As you know, often when I travel, I’m completely barefoot. However this isn’t always practical, or even legal, and sometimes I have to wear some kind of footwear. At times I can get away with my crocheted barefoot sandals, but in some conditions, I have to have something proper underfoot. Usually this is because of the terrain underfoot – gravel, in particular, is particularly uncomfortable – but sometimes it’s because ‘management doesn’t like it’. This doesn’t happen as often as you might expect; a couple of times in Australia (of all places), and at Sheffield Arena when I went to have my first COVID jab.
I’ve never felt comfortable even in standard walking sandals, as I find them too restrictive; this is especially true if I’ve spent an elongated period barefoot so my feet aren’t used to even that level of cover. A few years ago though, my friend Bea pointed me in the direction of minimalist sandals, and they’ve been quite a revelation.
What are minimalist sandals?
In simple terms, most minimalist sandals are a flat piece of rubber, between 4-6mm thick. Some of them have a lengths of cord threaded through to tighten them, in lieu of a shoelace, while others have a thicker series of straps to hold them in place. Most of them come in standard shoe sizes, though if you’re feeling really dedicated you can buy sheets of rubber and cut them to your exact foot measurements.
They are often known as ‘zero drop’ shoes, which means they’re completely level – there is no height difference between the heel and the toe of the shoe. This is very different to if you look at a normal pair of sandals from the side, and you’ll see the raised heel and the resulting slope along the sole.
Regardless of how they attach, they will invariably have some kind of strap – either a thick fabric or a cord – that goes behind the Achilles, thus ensuring the foot stays in place and makes them definitely not merely flip-flops.
My feet in very minimalistic sandals, in Perth, Australia.
Why wear minimalist sandals?
For me, I like the sensation of feeling like I’m barefoot, whilst still having some protection from sharp gravel etc. While 4mm might not sound a lot, it’s definitely enough. You can still feel the ground beneath your feet but because you’re resting it on a flat surface, you don’t feel every undulation in the ground.
Since they’re flat, and made of rubber, they’re quite flexible; they have a lot of ‘bend’ and give in them. This means they move with the foot on each step, rather than being rigid and stiff and forcing the foot to move with the shoe. It’s thus a more natural movement and much closer to the act of walking barefoot – which is more how the body is designed.
In addition, the openness around the foot, and especially the toes, means your feet aren’t forced or squashed into position by the edges of the shoe, leading to more natural toe spread, and less chance of blisters or ingrowing toenails.
What are the disadvantages of minimalist sandals?
No item of clothing is perfect, of course, and minimalist sandals are no exception. In my experience of wearing them, I have encountered a couple of slight issues, but in my opinion, none of them are severe enough to warrant moving back to more conventional sandals (or even shoes) in the long term.
Firstly, because there’s nothing between your foot and the sandal, and there’s no sides to it, I do get a little concerned in wet conditions. This may be because of my dyspraxia, but if the top of the sandal gets wet (not rain-wet, I’m talking more ‘hiking through a ford’ wet), I’m always conscious of the way my foot slides on the sandal; it feels easy to slip out of it or to break the lace cord. This happened to me once, coming down Pendle Hill, when I slipped on some very damp reeds when off-trail.
It’s important to get the right size of sandal. Too small and your foot doesn’t fit properly. This may lead to the toe end of the sandal bending underfoot, causing balance issues. Too large and your toes will overhang the edge of the rubber, making it more a risk of banging against stones. Remember too, with no side to them, you have to be more acutely aware of where your foot placement is; you might be slightly protected underfoot but your little toes might well still collide with things.
As the rubber is quite thin, compared with normal sandals, it’s only to be expected that its lifespan will be a little lower too. Many producers have a ‘distance guarantee’, whereby they’ll replace the sandal if it breaks before a minimum number of miles. In my experience, the place the sole is most likely to wear thin is under the ball of the foot – which is only to be expected given the way you walk in them.
What remained of my Xero sandals by the time I reached northern Benin.
Are minimalist sandals bad for you?
No. In fact, because they move with the foot rather than the other way round, they’re mechanically better for you than conventional sandals. You’re generally less likely to get certain types of muscle strains or leg pains.
However, this comes with a caveat. If you’re used to standard footwear, completely changing to minimalist or even fully barefoot style isn’t advisable, especially if you’re going to use them for running. The act of walking barefoot is different, and you kind of have to ‘re-learn’ to walk, in a way. In conventional shoes and sandals, you tend to strike the floor quite heavily with your heel. When barefoot, and this happens with minimalist sandals too, you instead hit the ground leading with the ball of your foot. The step is also much lighter than with conventional footwear – it’s more of a light kiss than a heavy snog. This change of walking style puts different pressures on your legs than you might be used to, and is the cause of injuries when people switch. The secret is to build up slowly – don’t go straight in with a 20km hike, instead just do a couple of hundred metres each day, and gradually build up your mileage.
What can you do when wearing minimalist sandals?
You can hike, run, dance, drive, whatever you want, in minimalist sandals, just as you can in conventional footwear.
On my Hike Across Great Britain in the summer of 2019, I was mostly either barefoot or wearing minimalist sandals, including along the entirety of the West Highland Way and through the wilderness of Ardnamurchan. I’ve also gone on many a shorter hike taking just my sandals as footwear.
My feet in Xero Sandals on day two of the Hike Across Great Britain, fresh on.
I’m not suggesting you go hiking through the Himalaya or anything using just minimalist sandals – I’m not convinced even I would be comfortable going through shin-deep snow without a proper walking boot – but for much of the casual trails of the UK they will be more than fine.
They’re great for everyday use, from going shopping to walking the dog. I don’t run in them personally (I prefer to run completely barefoot), but that’s just personal taste and I know plenty of people who use them as a running shoe. They’re also small and flexible enough so that you can slip them off, roll them up, and put them in your pocket – great for travelling in countries with lots of temples or beaches.
I’d rather be barefoot, obviously, but if I can’t, minimalist sandals are a good compromise for me. They’re not suitable for every situation, but in day-to-day life, and for a lot of places you might want to travel to, they’re pretty much ideal.
You may be interested to know I have an affiliate link to one brand of minimalist sandal – click here for Xero Shoes. Other brands are available (eg Luna, Bedrock, VivoBarefoot), but I have to admit I’ve never tried them.