Ultimate Travel Shoe Showdown

A few days ago I jetted out of London’s Gatwick Airport for Lisbon. Several weeks earlier I began trimming down my travel gear as part of my ongoing mission of minimalization. If you read my post last summer you’ll know where that all began. I’ll be posting soon about my totally revolutionized travel gear setup, but before that I want to  let you into what was probably the toughest part of the process – finding the right travel shoes.

Why so hung up on shoes?

Spontaneously giving away my hiking boots last year in Bangkok was a breakthrough in traveling lighter but I didn’t have a footwear strategy beyond that. I went on to spend months in Vietnam and Cambodia in just flip-flops, trying not to break my toes on broken paving stones and wasting time looking for new shoes whenever my flip-flops wore out. If I’d had the right shoes from the start I could have saved heaps of time and energy.

What I was looking for

Okay, I did make things hard for myself. While most other travelers and even some minimalists I’ve read about carry at least 2 or 3 pairs of shoes to cover different situations, my goal was only 1 pair. Backpack weight is primary and I’m willing to sacrifice anything for it.

The criteria for my perfect shoes were:

  • light-weight
  • durable
  • some protection
  • multifunctional ie good for different terrains and climates

Did such a thing exist?

The Contenders

After nearly 2 weeks of research, I narrowed down to 3 candidates:

1) Keen Clearwater CNX


I’d not heard of Keen until Googling positive reviews on multifunctional travel shoes. The Clearwater CNX are slimmed down versions of Keen’s massively popular Newport sandals. The reviews were glowing, painting a picture of a lightweight, rugged shoe that could cope with wet and dry conditions. I was eager to get my hands on a pair.

What I liked best

I instantly fell in love with the CNX’s rugged good looks. They come in lots of different colors but the blue caught me eye. Keen have done a great job of making these so light. Combined with the contoured, comfy footbed and rugged soles I could see myself clocking up some serious mileage in these.


I also loved the amount of protection provided by the closed toe box and the webbing. I’d read reviewers complaining of having to stop to take off the shoe to remove small stones that got inside but I’d be willing to put up with that. In addition, the CNX have a really nice elasticized pull-cord fastening system that’s super easy to use.


The Clearwater CNX would be ideal for both hiking or city walking in wet or humid conditions. Furthermore, the semi-closed design means you could get by in social situations where open sandals might feel too scruffy.

What I didn’t like so much

On the surface these are pretty much perfect travel shoes. The only downside that became clearer was that they wouldn’t be so packable in view of the 20 liter backpack I was going to carry,  especially in comparison to the next two shoes I review below.

2) Xero Shoes Z-Trail


Early in my search  I came across a review on the Z-Trek sandal by Xero Shoes. It was just a piece of toughened rubber with a string fastening – a minimalist’s dream! This was the first time I’d come across the term “barefoot shoes” – something that Xero Shoes champions. Barefoot shoes eliminate the padding and support of regular shoes in favor of closer contact with the ground, thus allowing our feet to flex and move more naturally.

The Z-Trail is Xero Shoe’s upgraded version of the Z-Trek. The string fastening has been replaced by a Velcro strap system and the footbed and sole are constructed using 3 layers of rubber that provide more comfort and durability. Amazingly the Z-Trail is lighter than the Z-Trek!


What I liked best

I actually got goosebumps the first time I held these – they weigh virtually nothing. Unlike the Keen Clearwater CNX, the Z-Trail fit perfectly first time, thanks to the sizing chart on Xero Shoes’s website. The single strap Velcro system is neat too, tightening around the ankle simultaneously tightens across the toes.


The Z-Trails are solidly made and would cope with hiking over different terrains, through water, city walking or just going to the beach. I also loved the bare, minimal design and sleekness of the black version.

What I didn’t like so much

Okay so they don’t offer much protection, though that’s not what they’re designed for. And in cold climates or chilly, air-conditioned places like airports I might have to wear them with socks – erm not one of my fashion looks! Hmm, it’s interesting how the insane lightness of these sandals almost made me want to ignore these things.

3) Xero Shoes Ipari Hana


After trying the Z-Trail, I felt myself moving firmly towards the Barefoot camp. I had concerns about the Z-Trail’s lack of protection, so imagine my interest when I discovered that Xero also make a closed shoe called the Ipari Hana.

Reviews of the Ipari Hana were really encouraging. People raved about the beautiful design and comfort. Although Xero Shoes promote these as casual shoes, people seemed to be using them for everything from hiking to trail running.

What I liked best


I’d been itching to get hold of the Ipari Hana and couldn’t stop weighing each shoe in my hand and marveling at how amazingly light they are. The design too is absolutely gorgeous. I ordered the Black/Rust color which with the orange ribbon of the lacing system is really striking.

The lacing system has been cleverly designed. As well as looking extremely unique, a single strap tightens the whole shoe simultaneously, in a similar way to the Z-Trail.

Putting them on my feet instantly felt at home. As the footbed and sole are completely flat, with no support except for a thin, removable insole, my feet did not have to adjust to irregular bumps or the molded fitting of traditional shoes.

The soles are made from the same toughened rubber as the Z-Trek sandal. I loved the zig-zag design of the tread. Like all Xero Shoes they come with a 5000 mile warranty!


What I didn’t like so much

It was hard to find fault with the Ipari Hana. The icing on the cake would be if they were waterproof, though I hear Xero Shoes is busy working on that .


I had a tough time deciding which of these 3 shoes would be my traveling companion. I really loved the Keens and would probably be traveling with them now if I hadn’t discovered Xero Shoes. Somehow the Xero Shoes were a better match to my idea of what a minimalist shoe should be, in terms of lightness and simplicity. The barefoot philosophy also made a lot of sense and I was eager to experience it.

Choosing between the Z-Trail and the Ipari Hana was proving impossible until inspiration struck. Why not both? My major reasoning for one pair of shoes was weight but the combined weight of the Z-Trail and Ipari Hana was still negligible, infact about the same if not less than just the Keen sandal.

With both shoes I’d be truly covered for all situations plus I loved the option to change shoes whenever I liked. Wearing the same shoes every day for long periods can get pretty boring and isn’t great for your feet!

The Winners (okay so I cheated and chose two instead of one): Xero Shoes Z-Trail and Ipari Hana

Have you been struggling to find the right travel shoes? Please leave a comment if this post has helped in any way or if you’d like to add to the discussion.

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