Keen sandals: Ugly but seriously functional

After a few steps, your perspective on summer footwear might change—forever
Keen newport sandals
Photo: Chris Hunt

I got my first real look at Keen sandals when a buddy of mine from Sandpoint visited Idaho Falls one spring. Loren was a tireless Trout Unlimited volunteer, and a rabid angler—he’d fish for anything, anytime. So when I suggested we hit the Snake River in search of carp, he was enthusiastic.

“Do I need waders?” he asked, and then looked down at his feet. “Or will these do?”

“These” were a classic pair of Keens, complete with the bulbous toe, the corded canvas straps, and the flat, gray sole. My God, were they ugly. And looking at Loren, adorned in a pair of well-worn cargo shorts, a wrinkled light blue (that likely used to be dark blue) fishing shirt, the footwear seemed appropriate for the laissez faire look—it was an indifferent approach to fashion. My friend also wore his hair an impressive gray ponytail, which only added to the weirdness of the ensemble.

I guarantee you there’s not another construction contractor for whom this is the “default” outfit. And, frankly, from within my snooty — yet evermore appealing to the eyes — Tevas, I told Loren exactly what I thought of his footwear.

“Do those things come with a free bowl of soup and a tetanus shot?” I asked.

He didn’t take offense. He just nodded and smiled.

“Clearly,” he said, “you’ve never worn a pair.”

He was right. And, clearly, in my mind, I never would. I’d not be caught dead in those damn things, not by my fishing buddies, not by my neighbors while out mowing the lawn. Not by anybody. If I were in a car accident, I’d be perfectly OK being caught with dirty underwear as opposed to being witnessed wearing Keens when rescue personnel opened the vehicle with the Jaws of Life and dragged my corpse onto the gurney. They were, in my humble estimation, clown shoes that simply fit better and didn’t come in bright red.

And then I received a pair as a gift. Size 13. Battleship gray. Ugly as sin.

How do you turn down a gift? I feigned gratitude. Several “thank yous” followed by a “I’ve alway wondered how these things fit,” and a crafty, “I have pretty finicky feet—not just any footwear works.” I figured I could at least hedge my bets.

“Oh you have to try them on!” the gifter gushed to me enthusiastically. “They are supposed to be the most comfortable sandals ever.”

I looked them over skeptically. I slipped out of my Tevas — and I’m not badmouthing Tevas, just to be clear. My feet, already striped with tan lines from the current pair of sandals, slipped into the Keens and … listen, I’m not saying I heard angels sing, or that colors suddenly appeared more vibrant, or that I could smell the cut of meat the neighbor was grilling two doors down … but after just a few steps in these sandals, my perspective on summer footwear changed. Forever.

No, I still don’t think they’re terribly appealing. They just aren’t. But function is vital over form, particularly for a guy who eschews socks from about mid-April until the first snow flies in October. There I stood, one step closer to footwear perfection, which, in turn, gave me an ever-so-slightly better understanding of the meaning of life.

OK. That’s a little dramatic. But sometimes, something as simple as perfectly fitting footwear really can make a difference in one’s entire outlook.

I really do have bad feet. I have since high school, when varsity basketball wore down my ankles and high arches contributed to things like stone bruises and blood blisters. Finding shoes that fit well without the help or orthotics is virtually impossible.

Often, particularly in summer when I’m walking trout streams or, if I’m lucky, wading flats or balancing on the bow of a boat, I’ve found that less is more. Sandals and flipflops comprise my footwear lineup. And nothing — nothing — has managed to match the butt-ugly Keens in terms of sheer comfort and functionality. I’ve waded tropical flats wearing Keens (against the advice of many, mind you—but they don’t walk with my feet). I’ve hiked mountain trails to above-timberline lakes in Keens. I’ve played pickup basketball and beach volleyball and even waded a grayling stream in Gates of the Arctic National Park in a pair of Keen sandals.

Today, I own three pairs of Keens — all generally the same “model.” I have my original pair that I received as a gift well over a decade ago. I have a newer pair—probably two years old. And I have a pair that I found on clearance in an Anchorage outdoors store several years back (one of the best bargains of my life). The oldest pair shows some wear, obviously. The odor-fighting sole has, over time, become less effective. Scratch that. They stink. The Vibram tread is worn flat in most places, particularly under the balls of my feet. The stitching is giving away in a few spots. They look a little haggard, honestly. But they are perfect. I wear them still.

No, I’m not terribly evangelistic about my Keen footwear. I know they don’t look particularly stylish—my kids equate them to “old man” shoes. I remember watching my dad mow the lawn in a pair of worn-out work loafers and black socks, and I imagine how I giggled back then is probably how my kids giggle at me today when I wander through the day wearing an ugly pair of Keens.

Trust me, if they weren’t the most functional footwear I’ve worn, I wouldn’t wear them. They are the epitome of “fugly.” I get it.

While guiding a press tour of Colorado and New Mexico one summer some years back, my buddy Kirk Deeter—who was then writing for Field & Steam— and I managed to wear two identical pairs of Keens for the better part of two weeks as we traipsed the wilds of the Alpine Triangle and the wandered into the Gila backcountry in search of wild, native trout. We had a young intern on trip, and one evening around a fire the intern noticed that both Kirk and I had the identical tan lines atop our feet from our Keens and wondered who on earth would let that happen.

And, of course, he let us know what he thought about our sandals.

“I don’t remember stopping by a Salvation Army store,” said. “Where did you two find those hideous sandals.”

Kirk and I looked across the campfire at one another. He nodded and looked at our intern.

“Clearly,” he said. “You’ve never worn a pair.”

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Comments

I have been the proud wearer of keen sandals for more years then I care to remember. I don’t know just how many pairs I have destroyed over the years. I have them on my feet all summer long for years. As for ugly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But then I am not a fashion statement. If you haven’t tried them they are the best. That big toe will save you a lot of grief .

I kinda agree with you about the Keens...however, mine came unglued! I was/am real disappointed. I hoped that a high quality sandal like this would be stitched throughout! I was surprised to read your article, and wonder why your’s didn’t come apart!
Oh, well...enjoy! (Good article!)

I would add, that, in addition to two pairs of these, I have several other pairs of Keen shoes/boots, and all are very comfortable to wear.

Honestly, I virtually don't wear any footwear if it isn't either Keen or Merrell.

I've had a pair of Newports over 15 years. Mine just came unglued. When I started the stink after I spent a whole day in a rainstorm I met him. I don't know if it was the foot bed liner or the neoprene inside them. I got a new pair of h2s and the foot bed is a rubber material that I hope won't stink.

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