What are the most important things to know before choosing a pair of trekking sandals, or to check personally just before buying them?
What do you need to do with them?
Advertising always tries to convince us that we need a thousand different objects, every one more specialized than the others: do you really need a pair of sandals which were explicitly designed and advertised for crossing woods, creeks, boulders and mountains? To do what, exactly?
hygiene (taking a shower in hostel or camping public baths)
strolling around cities or beaches
walking regularly on plain or steep wilderness trails
have a pair of emergency shoes just in case your hiking boots fall apart in the middle of a trail (this really happened to a friend of the author!)
taking your boots off during camp stops
The questions and suggestions which follows are valid mainly, if not exclusively, to help you chose properly in the last three or four cases: sandals to use as main or emergency/rest shoes during multi-days hikes on technically demanding trails, but not on snow or in very cold weather. In such conditions, real trekking sandals can be a good choice, since they are not only lighter than trail running shoes, but also take less space in your backpack and may dry faster. In all other situations, instead, with the possible exception of rafting, it may make more sense to go for something less expensive or specialized.
A pair of sandals that must carry you to your intended destination even when the only way to it is some rocky trail must obviously have a sole with good grip capability and strong enough to not wear away after a few days of intense usage. Luckily, if this is what you need, today there are also sandals with soles made of Vibram or some other more or less equivalent material. One thing to check, besides grip, is if the soles you’d like are marking ones: if yes, it may be better to avoid it, unless the sandal will really be used only outside, on meadows, trails or sidewalks.
Please note that the fact that a sole is made of Vibram or some other hi-tech material is a necessary condition to avoid slipping, but it is not enough. In some cases, the thread pattern may be of little or no help to walk on very steep tracts, especially if wearing a backpack. An example of this problem was reported in this review of Teva Wraptor sandals, 2003 version.
Foot protection and support
If you plan to walk a lot with your sandals uphill and downhill on irregular terrain, models with some heel cup and side edges may help to prevent your feet from slipping in all directions, forcing you to make a lot of effort just to keep them inside the sandals.
In order to avoid that toenails touch rocks, thorns and similar, it may be helpful to have some clearance or toe protection in the front of the footbed. A well padded footbed is equally important, especially if you want to place over it not just your own weight, but also that of a big backpack. The same applies to padded heel shock adsorbers.
The best footbeds are those with some indentation or thread on which your feet can stand even when wet or sweaty: usually, however, such footbeds are the same ones in which sand just loves to nest…
Which and how many straps can be adjusted?
No pair of feet is equal to any other. Sandals which are perfect for your best friends may be hell for you, if their straps don’t play nice with the shape of your feet and can’t be adjusted where and how you need them. The possibility to adjust many straps independently may be useful (some people re-tweak their sandals front straps every time they start walking downhill) and some sandals go as far as having self-adjusting straps which do the job for you. Features like these may be a real bonus or a source of great pain, if all those straps and their buckles run too close to tendons or other critical points
Another thing to check is the position of the buckles: if they are on the internal side of the feet, they may be opened while you walk as soon as your other feet touches them.
Beware of rings
Even when straps can be adjusted in the best possible way for your feet, pay attention to how they are connected to each other. Normally this happens through plastic rings of several shapes. If these rings are not placed properly or if the sandal doesn’t include enough padding between them and your skin, they could cause blisters or worse.
Easy and stable tightening
Velcro straps are very quick, but they are also the ones which open more easily in the wrong moments, especially when dirty or wet. Systems based on elastic cords may not remain tight enough over long walks over irregular terrain or in the bush, besides being trapped to sticks or bushes.
Quick drying and resistance to water
Waterproofness in a sandal, which maybe you bought just to walk inside creeks and ponds? Of course! Even if you don’t care if your feet get wet, or that’s exactly why you wanted to buy sandals in the first place, if the parts made of leather or other non-synthetic materials aren’t properly processed, they may rot or break much earlier than you think, or become so tight to make walking painful.
On a related note, quick drying is important because footbeds or straps which remain wet for many hours after you crossed a stream in two minutes may cause you blisters!
According to several online reports from independent sources, some hiking sandals, especially some models from Teva (but also from Merrell) would start to have a really nasty smell, but above all a smell which washing would not eliminate, after a few months of regular use. You can read some of these reports here:
Those problems have been probably fixed with newer version, but in any case this remains another thing to check explicitly, if possible, with somebody who already owns a recent version of the same sandal you want to buy. As far as Tevas are concerned, the official website has a FAQ just about “how to prevent odor from occurring with your sandals”, which includes regular washing with anti-bacterial soap and other tips.
Availability of spare parts and repair services
Manufacturing the equipment we use to enjoy the wilderness in safety and comfort is quite a polluting activity. Chosing product which are made to last, from manufacturers which also offer spare parts and repair services is one of the best ways to reduce the impact of backpacking on environment (if you must not ship the sandals halfway across the planet…), and is a choice which is possible with some hiking sandals manufacturers.