Branca Barefoot Running Sandals Review (Minimalist Sandals)
Fortunately for those interested in minimalist shoes, we're seeing not only an explosion in closed toed minimalist footwear, but we're also able to choose from an ever widening selection of open toed sandals inspired by the huarache sandals made famous in Born to Run. I've been running in Branca Barefoot running sandals or "Brancas" for a few months now, and I have found them to be excellent running sandals with several advantages over homemade huaraches.
Ordering your Brancas
There are several choices to make when ordering your Brancas. First, you can choose from among three different models. The original Brancas have flat, rubber soles with your choice of 14 colored footbeds and 20 differently colored laces. The leather Brancas (the final, non-prototypes) feature a brown leather footbed atop a 5mm Vibram Newflex rubber sole (here's a pic of it) with the same selection of colored laces. The heel straps on both models are available in either black or brown leather or the black elastic rubber I tested. As of this writing, there is a limited number of a third model of leather Brancas with perforated leather footbeds. Just to be clear: I tested both the original Brancas and a pair of prototype leather Brancas (not the perforated versions):
Sizing is customized to your foot's dimensions. When ordering, you provide the measurement from the the location where the laces will go between your first and second toes to the back of your heel. When you receive your Brancas, they come pre-laced, and you complete them by simply tracing the front of your foot and trimming away the excess material (The above photo shows a pair of Brancas pre-trimming).
Brancas are similar in design to huaraches you might make yourself. They feature thin, flat soles with no arch support or unnecessary padding to get you as close to a barefoot experience as possible. However there are several unique features which set Brancas apart from homemade huaraches. Most huarache designs include an exposed knot on the bottom of the sole. Not only is the knot subject to wear, but it also might be uncomfortable for runners depending on a variety of factors such as lacing material and sole thickness. On the Brancas, there is no knot. Instead, the laces are threaded through a hole in the sole and affixed flat to the underside. For my Brancas, a patch was used at this point. However, all Brancas shipping today have switched to a spray-on polymer which is reportedly (according to Brant at Branca) more abrasion resistant. The absence of a knot eliminates a potentially uncomfortable bump under your foot and provides a better solution for wear and tear.
Another difference between homemade huaraches and Brancas is the design of the ankle holes. Instead of simply using two holes at each ankle to secure the laces, Brancas use durable eyelets punched into wings on the sides of the soles. This has two advantages. First, the laces do not come in contact with the ground and therefore aren't subject to abrasion, and second, the wings allow the sole to cup your feet for a tighter fit while reducing the smacking sound created between your foot and sandals when hitting hard surfaces.
Another great feature of Brancas is the lacing method. Lacing for huaraches can be challenging for some with many variations and subtle adjustments to make; however, lacing your Brancas is as simple as tying a pair of shoes. Plus, you can keep the laces tied (When you take them on or off) once you have them set/tightened to your liking. Unlike huaraches, switching out the laces isn't as easy as it would require undoing their attachment at the bottom of the sole.
My favorite Brancas design feature is the heel strap. Independent of the laces, the heel strap firmly locks your heel in place thereby preventing your foot from slipping off the back of the sandal thanks to it being made from an elastic, one-inch wide rubber. Slide your heel firmly in into the heel strap, tighten the laces, and you get a perfect fit that won't slip during runs. The elastic rubber simply stays put on your foot.
Running in Brancas
I've been running for several months on a variety of surfaces switching between the original Brancas and a prototype of the leather Brancas. I now have a few hundred miles of running in my original Brancas, and I have found them to be very comfortable. I even bought a second pair in a different color to add a little variety. My original Brancas are beginning to show some wear on the footbed as shown in the photos below. The wear only affects the aesthetics and doesn't impact their function at all. The patches on the soles are beginning to break down, but they should be good for many more miles, and the rubber soles show no wear. Perhaps the newer version of the Brancas with their spray-on polymer will be an even more durable solution for securing the laces.
My prototype leather Brancas differ from the release version only slightly. Unlike the release version of leather Brancas, my prototype pair uses the patches on the soles to attach the laces, and my pair has a flat rubber sole like the original Brancas. The biggest improvement of the leather Brancas over the original Brancas is the leather footbed. The leather footbed is a much better surface for two reasons. Not only is it more durable, but it also conforms to your foot over time while feeling great against your skin. After about a hundred miles of running in my leather Brancas, there is zero wear, and they continue to be extremely comfortable. The leather upgrade is well worth the cost for prolonging the life of your Brancas. I suspect the Newflex soles are also an improvement over the flat soles by adding extra grip on loose surfaces.
Brancas are an excellent option for someone thinking of trying huaraches but hesitant to tackle a completely do-it-yourself project. The Brancas give a great open toed, custom huarache experience with added advantages over homemade sandals. The original Brancas are an excellent introductory pair of running sandals, but for those planning on going the distance, consider getting a leather version for the added durability and fantastic feel.
Pricing, Availability, Measuring/Wearing Videos
Brancas are available directly from their website for $40 for the originals, $74 for the leather Brancas plus a bonus pair of original Brancas, and $97 for the limited edition perforated leather Brancas plus a bonus pair of originals Brancas.
Finally, here are a couple videos from Run Branca on tracing your foot for ordering and then customizing the Brancas once they arrive: