A Review of Vibram Fivefingers from Someone Who Wore Them before They Were Hipster Chic
I got my first pair of Vibram FiveFingers back in 2009, as I was interested in barefoot walking and running. They were a pair of gray KSOs. While I was interested in the concept of minimalist shoes, I wasn’t ready to hit the trailhead in nothing but the skin I was born in from the ankle down.
Wearing them casually out and about town invariably drew stares and comments. I was not unused to this sort of thing, as someone that used to sport a fare amount of metal in his face; piercings still draw stares here in the Midwest, even now. And it was good practice for living abroad in Southeast Asia this past year. There Caucasian expats inevitable draw stares, once one gets outside the cosmopolitan centers of cities like Bangkok or Sai Gon – but that’s another subject altogether.
I’ve since returned to the United States only to find that Vibram Fivefingers are actually trendy. I really didn’t believe this at first. I didn’t believe because it meant that I was, for once and probably the only time in my life, a fashion template. I was fashion alpha dog; I was ahead of the fashion curve.
This simply doesn’t happen to Jeff Chappell. One is more likely to witness Bigfoot – riding the Loch Ness Monster.
It couldn’t happen … until now.
Before last Friday I had been told by friends that there had been other recent sightings of Vibram Fivefingers. One acquaintance, a long time participant in the fitness industry who frequents the same local coffee shop I do, recently assured me that he returned from a fitness expo this past winter and all sorts of people were wearing them. “It was the first time I had seen anyone but you wearing them,” he said.
I still didn’t really believe it. But then last Friday, while sitting in the aforementioned coffee shop, I saw a hipster kid, skinny-leg emo jeans and all, iPad, the whole nine yards, wearing a pair of Vibram KSOs. I happened to be wearing my Vibram KSO Treks at the time.
No way, I thought to myself. It was the actually the first time I had seen anyone else wearing Vibram Fivefingers. I guess I’m going to have to get an iPhone, iPad or iSomething now.
I shouldn’t be surprised. The terms Vibram Fivefingers drive a lot of traffic to this site. So I guess it’s time for the official Gecko’s Bark review of the, er, shoe.
Going Barefoot or Pseudo Barefoot: Not for the Faint of Feet
First off, if you’re not serious about barefoot walking, running, hiking, etc. – if you think you absolutely need ankle support, arch support, springy soles, etc. (and I’m not necessarily saying you don’t) – then Vibram Fivefingers aren’t for you. Even if you’re a fashion whore, a slave to what’s hip – they are not for you. In truth, they look goofy, in spite of their apparent ascendancy to hipsterism. They feel goofy, too (although you quickly get used to it). They’re hot – hot as in temperature. And they can stink like only synthetic material can stink (which is why I like my leather KSO Treks).
But it’s more than that. If you’ve worn shoes all your life, and then suddenly go out and walk around all day or go for a run in Vibram Fivefingers, you’re probably going to be in some discomfort, if not outright pain. You might even injure yourself. The muscles in your feet are not used to going shoeless – it’s like riding a bike 200 miles a week for months on end and then deciding to go run 10 miles. Yeah, both use your quadriceps, but in different ways, and it’s not the same (I know this for a fact, heh).
Of course, this is the same sort of caveat you’ll find on any barefoot running Website. So, having said all that, I can say this: I love my Vibram Fivefingers. I love being barefoot, or some reasonable facsimile thereof; as you can read in the previous post, teaching English in Thailand showed me that shoes are bullshit. Your feet aren’t meant to be covered in a half inch of foam rubber with your heel suspended higher than your toes.
You may not be convinced, but I know it in my heart of hearts, brain of brains, and, er. foot of feet? Feet of feet? It is true and truth – for me.
Good Foot Covers, But Not a Vibram-Covered Panacea
As for the Vibram Fivefingers, they are the next best thing to being barefoot. Think gloves for your feet. You can wear them in places that require you to wear shoes – but they are not shoes. They provide protection for the bottom of your foot and your toes, but let your foot work like Mother Nature and natural selection – or God in His infinite wisdom, if you’re of that bent – intended. They are comfortable – with some caveats – once you get used to having something between your toes. This does take a bit of getting used to.
One caveat is that they are hot boxes. If it is warm out, your feet will be hot. Granted, they aren’t really any more hot than most athletic shoes or hiking boots, to be sure. But they aren’t as cool as one might think; for me summer days are too hot for Vibram Fivefingers, except perhaps for hikes in the woods when I need more protection than sandals provide. But spring and autumn? Perfect for sporting the Fivefingers.
Another caveat: with the exception of the KSO Treks, which are kangaroo leather uppers, Vibram Fivefingers are all man-made materials: Vibram rubber soles and nylon uppers. Good news for hardcore vegans, yes. But as anyone who has ever worn polyester- or nylon-based technical clothing knows – bike shorts, jerseys, Duofold t-shirts, polypro undies, etc. – man-made materials tend to be funk magnets when you sweat (which is why wool socks and cycling jerseys kick ass).
But, you can toss the Vibram Fivefingers (with the exception of the leather KSO Treks) in the washer and they dry quickly. I used to scrub the inside of my KSO’s and my Flow’s with some anti-bacterial soap and a toothbrush before tossing them in the wash, just to make sure the stinky bacteria would be removed. You could also do what raft guides and kayakers do to sometimes get rid of river funk: soak ’em in something to kill the funk. There are commercial preparations, but I used to use a little white vinegar and water in a bucket sometimes, rather than throwing the Fivefingers in the washing machine.
All three pairs I’ve had held up well; I’ve had no issues with workmanship or manufacturing quality. In fact I wore my original KSOs so much the rubber began to get smooth on the heal and ball of the foot, but the rest of them were still holding strong.
But How Are They Out On the Trail?
Most of the Vibram Fivefingers models have siped Vibram rubber of varying thicknesses; the originals have 3.5mm of TC1 Vibram. Siped means they have a bunch of tiny grooves cut into the rubber to make them more grippy; if you flex the sole of the Fivefingers, you can see these individual grooves.
Some of the other models have slightly thicker soles – 4mm – with little lugs on them. My KSO Treks, for example, as well as the Treksport. These two models also sport an EVA midsole to provide you with a bit more protection for the bottom of the foot from sharp rocks and whatnot.
As noted above, I’ve been the proud owner of three models of the Vibram Fivefingers since 2009, the KSOs, the Flow, and now the KSO Treks. The KSO has that original siped sole; the Flow – the black ones, which is what I had – have a siped rubber as well, but something Vibram calls Idogrip. The KSO Treks, as mentioned, and as you can see here, have lugs that almost look like a hiking boot sole. I’ve hiked on local trails in all three pairs, in spring, summer, and autumn, in dry and muddy conditions.
The siped rubber soles of both the KSOs and the Flow grip better than would think, even on wet slickrock. On wet grass or a muddy trail, they are slippery – about what you’d expect. But then in really muddy, slippery conditions, even heavy, lugged hiking boots are going to slip and slide, so you better have the trek poles handy, or at least a good walking stick. The lugged KSO Treks do provide a bit more grip in slippery conditions; the difference is most noticeable when climbing moderately wet ground – not quite muddy but still moist and potentially slippery; those little lugs actually do help.
Of course the best thing about barefoot hiking is that you can actually use your toes for stability; when you are going downhill a pair of Vibram Fivefingers shine for this very reason. On a moderately wet trail I’d say you even have more control in a pair of Fivefingers than you do even with heavily lugged boots because your can actually spread your toes the way Mother Nature intended and grip the ground.
As for protecting the feet, it’s true that barefooting or wearing something like the Fivefingers, you have to be more aware of where you are placing your feet. They are not the steel-toed, lugged, Goretexed tanks that you may be used to hiking in. But then you should be more aware of where you put your feet anyway, to my mind.
And assuming that you’ve conditioned your feet and ankles to handle barefoot hiking, then Vibram Fivefingers provide adequate protection; the models with an EVA midsole even more so. Occasionally you might find a sharp rock or root underfoot, but again, this is why you have to be a bit more aware of where you are putting your feet.
On the other hand, I feel like there is little chance of my twisting an ankle – less so than in thick-soled hiking boots or athletic sandals – because I’m so aware of the ground (not to mention closer to it) when I hike in my Vibram Fivefingers. Even in my KSO Treks, with the lugs and the EVA midsoles, my feet flex naturally – I can grip with my toes – and I can feel what’s underneath them.
If you’re worried about protecting your shins and ankles from brambles and whatnot, or bugs for that matter, of course you can always wear gaters with your Fivefingers. Now some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, but I need the support of ankle-hugging hiking boots to lug around my backpack and a week’s worth of gear.” Well, if you subscribe to that line of thinking, then no, barefoot hiking isn’t for you. To my mind, if you are carrying around so much weight that you can’t adequately carry it without extra support, then you shouldn’t be lugging around that much weight; you’re asking to injure yourself. But that’s my own personal, humble opinion; to each his own.
Along those lines, if you’re a minimalist weight weenie who counts every gram, the Fivefingers are obviously very light – to find anything lighter you’d have to wear a pair of huaraches, or just go truly barefoot. Furthermore, while the Fivefingers are hot boxes – but then show me a pair of hiking boots that aren’t – you can just walk through a stream or creak and cool off your tootsies, and you don’t even have to take them off. Unlike your heavy-duty hiking boots, Fivefingers dry quickly.
Another bonus for bird and wildlife watchers and photographers: you can be much more quiet slinking through the underbrush than you can with hiking boots. On a hard surface you can even be ninja quiet.
But What About Running?
I confess I’m not much of a runner. Cycling and hiking are much more my things. Every so often I get running bug up my butt and get earnest about cross training and running, but I never seem to stick with it. What little running I’ve done in Fivefingers has been trail running, and pretty much what I’ve said about hiking in them holds true for running.
Of course, if you’ve worn shoes all your life, you shouldn’t just go out one day and try and do your usual five miler barefoot or in minimalist shoes like Fivefingers. There’s a lot more info out there on the actual technique of barefoot running and training.
But I will offer one personal observation. I have walked a lot in my Vibram Fivefingers, and one thing I’ve noticed, either walking or running on a flat surface, is that I still tend to heel strike, but it’s not the pronounced heel strike that I tended to employ when wearing typical athletic shoes. In fact it’s almost a midsole strike, rolling through the midsole onto the balls of my feet, before pushing off with my toes. Barefoot running enthusiasts will tell you too that you should keep your knee bent slightly when your foot strikes; this helps absorb shock. It seems that this came naturally to me, but honestly I can’t say whether it was truly instinctive and natural or I started doing this consciously because I read about it. Either way, *now* it’s a matter of instinct.
If you’re converting to barefoot running, there will be a time when you forget yourself and stomp down on your heel as if you were still wearing your Nikes or New Balance running shoes. It will hurt. You’ll only do this once. I promise.
But What About Socks?
Well, what about them? Some people wear toe socks with their Vibram Fivefingers. But then they are designed to fit snug, like a glove. For me, it’s hard to imagine wearing toe socks, no matter how thin, and squeezing my toes into my Fivefingers. I suppose you could get them a half size big, if socks were important to you. And they would reduce the funk factor in warm weather. Myself, I’ve always worn them au naturel. And my leather KSO Treks remain relatively funk free, as leather shoes tend to be.
Socks with Fivefingers would be nice in cold weather I suppose. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found that anything beyond 50 degrees Fahrenheit – 10 degrees Celsius – starts getting too chilly for Fivefingers, even the Fivefingers Flow with their neoprene uppers. However concrete and pavement tends to feel colder than earth; there were a few times I sported my Flows for a late autumn afternoon day hike, and they were comfortable once I got out on the trail. But walking to the coffee shop from my house would get chilly quickly, after a block or two, in the same temperature.
A Fivefinger Postscript
Okay, there you go. Everything I have to say in 2,000-some words. I challenge you to find a much more comprehensive, personal review of Vibram Fivefingers. You’ve had the long of it, here’s the short of it.
Assuming you like barefoot/minimalist shoe walking/hiking/running and are conditioned for it: Vibram Fivefingers are good three seasons out of the year, although they are hot boxes (and funk boxes) in warm weather. They provide adequate protection for the bottoms of your feet and your precious piggies (toes) while still letting your foot perform naturally – as if you were barefoot. They are comfortable though, once you get used to having fabric between your toes; the leather KSO Treks feel downright awesome. They hold up well and are easy to clean/de funkify.
They also look funky; most models sport some questionable if not butt-ugly color combos. Get used to stares and being the subject of conversation. But then if you’re interested in barefoot hiking or running, being unconventional obviously doesn’t worry you too much – so go ahead and take the plunge and get yourself a pair of Vibram Fivefingers.
One last thing – these foot covers won’t fit everyone; even Vibram admits this on their site. According to other reviews I’ve read, folks who have a long middle toe – the one next to the big toe – have problems getting a comfortable fit.
Myself, I’ve got a good quarter inch gap between my big toe and the next toe, and my feet tend to be kind of wide compared to their length, if buying normal shoes is any indication. I’ve also busted my pinky toes on both feet so many times, there is no third joint in them; they are basically blobs of bone. Yet my Vibram Fivefingers fit well enough and are comfy. Even now they can take a moment or two to get them on, but once on, they feel great.
I should note though that the thick neoprene of my Flows meant that my blobby pinky toes never quite got comfortable, even after I had worn them a few months.
I would suggest trying several different pairs of Vibram Fivefingers on in a store before you buy. Even different models can vary slightly; my KSO Treks I got in a size smaller than my KSOs. Despite being leather, they haven’t really stretched out noticeably.