I set out to find the single best shoe for men to wear when traveling. I searched the internet immensely for the answer – I looked for best travel shoe, best overall shoe, best shoe, what’s hot now, what are the all time classic shoes. I looked at the Reddit forums, professional shoe sites, other packing blogs, professional review sites that occasionally cover shoes, ordinary customer reviews. I reduced everything to a score and put it all into a spreadsheet to see how it stacked up.
I ended up with a list of 178 individual men’s shoes made by 93 different shoe companies. There were sneakers, boots, sandals and Oxfords; space age Nikes and traditional shoes unchanged in hundreds of years; steel-reinforced clompers and shoes weighing a mere 290 grams.
From this list, with the help of my rankings, I made a long list of twenty shoes:
- Adidas NMD R1
- Allbirds wool runners
- Arcteryx Norvan
- Birkenstock Arizona Sandal
- Clark’s Desert Boot
- Cole Haan Zerogrand
- Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars
- Danner Mountain 600
- Keen Voyageur
- Lems 9 to 5
- Merrell Moab
- Moto plain toe Oxford
- New Balance Minimus Trail 10
- Nike Free
- Onitsuka Tiger
- Red Wing Iron Ranger
- Timberland White Ledge
- Vivobarefoot Ra II
- White’s Oxford
- Xero z-trail
I looked in depth at these twenty shoes. I looked at the individual reviews for each of these shoes to learn if people like the shoe on a basic level and what were the specific complaints. I looked at whether the shoes were ethically made and what they are made from. I looked at the history of the shoe, its durability, its price. I looked at the features of the shoe and assessed how versatile it would be – if you could wear it for any situation. In my spreadsheet, I included all this extra data and ended up with a short list of six shoes:
- Adidas NMD R1
- Allbirds wool runners
- Cole Haan Zerogrand
- Merrell Moab
- Red Wing Iron Ranger
- Vivobarefoot Ra II
Of these, the Vivobarefoot Ra II seems to me to be the best travel shoe and scored highest in my rankings. That is the shoe I chose for my packing list.
Conflicts. None of the links in this post are paid links. However, certain of the links in my packing lists – including the link to the Vivobarefoot Ras – are Amazon affiliate links. I will receive a commission if you click these links and/or buy the shoes through that link.
If you’re here, you’re probably looking to buy a new pair of shoes. However, let me briefly advocate for that favorite pair of shoes currently in your closet. That pair fits you perfectly and doesn’t hide some defect that will surface when you’re a thousand miles from home. That pair is free and much better for the environment than even the most sustainably-produced new shoes: making that shoe requires no processing or chemical waste, no animals are harmed, the carbon released in delivering them to you is zero, and keeping that pair on your feet means two fewer shoes in the landfill.
With that said, at some point everybody does need new shoes and, if that’s where you are right now, it makes sense to choose a really great pair that you will love and wear until they are full of holes. As I say, I’ve tried to go through everything on the internet to try to find the best pair of all-around men’s shoes if you only buy one pair.
From my r/onebag spreadsheets, I know that there are four broad types of shoes that onebaggers pack: (a) sneakers, (b) office shoes, (c) hiking boots, and (d) sandals.
Sandals are generally brought as the second shoe in a packing list – that is, a lot of guys will wear, say, a boot most of the time but pack a pair of sandals for the shower or the beach. It’s a large minority of men that do this – I think 22 of 77 men’s packing lists that I’ve reviewed through June – but a minority nevertheless. For this post, I won’t be looking at that option – I’ll be assuming that you bring one and only one pair of footwear with you. So, in addition to spare-sandal-packers, this also excludes all those men who bring two pairs of shoes, like a pair of sneakers for working out and a pair of nice shoes for dinner and sightseeing. An even smaller percentage in my lists bring two or more pairs of non-sandal shoes – probably less than 10%.
Sandals are not always brought as the second pair and there are a few high performance sandals like the Xero Z trail that people will use as their one and only shoe. Indeed, there are some destinations where you will stand out if you’re not wearing sandals. As a result, a couple pairs of sandals made my long list. It’s an outside position though and, by the time my short list was ready, all the sandals had been eliminated.
That leaves sneakers, work shoes and hiking boots as the main categories. The merits of these three camps is a frequent topic of discussion on r/onebag and people are fairly religious. You can’t really convince a Nike Free devotee to switch over to Lems 9 to 5s.
Speaking for myself, when I was younger I wore sneakers – Adidas Sambas – exclusively. At that time, finding pickup soccer games was of outsize importance to me and, besides, I didn’t go anywhere where Sambas would raise any eyebrows. Now that I’m older, however, I want a pair of shoes that’s appropriate for work and nicer restaurants. I’m not too concerned about pick-up soccer these days, although I still need to walk long distances.
Ideally, there would be a shoe that combines all these categories: a shoe that performs like a mountain boot but looks like an elegant work shoe and that you can also play pick-up soccer in.
There are some shoes that aim to do this or almost do this. In particular, this seems to be the transparent ambition of the Cole Haan Zerogrand. It has the sole of a sneaker but a leather upper. If you get it in all-black and sort of squint at it, then people might think that you are wearing swish office Oxfords. Zerogrand is on the short list but ultimately I concluded that it’s a sneaker and a little outlandish for work.
Maybe there is no single shoe that does everything – a shoe that’s elegant and good-for-walking but also good for high impact sports. A few people I have talked to have dismissed the idea that you might travel with one pair of shoes and look even minimally appropriate. This was true in my initial google searches too. I wanted lists of the best all-around shoe but google kept pointing me towards lists of the best running shoe for short distances, best hiking boot, etc. It was really hard to find someone saying that one shoe in particular was better than all the other shoes.
I think we’re all being pushed in the direction of more and more shoes. Presumably, humanity went hundreds of thousands of years with zero shoes and then invented the shoe around 8000 or 7000 BC and then for a few thousand years everyone had one pair of shoes each. Surely the shoes of our ancestors were good enough for whatever it was that came up: a few scuffles, a ton of walking, wine-and-cheese evenings, etc.
It’s someone’s job to grow the shoe market and part of that job is to convince us that we will look like a fool if we show up to a formal business meeting in a business casual shoe. It’s like Thorstein Veblen is always saying “[o]ur dress, therefore, in order to serve its purpose effectually, should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labor.”
So I think, contrary to marketing, it’s fine to expect your shoe to be appropriate for the full gamut of human activities and that it’s actually a pretty new idea to think we must wear different shoes for hiking and going to church.
For me, the simple, minimal Ra is that single shoe that accomplishes all your main human activities tolerably well. If you’re not office shoe inclined, I think any of the shoes in the shortlist would be fine as your one and only pair of shoes.
The winner: Vivobarefoot Ra II
Based on those recommendations, I’ve read and watched substantially all the reviews of this shoe out there on the internet. The consensus is overwhelmingly positive. The most frequent comment is that the Ra is a good all-around shoe, that it’s versatile. People agree that the shoes are comfortable and well-designed and most people think that they look good in all casual and business-casual settings. Several of the reviewers wore the shoes all day for months at a time with not much soreness or discomfort.
Reddit. None of the 77 men’s packing lists I looked at included the Ras, although a similar Vivobarefoot shoe, the Gobi II desert boot, was brought by three men. No other individual shoe had more than this, although the Adidas NMD also had three.
The Vivobarefoot Gobis also have very positive reviews and the Gobis were close to being my top choice. The Gobis and Ras seem very similar: they are made from the same materials (including “”wild hide” Ethiopian leather) in the same place and they look pretty much the same. The main difference is that the Ra is a low cut blucher and the laces look a little different. I eventually opted for the Ra instead of the Gobi because I think the low cut is more versatile – I think it looks better with shorts and suits. It also looks like it would be a little more secure when tied.
Complaints. Although the consensus was positive, there were complaints too. The negatives in order of frequency were:
- Price. €135.
- Looks. The Ra looks very casual when placed next to a beautifully crafted shoe like an Oxford from Moto. Also, the Ra has a very wide toe box, which is good for your feet but looks clownish. Some people wore the Ras to weddings, while others said they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.
- Durability. The Ras look quite tattered after a few months and pick up dust easily.
Ethics. My impression is that Vivobarefoot is a highly ethical company but I’m not that confident in my research in this area.
I used the same research process on each of the twenty companies that made my long list, which included the following things: I read the company’s own sustainability page, I did a general google search of their ethics, I looked if and how they were rated on the two un-paywalled ethics rating sites I have found – Good on You and the Australian Shop Ethical – and I looked to see if they were members of two ethical manufacturing clubs – the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Leather Working Group. If there was any information on the particular shoe itself, I factored that in, including materials that I recognized as particularly sustainable or unsustainable. At the end of all this, I assigned that company’s shoe a score out of twenty based on my impressions.
But, as Immanuel Kant said in Metaphysics of Morals, ethics are always mega mega complicated and even more so where shoes are concerned. For most of these companies, the manufacturing process has become highly complex across many countries. Several shoe companies have shoes that are made from recycled materials, like plastic bottles for instance – but remember that a lot of processing is required to turn a plastic bottle into a shoe – a lot of chemicals, a lot of energy. Bamboo, for instance, used to be hailed as a highly sustainable material but recently people are questioning if the manufacturing process is sustainable even if the bamboo itself is a nice, plentiful, natural resource.
There are attempts, like the Higg Sustainability Index, to decide which materials are ethical and which unethical. Again, it’s complicated because these shoes are mostly made out of many materials, which I mostly can’t place on the index. If you’re interested in the materials, according to this article, hemp and linen are better than most materials. The Vivobarefoot Gobi has a hemp edition, which looks interesting.
There are endless complications. The environmental impact of shoes includes release of pollutants, deforestation, overuse of water, use of fossil fuels, use of pesticides, etc. It’s not just the environment that is a concern but also treatment of animals and labour. We should really consider the environmental impact as the shoes are manufactured but also what happens when we throw them away.
All the big companies, like Nike and Adidas, seem to put a good amount of resources towards improving their operations but my impression, mostly confirmed by Good On You and Shop Ethical, is that the big companies are not usually the best. There is inevitably a large amount of pollution when you’re producing millions of shoes inexpensively.
The sustainability darling of the companies I reviewed seems to be Allbirds, for whom sustainability is central and ingrained. Allbirds shows up in everyone’s list of ecological shoe companies. Other shoes that get mentioned a lot in a favorable way (as much as Allbirds and more than Vivobarefoot) are Rothy’s and Everlane.
Vivobarefoot seems pretty ethical. The founder, Galahad Clark, is a member of the Clark Shoes family dynasty and he tells a pretty good story about starting Vivobarefoot along principled ecological lines.
As for the Ras specifically, they are made of leather, which is itself another a complicated ethical issue. The Ras are made of leather from Ethiopian cows, which they claim is ethically raised for meat, making the leather for the shoes a mere byproduct.
Barefoot. These are barefoot shoes: there’s no cushioning, just a thin strip of tough rubber. The claim is that these types of shoes are better for your feet than heavily structured and cushioned shoes – that they actually reduce the amount of foot and leg injuries.
I’ve switched over to barefoot shoes for running and I believe all the hype. I run a little more gingerly than I did in my Asics. I slowed down when I was switching over but now I don’t have to cut my runs short or run slower because my feet hurt. I think that barefoot is a better, healthier, more natural way to run.
Moreover, I think barefoot shoes are aligned with this packing list project too – simple, no-frills and minimalistic.
Not everyone will like the Ras and the following five shoes have the highest ratings on my spreadsheet after the Ras.
Adidas was the most popular brand in the Reddit packing lists: 10 of 77 Redditors packed some kind of Adidas. And, of those 10, the NMD was the most popular individual Adidas shoe with 3 Redditors.
The “NMD” stands for “nomad” which I think aligns pretty well with the onebag aesthetic. This shoe is supposed to marry new technology with a slightly retro or classic look. The reviewers like this shoe and they think it is very comfortable. Some of the pure running shoe sites criticize its performance as a running shoe but I expect that it is more athletic than most of the shoes on my list. If you’re a professional marathon runner, you probably won’t buy this shoe for training.
The Allbirds were second place in my rankings behind Vivobarefoot. They were mentioned by four packing / travel blogs. Three of 77 people in r/onebag included some kind of Allbirds in their packing lists, one for Wool Runners, one for Tree Skippers and one person didn’t specify.
Reviews for Allbirds range from positive to ecstatic. The Wool Runners are very light and very comfortable, they can be washed in the washing machine, they can be worn without socks, they’re produced very conscientiously, and they look pretty good – all around they are a great shoe choice for onebaggers and for everybody.
They are second in my rankings because they’re a little less versatile than the Ras. They are a clear sneaker and you couldn’t really wear them to a button-down office or with a suit. Like the Ras, there is a durability issue – they look quite tired after a couple months’ steady use. Here is a recent r/onebag discussion of Allbirds against Vivobarefoot in which the Gobis / Ras come out pretty well.
I myself have a pair of these and I like them. My complaints are that they now they have a bit of a stench no matter how many times I wash them and they’re not great for walking long distances.
As I say above, Allbirds are leading the pack for sustainability among the shoes discussed here. They scored a stand-out “B” rating at Shop Ethical, their sustainability page is excellent and even the packaging is minimal and eco-friendly.
As discussed above, the Zerogrand wingtip oxford approaches our sneaker / work shoe problem directly: it’s a fancy Oxford upper grafted on to a obvious sneaker sole. It was identified by three separate blogs as a good option, although no one on r/onebag brought this shoe.
The reviews generally agree that the Zerogrand is comfortable and works well as a running shoe. It had a good popular reception with 2.8 million pairs sold in the first year. However, like me, some reviewers thought that the Zerogrand is on the outer limits of good taste and might well fade quickly. Cole Haan seems about average in terms of sustainability.
The Merrell Moab was mentioned by six of the websites I read but none of the 77 Redditors brought this.
The individual reviews I read were generally favorable and, if you favor boots over sneakers or work shoes, then I think this will be a good option. The consensus is that it’s a tough, comfortable shoe. Price is not heavily weighted in my rankings but, for what it’s worth, this is the least expensive of the six shortlist shoes at around €106. There’s a huge range of Moabs, including a brown leather version (pictured) that I think is pretty presentable. Some of the other options look like they’d be out of place unless you’re on a hiking trail.
The downside of the Moab is that it’s a big boot. It’s not great for just chilling in city cafes or the office or going to the beach. Specific complaints from the reviews are that it’s not breathable enough and it’s not great for running. Also, Merrell is not good at shipping outside of the US.
Merrell seems good in terms of sustainability – I would say that it’s in the top 20% of the companies I looked at.
There is a subreddit called r/goodyearwelt that is devoted to boots and shoes (“goodyear welting” is a way to fasten the upper to the sole invented in 1869). The r/goodyearwelt Redditors are interested in classic shoes using techniques honed over many years. They have a beginners guide listing out the shoes they recommend, with the cheapest being a couple hundred dollars all the way up to Vibergs for more than $700.
I included a few brands recommended by r/goodyearwelt on my long list – Danner, Moto, Red Wing and White’s – which looked good to me. None of these goodyearwelt shoes made it on to my list using my original search methods. That is, they’re not too popular among the ultralight travelers in Reddit or the listicles I read or the blogs. The one exception was Danner which was mentioned by a couple sources.
I wanted to include a goodyearwelt shoe on this list because I think it might be a good option for some people. They’re beautifully made, classic shoes that last for years and years. All the companies have compelling histories – Red Wing supplied shoes to American troops in the world wars. If you’re only going to own one pair of shoes, you could do worse than the ones on the r/goodyearwelt list.
Of the four goodyearwelt brands I looked at carefully, Red Wing seemed like a good choice and I think the Iron Ranger boot is Red Wing’s signature shoe. It seems to be the favorite of the subreddit with many glowing personal reviews.
The drawback to the Iron Ranger – and all these goodyearwelt shoes – is that they are big and heavy, clunky: a great big chonk of shoe. They mostly don’t go with shorts or the beach and I expect they’re quite uncomfortable in hot weather. Some of them do have rubber soles like Vibram but I think you’d be hard-pressed to play sports in these. They are also expensive – €278 for these and it’s easy to spend more than that on the other brands.
But they’re great for hiking and outdoors work and look great – better every year. I think there is a good sustainability case to be made for proper shoes too. They are made by artisans, using traditional methods and natural materials. I think there is some evidence that these shoes are sustainable simply because people have been making them in this way for hundreds of years. The idea is not that you wear them for a year and throw them away but that you repair them and this alone is a huge improvement in terms of sustainability.
Thank you for reading. Please get in touch with any questions or comments.