barefoot hiking

Barefoot Hiking – Vibram Five Fingers Review

To start off with, I’ve been rather interested in the barefoot shoe craze since it really started picking up. My brother had been walking around actually barefoot for a while and found that it was helping his knees and his arches, it even made a difference when he used shoes. However his situation is much more conductive to having opportunities to walk around without shoes, I needed some protection as I couldn’t build up callouses, enter Vibram. When I started seeing their Vibram Five Finger (VFF) shoes I began to wonder if this might be the holy grail for me, the ability to go barefoot hiking, have the protection, and save my knees.

I’m not much of a runner, or a day hiker, I backpack, this summer alone I’ve been in the backcountry for over 20 days and several hundred kilometers, most of which I’ve spent on my VFFs. In regular shoes and boots I’ve found that I’ve I’m coming down a hill, regardless of if I’m carrying anything, I have knee pain after a while. I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking around the interweb trying to find information on people using VFFs for my intended purpose but from what I can tell, not many do, so I hope this resource helps those interested in backpacking in barefoot shoes. I’ve owned the KSO, Leather Treksport, and SPYRIDON. My most recent hike was with the SPYRIDON and they are quite the shoe, but as I knew I was headed into the alpine and due to recent issues with my previous VFFs, I brought along a pair of shoes just in case, as such this review is primarily about the SPYRIDONs.

Me, my SPYRIDONs, and Tundra Lake.

Hiking Profile

Age: 29
Weight: 160
Typical 2 day load: 25-30lbs including food and water
Recent load for 8 day trek: 50 lbs including food and water
Distances: Level ground 20-25km per day, Rough terrain 10-20km
Location: BC and Washington

What type of terrain can VFF‘s be used on?

To date I’ve gone barefoot hiking on gravel, cobbles, rock, boulder fields, rivers, rockfaces, spongy valleys, bushwacking, snow, ice, dirt, logs, grass, branches, roots, scree, and pretty much any kind of terrain a hike can throw at you. Everything from flat ground to crazy scrambles. I have to say the VFFs excel as allowing me to wrap my foot around big rocks in boulder fields and cruise through them where you might find yourself a bit tippy in a stiff pair of shoes. In lose slopes I can dig my toes in like nobody’s business. In my opinion, they generally handle almost any terrain as well or better than boots or shoes, with a few exceptions.

Snow and Ice:

Bottom line, you’re feet are probably going to get cold. I crossed at least 500ft of snow fields on a recent hike and I found that socks made a huge difference, but you’re feet will still get cold. In soft relatively level snow I didn’t have any slips, but what things got a bit steeper I switched to a pair of shoes I was carrying, probably less often than I should have. I could still dig in with the VFFs and make steps, but it was harder for sure.

Rocks and Gravel:

Small stuff like gravel roads are generally fine and anything bigger than you’re foot is generally fine, the mid size if where things get a bit iffy. I found cobbles on the beach of the west coast could be difficult at times and trails littered with lost rocks of various sizes can sometimes be challenging and hurt your soles after a while.

Water:

This is a tricky one, by far this is the best shoe I’ve ever used in water, I almost never feel like I’m going to slip. The catch however is that with such a low sole and being on the “wet coast”, my feet are wet more often than not, I’d say at least 75% of the time. I’ve given up trying to go around water for the most part or go over rocks, I just bound through the stream, river, puddle to big to hop. I’m going to have wet feet, its the reality, however that doesn’t mean I’m cold. Between the material used in VFFs and a pair of toe socks, the water that is in my shoe generally warms up fairly fast and if the trail stays dry, I can even end the day with dry feet.

Don’t your feet hurt wile barefoot hiking?

Yes and no. I’ve spent a year building up to using VFFs on the trail b just walking, running and doing small hikes with them. I get far fewer blisters than I ever did with shoes, usually none if I wear toes socks. On my recent 8 day epic (trip report to follow) I switched to shoes for one day and got a blister by the end of the day. The bottoms of my feet get sore depending on the terrain, but from what I could tell of my fellow travelers my feet were generally in comparable or better condition much of the hike.

How often do you roll/sprain your ankle?

Honestly, almost never and I used to roll my ankle almost hourly in shoes or light weight boots.  The beauty of barefoot hiking is the ability to hit the ground either flat or on the ball of your foot they way your foot was suppose to operate, in this way its much more difficult to roll your ankle.

I couldn’t wear those, I need more arch support.

I wear custom orthotics in my regular shoes and have for years, I prefer using the VFFs any day of the week over a regular shoe.

Do you hit your toes on everything while barefoot hiking?

Yes and no, I did more when I first started but I’ve found myself being both more careful and faster as I get used to them. I still stub my toes occasionally, probably a handful of times on my recent 8 day trek, it can hurt a lot more than in shoes, but I’d almost say I trip less now.

Does stuff get caught between your toes?

Yes, sticks can, leaves, bushes can get caught between your toes while barefoot hiking. We had over 40km of bushwacking on the 8 day trek and cleaning out my toes of leaves got so frequent I gave up at times and just left leaves there. On a cleared trail I get much less then I did when I started, usually almost nothing.

Those seem far to light for backpacking, shouldn’t you be wearing a heavy/leather backpacking boot?

I’ve mostly only ever hiked in heavy shoes and light weight boots, I don’t much like backpacking boots. If you’ve feet get wet in boots it near impossible to dry them out, they are heavy and to me they feel clunky. In boots I occasionally roll my ankle as well.  I recently ready “beyond Backpacking: Ray Jardine’s Guide to Lightweight Hiking and I agree that lighter foot wear is the way to go. Correspondingly, I’m also trying to lighten my pack, but the recent 8 day epic was with 50lbs and I found that OK.

How long do they last?

So this has to be the one big and in my mind ONLY real negative for VFFs. In less than 300km I’ve killed 2 pairs on the trail. The leather treks got a hole in the arch and between the toes. The Spyridon has already developed holes between the toes. I’ve found that the foot bedding they use to sandwich the stretchy materials used for the toes to the sole is rather wide such that the shoe actually chews a hole through itself and has almost nothing to do with the stuff I get caught between my toes, though I’m sure that doesn’t help either.

Would you recommend VFFs?

A while ago I would have said absolutely, however until they can make the materials between the toes last or maybe make it more of webbed toe but still separated design, I can’t see myself ever using them again for the trail. I’ll be exploring other barefoot hiking options however as I must say, barefoot is the way to go!

More Information:

Harvard Study on barefoot running: http://barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/
Vibram Five Fingers: http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/index.htm

 

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