Five years ago, if you decided you wanted to do something nice for your feet and start wearing minimalist shoes, you didn’t have many options. Really, you could choose between some odd looking toe shoes (which I love, by the way) or DIY. Luckily, now that more people are starting to recognize the many health benefits of going barefoot or minimally-shod, there is a wider variety of options, ranging from plush sheepskin-lined boots and office-appropriate dress shoes, to a selection of nice-looking sandals.
Interestingly, minimalist sandals are the toughest to design and make. The very thin soles, combined with the lack of an upper - the part of the shoe that goes over the tops and sides of the feet - leave very little room for error. Many traditional (read, chunky-soled) sandals rely on the strap running through the material of the sole, but this wouldn’t work with minimalist shoes since the soles are too thin to hide the feel of the strap.
Several clever sandal makers have found ways to essentially secure a thin piece of rubber to the foot using nylon webbing, leather, or string, creating a traditional “huarache”-style sandal. While I love huaraches as much as the next minimally-shod person, I was really excited to try the Unshoes* Uinta sandal, which was released this summer. It has an innovative and ingenious strap design that gives you the look of a more mainstream sandal (think Chacos) while still maintaining a high level of comfort and functionality. Unshoes was kind enough to send me a pair to try out and review.
Like most minimalist sandals, the Uintas don’t look like much straight out of the envelope (the Unshoes minimalist mindset extends to environmentally-friendly, minimalist packaging as well) - basically just some webbing straps attached to a thin rubber sole. They appear to be very well-constructed out of high quality materials, and look like they should be able to withstand a fair amount of use and abuse.
After taking a few minutes to figure out what went where (I can now easily put them on in seconds), the true beauty of this sandal shows through. Unshoes has performed some magic with the straps that involves one continuous piece of webbing that secures at the inside of the big toe, goes through a loop on the inside of the ball of the foot, across the instep, around the heel, and ends at the buckle located near the middle of the foot. Then, the webbing from the other side of the buckle crosses over the top of the foot and attaches to the outside of the big toe. (Really, just take a look at the photos in the slideshow below - a picture is worth a thousand words, after all!) All of this with no lumps or bumps, so the sandals feel nice and smooth against the feet. The heel is also reinforced with a non-adjustable length of webbing which add some stability.
The genius of all of this is twofold. First, the feet are contained at several points, including the big toes, balls of the feet, and at the ankle and heel. My feet felt nice and secure with out being constricted or pinched. Also, because the entire strap system is basically one continuous piece, you can easily and quickly adjust the fit of the entire sandal by pulling on the one loose end.
The footbed (the surface that comes in contact with the sole of the foot) has a subtle, pleasant-feeling texture with non-slip properties. Also, the suction cup tread on the bottom of the sole is an interesting take on traction that helps keep the sole thin and flexible while providing some grip.
Sizing & Fit
Unshoes has come up with a great solution to online shoe ordering. While they do offer custom-made sandals, they also have 6 pre-designed templates to choose from. You can also choose to have the toe strap placed in one of 9 positions. They’ve made it really simple to choose both template and toe strap position - all you have to do is print out a few templates, pick the one that is closest to your foot shape, and mark the toe strap location that fits best between your big and second toe. This whole process took me maybe 15 minutes at most (including running up and down the stairs several times to get to the printer in the basement) and the sandals that I ended up with are about as close to custom as I could possibly want, without the extra cost!
The only small but easily fixable issue was that the adjustment strap was fairly long for my foot, so that the end dragged a little on the ground. Armed with a pair of scissors and a lighter (you need to melt the end of the webbing so that it doesn’t unravel), I trimmed off about an inch and a half of each strap. This took about 30 seconds per sandal and made them much nicer to wear.
I love my huarache-style sandals, but they do have a few drawbacks. First, the lack of secure points around the forefoot means that there’s not a lot of stability during lateral movement or when the footbed gets wet. One activity where I’ve especially noticed this issue is tai chi. The Uinta, however, performs beautifully for this - in the brief test that I did, I never once felt like my feet were going to slide out of the sandals.
The same issue applies when walking or hiking on really rough terrain or in wet weather. While I didn’t get a chance to test the Uintas on any mountain trails due to near-freezing temperatures (my toes aren't quite that hardcore!), they were perfect for walks on unpaved lowland trails and around town. Also, fortunately or unfortunately - depending on your mindset - this fall has been unseasonably dry, so I wasn’t able to test them in the rain. However, for the sake of this review, I did spray down my feet with a hose then go for a short walk. The unique footbed texture provided a surprisingly generous amount of traction while walking on hilly streets. The jury is still out on how these will perform on steep, soggy hikes, though.
The one small issue I noticed with the Uinta is that the plastic loops that the straps run through tend to rotate 90 degrees. When this happens, the straps go from laying completely flat to bunching up slightly at the loop. This didn't affect the feel or function at all, and is really just a minor aesthetic issue.
Ground feel is a minimalist shoe nerd term that basically means how well you can feel the contours of the ground through the soles of your shoes. I'm giving this it's own section because good ground feel is one of the key features of minimalist shoes - the more your feet conform to the ground you're walking on, the healthier they will be in the long run.
The Uintas don't disappoint! I went with the 6mm suction cup outsole and the standard 1mm non-slip EVA footbed for a combination of durability and flexibility. With a total thickness of only 7mm between my feet and the ground, I can feel pretty much any little pebble or contour that I walk on. This might actually be a little TOO much sensitivity for someone who is just transitioning their way into minimalist shoes, but will be perfect for a seasoned minimalist shoe wearer. For those of you with more tender feet, Unshoes also offers a 4mm non-slip EVA foam footbed option that provides a little more padding and protection.
One thing that I feel is worth mentioning - in the past I've had a problem with such thin soles catching on the ground and folding over at the front, which can be a tripping hazard. So far I haven't had this happen once with the Uinta, and don't feel in any danger of such a thing occurring. Unshoes seems to have found the perfect balance between sole stiffness and ground feel.
At $95+, these are not cheap sandals. However, given the amount of thought and care that went into their design and construction, I think the price is totally reasonable. If you’ve always wanted to try minimalist sandals but are not a fan of huaraches, these might just be for you. They’re also a great option if you’re looking for a sandal that really feels secure on your feet.
- Unique strap design provides a secure fit
- Easy on/off and strap adjustment
- Footbed provides great traction when wet
- Attractive design
- Handmade in the USA
- High price point
- Plastic attachment loops tend to rotate
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