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The 2024 Ugliest Outdoor Shoe Award

For achievement in making us all say "what the hell?"

Today on THE ROCK FIGHT (an outdoor podcast that aims for the head) we hand out the prestigious Ugliest Shoe of 2024 Award.

There have been plenty of ugly shoes that have succeeded in the past because while they may not have been lookers, they served a real purpose.

And then there are those that straight up look bad and leave us all wondering simply... why?

Today THE ROCK FIGHT goes deep into the recent history of ugly shoes and declares a winner of the ugliest shoe of 2024.

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Episode Transcript

Colin (00:00)

Welcome to the rock fight where we speak our truth, slay sacred cows and sometimes agree to disagree.  This is an outdoor podcast that aims for the head. I’m Colin True. And today we’re talking about ugly shoes!  It’s actually a little deeper than that so stick around.

Couple of things before we get into the ugliest kicks of them all!

Please make sure you are following the rock fight on whatever podcast app you are listening to us on and apple podcast listeners, don’t forget, we need YOU to leave us a 5 star rating and written review. After you leave that review tell us about it at my rock fight at gmail dot com and we’ll send you a rock fight or gear and beer sticker! Also keep tabs on the rock fight by signing up for rock fight’s newsletter. Head to rock fight dot co and click join the mailing list. And lastly do you want to hit up the show? Follow us on instagram at rock fight do co and send us your emails to my rock fight at gmail dot com. 

Alright, we’re going to pay the bills and start the show.

Last week on LinkedIn I posted a picture of a new sandal released by Adidas and I just went digging around on the internet to try and find the model name so I could link it in the show notes but I can’t find it.  I did find that Adidas has a shit ton of sandals. Jesus. How many freaking sandals does 

A. Adidas sell and 

B. do we actually consume? 

Most people I see wearing sandals are middle aged white guys in cargo shorts and big baggy t-shirts.  Is there a secret hive of sandal wearers out there that I don’t know about? And how can I tell them all that a pair of flip flops and Bedrocks is all that they actually need? I have so many questions.

Anyway I posted about these sandals because they’re terrible.  Like objectively ugly.  And not in a ‘that seems like a design that just didn’t work out ugly’ more in a ‘is this a design from 1994 that they decided to make today ugly’.  My caption in my post read: Adidas gets a head start on the competition for the prestigious Ugliest Shoe of the Year 2024 award.

The sandal itself is kind of a hybrid sneaker design. Midsole, outsole like a sneaker and while the fabric in the upper is also akin to a sneaker there are designed holes in the upper that definitively make this a sandal and make this a definitively ugly shoe.  

If that were it I probably wouldn’t have posted about it. No, it's the finishing touch of bungee cord wrapping around the entire shoe that can be cinched down back by the heel that pushed this into the realm of required ridicule for me.

During my time as a tech rep at Timberland I remember that we dabbled in some shoes like these with features that presented like they were functional parts of the shoe but really it was just the designer getting cute and giving the consumer- that is all about technical stories in their outdoor products- something to get excited about. Sales reps are often happy to have something different to say about a product when pitching dealers, even if deep down they know it’s bullshit, and retail buyers will sometimes oblige and give something different a try if their shoe wall has gotten a little stale.

But as a tech rep, where there is no commission upside, I would get the raw unfiltered feedback from dealers and consumers if something was horrible. So maybe I’m a little more conditioned to value style and clean aesthetics that blend seamlessly with functionality.

The recent release by Rabbit running is a good example of this.  Overall it’s a little me-too when compared to brands like Hoka and Skechers, but for a first shoe entering a crowded space, me-too isn’t a bad play and there’s nothing about the shoe that makes me say ‘oh, I’d never wear that’ which is honestly a great place to start if you’re going to pick the fight of getting footwear placement. Also I’m working to get some from Rabbit on the show to talk about this. Stay tuned!

Now all that said there was a window when weird and ugly won the day. In 2009 we got the brand launches of both Altra and Hoka as well as the beginning of the peak of Vibram Fivefingers. 

Altra looked weird because of the foot shaped toe box.

Hoka looked weird because they looked like they were built off of something that the spice girls had worn on tour in the late 90’s.

And Fivefingers, well, they just looked weird.

I hope people remember how much these three brands impacted the vanilla world of athletic footwear 15 years ago.  I was working at a Boston based retailer in 2009 and while yes the Born To Run craze was fueling barefoot runners to run around Boston in Fivefingers; there were also just as many people coming in to buy every color way and wear their Fivefingers like they’d wear their Air Force Ones. 

For Altra,  If I could make one universal change to all running shoes it would be to apply the foot shaped toe box.  Between merino wool socks and that toe box so many foot issues that runners face would be instantly eliminated but we’ve been conditioned that running shoes need to look like they could also  double as a witches boot. The only other brand to figure this out from what I can see in the market is Topo Athletic, which also launched around the same time as Altra by the guy who put Fivefingers on the map.  What a weird incestuous world this is.

And what more can I say about Hoka? A brand that started with perhaps the ugliest shoe of them all that now is blazing hot across the board and making billions of dollars.

The ugly craze paid off. But it didn’t last long. 

Fivefingers left as quickly as it came and thanks to big corporate overlord acquisitions with more experienced design and manufacturing teams both Altra and Hoka became much more palatable. 

But the biggest reason ugly won the day? True function.

People wanted to run barefoot without cutting open their feet. We have a shoe for that.

People wanted to midfoot-strike and not get black toenails. We have a shoe for that.

People wanted something that could help them run with their old wonky knees. We have a shoe for that. 

So at a glance these shoes were ugly. But they have a story and a proven purpose.

That’s why I had no problem poking fun at adidas. Those sandals were technical for the sake of being technical with no real purpose to justify the cost and impact of making them. Now I get that if your shoe looks dope as hell.  But when it’s all those things I just said and it looks terrible? Bad form.

And all of this is leading to my second nominee for the prestigious ugliest footwear of the year 2024 award.  Hold on I have to look this up because the name is a mouthful that reads like an eye chart.

The Merrell 1TRL Men's Hydro Moc AT GTX SE x MINE77.

I’d encourage you to google this thing so you can see it for yourself, but basically the shoe is Merrell’s Hydro Moc, which is their version of a Croc that comes with a slip in gore tex liner. 

Looking at this shoe brings two things to mind, either of which is a massive red flag and yet this shoe somehow checks both of these boxes. 

The first is simply a classic:  Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. But the second is the one that I think means the most here: This is a non-solution that is searching for a problem.

The best outdoor products are mission driven. What is the problem you are trying to solve for a specific set of outdoor circumstances?

According to their website Merrell claims that this collaboration with Burton, see it gets better, this thing is the child of two big outdoor brands,  is, and I’m reading the copy on Merrell’s website here, the Merrell incubator meets the Burton Snowboards innovator. Led by a shared passion and mentality for the future of outdoor expansion.

Look if that future of outdoor expansion is a Mad Max style wasteland where circumstances have arisen where you need both a water permeable shoe with holes in and a waterproof liner then sure let’s talk about that.  But not only is this shoe a sight to behold, there is no real world application for something like this especially at $250. Which is really what it costs.

I’m not taking shots for the sake of taking shots, as much fun as that can be sometimes. And despite all my criticisms, duds happen all of the time.  Again back in my Timberland days there were plenty of times when something that  I got excited about in the design phase proved to miss the mark entirely when the shoe was actually made.  That Adidas sandal? Probably something more like that.  

On paper you had a functional sneaker/sandal mash up with a couple of design differentiators and when that first sample arrived back at HQ there’s a collective groan let out that it wasn’t what they were going for but now we’re too far along in the process to kill it so, let’s put it out and hope for the best.

The Merrell/Burton frankenshoe? There is no way that’s not a mistake from the start.

And that’s a sign not of bad designers but poor leadership or brand strategy. And as much as I want to find a way to put myself in the shoes of those who made this and understand what they were trying to do, I simply can’t.  

There is really no function here and even if you have found a way for something like this to be useful  there is a better and cheaper alternative. A pair of echo lockdown crocs goes for $90 and a pair of Sealskinz waterproof socks goes for about $50. So for $110 less you can get something that will arguably look and perform better.

And let’s not even try to pick apart this thing from a fashion perspective.

What’s the so what of all of this? It’s that there needs to be a balance between trying shit and leadership at brands not being afraid of saying ‘no’. If you put me in charge of either Burton or Merrell today, one of the first things I would do is find out how this happened and potentially make some organizational changes. 

Brands are still so stuck on trying to crack the code on the next big thing instead of investing time and money into making the things we already make better.  Hopefully that evolves in short order.

Now, there is a defense here and it’s nothing to build a strategy around, because brands need to have a hardened point of view when it comes to the products they make, but this is the wild card. And that wild card is: We never really know what people are going to want.  

Put aside my hyperbolic takes on a product or brand like Crocs. When I hate on Crocs , ultimately that’s just me wanting to believe we’ll come to our senses because, when Crocs came out EVERYONE made fun of them.  We all believed they’d be a fad and either evolve into something more aesthetically pleasing or possibly would just go away. Because you have to admit that if you like Crocs, one reason is that they’re weird and different. And for whatever reason that is what won out. 

Let me put it more simply, if you were placing bets with your own money in 2003 on whether or not Crocs would thrive and go one to become a billion dollar brand. Even if you adored the product, you would not have placed that bet. Not a chance.

But that was for a sub $100 product that had the potential to cross over into the mainstream, be for everyone from babies to nurses to residents of nursing homes and everything in between. In this case? We’re talking about a $250 super technical mash up that doesn’t even have a core activity to endear itself too. Because its technical proficiencies are at odds with each other, a literal and physical oxymoron.

So perhaps these catch on with the Mad Max cosplaying crowd and all of a sudden we start seeing them at comic-con every july.  

In the meantime, I’m calling the race right now and giving the prestigious ugliest show award 2024 to the Merrell 1TRL Men's Hydro Moc AT GTX SE x MINE77. I just can’t imagine anyone knocking them out of the top spot before the end of the year and I hope I’m not wrong.

That’s the show for today. Please send me your footwear feedback! I want to hear from designers and developers and category managers. This is your chance to be heard on the rock fight and pick your own fight. What is outdoor footwear missing? Am I wrong about these shoes? Sned your rock fights to my rock fight at gmail dot com.

The rock fight is a production of rock fight llc. I’m colin true. Thanks for listening.

And here to take us out is the two time rock fight composer of the year for 2023 and 2024 it’s one of the lead singers of less than jake, it’s chris demakes. And he’s gonna sing the rock fight fight song for you, right now! We’ll see you next time rock fighters!


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