Hiking with Vibram Five Fingers: Test Drive 1

Why Vibram?

I’ve tried myriad hiking boots and shoes and gotten nothing but grief from my feet in the form of deep-seated blisters that seem to form next to the bone and then make their way to the surface a month later as separated layers of skin, like discovering that your feet are made of fillo dough. I’ve been the most comfortable in Keen sandals (they are my default shoe for all applications), but they have stretchy laces that allow one’s foot to move around and have sub-optimal traction. Since moving from shoes to sandals yielded a drastic improvement in comfort, this seemed like the next logical step.

But You Pronate

I pronate. A lot. When wearing shoes, whether it be for running, elliptifying, hiking or even just standing up for a while, I have to wear a custom-molded orthotic, lest the outside of my foot start to hurt. I don’t have a problem with sandals and flip flops — footwear with no motion control — but I do wear the outsides of the soles off. Pronation

Depending on your school of thought, that makes me either a great candidate for non-shoes or a terrible candidate for non-shoes.

Which Vibram?

Vibram Spyridon

Vibram Spyridon

First, I bought Spyridons from my local REI, which I chose for three reasons.

  1. I could have them immediately and try them out before the next weekend’s hike.
  2. They have plating in the bottom to minimize bruising from stomping on rocks. I do AT hiking, and the AT route in Maryland appears to have been chosen for maximum pointy rock coverage.
  3. They have velcro instead of laces, which I thought would be more secure since the laces on hiking shoes need constant tightening to prevent one’s feet from sliding about.
I wore them around the office for a day, and I discovered that they’re hot. In an air-conditioned building! Socks are necessary to keep your feet from being uncomfortably sweaty, but the thinnest Injinji sock Vibram sells is still too thick to be crammed into a Vibram shoe along with your feet.
Vibram TrekSport Sandal

Vibram TrekSport Sandal

They were so hot that I ordered a pair of TrekSport Sandals because they have holes for venting. I’d initially avoided them because I didn’t want rocks getting into my shoes and I didn’t want laces that would loosen themselves, but there’s no way I could wear the Spyridons in the summer. After a great deal of disappointed googling (other people seem think that the thin Injinjis are thin enough), I found AFX toe socks, which seem to be the thinnest thing available. After wearing an Injinji on one foot and an AFX on the other and walking around the house in the Vibrams, I concluded that they are ever so slightly thinner.

Prep

Vibram suggests that you engage in a multi-week transitional program to rediscover your foot muscles, starting with sitting around in their shoes, then walking a little bit, doing foot exercises, massaging them, etc. I’m impatient, and I spend the bulk of my time barefoot or in sandals with no support, so I decided I could skip that. I walked on a treadmill for half an hour without issue, then I went for a short test hike.

Terrain

With my Keens strapped to my hydration pack in case of disaster, I hit the perimeter trail at Greenbelt Park, a 5.3-mile natural-surface trail with light hills. Nothing challenging, but more realistic than a walk. I went sock-free for maximum ventilation.

I walked on:
Vibram trail sand packed dirt and sand

Vibram trail rocks rocks, which I stomped upon with the middle of my arch to see how protective the footbeds are
Vibram trail roots roots sticking out of the ground, which I took care to straddle with my foot to see how protective the footbeds are
Snake I nearly stepped on a snake while scanning the wilderness for a tree to pee behind.
Log I ran across a log instead of using a bridge because a fearsome forest creature refused to yield the path to me.
Deer
Snake I nearly stepped on another snake while getting out my camera to take a picture of my feet.

Results

All of this terrain was comfortable. I especially liked the traction that bendable soles gave me on the log, and I thought with relish of boulders. I had no pronation pain, my foot muscles weren’t tired, and the rocks and roots hadn’t bothered me. I did stub my toe on roots a few times, and that hurt, though not in the way that stubbing one’s toe usually hurts. I wasn’t sure why it hurt — Vibrams, like my one true love (Keens), have toe bumpers.

The laces were a pleasant surprise — they’re not stretchy at all, and the plastic thingy with which you cinch them down grips them very tightly. I didn’t have to adjust them. Vibram sends traditional laces, too, but I wouldn’t install them.

I felt some rubbing, and I knew I was getting a few surface blisters, but they weren’t bothersome enough to cause me to switch to the Keens mid-trail.

By the end of 5 miles, the rubbing had become sufficiently annoying — I was happy to remove the Vibrams when I reached the car. Upon removing them, I found that they had created a lot of surface blisters — probably 10 in total. Next time I’ll wear socks.

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