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Why I Thru-Hike in Sandals (Even in the Desert)

Why I Thru-Hike in Sandals (Even in the Desert)

I have thru-hiked in sandals for over 12,000 miles including an entire triple crown.

Yes, my feet do sometimes hurt during a thru-hike.

But, sandals make my feet 10x happier than when they’re enclosed in trail runners.

Here are my reasons to thru-hike in sandals, even in spiky, cactus-filled deserts.

My Feet Overheat in Shoes

I hiked quite in various “lightweight” boots back in the day. I managed to hike two Caminos de Santiago, the AT, and half of the Colorado Trail in those “lightweight” boots before I jumped into sandals.

This was between 2008-2011, right as lightweight backpacking was becoming a bigger thing.

My biggest problem with boots and trail runners is that my feet overheat. Fast. My feet just don’t like them.

However, I tried and tried to keep my feet enclosed.

Then, the overheating turned into blisters, hot spots, heat rashes, and a dang funky smell.

Let’s just say, it was unpleasant.

Part way through the Colorado Trail, I became upset about my too hot feet after lunch. Back then, I carried camp shoes. That’s what you did to get out of your boots back then because boots are miserable. My camp shoes happened to be an old pair of Keen Sandals.

I looked at my boots and felt utter dread well up in the pit of my stomach. Then, I looked at my sandals. Why not?

I stuffed my boots into my pack and hiked out in my sandals.

Within the first mile, I realized that I still had to wear socks. But, after that, my feet were warm, but not overheating.

Sandals on Mt. Whitney

Sandals Give Me Greater Awareness of My Feet

I have since switch to the Teva Tirra Women’s Sandal which features an open toe.

Most people immediately assume I stub my toes on everything because that’s what happens in trail runners. Not true.

It took me very little time hiking in sandals to gain a greater sense of awareness of my feet and other objects. I have extremely rarely (like maybe once per thru-hike) stubbed my toe on something.

When my sandals are properly sized, as they age, they flatten just slightly. This flattening gives me just a little bit of the sole sticking out in front of my toes. As my foot kicks into things, it hits this portion of the sole instead of my toes.

Furthermore, with this greater awareness of my feet came a greater awareness of my steps. I step more intentionally. This ultimately helps my knees because my feet are not clomping down a trail willy nilly.

PCT Finish in Sandals

Unlike Trail Runners, Sandal Designs Stay the Same

Each winter, I go online and buy 4-6 pairs of sandals for my upcoming summer of hiking just like many do with trail runners.

However, my Teva Tirra Sandals stay the same year after year. Occasionally, they add a new color. But, the fundamental sandal does not change.

None of that trail runner nonsense where they change the shape of the shoe each year. Like when you find one you like and the next year they change the whole foot box.

Sandals on the Scottish National Trail

Sandals Make River Crossings Better

I used to hate river crossings and fords. I’m still not thrilled about getting my feet wet, but I no longer dread them.

Approaching a river crossing, I don’t have to do anything except double check that the trail crosses in a safe location.

I leave my socks and sandals on and simply walk through.

On the other side, I continue walking and eventually, everything dries right up. On a hot, relatively dry day, my feet are dry within 30-45 minutes.

Thru-hiking woman crossing the Gila River.
Crossing the Gila River.

It’s Easier to Pick Cactus Spines Out

Remember when I wrote that I have a greater awareness of my feet?

That includes moving near cacti.

Most of the time, I gently avoid cacti as I move about the desert on a thru-hike.

However, occasionally, I kick a cactus. I’m not alone. Many do the same in trail runners.

When this unfortunate event happens, I stop and simply pull out the spines. Sometimes it takes a few minutes to get the smaller ones. But they’re all right there.

Now, when someone kicks a cactus in trail runners, the spines can be in the shoe or the sock and they spend far more time finding the damn things. Sometimes a spine just gets lost in the side of the shoe and randomly appears later.

Sandals on the Hayduke


While I have hiked forever in sandals, when people ask about them I say I don’t always recommend it. It is a large adjustment for many.

However, if you try sandals on your thru-hike, ENJOY THE EPICNESS.

For my some of my favorite gear other than my sandals, check out this post.