Huarache sandals solve a lot of the issues that minimalist footwear enthusiasts love to hate about regular shoes: they have no heel, they are thin and flexible, they have no toe restriction, and they can be made to fit any foot no matter how gangly the shape.
Since their inception, Unshoes has been working towards making the purchase and use of huarache sandals a no-brainer. They have always used flat webbing for comfort, and eschewed the requirement for complicated lacing patterns or a knot under the toe. Additionally, they were one of the first huarache companies to develop designs that don't require a strap between the toes (although they do have between-the-toes designs too).
In the huarache world, the traditional process of getting a custom fit involves purchasing a sheet of rubber and some lace, tracing your foot, cutting it out, then punching holes and threading the laces. This method, while economical, is not without problems. At every step of the process, there is the opportunity for the purchaser to make a mistake and end up with a sub-standard product.
For people who aren't into DIY shoe fitting, an alternative is to trace your foot on a sheet of paper, scan it, and send it to the manufacturer to build the sandal for you. This process becomes essential when the sandal design uses more sophisticated lacing systems as many people do not have the skill or tools to do it themselves. This approach does have it's downsides however: the burden of custom work falls on the manufacturer, which means you either pay a lot more for the sandal (you are paying for someone's time), or the manufacturer doesn't make much money. Either way, the manufacture of a completely custom product is difficult (at best) for a business to sustain, and scale.
Unshoes has spent a lot of time thinking about this problem, and has once again innovated.
Instead of completely custom, or completely standardized, Unshoes has taken a hybrid approach: foot templates. For each shoe size (from Women's 5 to Mens 13 including half-sizes) you download a PDF. The PDF has templates for eight different foot shapes (marked as A thru H). The templates also show where the straps are attached to the footbed. All you need to do is print the templates and stand on them to figure out which one best suits the shape of your foot.
This new fitting process has a number of advantages: as a customer, you don't have to figure out how to trace your foot and email it to them (which can be problematic if you don't have easy access to a scanner or fax machine). All you have to do is communicate a template number, and Unshoes knows immediately what you are talking about. From a manufacturing standpoint, Unshoes gains in efficiency. They no longer have to transfer your foot tracing to the rubber sheet, nor do they have to figure out where the lacing will go - all of that work has been pre-done. All they have to do is cut out the template you specify and away they go. It is a win-win for everyone, the customer gets a custom fit at a reasonable price, while Unshoes gains efficiency and maintains their ability to scale and maintain some profit margin.
My Unshoes Experience
This past fall, Unshoes sent me a pair of Pah Tempe for review. As a result, I was able to experience the whole fitting process first-hand. Since I already have a couple other pairs of huaraches with a lace between the toes, I opted to try the Pah Tempe with it's non-between-the-toes design. I selected the 8mm Vibram Newflex sole as a good all-around outdoor sole. From the Unshoes website:
The PT (Pah Tempe) sandal was designed to perform better in water and steep terrain than the traditional huarache. The PT was the first minimal sandal without a strap between the toes. This sandal is perfect for steep and technical terrain, and situations where lateral movement is required. It is also perfect for those who don't like anything between their toes. Although the strap goes over the toes, it is designed to allow the toes to splay as needed.
Due to the timing of the seasons, and the fact that we are going to be taking off on a thru-hike in a couple months, I have not had the opportunity to do more than carpet testing with these sandals. Therefore, consider this article not so much a review, as a preview.
The fitting process was painless. I printed out the PDFs and was easily able to find a template that closely matched the shape of my feet - I settled on a size 9.5 with the H template. It was very helpful to see the strap attachment points on the templates, as it helped me to better discern wich templates were clearly not appropriate. Overall I was very impressed with the fitting process.
Of course a process is only as good as the end result it produces. When I received the sandals and tried them on for the first time - that was the moment of truth. The fit has turned out to be very good. The strapping feels secure, comfortable, and not restricting. Based on my experience, the fitting process is not only simple, it provides a remarkably good customized fit as well.
The primary design characteristic of the Pah Tempe is the fact that there is no strap between the toes; all the strapping attaches along the sides of the foot. Additionally, Unshoes has refined their design such that the straps do not thread through the sole. Instead, the straps are now attached to the sole using flat screws with nuts that look kind of like rivets. Unshoes has found this new attachment system provides better durability because there is less wear on the straps and no large holes in the rubber to tear.
The strapping system of the Pah Tempe feels really good. The wide webbing is soft and comfortable against the skin. The strapping across the top of the foot and around the ankle really lock your foot in place without restricting the toes. Of all the huarache sandals I have tried, the Pah Tempe has one of the most secure heel locking designs I have ever used. The combination of security, comfort, and toe freedom is a tough line to walk, but based on my initial testing, it seems as though Unshoes has managed to strike a nice balance.
The real-life durability and security in actual trail conditions has yet to be tested. I like where Unshoes is headed with their designs - the pseudo custom fit via the template system is a great idea. The fit feels really good. Overall, the Unshoes Pah Tempe feels like a winner, and I am looking forward to putting them through their paces on the trail.