There are myths and hearsay in backpacking circles of hardy trekkers who go days and weeks on the trail in only a pair of sandals. Now, these are not flip-flops, mind you. Over the past decade, companies starting with Teva and Chaco, and now Bite, Keen and others, have refined the traditional sandal into something with support, grip, comfort and durability.
I recently tested trail-ready sandals from Chaco and Keen and came up with some mixed opinions. Both companies make nice products that excel in their own ways, but I was expecting a little something more when things first got going on the test trail.
The Z/2 model from Chaco are a favorite footwear choice for several of my outdoors-minded friends. They’re classy and well-made, and the company (www.chacousa.com) allows buyers to customize the webbing strap color and choose from one of three types of sole grips.
One nice feature of the Z/2 ($90) is their adjustable toe loop, which can be pulled out and fastened around a big toe for a more secure fit or left tucked away in the sandal’s thick rubber sole for more comfort. Chaco is a company founded by a former whitewater rafting guide, and as such the shoes are great around water. They stay tight and secure on the foot at all times, even in rushing rivers. The design uses one continuous piece of webbing with a single buckle for easy and precise adjustability to the foot.
Aesthetically, I liked the Z/2 sandals over the Keen models in this test. But on the go, the Chacos felt a bit clunky, and despite claims otherwise from many good friends, they are not the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever put on. I tested two sizes of the Z/2 over a three month period, and I found the contoured footbed to be comfy for a normal day in town, but after putting on some miles outdoors it began to feel overly contoured on the inside of the arch of my foot.
Apparently, Chaco’s sandals were awarded the Seal of Acceptance by the American Podiatric Medical Association in 2004, so they’re ergonomically on the up and up. I guess it’s just my finicky foot shape.
Keen’s footwear design takes cues from trail-running shoes, hiking boots and technical sandals. The large toe bumper area encloses the front of the foot completely, protecting your piggies from unfortunate root and rock encounters.
I tested the Newport H2 and Boulder models, which each cost $90 and are similar in design. The Boulder is more like a shoe, as its heel area is mostly enclosed. The Newport H2 leaves the heel open except for a single strap of padded webbing. Both offer tremendous support for a sandal. On the foot, they feel like trail runners and will even acquiesce with some mild jogging.
But like the Chaco Z/2, neither Keen model (www.keenfootwear.com) was overly comfortable. Indeed, a pair of size 12 Boulders gave me blisters on my little toes after a two-mile jog one day. (Upgrading to size 13 helped, though the shoe is loose in other areas.)
Another complaint: Once debris enters a Keen sandal from one of the many ventilation slots it’s quite hard to get out. Sand, small sticks and gravel can be quickly shaken out from under your foot with regular sandals; with Keen, I had to remove the sandal several times to shake it out on a hike.
The one other sandal I’ve been wearing as of late completely and utterly failed in my test trials, and it was proud to do so. Flojos’ Mirage ($25, www.flojos.com) are simple flip flops with a flat bottom and a single nylon strap. These are un-technical, relaxation-oriented sandals perfect for making the big hike between your parked car and the crashing waves on the beach.