The sunlight warms the pasty skin beneath my toenails as I feel my toe-hairs rustle gently in the springtime breeze. After many months trapped inside closed-toed, sock-stuffed, freedom-restricting shoes, my feet are released, yet again, into the world. It’s a sunny March day in Seattle, and I’ve decided it’s officially Chaco season.

For the uninitiated, Chacos are the first indicator that you’re encountering a river guide or Outward Bound instructor or summer camp counselor or dirtbag (climber or otherwise). These clunky pieces of sturdy footwear are like a badge of honor for any outdoor enthusiast. With full Vibram tread, you can grip on everything from a wet raft to the rooty, rocky PCT, and after breaking in your feet they’re just comfortable enough to basically live in for the summer (and also spring and fall, and winter if you’re not averse to frostbite).

A study in opposites. Embrace the dirt, or keep it out. Either way works. Photo: Justin Housman

Chaco wearers are ranked by the darkness of their Chaco tans. For those double-strap Chaco fans, distinct lines for each strap earn you extra accolades. Climbers commonly compare tan lines after cragging sessions, silently judging one another for the lines of melanin etched in their skin. Don’t believe me? A quick search through the 15.5k photos tagged #ChacoTans on Instagram might change your mind. I even know of a few nameless individuals who have taken their early-season feet into a tanning salon with Chacos for the sole purpose of deepening tan lines. Some people would call this cheating. Other people would call it genius.

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Regardless of where you are on the #ChacoTan scale, you have likely dealt with what I like to call “Chaco Creep”: the slowly-restrictive migration of your straps through your sandals to a point where one part, or all parts, of your feet are being “choked out” by the strap. This reality is especially acute for those sandals with toe straps (like the one pictured above), and while completely unscientific I think it’s worse if you have double straps too.

So how can you avoid this heinous reality?

Rub a little dirt on it.

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No, but seriously. I know that’s a thing people say when they’re sarcastically trying to tell you to toughen up, but in this case it’s a thing. Over time your Chacos, like anything, develop wear spots, and this happens quickly with the straps. Unfortunately for your feet, this happens where the straps want to be, not necessarily where your feet want the straps to be. Over time the straps contained inside the shoe compresses as it’s smushed smaller, and the straps outside expand as dirt intertwines itself into the woven fibers. Once the “tipping point” is reached, the straps won’t accept new positioning because inertia; objects stay in motion and all that nonsense. In this case, dirty objects stay dirty and external to your shoe, and smushed objects stay smushed because being hidden is most comfortable. No amount of pulling will fix the fact that your straps will migrate back to what is most comfortable and you won’t be able to feel your toes after 30 minutes of wear.

How do you avoid the dreaded Chaco Creep? As this is a How-To article, I have a few steps:

• Obtain New Chacos: The “rub some dirt on it” trick really only works when you get new kicks. If you have an old pair laying around you can try this, but really, it probably won’t work. Because of what I said above. Inertia. It’s the worst.

• Set them up as desired. Adjust Obsessively. You have a small window with your new sandals to get this right. First, pull on the straps to a) figure out how the hell this origami system works, and b) get them set up in the desired positioning. Then, go for a walk. Stop after 10 minutes and adjust again. Walk. Adjust. Rinse and repeat.

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• Finalize Strap Position. Get ‘em Dirty. You have found a state of foot homeostasis. STOP ADJUSTING. This is nirvana and you have found it. Put on another pair of shoes (I know, I know) and walk outside until you find a pile of dirt; tacky mud is even better. Place your Chacos face-down in dirt pile you found and rub the mess into them. I get that you don’t want to “ruin” your new shoes. Trust me, you’re saving them, and besides, they were bound to get dirty anyway. Pick your Chacos up and then throw more dirt/mud on them, careful to rub the gritty goodness into the straps right where they meet the footbed.

The goal of this exercise is to mimic the early development of the Chaco “tipping point” in order to ensure the placement of strap positioning in your favor for future enjoyment. By getting it dirty, you are creating a physical dirt barrier to prevent future strap creep. Now you have the freedom to go where you want, tan how you want, and slip those shoes on and off with ease, freeing your toe-hairs to blow endlessly in the springtime breeze.

p.s. Savvy readers will point out that you can achieve the same result with superglue. This is the truth, but if you ever want to make an adjustment again you are SCREWED! So, don’t do that.

This post originally appeared on Kristina Ciari’s website, Occasionally Epic

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