they are on your feet.
Cons: These Chacos have quite a high arch and can take a little getting used to. It does not suit some foot shapes. Try them on, you will know if this is you within a couple of seconds.
Some owners have also complained that the ankle strap is a little long, although you should know if this is an issue when trying them on.
Keen – Newport H2
Pros: This was a close toss up between the Newport H2 and Keen’s also-excellent Clearwater CNX, but in the end, I had to side with the sandal with the most support, and the H2 offers this in abundance.
A generously thick outsole, with unbelievable traction, combined with unreal arch support make this an excellent hiking sandal. They also offer the best toe protection of all the sandals that we feature.
Keen market this as a water shoe, so predictably it performs very well when you are forced into river crossings. The material is exceptionally quick to dry, and is also constructed with material that combats odor, so it is perfect for moving continuously between wet and dry conditions.
Cons: It is hard to criticize such a good sandal, but if there is one thing worth mentioning, it is that if you get something inside the sandal – such as a small rock – it is near impossible to remove it without taking off the sandal completely. But because they tend to fit so well, this will minimize the likelihood of you getting anything in there in the first place.
Merrell – All Out Blaze Sieve Convert
Pros: Hands down the best thing about these sandals are the TC5+ outsoles from Vibram with 3mm lugs, which offer unparalleled traction on the wettest trails. The PU coated leather upper keeps water from entering the sandals, even when fully submerged in water.
I love the hook and loop strap that makes the sandals simple to get in and out of; not to mention adjusting for a precise fit. The other fantastic feature is the removable heal strap, for when you are done hiking for the day and just want to wear a comfortable pair of slide sandals.
Merrell is renowned the world over for the quality of their hiking boots, and by teaming up with Vibram they have now delivered an industry-leading pair of sandals as well.
Cons: The straps could use a little more Velcro on them. Some wearers with slimmer feet find the straps to be too long for the sandals.
Bedrock Sandals – 3D Cairn Pro
Pros: Assembled in the USA, these sandals from Bedrock are a minimalist’s dream. They are the lightest of the bunch and have the least amount of skin contact with your feet.
They are also zero-drop, meaning that the heal and balls of your feet are at the same level, so they mimic what it is like to walk barefoot. You can read more about zero-drop hiking shoes here, and if they are suited for you or not.
Bedrock are another to have taken on a Vibram sole, this time the Pro Megagrip, which offers superior traction in wet weather environments. Bedrock also donate 1% of their profits to environmental charities.
Cons: As I cannot leave this space empty, I guess I should mention that these sandals are a little bit on the pricey side. Although as you know, you do tend to get what you pay for, and it is no different with these quality sandals.
Best hiking sandals for Hawaii? The best hiking sandals for Hawaii are the Bedrock Sandals 3D Cairn Pro. The trails in Hawaii are often rocky and slippery, and the outstanding traction offered by the Vibram outsole on these sandals will keep you upright in the toughest conditions. Hawaii also experiences a humid tropical climate, and as the Cairn Pro is the most open of the sandals, it will stop your feet from sweating and overheating.
Are Birkenstocks good for hiking? While Birkenstocks are an exceptionally comfortable sandal, they are not specifically intended as a hiking sandal. They are great for inner city exploration, and even for gentle strolls on well-formed paths, but it is better to stick with the sandals that are designed especially for hiking.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.