I’ve been getting a lot of questions about my new Vibram Fivefingers. I’ve had them for about two weeks now, and to cover some of these queries in more detail, I decieded to write a full-on review. There’s some debate about whether fivefingers really count as shoes per se. It’s an interesting debate, and I’m not sure where I stand. If you catch me referring to fivefingers as shoes, it’s just because it’s a pain to say `things that you put on your feet that are kinda like shoes, and might even be shoes (but I’m not really sure)’ over and over again.
I wanted to use them for hiking, running, and general use, so I went for the KSO (keep stuff out) model. It can get pretty cold around here, and I don’t want blisters when I hike, so I ordered a pair of their Injinji toe-socks too. The total came to about $100. I think that the price is not unreasonable for this sort of product, assuming that you intend to use it, rather than for the novelty. Vibram offers a pretty varied range of different models, all with different applications. The KSO are some of the more versatile, in terms of Vibram’s recommended uses. I’m going to focus on my own experiences, so I’ll be talking only about the KSO model.
The base of the shoe is a Vibram sole, which is non-marking. It has many thin lacerations in it, which help grip a variety of surfaces. There’s a thin, lightweight midsole, intended to protect your foot from bruising by small rocks and the like. The upper is a combination of nylon and mesh, to `keep stuff out’. `Stuff’, in this case refers to grit, small stones and so on. I can imagine that constantly getting pebbles stuck in the open-topped Sprint and Classic models would get old fast if you were out hiking.
Sizing fivefingers is pretty tough. Vibram has a sizing procedure on their site, which involves carefully measuring your foot with a ruler. Even still, I got the wrong size (one size too large) at first, and had to exchange them for the correct size. Putting on the shoes for the first time is a weird experience. It takes a little effort to get all your toes line up with their slots, both in the socks and the shoes. Apart from my big toe, all my toes are small and inflexible, and i have great difficulty moving my three middle toes independently, which may have contributed to the challenge.
Taking my first step in them was disconcerting, like getting onto a stationary escalator. My feet thought that they were in shoes, but the first few steps felt more like being barefoot. It was an odd combination, which felt extremely peculiar. Nonetheless, after the first few steps, my feet got the hand of it, and I fell into a gait that was not quite like wearing shoes, but not the awkward tentativeness of walking barefoot outside either. Wearing boots, I typically strike the ground with my heel first, rolling forward onto my toes. With the fivefingers, my heel and toe strike almost simultaneously, and I apply more weight to the outside of the foot.
I run roughly once a day, for about half an hour. Since I use running to train for adventure racing, I typically wear boots, and carry a 4-5kg pack. Running in the fivefingers is very comfortable. Initially, I noticed increased use of accessory muscles in my lower legs: my calves (especially on the inside), and ankles, were getting more use. However, that sensation went away pretty quickly, and it now feels totally normal to run in the fivefingers. Certainly, my stride length is slightly shorter, because my foot is striking the ground differently. I also assume that my lower legs are doing more impact-absorbtion work, because there’s no cushioning in the foot to do that for them.
Using the fivefinders for rock climbing is actually very forgiving. Obviously, they lack sharp edges, or a pointed toe, making some moves difficult. However the `razor-striped’ sole has pretty good grip, and their flexibility allows you to get a lot of foot on the wall. They lack support, so don’t expect to be tiptoeing on flakes. However, for general bouldering and practice, they’re very convenient. They’re not as good as climbing shoes, but definitely better than trainers or boots. D’aescents or five tennies these are not, but for their general utility, I can’t fault them for that. I’ll certainly be wearing them for future wall shifs: for impromptu climbing, I haven’t seen a non-dedicated shoe that’s better.
Fivefingers are not waterproof. When it’s wet, your feet are going to get wet. This is not particularly surprising: they’re meant to emulate going barefoot. However, the big difference is what happens after you get wet. If you were barefoot in the rain (especially on stone or concrete), the soles of your feet would be getting cold, fast – trust me, I know. However, with fivefingers, especially with the socks, this is not as much of a concern. I would not recommend wearing fivefingers through fresh snowmelt or similar: socks or not, you’re still at risk of a non-freezing cold injury. However, for wandering about in spring, summer or fall rain, above freezing, or swimming, paddling, sailing &c: they’re comfortable, and warm but not toasty.
Overall, I’m really enjoying my fivefingers. I’ll happily recommend them to anyone who likes walking barefoot (but doesn’t like pointy things in the soles of their feet). If you enjoy outdoors-related activities, there’s all the more chance that you’ll get good use out of them, and they make great camp-shoes. For more insights on hiking in the fivefingers, check back for part two of this review, after I take them backpacking for a week.
Got any questions that I still haven’t answered? Let me know in the comments.