Many moons ago I lived in a pair of Chaco sandals, almost year round, save for specific pursuits like climbing or more involved hiking. Around 8 year ago I was well into a transition to minimalist shoes for hiking and backpacking, and the changes that wrought in my feet made the arch support Chaco used and still uses intolerable. So the Chacos went on the shelf, and in my dislike of shoes I went from sandal to sandal searching for something that was as quality as Chaco, but lighter and less structured. Nothing came close to doing that, to put it mildly. Nothing until this year, when Bedrock Sandals came out with their Cairn.
Billed as a minimalist sandal that can handle hiking the Te Araroa, the Cairn is as close to an ideal hiking sandal as I can imagine. The vibram rubber is grippy, but wears well, and the tread pattern blends grip in loose stuff with plenty of rubber contact for good friction on slickrock. The midsole is stout enough to smooth out the spiky rocks, with a good and even flex. It’d be nice to see something similar in trail shoes, though I expect the Cairns to outlast most if not all trail runners. Bedrock just released the Cairn Pro, with an even stickier rubber compound, that should go over very well with river runners and strong footed canyoneers. Were I not so happy with the plain Cairn rubber I’d almost have to try them.
The strapping has a range of adjustment and has been easy to use. The ladderlock buckles and webbing are a very tight fit, and while they can be hard to work when clogged with sand, that they do not slip in the least strikes me as a worthy tradeoff. It took me a little while to get used to the toe post, and still find it uncomfortable during steep slickrock sidehilling. I’m not sure if there is another way to make a minimalist sandal, but I wouldn’t mind more forefoot anchoring.
Adjusting to actually hiking distances of consequence with the Cairns has been a process. The first time I wore them all day was on the floor at the OR show back in January, and that night I woke up at 0300 with calf cramps. A month ago I wore them for a 9 mile dayhike, while carrying Little Bear as I almost always am, and had fairly hammered calves and shins for 4 days. This past week I notched my longest sandal hike yet, 11 miles over varied canyon terrain, and at last had no soreness specifically related to footwear. 11 miles isn’t all that far, but clearly I’m going in the right direction.
As an experiment the Cairns have been a success. In the past few years, as real minimalist hiking shoes have become more difficult to find, I’ve become accustomed to more structured shoes with more drop. This isn’t a bad thing, especially with heavier packs having become the norm, but there is also no question that it has made my legs weaker. I’ve had achilles issues intermittently over the past few years, and throwing true minimalist footwear into the rotation has been part of the plan to address this.
As pictured above, I’ve worn Injinji toe socks with the Cairns for every walk over a few miles. M has used Chacos as her primary backpacking and hiking shoe for a decade or more, and finds the protective layer socks provide essential. I see no reason to disbelieve this, and have found the Injinjis up to the task of dealing with sand, mud, and scree. The only limitations I see for sandal hiking generally, and the Cairns in particular, is the lack of sidehilling stability for really rowdy terrain, and whatever ceiling I might personally have for acclimating to using them for big mile days. Hopefully my body will continue to adapt, and I’ll be able to enjoy the free feel of sandal hiking for an ever wider array of trips.