Sandals are a special category of barefoot footwear and are subject to slightly different rules than other barefoot shoes. A lot of attention should be paid to proper fixation and to choosing the optimal model for the intended use.
The range of barefoot sandals has become very diverse in recent years and there is a sandal for every occasion. Many brands also offer customisation, which is a great bonus for anyone who wants a model that’s perfect for you.
I have tried many of them over the years, and I have also noticed many mistakes that people unconsciously make when choosing their barefoot sandals. With this post, I want to make it easier for you to buy barefoot sandals and to choose the right model for you.
In the post, we will only focus on open toe sandals, as they are a little different from closed-toe sandals (which behave similarly to shoes, but with a few more holes).
1. Characteristics of barefoot sandals
Barefoot sandals are subject to the same laws as all other barefoot footwear. To be classified as barefoot sandals, they must have a thin, flexible, zero drop sole, and an appropriate toebox shape that mimics our natural foot shape.
In addition to the basic characteristics of barefoot shoes listed above, there is another extremely important characteristic that must be taken into account when it comes to sandals: the sandals must be properly fixed to the foot.
Proper fixation means that sandals must also hold the heel properly, which means that all flip-flops and crocs are not proper footwear, as many people mistakenly think. When we walk in such shoes, our toes are trying to grip the ‘flip-flop, contracting the toes to ensure that the flip-flops does not fall off our foot. This walking pattern is not ok as it can lead to various foot problems.
Proper fixation is therefore essential in barefoot sandals. This fixation can be achieved in various ways, which we will show below.
2. Types of sandals
2.1 Toe thong sandals
The lacing method, which originated from the traditional form of the huarache running sandal, is one of the most popular sandal designs. It can be found in many different models of sports sandals. In this way, excellent fixation of the foot is achieved with only one strap running diagonally between the toes.
Sandals with a strap between the toes can also be made in other ways. The T-strap design, as seen in the models on the right, is also very popular among casual models of sandals. Here the strap does not run diagonally but straight back. With this strap pattern, the pressure between the toes can be bigger than with a diagonal layout. Also with these models it is important to ensure a snug fit across the instep.
2.2 Cross strap sandals
Corss strap sandals are very popular with dressier sandals, but they do not allow as secure fixation as toe thong sandals. As there is nothing between your toes, they are a popular choice for those who do not like any rubbing in this place.
I therefore recommend this type of sandal for work, for a walk around town or for special occasions. Be careful that the strap over your toes is not too tight or too loose.
This type of sandal is also very popular in sports models (Z-straps), but it should be remembered that this method of attaching the straps does not provide the same lateral stability of the foot as it is provided with toe thong sandals.
The poorer lateral stability is particularly noticeable when walking on uneven, steeper slopes and in wet conditions (if the foot slides too much in contact with the wet footbed). In such a model, the foot also slides forward more easily. There is nothing wrong with such a model, but you need to know where to use it.
1.3 Toe loop sandals & other types
In addition to the two basic designs, the toe loop sandals are also very popular. Like the toe thong, this fastening method also withstands lateral loads well, with a large degree of freedom for the toes. It is extremely important that the loop is positioned in the right place and has the right circumference for your toes. The sandal must also fit your foot properly over the instep.
In addition to the basic versions, footwear manufacturers are developing new designs and fixation methods. Among the special brands are Juuri, which allows you to choose any way you want to tie them, using coloured straps, and Wildling, which has developed a very special model of sandal that is actually a shoe with a number of holes, which have been very thoughtfully chosen.
3. Choosing the size
Choosing the right size is even more challenging with sandals than with closed shoes, as the diversity of human feet shapes is even more quickly expressed in sandals.
The most important thing is that the sandal shape follow the shape of the foot as closely as possible and that the toes do not hang over the sole (not in front and not at the sides) when walking. All toes should have even contact with the ground through the sole when walking, which is achieved with a sandal with a suitable shape, width and length.
Many brands use printable templates, which are very useful for sizing.
In the templates, pay attention to the marked dot indicating the point of attachment of the strap. This point must be placed exactly in the crease between your toes (place the pen on the point and move your foot to it).
In the photo on the left you can see an example of an appropriate and inappropriate sandal model. The type of sandal on the left is not the correct shape (sandals have a steeper slope, so smaller toes hang over the sole) and not the correct width (the big toe and the pinky toe hang over the sole) for this foot shape.
While closed sandals behave in the same way as shoes (12 mm of space in front of the toes is recommended), 7-10 mm of space is recommended for open-toe sandals to avoid tripping (our the toes are free, but the space is needed to allow the foot to pronate and extend properly during walking).
In addition to the length, the shape of the toes and the toebox shape of the sandal, as well as the position of the loop and strap between the toes, also influence the final fit of the sandal, which determines the final position of the foot in the sandal.
The picture on the left shows sandals with the same sole length and shape, but the final position of the foot is different due to the different design of the upper.
The final fit therefore always depends on several factors.
The figure shows the effect of the position of the strap between the toes and the toebox shape on the final fit of the sandal.
The sandals in size 41 are adequate in length, but the slope is too steep for this foot shape and the position of the strap attachment between the toes does not favour the long toes of this foot.
Sandals in size 41 are also too narrow for this foot, but size 42 is adequate (most of the extra length stays at the heel, so there is no tripping when walking).
If your toes are not yet in their natural position due to years of wearing tight shoes, special attention should be paid to choosing the right width.
Not only do sandals need to be wide enough for you at the moment, they also need to be wide enough for when your toes expand and regain their natural shape.
In the photo, the toes are currently still on the sole in blue sandals, but the width of the sandals is not sufficient to allow the toes to spread. In this case, it is more appropriate to choose wider sandals that will also fit when the toes return to their natural position.
For sandals with a cross strap, pay particular attention to:
(a) sole width – all toes on the sole
b) the appropriate circumference of strap
c) the position of the strap (it is least restrictive on the toes if it goes over the joints and the toes are free)
If the strap can be adjusted with velcro, the circumference can be adjusted as desired. If the adjustment is not possible, choose a model where the strap fits your foot snugly enough without restricting the movement of your toes. Some manufacturers also allow adjustment of the strap length.
Sandals with a toe loop can be a great choice if the loop is placed in the right place and has appropriate circumference (right foot).
Sandals are not suitable for the left foot as the big toe of the left foot cannot move to its natural position without restrictions caused by the position of the loop.
4. Sole type
4.1 Sole thickness and flexibility
How thick a sole should be is one of the most common questions every barefoot sandal wearer asks. The thickness of the sole depends on a number of factors, but most importantly on the how ready your feet are to walk in barefoot sandals and the purpose of use.
Thinner soles are usually softer, but this is not true for all models. Some sandals also have thin and frim soles, while other models have thicker and firm soles. A thick sole does not necessarily mean a firm sole – the sole can also be soft.
The softness of the sole also affects the feeling of thickness. Softer soles can feel more comfortable to walk on harder surfaces and give a better ground feel than extremely thin but firm soles, which do not respond as well to changes in the ground.
There is no general rule on which sole thickness to choose, as the needs of users vary.
Personally, I prefer softer soles of medium thickness (5-8 mm) for walking on harder surfaces such as asphalt and concrete. Such soles add some softness to the hardness of the terrain.
More demanding terrains usually also require a deeper tread on the sole, which in turn affects the final thickness of the sole too.
Choose the depth of the tread according to the intended use. Sandals designed for city, work and everyday use usually do not have a deep lugs and you do not need them. Sports sandals can also have deeper tread to better withstand harsher conditions.
Sandals are usually worn barefoot, so choosing a good footbed that is in direct contact with the skin is extremely important. When buying sandals, ask yourself where you want to wear them, what materials you want, can the sandals get wet, do you need a non-slip sole, etc.
There are many factors that influence the choice, and the footbed can also have a big influence on how stable and fixed the sandal feels on the foot. Usually, smooth leather soles are very comfortable to wear, but can be feel more slippery than other types of footbed (suede is less slippery in this case). Also, contact of leather with water is not desirable. Microfibre footbed behave better in contact with water but can quickly become slippery. Cork is also a natural material which is extremely comfortable in contact with the foot.
Manufacturers of sports sandal models also have models with non-slip footbeds, which are designed for use in wet conditions. Xero Shoes (E) also has a special model with Naboso footbed.
Please note that footbeds that are not smooth can irritate the skin more on extremely hot days (prolonged walking in the heat).
5. Fastening methods
There are many ways to fasten sandals, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. There is no one right way, it all depends on which way you prefer.
Stylish sandals are usually fastened with a buckle (B), but this is also the most time-consuming way to fasten them. In casual sandals a velcro strap (A) can be used instead of a buckle, which makes them very quickly to put on.
Some sandals use adjustable straps in combination with a buckle (C, E) which only need to be adjusted once, then the sandals are simply slipped on. Sandals with classic ‘huarache’ strapping (D) require occasional knot adjustments after longer walking.
6. Achieving good foot fixation
Proper foot fixation is essential in sandals. It is important that your sandals properly grip the key points on the foot that provide adequate fixation – the toes, the instep and the heel. There are several ways to achieve this, but it is important to be able to judge if the fixation is adequate so that there are no unwanted compensations when walking.
On some models, the strap that runs across the instep is not adjustable and, as a result, its length suits fewer people.
If the strap is too loose or too snug for you, choose a model where the strap length can be adjusted.
In some feet, diagonally placed straps can cause the sandal to rotate as you walk, so that the sandal and foot are no longer properly aligned. In this case, it is better to choose a sandal model with a vertically placed T-strap (left foot).
In case you need a stronger fixation over the instep, some manufacturers also offer ‘power’ straps to further secure the foot while walking (right foot).
7. Custom-made sandals
There are many foot types and, of course, it may not always be easy to find the right model for your foot. Sometimes the model may not match the design you want. In such cases, I recommend buying custom-made sandals. There are several manufacturers that offer this type of sandals, and this is the best choice for anyone who wants sandals that fit perfectly.
Find brands that make customised sandals here.
I find that it is most difficult to find a suitable standard model for very narrow and very wide feet, and for feet that have a very strong slope towards the pinky (in this case there is a lot of extra space left in front of the smaller toes). Here I recommend customising the sandals.
Sometimes, just moving the hole a little can make a big difference (left foot).
8. Brands of barefoot sandals
There are many brands of barefoot sandals and I’ve compiled all the details, with photos and information on where to buy, in lists for kids and adults.
A full list of adult barefoot sandals can be found here.
A full list of kids barefoot sandals can be found here.
When choosing sandals, always consider where you will wear them and choose them according to the activity and the width, length and shape of your foot. It is important that the sandals are fixed on your feet and that you find a model that you like and will be happy to wear for years.