Earlier this year, I went on a search for the best women’s winter travel shoes. I didn’t find the perfect all-purpose unicorn shoe, but I did try out quite a few good ones. Then I set out to find the best options for warm weather, too. I tested these shoes for five months as I hiked, biked, camped, and explored cities in three countries this spring and summer.
I used the same rating scale as before: a perfect score of five horns signifies a true unicorn, the only pair of shoes you’ll need to pack on your next trip. One unicorn horn signifies a one-trick pony. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad buy—rather that the shoe does one thing very well, but not much else.
Chaco Sandals ($110 and up)
Best For: Everything
Unicorn Rating: 4.5 horns
You could easily get away with wearing only Chaco sandals on your feet and not packing anything else. For years, I’ve hiked for miles on end in my Z/Cloud X Chacos, from rocky scrambles in Grand Teton National Park to ruins in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan, and dusty, steep hills along other parts of the Jordan Trail. If you pick the right pattern or design your own pair, you might be able to pass them off as stylish—even outside the mountain west. As with most truly great pairs of shoes, it does take some time to break in the tough rubber soles to the point where they feel cushy and cradle your feet in just the right way. But once you’ve gotten past that, they’re perfect.
Blundstone Women’s Summer Boots ($165)
Best For: Full-foot coverage
Unicorn Rating: 4 horns
In spite of the above-the-ankle Chelsea style, Blundstone’s Summer Boots are lightweight and breathable. The two eyelets along the arch of each shoe worked wonders to keep my feet comfortable, even on hot days. The elastic gore makes these shoes super easy to pull on and off, and the heel is perfectly cushioned to absorb impact. (Think: sprinting in airports while carrying half your weight in luggage.) I never felt I was going to slip out of these when hiking, and I loved being able to wear a thick pair of socks with them on brisk nights. Another bonus: these shoes pair as well with a dress as they do with jeans.
Birkenstock Mayari ($100)
Best For: Stylish comfort
Unicorn Rating: 4 horns
I don’t think you break in Birkenstocks. I think they break you in. It took a couple weeks for my feet to warm up to the Mayaris, but in the two months since, I’ve worn them nearly every day. The leather straps have become buttery soft and the cork footbeds now feel almost mushy under my toes. They’re best as at-camp shoes and for long days on your feet in paved places—like when I walked all over Jerusalem and spent quite a bit of time waiting in lines to peek at ancient wonders. Without a heel strap, they’re not ideal for hiking beyond flat, well-maintained trails; slopes are tricky at best, and sand and dirt easily kicked up into the shoe, making my feet feel gritty. At the beach, I didn’t even bother walking in them. But for everything else, the arch support is unbeatable. And unlike the classic, much more granola-looking Arizona Birkenstocks, I’d call these fashionable. On recent trips with these shoes, I’ve changed my clothes far more than my footwear.
Superfeet Palisade ($110)
Best For: Great arch support
Unicorn Rating: 3 horns
To be totally honest, I don’t find these shoes particularly cute. It’s a style you really have to own. But they are so comfortable I don’t care. I often have heel pain, and sinking into the cushy beds of these shoes offers instant relief. Superfeet knows arch support, and while shoes are a fairly new endeavor for them, they get them right. I’ve worn the Palisades for long days on my feet while traveling and running errands around town. I’ve also worn them on short hikes—including up some steep, rough lava flows in Albuquerque and along Canyonlands’ Grandview Point Overlook. My one complaint is that these shoes look best when worn sockless, but my feet got really sweaty wearing them barefoot on hot days. I would recommend pulling these on with no-show socks that just cover your heel and toes.
Sole Beach Flip ($60)
Best For: Casual wear
Unicorn Rating: 2 horns
Like Superfeet, Sole also started out with insoles, so the brand has the arch-support game down pat. This year, the brand debuted its first pair of shoes—the Beach Flip. The recycled cork sole is stiff in all the right places, offering the best support I’ve ever experienced from a flip-flop. I’ve found most similar sandals have a sort of expiration date, when they stop being comfortable after a certain distance or your weight compresses the cushioning out of the foam. But once I speed-walked about a mile and a half in these on pavement—and then another mile and a half back—I was surprised to find the molded footbed had cradled my feet perfectly. Especially for a flip-flop, these are excellent all-day shoes.