Imagine strapping a 45-pound kayak (plus camping gear and six days’ worth of food crammed inside) on your back. Now, carry it for 12 miles up and over a 12,000-foot-high mountain pass.
Here are Gear Guy’s 10 smart sandal and light hiker picks:
Teva Tanza ($70, teva.com): A classic river-guide-type sandal, the Tanza has straps with three points of adjustment so you can get a snug fit, and the straps are backed with neoprene foam for zero hotspots on your feet. Finally, the soles are made with Teva’s super sticky Spider Rubber for good traction in wet conditions.
Treksta Kisatchie Sandal ($95, trekstausa.com): The Kisatchie is possibly the most techy sandal here. It uses the Boa lacing system with steel cable laces and a dial you turn to tighten the fit. You get a more uniform tightness than with regular shoelaces or buckles. This sandal also has a full toe cap and more coverage in the upper than some of the others shown here.
Keen Butte ($90, keenfootwear.com): This one leans more toward the shoe side than a sandal (call it a shandal) with its solid toe cap and burly lug sole. But you get plenty of ventilation with all the large open-air areas on the shoe’s upper.
Chaco Z/2 Vibram Unaweep ($95, chacousa.com): The Z/2 sandal has a piece of webbing that secures your foot with a unique strap across the big toe. Your feet will get plenty of air with these sandals and plenty of traction with their Vibram soles.
Ahnu Reyes ($90, ahnufootwear.com): This sandal has a hiking-shoe sole with a full toe cap, yet a minimal mesh upper and a single buckle strap. Because you’ll probably wear these without socks, it’s good to know they also have natural antimicrobial (stink) protection thanks to a bamboo liner on the mesh.
Technica Wasp Low ($100, tecnicausa.com): This shoe has obvious roots in trail running but also boasts the support and lug sole to handle fast hiking and moderate pack loads.
Columbia Switchback ($75, columbia.com): Another trail-running-inspired shoe, the Switchback gives you a highly breathable mesh upper with a rugged sole for hiking. An extra $15 will get you the Switchback in a waterproof/breathable version.
Vasque Juxt ($90, vasque.com): With its waterproof suede leather upper, the Juxt has a definite understated street styling. But its molded rubber toe cap and rugged slip-resistant sole make it perform well on the trail, too.
The North Face Assailant ($80, thenorthface.com): This hiking shoe has an upper made of mesh and suede with a lightweight but durable Vibram sole. For $20 more you can get the Assailant in a waterproof/breathable Gore-Tex version.
Scarpa Epic ($95, scarpa.com): Though the Epic was built atop a trail-running chassis, this shoe is designed for off-trail scrambling and hiking with a pack. Plus the sole has slightly stickier rubber than most, which makes it great for rocky terrain.
That’s exactly what professional kayaker Pat Keller did just so he could paddle a 31-mile stretch of the remote Middle Kings River in California, some of the most difficult whitewater in the United States. And he did it all (hiking and paddling) wearing a pair of river shoes. Pat knows better than most that sometimes it’s best to leave the burly hiking boots at home. That’s why we asked him to tell us how to shop for sports sandals and light hikers.
SANDALS VS. LIGHT HIKERS
There’s a place and time for boots. But in some situations, boots can be overkill — like when you’re hiking with a daypack or lightweight pack or doing water-based sports in which your feet will be wet much of the time.
“Rarely do I feel the need to strap on big burly boots,” Keller says. “If you want freedom and don’t want to worry about getting wet crossing creeks, sandals are a great option. Most of the rest of the time shoes are a better idea.”
Sports sandals are not cheap. It’s difficult to find a quality pair of sandals capable of hiking for less than $70, and most cost more than $100. Though sandals require less material to build, it seems you get more for your money with a pair of light hikers, which run from $75 to $140. For better prices, check the Internet for closeouts and the bargain table at your local outfitter shop.
TRY BEFORE YOU BUY
How many times have you heard the Gear Guy say this? But it’s so important. Go to a store where you can try on the sandals or shoes. Bring the sort of socks you’d expect to wear with light hikers. Try on as many as you can, and don’t be afraid to tromp all around the store for 10 minutes or so.
“A lot of fitting shops have a little incline. Try walking up and down on that and pay attention for any slipping and potential for blisters,” Keller recommends. “The right shoe should be comfy from the get-go.” With sandals and light hikers, there should be zero break-in period.
BE A SOLE MAN
Arguably the most important part of the shoe is the sole, the bottom where all the tread is. The deeper the tread, the more grip you have.
“You need to trust that those knobbies will get you to the top of the hill,” Keller says. “And you want to be able to have enough
rigidity in the sole that you can kick it into the hillside for traction.”
Certain types of soles are made for specific activities. Make sure the pair you pick fits with the activities you plan on doing.
“Harder rubber compounds are better for kicking in steps on steep banks, and travel on dirt trails,” he says. “And they last longer than the squishy, sticky rubber soles that are super good for wet rock.”
WEATHER OR NOT
Sports sandals are best for wet environments. And they can be good for warm climates, too, but some offer more ventilation than others. The same goes for light hikers. Most are constructed with mesh (best for warmer climates) or leather uppers (cooler climates), while some are made with waterproof/breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex. Keep this in mind: Even though the shoe might be waterproof, if you step in a puddle or stream more than ankle-deep your foot will get wet all the same.
FIT BEFORE FASHION
“Get what you like and what you think looks good,” Keller says, “but stop yourself before you buy to make sure it feels good and really fits.”
CHECK THE RULES
Sports sandals have their place in the outdoors, but not every place. Many camps require closed-toe shoes. Check before you go.