On a recent cross-country flight, I counted no fewer than five people wearing Chaco sandals. They ranged from sporty late-middle-age women to hip urban millennials with thick eyeliner and skinny jeans. Not a one was wearing fleece. The sightings confirmed something I’d begun recently to suspect: that my family’s favorite sandals—and the favorite of countless river rats, outdoor guides, and adventure dirtbags—have hit the fashion mainstream.
Invented in Colorado in 1989 by a whitewater guide who wanted a burly, open-toed shoe that was bomber enough for rapids and side hikes, Chacos broke the mold with its single, adjustable strap that wrapped around the foot and looped through the sole. This provided a superior, secure fit in slippery conditions, not to mention a badass, zigzagging tan line after a few days in the sun. Manufactured in a small factory in Paonia, Colorado, by river runners for river runners, Chacos were as core as they came.
The five pairs I’ve owned since the early 1990s have seen me through paddling trips down the Green River, slot-canyon rambles in Zion National Park, a rafting expedition down Grand Canyon, and sea kayaking in Baja, plus two serious boyfriends and my husband (who brought a matching pair to the marriage). Like any long-term relationship, though, my love affair with Chacos hasn’t been all roses. The nylon straps can be fussy to adjust, and if I yank too hard, they dig into my instep. The fit is maybe a little too good—sand and small pebbles can get trapped underfoot—and the toe loop available on some models feels less like a strap and more like a noose. But the shine began to wear off after the company was bought by Wolverine Worldwide (parent company of Merrell and Sperry Top-Sider) and outsourced its manufacturing to China.
This year, however, Chaco began building custom sandals in a factory in Michigan. Now you can design your own sandals from the soles up, choosing the model, strap patterns, buckle colors, even stitching. One small word of caution: The choices are so multitudinous that I must have spent at least five hours experimenting online with different combos before I finally pulled the trigger. (It’s hard to tell from the screen what they’ll look like in real life, but my one-off purple-and-blue Window Pane print—purposefully reminiscent of my first pair of Teva sandals, in 1989—delivered in fashion and fit.)
Even my daughters have their own pair (though custom sandals are only available in adult sizes). At ages seven and nine, they’ve been rafting rivers since they were babies, yet their water shoes—Keens, Crocs, Natives, even the snug wader slippers—invariably end up sloshing around the bottom of the raft. Their child-sized Chacos were so tiny! The straps so colorful! The girls strode around the raft like miniature river pros; best of all, they kept them on.
On a June float down the Rio Chama in northern New Mexico, all but two in our group of 16 adults and kids showed up at the put-in wearing Chacos. Good thing, because it was low water, and we were constantly having to climb out of the rafts and into the shallows to push the boats over rocks and cobbles. No stubbed toes or sore feet, and we all came home with killer Chaco tans.