Field Testing the Chaco Z1 and Chaco Z2 Sandals
I was at a rather large house party with friends when I made an interesting discovery. We were all wearing Chacos — the climbers, runners, cyclists, river rats and backpackers.
I mentioned it out loud and we all looked fondly down at our feet. Some of us were wearing the Z1s and others were wearing the Z2s — the main difference between the two models is that the Z2s have a toe strap while the Z1s do not.
Then I made the mistake of asking Aidan what he thought of his Z2s.
Katie interjected before he could answer, “F#*! the toe strap!”
“Whoa! What? I love the toe strap!!” Travis defended.
“You can’t hike without the toe strap,” insisted Aidan.
Suddenly, the entire room erupted.
“You can, but you’ll never get those straps adjusted the way you want.” “What if I want to wear socks with my Chacos?” “Just flatten the toe loop!!” “No! Then it’s impossible to pull back up!”
I left that party with more questions than answers. How big of a difference could one toe loop really make? I set out on a mission to find out.
Editor’s Note: For this article we actually tested the Z1 and ZX2, but the only difference between the Z2 and ZX2 according to Rock/Creek is the ZX2 has two narrow straps instead of one wide one. You can see this in the photo below.
Table of Contents
Z1 or Z2: Which Is Right for You?
Are you a river rat or a mountain bum? That’s mostly what it boils down to.
If you want to use your Chacos more for water activities, go with the Z1. If you want to use your Chacos more for hiking and scrambling, go with the Z2. If you just want a pair for daily wear, either will work.
For me, I own both pairs of Chacos and I use both of them pretty equally. When I hit the water, I wear my Z1s. They have firm enough traction that you don’t bust your butt on slippery river rocks (most of the time) and they are loose enough that they don’t catch too many small pebbles underneath.
When I’m going for a hike, I wear my Z2s. They hug my feet tighter due to the toe loop. They are snug and form-fitting, making the arch support more appreciated. I even feel comfortable running short distances in them.
When it comes to other adventure sports, skiers love the Z1s because there isn’t a toe loop. After a long day of skiing and after finally removing those boots, its nice to be able to keep your socks on. But, my cyclist friends like the Z2s because they are easy to throw on but snug enough to wear for quick commutes. As for climbers, many I know prefer the Z1s as a shoe for short approaches because it’s easier to take on and off at the crag.
Editor’s Note: For climbers and boulderers looking for a good approach shoe for long, strenuous approaches, the Z1 isn’t ideal. In this scenario, the Z2 is actually the better choice of the two since it’s better for hiking. However, Chacos aren’t designed for climbing so I recommend instead you take a look at our list of top approach shoes.
Notes about Camping with Chacos
Because of the ease with which the Z1s come on and off, and because they are so easily worn with socks, they are my go-to camp shoe as well. In the world of car camping, these shoes are a delight. They are like awesome rubber slippers.
Z1 vs. Z2: Which Is Best for Hiking?
To test the Chaco Z1 sandals on the trail, we hiked the classic Mist Trail loop in Yosemite National Park. It is a 6.7 mile trail with a total elevation gain of 2,437 feet.
For the Chaco Z2s, we hiked the 5.7 mile out-and-back Engineer Mountain Trail near Durango, Colorado. The route summits the peak of Engineer Mountain at 12,968 feet and is more technical than the Mist Trail. The total elevation gain is 2,333 feet.
Hiking in the Chaco Z1s
It was a bit brisk outside so I donned a pair of hiking socks with my Z1s. Being able to do this is one of my favorite perks about these shoes.
Most of this trail being granite rock and well-packed dirt, the walking was easy and I had no problems with traction. However, more times than I’d like to admit, I stumbled over various rocks and obstacles. Even with a proper fit, I find that the fronts of the Z1s stick out further than your typical pair of sandals. It take some adjusting in your hiking form to get used to.
During this same hiking trip, my boyfriend Taylor wore his Z2s, which I believe to be more stable. He never tripped and made sure to giggle-snort when I did.
My socks were able to prevent any rubbing or blisters, despite the moderate trail length. I felt slight discomfort only during the descent of the hike. Taylor did not wear socks, nor did he receive blisters. Taylor has weird, gnarly endurance runner feet.
Hiking in the Chaco Z2s
I knew this would be a tricky climb so I threw my Salomon trail runners in my backpack just in case. That’s right, O ye of little faith. I really wasn’t certain if I could hike this entire trail in my Z2s.
However, I chose this hike in the Z2s for a reason. I knew it was a stable shoe, but I wanted to know what it could really handle. The Engineer Mountain trail is highly trafficked and hard-packed, but the final pitches of the ascent are very slick and vertical.
I did not trip once during the approach up to Engineer Mountain, despite our brisk pace and the fact that we began our hike before sunrise. The presence of the toe strap makes a significant difference in stability.
Once I reached the base of the mountain, there were difficulties. The traction on this shoe just wasn’t cutting it on the steep and slick gradient. I was rolling over the loose scree like they were marbles and working significantly harder than I normally would wearing my trail runners.
Eventually, the trail became too slick and the consequences of a fall too high. For the final pitch, I paused the Chaco experiment and threw on my pair of Salomons. Ahhhhh.
I did throw the Z2s back on for the descent, and they performed fantastically, flexing underfoot and comfortably supporting my arch. The Chaco Z2 is the go-to hiking sandal, but I’m not interested in summiting any more mountains with them.
Z1 vs. Z2: Which Is Best for Water Activities?
The river section of our testing took place on a section of the lower Animas river. The river was running at around 800-850 cfs for both days, perfect conditions for tubing.
Floating in the Chaco Z1s
I tested the Z1 sandals first and it started off pretty rough. Before tightening the straps, I lugged my tube into the river and immediately bust my butt. So much for optimized wet traction.
From then on, however, the experience was all uphill. The shoes performed well throughout the day’s activities, loosening only a few times in the heavy current. The most impressive moment came when it was time to scout a more technical rapid. We eddied out and climbed a moderately steep ridge while lugging the tubes. The shoes performed fantastically, gripping the slick, mossy rocks better than I anticipated they would. Even without a toe strap, the shoe kept me stable over the wobbly terrain.
Occasionally, I experienced what I refer to as the Lego Effect. This describes the incredible ease with which a pebble can painfully wedge itself between your foot and your Chacos. The Lego Effect is unavoidable with both the Z1 and Z2 models, but much easier to fix with the Z1s.
The rest of the float went on without a hitch!
Floating in the Chaco Z2s
After the learning curve of floating with the Z1 Chacos, I set out on the same route with the Z2s. At the put-in, I avoided descending the slick rocks and climbed down a more sandy patch, with the straps firmly cranked down. We set off with ease and the general activity of floating was without problems.
However, the few times that we were required to scout or stop at a beach, the Lego Effect was fierce. The current would suck a pile of rocks and gravel underfoot. Since the Z2 is so form-fitting, I almost always needed to remove them to dump out the rocks. I’d rather go barefoot than battle this all day.
The nice thing about the floating with the Z2s on the river was that the straps never needed adjusting. These things were staying on my foot no matter what.
Similarities & Differences: A Closer Look
Beyond the presence or absence of the toe strap, there are very few differences between the Z1 and Z2.
Both of the shoes we tested are part of the Classic Pro model, though you can now purchase the Z1 and Z2 with ChacoGrip or EcoTread (see below). Both possess a polyurethane midsole and both are part of the Yampa traction series.
What does all of this mean? Berne Broudy from Backpacker Magazine described the Pro series well as:
“a sole that bites into micro nooks and crannies underfoot—in and out of water—almost as well as a climbing shoe, and is even more durable than previous models.”
At the time that both of the tested pairs were purchased, this was the best sole available. It is made from a sticky Vibram MegaGrip rubber, which is a fancy way to say it has great traction for a sandal.
Since then, Chaco has started to make their own rubber sole, the ChacoGrip. It is said to be the most optimized sole engineered to date, designed for extreme conditions and wet traction. It’s supposed to be more durable and versatile.
The EcoTread is a fairly new one as well, named for its sustainability and quality as a “lightweight rubber compound made from 25% recycled rubber content for performance that’s hard on the trail and easy on the environment.”
Foot Width & Arch Support
Both the Z1 and Z2 possess a polyurethane midsole that give each that significant arch support that you want out of a hiking shoe. Likewise, both Chacos can be custom ordered to fit a wider foot.
The Break-in Process & Finding the Perfect Fit
When you first try on a pair of Chacos, you may hate them. It takes a certain amount of patience, commitment, grunting and tugging to achieve your perfect fit. These straps do not move easily and this is intentional. This is referred to as sticking and is the reason why once you achieve your perfect fit, it will stay that way.
The quickest recommended way to get them adjusted to your perfect stickiness is to get them wet. Walk in them, sweat in them, run through a stream or two. Let the straps flex, stretch and pull.
Because of the toe strap, it does take longer to achieve the perfect fit with the Z2. However, once you do, it is more secure.
Blisters & Callouses
The first month of owning a pair of Chacos may not be very fun. There will be blisters, hot spots, and sunburns. Skin will slough off and blood blisters will pop at inconvenient times. But hey, you’ve broken in a pair of hiking boots before! Consider it a rite of passage to achieve those epic Z tan lines.
If your feet sweat a lot, they will around in these sandals. I’ve received the worst blisters on days where I hike long distance with wet or sweaty feet. But bonus – They will probably form fit to your feet a lot quicker!
As you could imagine, the Z2’s more complex straps are more difficult to un-stick. Here are instructions on how to un-stick your Chaco straps if they get stuck.
If you are unsuccessful in un-sticking your sandals’ straps, Chaco can do it for you. Just mail in your pair using the Repair Authorization form. Voila!
What Other Chaco Owners Are Saying
- “I bought the Z2s since they’re more stable and better for hiking. They work great, but what I didn’t realize is that, with all the straps involved, you really have to get a good fit if you want to avoid getting blisters. I can’t walk but a couple miles in mine before I start getting hot spots.” — Alex Beale, owner of 99Boulders
- “The Z2 Chacos are solid for a day on the river. The sole is sturdy enough for sections where we need to walk and the shoe doesn’t feel too heavy. I dig the strap system because it’s fairly easy to adjust once you do get them broken in. I keep my toe strap flattened down but it’s nice to have it accessible.” — Travis Crafton, recreational river rat
How We Compared
In order to truly test the Z1 and Z2 Chacos, the plan was simply to go out and do.
As a longtime Chaco wearer, I had already walked hundreds of miles in both pairs. The first trip I took my Z1s on was a 16-day sailing trip through British Columbia. The first trip I took my Z2s on was a 14-day whitewater kayaking trip on the Green River in Utah. It’s important to note that both of the shoes tested for this article had been extremely well broken in.
To test how the sandals performed for hiking, I spent two days hiking exclusively in Chacos. For the first hike, I wore only the Z1s and for the second hike I wore only the Z2s. I then compared both experiences, analyzing what differences existed in functionality, versatility, traction and comfort. Terrain included mud, sand, granite, concrete, and soft gravel.
To test how the sandals performed for water activities, I spent two separate afternoons floating on the water. I wanted to compare how well the Chacos would perform over slippery river rocks, on loose terrain and with a swift current. The flow of the Animas river where this testing was performed ranged from 800-850 cfs.
I’ve got to give mad love to the riotous group that started this debate. Hundreds of hours went into the “research” of these Chacos and hundreds more will be logged in the future, no doubt.