When choosing footwear for canyon hiking, you’re going to want shoes that drain well but still prevent sand from entering. They need to provide good traction over slippery and wet rock and to protect your feet from woody vegetation or cactus if you need to bushwhack. While trail runners, sandals, and boots are all possible options, there some nuances for canyon hiking that you’ll want to consider when choosing the footwear you want to wear.
Most trail running shoes are highly breathable and have porous mesh exteriors to rapidly vent perspiration. However, in canyon country, I’ve found that many mesh trail running shoes let too much sand leak inside, tearing up your socks, and chewing up your feet. Sand-filled shoes can become awkward to walk in, forcing you to stop periodically to empty them out.
What you want are trail runners with a tight mesh weave that is fine enough to keep sand out of your shoes, while still draining well and drying quickly when you have to walk through a stream or river. I’ve had good luck with (non-waterproof-breathable) Altra Lone Peaks and Salomon Speedcross Trail Runners and can recommend them for your use. These trail runners also provide excellent traction on the wet rock (Slickrock) which you’re also likely to encounter.
When you walk through water in the bottom of a canyon, your feet will stir up a lot of sand and gravel. While sandals provide excellent drainage when they get wet and dry quickly, this gravel and sand will make their way in between the top straps and your feet or between your feet and the footbed. I once hiked the 44-mile length of Pariah Canyon in Chaco sandals, and my feet were bleeding under the straps the entire time. Sandals also offer no foot protection when you need to hike over the loose rock, through cactus, or the woody vegetation that’s commonly found in canyons.
Unlined mesh boots can work, provided they also have a dense weave that prevents sand from entering. But I would avoid using leather boots or Gore-tex lined boots because they’ll absorb too much water, especially water that comes in over the top of your ankles and fills them up. Wet boots can become very heavy and you’ll feel like you’re wearing cement overshoes when hiking in them.
I also recommend wearing a short gaiter when hiking in canyons to help prevent sand and gravel from entering your footwear from above around your ankles. The Altra Lone Peak trail runners I recommend above have what’s called a gaiter trap that holds the pack of a trail gaiter in place without an elastic strap. This is an important feature if the trail runners you choose don’t have a distinct arch, but are flat-soled.