An Expert Guide to Hiking Sandals
Hiking sandals are a great footwear option for warm-weather adventures or wet hikes! Hiking & Camping Expert Hunter Reed explores all you need to know about hiking sandals!
Table of Contents
Tl;dr: Hiking sandals are a great alternative to hiking shoes for those who tend to hit the trails in areas where it's hotter, or who encounter a good amount of water when hiking. Hiking sandals feature the same traction, durability, and cushioning as hiking shoes, but offer more breathability, are better for wet conditions, and are typically more lightweight.
An avid hiker since childhood, growing up, I always used hiking boots or hiking shoes. I simply didn’t know I had another option!
Though during a four-month research project in the Caribbean, where I was required to work in rocky, remote areas, I discovered the benefits of hiking sandals. And since then, during most hikes around my home state of Utah, I still prefer to use them. Personally, I think they’re incredibly comfortable, and I love how breathable they are in the summer.
Today, I couldn’t live without my Chaco sandals, but I went through quite a bit of trial and error before settling on them. The goal of this guide is to help you find the perfect pair much faster than I did!
What Is a Hiking Sandal?
Unlike a regular sandal, such as a flip-flop, hiking sandals typically have more support, traction, and durability to withstand the rugged terrain and potential hazards one may encounter on a trail.
Hiking sandals typically feature a sturdy strap design and closures that secure the foot. Plus, a durable sole with traction for a better grip on rocks, slippery surfaces, and uneven terrain. They’re made from breathable and quick-drying materials—such as synthetic fabrics, mesh, or leather.
Hiking sandals come in various styles and designs, including open-toe, closed-toe, and hybrid models which combine the best features of both sandals and shoes.
Why to Choose a Hiking Sandal Over a Classic Hiking Shoe
- Breathability: Typically more breathable than hiking shoes, hiking sandals are a much better choice in hot and humid environments. They help keep the feet cool and dry, which reduces the risk of blisters.
- Lightweight: They are also usually lighter than hiking shoes, which can be beneficial for long-distance hikes, or those who prefer a more minimalist approach to hiking.
- Versatility: Hiking sandals can be more versatile than hiking shoes because they can be worn in a wider range of conditions, from sandy beaches to rocky trails.
- Quick-drying: With their increased breathability, and the fact that they are often made from materials that are quick-drying—such as synthetic fabrics or mesh—hikers who encounter water crossings or wet conditions often prefer a sandal.
- Comfort: Some find hiking sandals are more comfortable than hiking shoes because they allow for more freedom of movement and foot flexibility.
It's important to note that hiking sandals may not be suitable for all hikers, conditions, or terrain. For more rugged or technical hikes, hiking shoes or boots will provide more support and protection. It's always a good idea to consider the specific requirements of the hike and choose the footwear that best meets those needs.
Key Considerations to Think About When Buying Hiking Sandal
What Type of Terrain Will I Be Hiking?
Different hiking sandals are designed for different types of terrain, so it's important to choose sandals that are appropriate for the conditions you will encounter.
If you often hike on rocky terrain, look for a sandal with a sturdy sole which offers good traction, a secure fit, and a protective toe cap to prevent stubbing. Great examples of these types of sandals include the Teva Hurricane XLT2 and the Keen Newport H2.
Hiking in wet, slippery terrain requires a sandal with water-resistant or quick-drying upper material, a slip-resistant sole, and a secure fit that ensures a wet foot stays in place. Great examples of wet-terrain hiking sandals include the Chaco Z/Cloud 2 and the Merrell Choprock Shandal.
How Long Will My Hikes Be?
The length of your hikes corresponds directly to the amount of cushioning and support your hiking sandals should possess. This, in turn, will help reduce fatigue and prevent foot injuries.
For shorter hikes—typically only a few hours—on a variety of terrain, a lightweight and minimalist hiking sandal is recommended. The lightweight and flexible Xero Shoes Z-Trail EV, with a thin sole that allows for better ground feel, and a secure fit with high traction, fits these qualifications.
For longer hikes, a more supportive and cushioned hiking sandal is needed. The supportive insole and a cushioned midsole of the Keen Newport Sandal make it ideal for long hikes. And its durable, high-traction rubber outsole and a water-resistant upper can easily stand up to wet conditions.
What Is My Foot Shape, and Do I Have Any Foot Issues?
Poor fit can lead to discomfort or injury. The width of your foot or shape of your arch will have a large impact on your sandals’ fit. While trying on different sandals, pay attention to their width, arch size, and overall comfort.
Certain hiking sandals are specifically geared toward those with flat feet, plantar fasciitis, or bunions. These typically feature arch support, cushioning in the heel and forefoot, and a wide toe box. Some also come with removable insoles, which accommodate orthopedic inserts.
How Often Will I Be Crossing Water or Encountering Wet Conditions?
Because wet surfaces are often slippery, it’s important to choose a hiking sandal with durable rubber outsoles and deep lugs for better traction on wet and uneven terrain. Further, sandals made from materials like neoprene or synthetic leather are designed to repel water and dry quickly. And, those with mesh or perforated uppers allow water to drain out quickly and help prevent blisters.
What Is My Budget?
Price differences among hiking sandals mainly arise from differences in their construction materials. Sandals made from synthetic materials or lower-quality leather are generally less expensive (around $55-$85) than those made from high-quality leather or other premium materials ($95-$145+). Additionally, sandals with more advanced features like waterproofing or extra cushioning also carry a higher price tag (usually around $125-$145+).
Keep in mind, a more expensive sandal typically proves to be more durable and comfortable, and offers better support—which can ultimately lead to a better hiking experience and fewer foot issues.
If price is a big factor for you, but you have your heart set on a more expensive pair, try shopping for hiking sandals in the wintertime. A lot of retailers put their sandals on sale during the off season.
What Are The Different Types of Hiking Sandals?
Closed-toe hiking sandals provide additional protection for the toes, making them a good choice for hikers who hike in rough terrain or areas full of loose rocks and debris. These sandals typically have a closed toe box, a durable sole with effective traction, and adjustable straps for a secure fit. Benefits:
- Additional toe protection
- Can be worn on more rugged terrain types
- Not as breathable as other types of hiking sandals
Contrary to the above type, open-toe hiking sandals feature an open toe box, providing more breathability and comfort in hot weather. These sandals also typically have a durable sole and adjustable straps. Benefits:
- More breathable than closed-toe hiking sandals
- Ideal for use in hot weather
- Provide less toe protection
- May not be suitable for use on more rugged terrain types
Designed to be used in and out of the water, amphibious sandals are typically made from materials that are comfortable when wet, such as neoprene, and have a quick-drying design. They typically have a durable sole with effective traction so as to not slide around on slippery, wet rocks. Benefits:
- Can be used in both wet and dry conditions
- Quick-drying design allows for comfortable use after getting wet
- Not be as breathable as other types of hiking sandals
Trail hiking sandals are designed specifically for use on trails. They typically feature a durable sole with good traction and adjustable straps for a secure fit. Depending on their specific design, they may have a closed or open toe box. Benefits:
- Ideal for use on hiking trails
- Typically provide good breathability in hot weather
- May not be as suitable for use in wet conditions
These sandals are designed for extended backpacking or hiking trips which last multiple days. They often feature more support and cushioning for added comfort on long hikes. Benefits:
- Provide comfort and support for extended hikes
- Still do not provide as much protection as hiking boots
- Can be more expensive than other types of hiking sandals
Designed to be very lightweight and minimalist in design, these sandals offer little or no cushioning or support—which almost gives them a barefoot feel. These sandals are typically designed for experienced hikers who prefer a minimalist approach to footwear. The most common brand of minimalist hiking sandals is Bedrock Sandals—most of their sandals only weigh only around 4–5 ounces. Benefits:
- Extremely lightweight and easy to pack for travel
- Provide a more natural walking experience
- Can help to strengthen the foot and lower leg muscles over time
- May not provide enough support or cushioning for some hikers
- Generally not suitable for use on more rugged terrain types
- Usually require a period of adjustment for hikers who are not used to minimalist footwear, which can cause higher rates of foot and leg injury to those who have not worn this type of shoe before
Features to Look for in Hiking Sandals
Hiking sandals should provide foot protection without sacrificing breathability, comfort, and the flexibility required for a busy day of hiking. Consider the following during your search for a new pair.
- Toe Protection: Some hiking sandals feature a rubber toe cap, which protects the toes from rocks, roots, and other obstacles on the trail. Toe protection is especially important for hiking in rugged terrain, where the front of the foot is more vulnerable.
- Arch Support: Hiking sandals that provide good arch support can help prevent foot fatigue and discomfort, especially on longer hikes.
- Sole Construction: Hiking sandals with durable and rugged soles provide better traction and stability on slippery or uneven terrain. A sturdy sole also protects the foot from sharp rocks or other debris on the trail.
- Ankle Support: Some hiking sandals have a strap or cuff that wraps around the ankle, providing additional support and stability. This feature is particularly useful when hiking on uneven terrain, where ankle sprains are a risk.
- Heel Protection: Hiking sandals with a deep heel cup offer more support and stability to the heel, reducing the risk of injury or strain. If the sandal features a more open design, make sure the heel strap fits well to prevent your heel from sliding around. This feature is particularly important for hikers who carry heavy backpacks or hike on steep terrain.
High-traction hiking sandals are designed to prevent slips and falls, providing better stability and control on a variety of terrains. Different types of hiking sandals feature varying types of traction, and each is best suited to a particular terrain and condition.
Being one of the main reasons most people choose hiking sandals over shoes, breathability helps your feet to avoid getting sweaty and uncomfortable during a hike. Sandals with mesh or perforations that allow air to circulate, or an open-toe design, are the most breathable.
When hiking in wet or rainy conditions, crossing rivers, or kayaking or rafting, water-resistance is an important factor to consider in order to keep your feet dry and prevent blisters or discomfort caused by wetness. Here are a few examples of quality hiking sandals for wet conditions, and the key features that make them so effective.
- Keen Newport H2: This sandal features a quick-drying polyester webbing upper that is water-resistant and machine washable. It also has a lace capture system that provides a secure fit and prevents water from entering the sandal. The sole is designed for water activities and features razor siping and multi-directional lugs that provide excellent traction on wet surfaces.
- Merrell All Out Blaze Sieve: The Merrell All Out Blaze Sieve has a waterproof leather upper that is treated with a special coating to repel water and prevent staining. Inside, it also features a neoprene lining that is quick-drying and provides additional comfort and protection. The sole, a Vibram TC5+ outsole with 3mm lugs, provides excellent traction on wet and dry surfaces.
- Chaco Z/Cloud: Designed for hikers and adventurers who want a sandal that can handle water activities and wet conditions, the Chaco Z/Cloud features a polyester jacquard-webbing upper that is water-resistant and quick-drying. It has an adjustable strap system that allows for a secure and comfortable fit, even in wet conditions, and the sole of the Z/Cloud sandal features sticky Vibram soles that provide excellent traction on wet and slippery surfaces.
Lighter sandals will be more comfortable for long-distance hikes. However, they sometimes lack enough cushioning or support in the footbed for comfort over rocky terrain. It’s important to find a pair with the appropriate balance of weight, support, and protection for your targeted terrain and hike lengths.
Many sandals feature adjustable straps or laces that allow the wearer to achieve a snug and comfortable fit no matter their foot shape. Be sure to also ensure that the sandal provides enough space for your toes, and is not too tight or too loose. A sandal that is too loose will lead to blisters, especially when hiking in wet areas; and a sandal that is too tight will cause general foot pains.
How to Choose The Right Hiking Sandal For You
In order to better illustrate how to properly choose the best hiking sandals for your specific needs, included below are three examples modeled after real Curated customers I’ve helped in the past. Each example embodies a specific persona of hiker who might benefit from hiking sandals as opposed to shoes, a few features they should look for, as well as specific recommendations for each of their individual needs.
Alex: A Multi-Day Hiker Over Rocky, Wet Terrain
Alex is an experienced hiker who loves to explore rocky terrain and traverse streams and rivers. She suffers from plantar fasciitis, and is planning a multi-day hike in the Pacific Northwest. Features Alex should look for:
- Durable materials
- Arch support
- Secure fit
Sandal examples: Keen Newport H2, Chaco Z/Cloud, Ecco’s Yucatan
Justin: A Beginner Day Hiker
Justin is a beginner hiker who is looking for a comfortable and affordable hiking sandal for day hikes and weekend camping trips. He mostly hikes on flat trails and is not exposed to rocky terrain. Features Justin should look for:
- Effective traction
Sandal examples: Teva Original Universal, Merrell Terran Convertible II
Maria: A Veteran Hiker Traveling To The Rockies
Maria is an avid hiker who enjoys challenging terrain and long-distance hikes. She is planning a trek through the Rocky Mountains over rocky and uneven terrain. She also prefers a sandal with a closed toe for added protection. Features Maria should look for:
- Closed-toe design
- Good traction
Sandal examples: Keen Whisper, Merrell All Out Blaze Sieve
Connect With a Real Expert
Every foot isn’t created equally, so if you don’t have luck with the first pair of sandals you try on, don’t get discouraged! There are plenty of options out there, and there will surely be a sandal that fits you well and has all the features needed for your exact adventure.
And for more help sorting through al those options, reach out to a Curated Camping and Hiking Expert. We love offering free, personalized advice to help our customers find the perfect gear for them. Happy hiking!