The Agony and the Ecstasy of Hiking in Sandals
Is all that extra breathability worth exposing your feet to sun, bugs, and toe stubs?
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It was only April in Texas, but by 9 a.m. my four companions and I were already shedding layers and guzzling bottles of sun-warmed water in preparation for our hike on the Window Trail in Big Bend National Park.
As we put away the last remnants of breakfast and shouldered our packs, my husband Josh looked down at my sandaled feet and raised an eyebrow. “You gonna hike in those?”
I nodded, smiling. Today was the day I would set my feet free.
I’ve always found hiking boots to be insufferable—if my feet are hot, I’m miserable—but I long viewed them as required gear for anything more strenuous than short strolls on easy trails. Growing up, my parents had always insisted that sturdy, close-toed shoes were the safest attire for adventurous activities, and I had trusted them, even well into adulthood.
But then, on a rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon, my belief system was shattered when I saw some guys trekking in sandals. At first, I was skeptical—no way those flimsy bands of webbing offered enough support. But after a sticky, foot-baking, toe-smashing 7-mile descent in my boots, I thought those dudes might be on to something. My feet were in rough shape as it was. What did I have to lose?
Today, the conditions were ideal to ditch the boots: Since I had backpacked in Big Bend before, I was familiar with the terrain and knew there wouldn’t been any technical scrambling or sharp scree to threaten my feet (cactuses were another story). My pack was light, and the trail we’d chosen featured a shallow water crossing that was sure to soak regular hiking shoes. I practically lived in my sandals around town and knew they fit comfortably. And it was hot. Really hot.
“Aren’t you afraid of blisters?” Josh continued his line of questioning. Our other companions voiced their own concerns, all of which had already run through my head: Were the sandals supportive enough? What if there were snakes? Or bees? What would happen if I tripped over a rock or stubbed my toe? Was the tread aggressive enough? I shrugged: I’d packed a pair of hiking socks to throw on if I felt any hot spots, and my first aid kit was well stocked. My old pair of Chacos fit securely and their rubber outsoles were comparable with those of traditional hiking footwear. I dug out a bottle of sunscreen from my pack and slathered a dollop on the top of each foot. This was totally going to work.
Right off the bat, the warm breeze on my toes felt worth the risks, but the trail provided numerous obstacles. I stepped over rocks and scrambled atop boulders, newly aware of my exposed toes but feeling nimble—it was easier than I’d expected to avoid kicking things. A few times I had to stop to dig out a pebble that had lodged between the sole of my foot and the footbed. But I snugged up the straps and carried on, balancing on fallen tree trunks and powering up gravel-covered climbs. I stared often at my feet as I walked, but as the miles passed I gained confidence—my focus shifted away from the ground and I took in the colors and sights of the desert.
A few miles in, we arrived at a stream that bisected the trail in several places, requiring multiple crossings. The group slowed to search for the driest route. My husband tentatively submerged a toe to test his boots’ waterproofing. The rocky bottom looked slick, and going barefoot seemed hazardous, but no one wanted to hike several miles back in heavy, squishy boots.
While everyone else paused at the edge of the creek deliberating, I stomped into the flow, kicking up cool water like a kid jumping in puddles. I turned periodically to flash a smile back at my companions. Still think hiking in sandals is a bad idea?
While I had been worried about protection, exposing my feet had provided me with a new sense of connection to the trail: to be covered in dirt, to feel the summer breeze, soak in a cool stream, and not feel so swampy and sore upon returning to camp was a revelation. Hiking in sandals had forced me to stay alert for hazards at foot-level, but it felt natural and freeing. From now on, I’ll relegate hiking boots to only the most technical terrain. As for everything else, my trusty sandals will be seeing a lot more trail time this summer.
The Verdict: Pass
I hiked for miles in my Chacos in Big Bend and never regretted choosing sandals once. I was extra careful about steep inclines and slippery rock faces at first, but once I realized the kinds of terrain my sandles could handle, it was smooth sailing.
Skill: Set your Feet Free
Use sunscreen. You slather it on your face and shoulders, but don’t forget your feet. In sandals, they become one of the most susceptible areas to burning.
Pack socks. Even if it’s hot, keep a pair of hiking socks and some moleskin in your pack in case you feel a blister starting to form, or find yourself picking up lots of stones and sticks between your feet and sandals.
Pick the right hike. Not every trail is sandal-worthy. Snowy or cold hikes, trails with steep inclines covered in scree, technical routes, and trips with a heavy pack may not be the best place to air it out. Know when to lace up your boots instead.
Leave some room. Fit your sandals so that there’s some space between the ends of your toes and the ends of the sandals. This will buffer your feet against accidental rock kicks and ensure your toes don’t hang over the edges on downhills.