To find your perfect sandal, think about where you'll be wearing them. Are you looking for a burly beast to take you into the depths of the backcountry, perhaps replacing your hiking shoes for summer adventures? Or maybe you're looking for an around-town shoe that can handle getting dirty on occasion? Or perhaps you're just looking for something that will last at the beach for a few seasons without disintegrating? This article will walk you through choosing the right sandals for the activities you do most.
Choosing Your Activity
After spending many miles evaluating the products in this review, our testers agreed that selecting summer footwear based upon activity is the surest way to achieve sandal satisfaction. It would be wise to decide which metrics are relevant to you and your activity, and then focus on the models that performed best in these areas.
What kind of shoes do you have now, and what specific qualities do you wish to participate in? Answering these questions helps narrow down the sandal type that matches your passions.
Also, we have assigned each product to one of three use categories to help you find your most appropriate fit. They all fit into at least one of these three activity categories: urban use, water activities, and hiking. Some of the models we wore fit into more than one category, and one rare breed of sandal (our Editors' Choice winner) fits in all of the above.
If you're looking for a sandal to slip on daily during the summer as you go about your life around town, start here. When considering sandals for urban use, we prioritized comfort and style above all else. Generally, people looking for footwear in this category want something that blends in rather than something that looks aggressively outdoorsy, and they care more about a comfortable footbed than they do about straps that dial perfectly for an ultrasecure fit. Since stability is inherently less important on smooth, paved terrain, a women's flip-flop might be another appropriate option for women who fit into this use category. But if you're looking for a slightly more substantial product with more control, consider the products in this review.
Our Top Pick for Urban Travelers, the Merrell Terran Ari Lattice, is an obvious choice in this category. Its aesthetic is more city than trail, so it works well with summer dresses and skinny jeans (provided you choose a versatile color). It's one of the most comfortable products we tested, and its adjustment system is simple (though not very precise). It's lightweight enough to tote in a carry-on, which is one reason we love it for city travel.
Several other products are notable in this category. The Chaco ZX/2 looks great and comes in a variety of fun colors. This model works particularly well for users with high arches. Some might find the Chaco Z/Cloud 2 slightly less stylish than the ZX/2 due to its thicker, less feminine straps, but for many, the Z/Cloud 2 is the last word in mountain town fashion. Check out the individual reviews to see where you land on this style debate. The Teva Verra is another model that has a comfortable footbed and had an airy, lightweight feel. It wouldn't be our first choice for any venture that required lots of trail miles, rock hopping, or water crossings because of its uncomfortable heel strap, but it was a go-to choice for urban travel.
Last but not least, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure, winner of our Editors' Choice Award, was a high performer in the fashion metric. It comes in neutral colors with flattering, low-profile straps that make this shoe not only useful but attractive as well. Throughout our testing, we received a borderline weird number of compliments from strangers and friends alike while wearing the Cairn Adventure. Its minimalist footbed matches its elegant looks. Add in easy adjustability, and you have a shoe that is comfortable in any environment.
In our analysis, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure and the Chaco Z/Cloud 2 were the models that didn't trade fashionable looks for full functional performance.
Those searching for a shoe that performs in the water should prioritize traction and water resistance. This includes beachgoers, boaters, rafters, and those hiking in warm, wet environments. Improved performance means increased safety and confidence on wet surfaces. For increased comfort, a shoe that dries faster is appreciated. The Chaco Z/Cloud 2 dries quickly, has good traction, and has hearty straps that feel secure.
However, our testers almost all favored the KEEN Clearwater as an option for a water shoe. Although this shoe did not dry as quickly as the Chacos, it outperformed them in comfort, and the full coverage derived from the closed-toe design was a big benefit. It provides protection that open-toed sandals cannot match.
Again, we highly recommend the Bedrock Cairn Adventure in this category. Because of the minimalist design, the Cairn Adventure dries quickly, and when wading in water with a sandy bed surface, its open design allowed users to work pesky pebbles out from between their shoe and foot, unlike the KEEN model. Although the KEEN Newport H2 is another great water shoe, it's significantly bulkier. We recommend this version mostly for rafters, as the wide design can more readily accommodate dry and wetsuit booties.
If you're looking for a summer sandal that will let you leave your hiking boots at home on occasion, you're in the right place. Our testers are big fans of letting their toes see the sun, even on multi-day backpacking trips and technical day hikes. A great hiking sandal should have the performance capabilities of a hiking shoe, but would ideally offer more versatility at a lighter weight. It should excel on all kinds of terrain while still being packable.
In our test group, we couldn't find a better hiking sandal than the Chaco Z/Cloud 2, which we named our Top Pick for Distance Hikers. The Z/Cloud 2 provides the support and comfort needed to spend long days on rough terrain, even with a heavy pack. Its straps are minutely adjustable so they can dial in perfectly to your unique foot. It has some of the best traction in our group in both wet and dry conditions, so we felt as secure in our Chacos as we did in lace-up hiking boots. It always has to be noted, though, that Chacos have molded footbeds that don't tend to be comfortable for users with flat feet.
If you have low arches and you don't mind a thin, flexible sole, the Bedrock Cairn Adventure is a great hiking shoe. It feels incredibly secure not only because it has such good traction, but because its straps are so ergonomic and sturdy. Users didn't notice any chafing or sliding when wearing the Cairn on steep surfaces, and despite some reservations, the toe strap did not cause any testers discomfort. Crucially, its open-toed design means that debris can fall more easily out of the shoe rather than collecting beneath your foot (a frequent complaint among the Chaco crowd). This is also a slim, packable shoe, so it's great to take along on backpacking trips as a secondary shoe for day hikes.
If you want a zero-drop hiking shoe but can't handle the Cairn Adventure's thin sole, the Luna Mono Gordo 2.0 is a solid contender here. While its straps aren't the most comfortable we tested, they can dial in and secure your foot well, and the Mono Gordo 2.0's sole is much thicker than the Cairn Adventure. This option is comfortable while carrying a heavy pack, as the thick sole took on a lot of that weight.
Although not the "standard" summer footwear look, close-toed models, like our Top Pick for Adventure Travel, the KEEN Clearwater, is particularly useful for individuals who want to hike a lot in their sandals. The following section provides more information on the pros and cons of close-toed construction.
Foot Protection & Close-Toed Construction
In addition to considering what activities you'll do when wearing your sandals, you may want to think about how much protection you need. Rocky terrain increases the need for coverage, but so does individual clumsiness and confidence level on steep, rough trails. Sun protection is another perk of having a more covered shoe. Or maybe you want to cover up unsightly toes or an unfortunate foot tattoo (though we say let your freaky feet fly!). Whatever the need, close-toed models are the best option for people who want more coverage.
The KEEN Clearwater and Newport H2 were the only close-toed options we tested (although the KEEN Uneek is also technically a closed-toe model, we are excluding it here, because its flimsy webbing does little to protect the user's feet, so you might as well be in an open-toe version). The added security of the additional fabric in a closed-toe model made some of our less agile testers more comfortable off-road, whereas others simply enjoyed these models as hiking shoes with increased ventilation. The Newport H2 and the Clearwater come with KEEN's foot bumper technology, which protects against stubbed toes, but also means that you have a particularly bulky toe box. The Newport H2 was significantly more cumbersome than the Clearwater.
The biggest downside to close-toed products is that they are open enough to allow debris to enter the footbed, but closed enough to trap this detritus in. This means frequent breaks to stop and clear out the amazing amount of pebbles and twigs that seem to collect between your foot and the footbed. The open-toed models are even worse at keeping out debris than the close-toed versions, but their open construction is such that the debris can more easily escape. The extra fabric on the KEENs also made them significantly heavier than the open-toe models when wet. The only other possible downside to these shoes is that they aren't as protective as they feel. They are a more protective option than open-toed models but are definitely no substitute for hiking boots or shoes.
Even an exhaustive review can't tell you which model will fit your foot the best. But it can tell you everything else. So check out our full review and let us help you find your perfect sandal!