Barefoot running sandals (or minimalist sandals) exploded alongside barefoot running after the bestselling book, Born to Run, was released by Christopher McDougall in 2009.
After observing the ancient and superhuman running culture of the Tarahumara people in Mexico, McDougall concluded that humans evolved running barefoot. He argues that the advancements in running shoes have, ironically, led to more harm than good. The solution to the rise in running related injury is to go barefoot or, in case of sharp objects, use minimalist sandals.
Barefoot enthusiasts believe the heel-toe strike (heel hits the ground and then toe) of a shoe can cause overstriding, while the mid-strike (foot hits the ground flat) of barefoot is balanced and causes lower impact.
Since your feet are forced to engage with the contours and imperfections of the ground, "barefooters" report better alignment, balance, lower leg strength and report less injury.
You mean we've been doing it all wrong?!
Ehhh... maybe. This barefoot theory is still heavily debated and some people actually report worse injuries when switching from cushioned shoes to a pair of barefoot sandals.
Despite the controversy, one thing is certain - barefoot sandals and minimalist footwear is a growing movement and has a fanatical following. A lot of companies have risen to the occasion of making fantastic sandals for all outdoor activities, not just running.
Personally, I have become somewhat obsessed with the barefoot sandal movement. I use them for hiking, traveling and everyday activities.
They are ultra lightweight and thin which makes them perfect to slide into my pack. They are super comfortable and let my feet breathe, but are much more durable and higher functioning than flips flops.
1. ZERO DROP: SAME HEIGHT FROM HEEL TO TOE
Zero drop is a defining characteristic of a barefoot sandal that enables the mid-strike. Zero-drop sandals let feet move and rest in their natural position. With zero-drop soles, the height of the back of the sandal needs to be the same as the front - or have "zero drop".
In other words, the foot lays flat from heel to toe and moves in a way similar to if it were going barefoot. This is in direct contrast to most shoes which might have a 20 mm high heel and a 15 mm high toe box... a total drop of 5 mm.
The benefits to a zero-drop shoe that people have experienced include less knee pain, better ankle agility, improved posture, balance, and even drastic improvements in lower body strength.
Left: zero-drop sandal | Right: "classic" sandals with elevated heel
2. THIN SOLES: IDEALLY 12 MM OR LESS
Anything thicker than 12 mm and you will not get that real 'barefoot feel' - it will be more like a shoe. I personally prefer soles in the 5-8 mm range.
The thinner the sole, the more flexible a sandal will be. That being said, if you’re new to minimalist sandals, you could start with a thicker sole at first until your feet get accustomed to the change. Ultra-thin soles are the closest resemblance to walking barefoot. Once you get used to them, you'll never want to go back.
Many shoes and sandals today fill their soles with extra cushioning and padding, but minimalist sandals aren’t designed for that. Instead, feet are supposed to feel and naturally adjust to the grooves of the earth, with the soles acting more like barriers for added protection against nature's elements.
Left: the horizontal strap brings toes together | Right: thong strap lets the toes spread out
3. LIGHTWEIGHT: IDEALLY 12 OZ OR LESS
Most minimalist sandals weigh less than half the weight of boots or running shoes. That being said, a lot of the weight will also depend on the sandal’s material. For example, pairs made from leather will naturally be heavier than pairs made from synthetic materials.
How about Chacos? Chacos are zero drop too, but they weigh around 2 lbs (32 oz). That is way too much! Again, a heavy and thick sandal won't resemble being barefoot.
4. THONG STRAPS: A MATTER OF PERSONAL PREFERENCE
A lot of brands use specially designed laces for their sandal straps that are lightweight, comfortable, weather-resistant, adjustable and durable.
Sandals with a horizontal toe strap usually feature a thicker strap that tightens and secures your foot in place and helps to keep it from sliding. The downfall here is that if you’re not used to wearing this style, it can get pretty uncomfortable. And, you might even develop hotspots after a while. A horizontal strap squeezes your toes together and cause Metatarsalgia - a fancy word for knuckle inflammation.
With a thong style, your feet aren’t restricted by a strap and they’re able to move around more freely—your toes naturally spread out. This can be a good and bad thing. This non-restrictive feature makes the style more comfortable, but the sandal is more prone to slip in wet conditions or especially rough terrain.
Personally, I pick thong all day long.
In no particular order, here are the best barefoot and minimalist sandals on the market:
|Luna Sandals Oso Flaco||11 mm||17.4 oz||$70 to $105|
|Xero Shoes Z-Trail||5.5 mm||11.3 oz||$40 to $80|
|Bedrock Sandals Cairn||14 mm||15.6 oz||$70 to $98|
|Unshoes Wokova||4-6 mm||11 oz||$48 to $75|
|Shamma Sandals Mountain Goats||5-6 mm||12.3 oz||$65 to $99|
|Earth Runners Alpha Adventure||8 mm||11.5 oz||$69 to $84|
Price: From $70 to $105
Thickness: 11 mm sole
Weight: 17.4 oz per pair (Size 11.5)
Luna Sandals launched soon after Born to Run was released. Their founder, Barefoot Ted, was a main character in the book and has been running ultra-marathons in minimalist sandals since 2007. Despite the thicker soles, these sandals are still very light. They come with a non-slip MGT footbed, Vibram soles and a bit more lacing than other sandals for a secure foot hold. The most unique thing about these is the quality - these sandals have been really really well designed for running. These will be my go to sandals in 2021.
Price: From $39.99 to $79.99
Thickness: 5.5 mm sole
Weight: 11.3 oz per pair (Size 11)
Xero Shoes have become one of the barefoot sandal leaders, especially after appearing on Shark Tank. They make some impressively flexible sandals that can roll up in to your pocket.
I could not believe how much I could actually feel the ground in these. These are the only pair on our list that have a horizontal non-thong strap. The footbed is roomy and very comfortable, and the heel cup helps to keeps debris out when walking outside. Each pair comes with a 5,000 mile warranty so feel free to crush some miles in them. If the toe thong isn't your thing (it can take time to get used to and, honestly, is not my preference), checkout their Z-Trail and Z-Trek models.
Price: From $70 to $98
Thickness: 14 mm sole
Weight: 15.6 oz per pair (Size 11.5)
Rough and tough sandals built for the trail. These sandals are more like the lightweight and minimalist alternative to Chacos. I wore these religiously for most of 2017. Bedrock Sandals launched in 2012 with a Kickstarter project and has been making great sandals ever since. Their models range from the minimalist and ultra-thin Earthquake model to the more rugged, and infinitely adjustable, Cairn model. At a 14 mm sole and 15.6 oz per pair, the Cairn's (image below) are definitely thicker and A LOT more durable for tough trail. Thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail have been wearing these more and more.
Price: From $48 to $75
Thickness: 4 to 6 mm sole
Weight: 11.0 oz per pair (Size 11.5)
Each pair is made to order. Great for active lifestyles and for casual wear. The lacing is relatively seamless and the wide straps prevent potential hot spots. Unshoes will mold to your feet like a glove. My favorite thing is the straps - they are thick and oh so comfortable. The lacing leaves the inside of your foot open making it more ideal for casual wear versus running. For those of you who don't like things between your toes, there are other models with horizontal straps like the Uinta and Pah Tempe.
Price: From $65 to $99
Thickness: 5 to 6 mm sole
Weight: 12.3 oz per pair (Size 11.5)
Let this be an ode to Shamma. After a long run on the beach with the Mountain Goats (featured image), I was hooked. I've been wearing these nearly everyday for a year now (most of 2018). Super light, yet rugged enough to cover serious terrain. Their straps fit like a glove and are softer than a pillow. Note their Warriors model (featured specs) is a lighter than the Mountain Goats - the lightest on this list, in fact. Shamma also offer some beautifully designed sandals with sleek brown leather goat-skin.
Price: From $69 to $84
Thickness: 8 mm sole
Weight: 11.5 oz per pair (Size 11.5)
Quality, minimalist sandals designed for running. All of Earth Runners' sandals have an extremely unique vegan footbed with either pure Vibram sole or the Earth Grip footbed (organically dyed cotton canvas). Lacing comes with a thin layer of nylon to minimize stretching. There's a copper plug at the bottom of the sandals where the thong strap attaches that is supposed to connect you to the Earth and allow you to feel more grounded.
Price: From $70 to $110
Thickness: Really thick
Weight: 31.9 oz per pair (Size 11)
These are the classic outdoor sport sandal that seem to have dominated the market for decades. I wanted to add these solely as a point of reference. You can see they are significantly bigger and heavier than the other models on this list. Chacos weigh in at nearly 2 lbs which is over double the weight of some these other sandals. Some folks love 'em for their durability and style... others prefer the more lightweight and minimal style.
Hiking in sandals has a few benefits. Sandals are much cooler and more breathable on hot days than boots, and you can quickly adjust straps or tape your foot if you get hotspots. Sandals also make wading through water or crossing streams a breeze. Of course, wearing sandals for hiking has its time and place. In wet and humid environments, for example, you might develop more rubbing which could lead to blisters. In desert climates there’s the potential risk of getting the top of your feet sunburnt—yikes! If wearing sandals through dense forests, you won’t have that extra layer of protection that boots provide, so you’ll need to be extra cautious of stepping on poison ivy, thorns, or creatures that want to bite or sting you.
Many trail runners enjoy running in minimalist sandals because they’re less restrictive, more breathable, and are less abrasive on their ankles and other joints. Form-wise, a 3-point design is a favorite for runners because it stays secure and comfortable on the foot while still providing protection.
Wearing sandals while running can also enhance form and encourage a much-favored mid-foot strike rather than heel-strike. Sandals also work a variety of muscles in the lower body compared to tennis shoes, and they force runners to focus on where and how they’re stepping during their runs which can improve posture, overall form and even lighter steps.
Minimalist sandals aren’t just for the hikers and runner’s out there. They can be a casual summer-time shoe option to help keep your feet cool, improve your lower body strength and ultimately enhance posture. Regularly wearing minimalist sandals has even been said to improve balance, agility, core strength and bone density.
© Eli Duke
From the strap to the sole, sandal materials matter. Here’s a deeper look at three popular materials used in minimalist sandals today.
LEATHER: DURABLE AND WATER-RESISTANT
Leather sandals are durable, soft, water-resistant and malleable—which means over time the leather forms to fit your foot. However, leather also has its downfalls. It’s heavier, it doesn’t dry as fast as canvas and it can get slippery when wet. This specifically poses a problem with leather-soled sandals and rainy conditions.
CANVAS: LIGHTWEIGHT AND COMFORTABLE
Canvas is a quick-drying, lightweight, moisture-wicking material that’s used in many minimalist sandal footbeds. Sandals made with canvas will be more flexible than leather and will have a soft texture. Sometimes, the insoles of canvas sandals will also have added grooves for improved grip.
VIBRAM: EXTREMELY DURABLE AND GREAT TRACTION
Lightweight and quick-drying, Vibram is a material specifically designed by an outsole manufacturer that makes hiking boots, work boots, and sandals. A Vibram sole is thin, lightweight, comfortable and has excellent traction and abrasion resistance. It’s made from a blend of rubber and EVA and is a secure and suitable option for various terrains. The soles last upwards of 15 years and are said to be the “best of the best” in the durable sole industry.
There are plenty of great options available for buying minimalist sandals. But if you’re the crafty kind, you can also make your own pair right at home! All you need is a few supplies and an easy-to-follow DIY guide.
Here are a few of our favorites:
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
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