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The Sandal of My Globetrotting Childhood: Chaco Z/1 Sandal Review

Chaco's iconic sandal may have been invented for river rafting, but it's become a solid choice for all kinds of adventure.

chacos in water(Photo/Andrew McLemore)
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Long before I thought of myself as an outdoorsy person (or had any understanding of what that meant), I was traipsing through Aztec ruins in Mexico, swimming across jungle rivers in India, and hiking through Nepalese mountains in my trusty Chacos. In fact, I only recently learned that the company’s iconic model was called the Z Sandal.

To me, they’ve always just been “Chacos,” a name I frequently heard repeated from fellow travelers with a knowing smile. “Yes, we are both in the club,” they seemed to say. But why is this classic footwear so beloved? How did a sandal made by river rafters become the go-to choice for all kinds of adventurers?

Over the years, I’ve watched their popularity explode. And from my perspective, it all comes down to these sandals’ versatility, comfort, and durability.

Despite being around longer than GearJunkie and having made it into numerous GearJunkie guides to the Best Hiking Sandals, deal round-ups, and articles, we’d never reviewed the original Chacos on their own. It’s about time, given that the brand turns 35 this year. And I’m bringing half a lifetime of testing and experience to the table.

In short: The Chaco Z Sandal offers strong traction, durability, and versatile design. The rubber sole is rugged and the flashy nylon straps are long-lasting and replaceable. The design is simple and holds onto your feet with amazing tenacity. Whether it’s the open-toe Z/1 or the toe-strap Z/2, this sandal will keep you moving on almost any terrain. It will last for years or even longer with the company’s repair options.

chaco river
(Photo/Andrew McLemore)

Chaco Z Sandal Classic Rivers Edition


  • Materials 100% recycled performance fiber webbing
  • Upper Polyester jacquard webbing upper
  • Midsole Vegan-friendly construction
  • Outsole ChacoGrip rubber compound
  • Claimed Weight 14.9 oz. per sandal
  • MSRP $105


  • Feels great all day
  • Works in various terrain
  • Mega durable


  • Can feel uncomfortable for some feet
  • Strap adjustment isn't intuitive

Chaco Z Sandal Review

It’s safe to say that the Chaco Z Sandal has become a classic piece of gear. This river sandal first debuted in 1989 — just 3 years after I was born in the McAllen hospital in South Texas. As the brand celebrates its 35th anniversary this April, I’ve contemplated its impact on my life. After all, I’ve been using Chaco sandals since I was 12 years old and traveling the world with my parents and older brother. That’s just to preface that I’m coming at this review with literally decades of experience wearing Chacos across three different continents.

(Photos/Andrew McLemore)

I got my first pair when my family moved to India as part of my dad’s Fulbright grant to teach abroad. Just before our departure on Christmas morning of the year 2000, my mom (still a much savvier shopper than myself) bought a pair of Chacos for each of us.

Over the next 6 months, we wore them nearly constantly throughout our travels in the country’s diverse geography, from jungles to beaches to deserts and mountains.

I think the first thing we recognized about these sandals was their versatility. We could wear them anywhere, anytime, and feel confident in our footing. That’s especially true for the Z/1 sandal, which doesn’t include an extra strap for the big toe.

Toe or Not to Toe? Chaco Z/1 vs. Z/2

(Photo/Andrew McLemore)

When Chaco made its first sandal, the company’s designers included straps behind the heel, over the front, and across the big toe. This final strap helped the river rafting founders keep their footing even on slippery rocks.

However, as the company grew in the 1990s, requests for an open-toe design quickly increased, Chaco founder Mark Paigen wrote. Ultimately dubbed the Z/1, it became the company’s most popular product — and the most common footwear of my adult life.

Today, I see many more people using open-toed Chacos (Z/1) than the version with a big-toe strap (Z/2). I think it’s because taking off the toe strap means you can wear socks. This adds an additional layer of versatility. You can keep your feet warm on a cold morning, and then simply peel off the socks as the sun warms you up.

That’s exactly what I saw a group of four climbers do at a Tennessee crag on a chilly Sunday morning last month. Like many climbers I know, they hiked the 20-minute approach in Z/1 Chacos and socks. They then used them as crag shoes (sans socks) in between each route. Comfy and supportive, but also super tough, the Z/1 works great for both the approach and the belay.

And if you’re lucky enough to climb at a crag with a river? Then you simply hop in, swim with your Chacos, and let them dry as you hike back — no problem.

Chaco Fit and Feel

The Chaco Z/2; (photo/Andrew McLemore)

There’s not much middle ground with Chacos. When you put on a pair for the first time, you’ll likely immediately love them or not.

The LUVSEAT PU footbed feels very solid yet somehow comfortable. While you won’t get the energy return that’s offered by a pair of springy running shoes, Chacos don’t bother me when sprinting down a rocky trail or a flat road. I find that I tire more quickly, especially in my calves, but the sandal doesn’t budge.

The company’s proprietary ChacoGrip rubber has always felt comparable to the grip offered by my climbing-focused approach shoes. Even when soaking wet, these suckers were made to handle slippery rocks. I’ve never taken a bad fall after spending decades playing in rivers around the world.

Perhaps the biggest turnoff for many people lies in the strapping system. And honestly, I get it. Chaco’s strap adjustment system can certainly accommodate a variety of foot types, but the system isn’t super intuitive. I suggest loosening all the straps to start, and then gradually tightening them from the front back to the heel, as Chaco suggests in its online adjustment guide.

Without taking the time for this, you’ll likely encounter problems with straps rubbing your skin raw or the shoe feeling loose. It happens, but you can usually find a solution with a little experimentation. I rarely change the straps once I’ve dialed them in for my feet. Sometimes, I won’t even remember to tighten the buckle, yet the sandals always feel comfortable and ready to go.

ReChaco: Sandals That Really Do Last Forever

Chaco Sandals
My last pair of Chacos after about six years of heavy use; (photo/Andrew McLemore)

I don’t think footwear reaches mainstream popularity purely through its performance in highly specific situations. While Chaco clearly functions as a stellar sport sandal, its versatility in daily life is equally important for long-term success.

When I arrived in my first college dorm room, I had used the same pair of brown Chacos for 6 years (yes, they still somehow fit from when I was 12). At this point, the webbing was tattered, though still strong, and most of the outsole treads had been walked into nonexistence.

Although Chacos don’t need much breaking in, at least for me, they feel exceptionally comfortable once they’ve molded to your feet. For anyone who likes the naked freedom of sandals (and putting on footwear as fast as possible), Chacos offer a level of support that I’ve only rarely found elsewhere. Competitors like Teva and up-and-comers like Rogue haven’t nailed this aspect quite as well, in my opinion.

And for conscious consumers, Chacos really can last a lifetime. The company’s ReChaco program will repair old soles or straps and send the shoes right back to you. Every year, the company says it keeps tens of thousands of Chacos from ending up in landfills.

Chaco Z/1 Review: Final Word

(Photos/Andrew McLemore)

As you can probably tell by now, it’s hard for me to say much negative about the Chaco Z sandal.

Does the Chaco perform incredibly well in a variety of outdoor sports? Absolutely. Does it also feel great to wear throughout daily life? You bet. And that combination is why I think the Z Sandal has stood up to the test of time: They’re a solid choice for so many different situations and activities.

Personal possessions exert a special power when they allow us to feel both tribal and individualistic. We want to be in the cool kids’ club, but we also want gear to feel like an expression of our singular personalities. Chaco sandals mark you as a member of a fraternity that will offer knowing nods and smiles wherever you wear them. They also have a variety of designs for whatever personal touch you want to add.

As a person who’s naturally averse to self-identity through branding, I’ve become a shameless shill for Chaco. It’s probably the only brand I feel strongly about. When you’ve got a lifetime of memories with something, you don’t want to give it up. Maybe if a better sandal came along one day, I’d reconsider.

But I’m not going to hold my breath.

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Andrew McLemore

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