The History of Chaco Sandals

The History of Chaco Sandals

by Mark Paigen 6 minute read

My love affair with functional footwear and biomechanics started in the late 1980s. I was living in western Colorado, trying to bring together my passion for footwear and the outdoors...

Guiding on The Gunnison River

Spending the day in wet running shoes was definitely not the answer. I loved my job as a whitewater/fly fishing guide, but my feet were as wrinkled as raisins. Any grit in my shoes wore holes in my soggy skin. Working on the river was heaven, but my feet were in hell. There had to be a better way. A few guides wore early Teva sandals; one had Alps. Made with synthetic materials, these sandals didn’t trap water and allowed your feet to dry in the sun. Great idea. So simple. I had always thought of sandals as leather. Changing the materials created a new kind of shoe. I was hooked.

The History of Chaco Sandals – The Early Years

The “sport sandal” concept was great, but the execution – not so much. Neither Tevas nor Alps supported your feet. Neither used quality materials. I had ideas. With a background in custom shoe making, my mind was filled with ways to improve amphibious footwear. I knew I could take sport sandals to a higher level. My plan was to focus on 5 key points:

  • Synthetic materials
  • Anatomical strap placement
  • A continuous pull-through strap
  • Top shelf components – especially outsoles from Vibram
  • No Velcro

I made a few pairs for myself. The pull-through strap was time consuming to make but held my feet really well. The design used a single plastic buckle, no Velcro. Instead of my feet softening from being wet, they toughened up as they had time to dry. Sand was removed easily with a dip in the river. Interesting tan lines developed on my feet.

A Boatman’s Holiday

Guiding was great. Some trips were whitewater oriented, but the focus was shifting to fly fishing. I learned how to read the water and cast a fly. We guided a Gold Metal trout stream in a beautiful, isolated gorge. A pristine river with stunning side canyons and abundant wildlife. Rowing the raft, educating the clients, sleeping under the stars. It was tons of fun. I had a big beard and small, dark sunglasses. I’d pull my brimmed hat down to keep the sun at bay. Clients always had questions. What do you do in winter? Is it hard to row the raft? How deep is the water?

Sometimes we made up stories, mostly we just told them the truth about life in rural, western Colorado and the combinations of jobs that kept us going. Carpenter, landscaper, caterer, tree trimmer. I kept busy.

Clients also asked about gear. If a guide had something, it probably worked. They asked about my sandals. I explained my background in custom shoes, my obsession with improving the concept of sport sandals. They wanted some. At the end of the 3-day float, I would trace their feet on paper on one of the raft floorboards and go home and build them a custom pair. $30. Postpaid. The history of Chaco sandals shows the passion I have towards quality foot products.

Starting a Business

The difference between a river guide and a US savings bond is that after 20 years, the savings bond matures and starts to earn money. After five years of guiding, the writing was on the wall. It was time to find a better way to sustain myself. I had kids.

Start a business, I thought. It will be easy. Not really. But with lots of energy and the desire to make the best sport sandals on the planet, I began building footwear in a spare room in my house. Sales, marketing, manufacturing, distribution? Not a clue. Drive, passion, a bit of hubris – in spades. I threw a few pairs in my pack and drove over the hill to the outdoor shop in Glenwood Springs, CO called Summit Canyon Mountaineering. I found the owner and showed him what I had made. He bought a few pairs and gave me great feedback. Other small shops bought product and helped educate me about retail business. Seasonality, margins, and payment terms. Trade shows, reps, accounts receivable – it seemed endless.

Out of the Box

The most common sandals in the early 1990s were Teva Universals, a Velcro-based sandal that sold easily. Whitewater shops put them in baskets on the floor and customers bought them – self-serve. The pull-through straps on Chaco sandals were not as easy. Adjustment was not intuitive, and the sandals had to be fitted by a salesperson. Some shops were hesitant. There weren't enough Chaco sandals in use.

In 1991, we switched from fabricating each footbed by hand to having them molded out of polyurethane. The mold cost was huge; our volume did not justify the expense. But the product was infinitely better. Way more comfortable, much better looking, much easier to make. With the comfort of polyurethane and a better presentation, sales picked up.

The Origin of the Z/1

The whitewater community, blossoming in the ‘90s, started talking about Chaco. The official history of Chaco sandals had begun. As we grew, we got requests for an open-toe design. Guides wanted a sandal that would hold the foot as well as our original toe-loop designs without having their big toe strapped in. In 1993, I found a German-trained Pedorthist to help solve the problem. I was sure it involved strap placement, but I was proven wrong. I learned that straps are not the only way to keep a foot centered on a sandal footbed. The right kind of arch support aligned the foot and kept it from sliding off the outside edge of the sole. I learned about biomechanics, pronation, and how to support the foot for maximum efficiency.

My mentor and I worked in his shop, making plaster molds, vacuum-forming EVA foam, and creating prototypes. A happy mistake led to the raised heel posts that effectively stabilized the heel of the foot. We realized that we were creating a sandal with a ‘generic orthotic’ built into the design of the shoe. It had an aggressive arch support. We had no idea how many people would like it. We didn’t know that it would change the way people understood comfort in sandals. We took our best model and sent it off to have a mold made.

A New Standard

It took a couple of iterations to get it right. When we were confident that the sandal was ready for customers, we ordered a size run of molds. We had to come up with a name. Names are the hardest part. Out hiking with my best friend, he put on his cheesiest French accent and told me that the sandal should be named Z/1 because it was “Zee One!” Sounded pretty lame to me, but I had nothing better. Z/1 it was.

Z/1 became the new Chaco standard. Within a few years we dropped all our flatter footbeds and concentrated on “Zee One”. The values we had started with were alive and well in the product. Now we added a highly contoured footbed – with an arch support that turned customers into advocates.

History of Chaco Sandals

Values-Based Business

There were other things about Chaco that resonated with customers. We were the only company to build our sandals in the USA. Our sandals were re-soleable. Everyone else made throw-away product. We donated heavily to social and environmental causes and wore our values on our sleeves. Chaco wasn’t for everyone. Prices were higher than the competition. Distribution was through specialty retail, not big-box stores.

But we were growing quickly. The large chain retailers knocked on our door, but they just didn’t feel like a cultural fit. There was certainly heated discussion internally. Growth is intoxicating. We held our line. We weren’t the biggest sport sandal company, but were the strongest at specialty retail. Our sales meetings were still river trips. Our factory in Paonia, CO was a big part of a small community. We paid people to ride their bikes to work and to quit smoking. It was rewarding to grow a business based on quality and values. It was a great time.

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