Eschewing Shoes: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Vibram Five Fingers, The Official Shoe Of ReWilding? Part 3!

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In the first installment of this series, I waxed philosophically about the foot fetishes of our culture and pined for the plight of immobilized toes everywhere.

The second article in this series explored “prehensility” and the all-but-forgotten grasping motion of the human foot.

Both articles focused on Vibram Five Fingers as a viable, available, and rather well designed answer to these pervasive podiatry problems.

In this, the 3rd installment, we will get down to earth, and discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of a life lived in Vibram Five Fingers.

Should anyone at or affiliated with Vibram find themselves reading this, please consider sponsoring me, I am an advocate and an ally.  Ok, that was shameless.

The Ugly

You might be asking yourself, “where is the balance here?”.  If all of this Vibram Veneration seems a hyperbole, if it seems I sing only the praises of this somewhat alien foot-cover newcomer, be forewarned, my tone is about to change.

I promised that I would critique those things for which Vibram Five Fingers fall short, and I will proceed to do so with a critical eye.  My suspicion is that even the sworn Vibram Five Finger loyalists will agree, these shoes are the best, but they are not perfect.  Yet.

Many of the kinks I’ll address, I suspect, will be worked out with time as this trend in footwear continues to evolve.  This has certainly been true of many of the initial foibles first featured in the early Five Fingers.

Express Yourself

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I promise, I don't wear these shoes to be different (though perhaps being different is why I am attracted to these shoes, it sounds the same, but it's different).  This isn't about being freaky, being a hipster, or being tacti-cool.  I wear them because they are the most bio-mechanically/ergonomically  functional shoes in existence.  For me, the only thing better is nothing at all.  Now, herein lies my most significant complaint.  What’s up with the colors and design patterns?

My favorite pair at the time of this writing is the Spyridon LS.  This shoe has the best balance of minimalist feel and protective covering.  It offers grippy, tready traction, while maintaining a prehensile, foot-fist friendly sole.  My complaint then? The many garish, ultra-luminous reflective surfaces and ostentatious silver toe racing stripes!

A case in point

Recently someone approached me with the following comment:"Do you have the rest of the skeleton suit to go with those shoes".  Now, as annoying as that quip is, I’ve got to hand it to him, I appreciate good humor when it strikes me.

Scrolling through the pages of their website, one is reminded of the flamboyant color schemes of the 1980's ski industry.  Why the intense day-glow colors and frenetic (even schizophrenic) psychedelic patterns?  Now, in fairness, there are a few more muted pairs, but - in men’s at least - these are the more rigid soled versions, and prevent the prehensile, foot-fist experience that I am after.

“Dear Vibram, the Spyridon is amazing, can I get a pair with just the base colors?  Maybe before you paint them and add reflective tape?”

I spend several weeks a year camping with friends and am annoyed, if not embarrassed, every time someone turns on a head lamp and my shoes start glowing!  I like to wear earth tones, and by design I prefer to blend into my environment...  and I usually do, that is except for my shoes, which are lit up like an upper middle class suburban home at Christmas!

I understand that there are those who want their feet to reflect when running through urban streets at night.  Car vs. Human contact can be as unpleasant as anything, however, I prefer to garner a bit less attention while walking at night.

Solution: Offer models like the Spyridon in its base colors, with just a bit less flair.

Can't you smell that smell?

My first Vibram Five Fingers, which were the neoprene KSO's (incidentally I went through two or three pairs of these in my early beta testing) had one very distinct and difficult to conceal complication.  They smelled.  Bad. Actually, “smell” is a very cordial way of describing the fetid miasma that these shoes emanated after getting even just the least bit wet.

In fairness, in those days I would wear these shoes without socks, and a size smaller than I wear today.  In keeping with this fairness, that was then the recommended use by Vibram at the time.

My experience has been that once this stench developed, it recurred much more quickly each time and the malodor was cumulative.  For this reason I would wash my KSO’s in the washing machine about once a week, which helped to reduce this stench, or at least hold it at bay, however - and many of you can attest to this - the smell always won out in the end.  I remember one incident in particular.  Having my feet up on the seat in front of me at a movie theater.  There was a couple sitting a few seats to the right of the one on which I had perched my wreaking wrigglers.  I remember when the noxious odor collided with their olfaction, the way they recoiled in shocked disbelief, whispering to one another in disapproving tones.  I retracted my feet shamefully for the remainder of the film.

These were the antediluvian days of “barefoot” footwear, and these primitive, thick-browed and sloped fore-headed forebear’s of the modern Five Fingers were more akin to the booties of a wet suit than the sleek, sophisticated, evolved cousin that we all know today.  I can remember days when I could smell my own shoes whenever I sat down in a chair.  Those were the days when we used to walk up hill to school - both ways - and a soda-pop only cost a nickel.  I digress.

Vibram Five Fingers have evolved significantly with each generation, and the current models that I have been wearing are vastly superior to their predecessors of just a few years ago.  While I wouldn’t describe them as particularly fragrant, they most certainly have achieved something much closer to neutrality on the nose, and their breathability has become, simply put... outstanding.

Socks

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It was in the Sonoran desert of Arizona, where my good friend Mathew, harbinger of all things about-to-become-cool, first approached me wearing Vibram Five Fingers (KSO Trek's, which at that time were the only leather pair available) with Injinji socks beneath them.  He extolled the numerous virtues of the sock and Five Finger companionship, though admittedly I was a tough sell.

He said that the socks beat, and even freaked the funk, wicked away moisture, and insulated his feet better into the winter months.  It took some time, but for me these points are now but a sermon preached to the converted.  Once I donned the five toed sock, I have never looked back.  This was the crucial missing link in the five toed footwear system.  So crucial in fact, that I have a cubby dedicated to the pile of such socks that I have accumulated.  Wait, it gets worse...  I have, at any given time, several unopened pairs of the stocks, merchandised in my closet like the stock room of a barefooting shoe shop.  SurThrival favors the prepared mind.

At the time of this writing, I have tested two different toe socks, one model from Injinji, which I have tested extensively, and another from Smartwool which I have more limited experience with.  Both pairs are merino wool based (which, incidentally is one of my all time favorite functional fabrics), and both come in lovely earth tones. *HINT* HINT* Team Vibram.

The Injinji Outdoor Crew Socks are my staple, the work horse of my collection.  They are tried and true.  I have probably gone through 20 pairs of them over the last few years, and will concede that I consider them somewhat disposable.  I would recommend just such a tact for you too, lest you become disenchanted with their tendency to wear thin and through.  This toe sock design, I suspect, is a difficult one to make very robust, that is, without the use kevlar or spider web as a fiber.  Eventually they just wear out, and in my experience, much faster than a traditional sock.  I have accepted and expect to go through several pairs in the lifespan of a single pair of Five Fingers.  I suppose one can just add this to the overall toe-shoe budget.

My Smartwool’s are quickly becoming my favorite, though the pair I prefer, the Toe Sock Micro, seems to be much less widely distributed.  Actually, I have only found them in a store once.  To date they have not worn out, and are holding up remarkably well, despite the fact that they are far more sheer and of a much lighter weight than my Injinji's.  These are the cashmere sweater of toe-socks.  The color of mine is a beautiful coyote tan, and they are very short which translates to less sock sticking out the top of your low-profile Vibram’s.  They feel like a luxury sock, truly a grade above.  I'm getting goose bumps just writing about them.

For me, wearing socks within my Five Fingers increases comfort, reduces smell (which in turn reduces needing to wash them, which in turn increases their lifespan), increases wicking, thus keeping my feet drier, and increases their insulating properties (due to the properties of merino wool), adding to the amount of late season days I can wear my Vibram’s.

It all comes out in the wash

To wash or not to wash your Vibram Five Fingers... that is the question.

If your Vibram’s start smelling like a wheel of well aged cheese, its probably time to throw them in the wash.  That said, I have had to wash my newer Vibram’s (I have never washed a leather pair, so can’t speak on this from experience) infrequently if at all since I began wearing socks with them (and actually this is the main reason that I started wearing socks with them in the first place).

If you do choose to wash yours, be warned, experience has shown that this may reduce their lifespan, even if only slightly.

If you are on a budget and want to get the most out of your purchase, wash them sparingly.  As I mentioned above, socks will greatly reduce or even completely avert the wretched stench that plagues the barefoot wearer.  This in turn will decrease the need to wash them, and thereby increase their lifespan.

Still, sometimes there just comes a day.  Here is what I recommend.  Wash them as gently as possible. Set the machine to a gentle cycle, and wash them no warmer than warm.  Avoid hot water as it seems to degrade the materials that the shoes are made of as well as the glues that bond the upper to the sole.

I would also recommend that you hang them to dry, or dry them in the sun.  Using a machine dryer seems to really damage these shoes and shorten their useful life.  I have noticed that it causes the uppers to pull away from the sole, eventually separating them.  It also causes the sole to curl a bit, distorting the original shape of the shoe, even if only slightly.

Wet Willy

This complaint is more significant still, and one that I think will prevent many people from fully embracing this style of footwear, no matter how comfortable, hipster, or holy.  That's the fact that any amount of perceivable moisture, even a damp surface, no less a rainy day, completely defeats this shoe.  Because the minimalist sole, particularly at the inside of the arch, is so low in profile, and the materials of the upper are so breathable/permeable, even the smallest amount of water penetrates almost the moment it makes contact with the wet or damp surface.  This means in order to keep my feet dry I simply can't wear them on a rainy day unless I concede to this mushy and marshy discomfort.  Because I wear my Vibram’s with socks, they too quickly become wet, prolonging the drying experience.  For those who wear their’s sans socks, this is a sure recipe for stinkfoot.

Perhaps Vibram can develop a waterproof yet breathable membrane version?  Something with the functionality of GoreTex.  Perhaps the upper could be taped or sealed higher than the lip of the sole?  Something, anything.  I want to wear these shoes on rainy days, muddy trails, dewey grass in the dampness of the early morning.  I want my shoes to be as versatile as I seek to be.  Until then, they are finicky, a bit of a lap dog.

Urine Big Trouble Mister

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What's worse then a stroll through dewy grass or across a puddle laden street in your Vibram Five Fingers?  How about the men's bathroom in a crowded public place?  Women, please know I am not discriminating here, this is purely anatomical.

For those of you who are not in the know, or who have been so over-shod as to have never noticed, I will proceed to describe conditions at the foot of a public urinal as it moves from clean to health hazard throughout the day:

The floor in front of this piss-pot is swabbed clean by the person elected to just such a task.  Man number one approaches, unsheathes his sword, and proceeds to urinate into this porcelain pan, leaving behind a droplet or two on the floor (men are often messy).  Man number two -no pun meant here- approaches the urinal, and to avoid stepping in man number one's urine drips, he steps just slightly wider and further back.  He now, of course, leaves his own urine droplets/splash pattern, though somewhat larger than man number one due to his lack of proximity, and these coalesce with the previous droplets.  Now a small puddle forms.  Each successive man contributes to this in his own way, and the puddle grows ever larger, bleeding outward across the floor like a bottle of ink spilled upon a map, stretching north and south, east and west..

Enter yours truly.  Vibram Five Fingers on, and hyper aware of their unique moisture wicking properties.  This puddle is, for me, an obstacle course who's consequences are greater than any risk I have ever taken in the outdoors.  This is formidable.  I have micturated (hehehe this is the scientific way of saying peed) in some rather unorthodox positions to avoid this veritable slip and slide. This balancing act of course brings attention to my feet, and hence my shoes, and adds to the stream of questions that I must then answer or strange looks that I must avert.

My Question to Team Vibram:  How is this dealt with in the bathrooms at the Five Finger corporate offices?

The Vibram Tan

Ok, this isn’t really a design flaw, but just an issue posed by any shoe..  that is the tan line.  I like my Vibrams, actually, the obsession boarders on devotional  (does this make me a “podiphile”?)  I like them so much that I sometimes wear them at times when, in the past, I would have simply gone barefoot.  Now, I am descended from some pretty olive skinned Italiano's, and after spending 5 successive years lifeguarding the Southern Maine beaches, my skin tans quickly, evenly, and efficiently.  This is something for which I am grateful, though I am developing something of a Vibram tan line.  While its not something I expect the designers at Vibram to remedy, it bears mentioning.

A Rock In My Shoe

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My Bormio's are surely the most sturdy of my five toed footwear.  The leather is of high quality and the sole is rugged.  While far from water proof, or even water resistant, they do stay drier than my other pairs.  Some prehensility is sacrificed for this robustness of sole, but this is to be expected.  I am deeply appreciative of their simple brown color, which fulfills the earth tone color pallet that I fetishize.  Also, one comment made by a passerby has stayed with me and it was this:  "Those are the most tasteful Vibrams I have seen".  Compliment?  Kind of.  It brings us back to the paragraphs above.

Regardless, I have been very happy with these, and have tested -which is to say abused- them for months at a time in the Sonoran and high deserts of Arizona, and can say that they - or my pair at least- have held up famously.  This is saying a lot, as this arid, rocky, thorn ridden biome plays havoc on even the most hardy cobble-craft.  (Note: the desert leaves one free of the moisture issues mentioned in the above paragraphs.  Would moving to the desert to get more out of my Vibram’s be pathological?)

Still, the Bormio is less than perfect, and from what I understand is being discontinued (I protest this!).  My complaints?  There are 2 and are as follows:

1. The Zippers.  These have held up well and I have had no problems.  My concern is this: With each shoe having two zippers, one per side, this is a total of four individual zippers per pair, making the chances of a catastrophic zipper failure quite higher than I am comfortable with.  It makes taking these into the back country or as your sole travel shoe somewhat restrictive.  I understand the reason for zippers, but there must be another way.  Even one zipper per shoe would increase my confidence.

2. The height.  They are so close!  They are an almost-boot, falling several inches short of the mark.  Actually they are at exactly the right height to receive aberrant kicked up pebbles like a hoop receives a swished free-throw.  Socks mitigate this to some degree, but to have these almost-boots just a bit taller would make them -to my mind- a far superior piece of foot gear.

A Final Note on Prehensility

It seems fair to say that the Vibram Five Fingers exist on a spectrum from soft, “almost nothing there” soles, to more rigid soles who’s intent is to be a light “trekking” shoe.  I would like to point out to the user that the more rugged the Vibram Five Finger model you choose, the more “Prehensility” you will have to sacrifice.  This is not a flaw in design, rather just a consequence of the currently available building materials.

The most comfortable and prehensile Five Finger’s I personally own and have tested are my Bikila LS’s.  They are like an extension of my body and feel almost as light as a sock.  I have effectively shredded them, though I do feel I got my money’s worth!  Incidentally, they are a bit “harder on the eyes” than many of the other pairs I own.

The stiffest sole and least prehensile of all the pairs that I have tested are my Trek LS’s.  These are not just stiff, but seem to run a bit narrow as well.  They do however come in a light brown and black, and are probably one of the most tasteful shoes that Vibram offers.  I wear my black ones on “dressier” occasions.

As I mentioned above, the Goldilocks -”this pair is just right” - for me so far is my Spyridons.  They are a great balance of soft sole, knobby tread, rugged but soft exterior, and breathable comfort.  I am gearing up to order a second pair any day now.

3 Seasons instead of 2.5!

Dune Boot

Oh what would I do for a for a pair of winter Vibram boots?  What's more, I know they exist, as leaked images have been on the web for some time now.  Living in North America means that most of us have cold to colder winters that we must contend with or integrate into.  Whichever you choose, most likely you will have to hang up your Five Finger’s until the spring (likely the second, drier part of spring).

Ladies Five Finger Boot

Most of us understand that a mitten is warmer than a glove due to the heat sharing that takes place with the en-mittened digits (as opposed to the cold isolation experienced by gloved fingers).  The same is true of the toes, and for avid outdoors-people, isolating your little piggies from one another is probably not a great idea.  Still, perhaps it's time for a Five Fingered boot that allows us to "barefoot" later into the year.  Looking at these prototypes has me drooling!

Conclusions

These are, beyond all others, my favorite shoes.  Period.  In my opinion -as I mentioned in the previous article- they are "the best invention since the wheel".  The quest for perfect foot protection stretches back to the early days of stone knives and friction fire.  In fact, it is a quest that predates even the dream of the wheel (that is the melodramatic climax of the article).

I have sometimes mused on whether the ancient moccasin makers may have considered this individually digited idea, or if perhaps the early hunters wished for such a nimble footed option.  This I can never know, but what I have directly experienced is this, these are the first shoes that I have worn that allow me to express the prehensility that is my human birthright (ok, sorry, that was the melodramatic climax).  Are they perfect? Far from it.  Have they been consistently improving since they were first released?  Absolutely, and their evolution has just begun!  As a proponent of the "ReWilding" philosophy, it is in not often you will hear me say this, but... I am excited to see where this technology is headed!

What have you experienced wearing these shoes?  What do you think about prehensility?  Which Vibram’s or other barefooting shoes have you like the most?

Please comment below and share this article with other people who have feet!

If you would like a 10% discount on Vibram Five Fingers, Smartwool and Injinji socks, or a multitude of other great "bare footing" products, use the coupon code SURTHRIVAL at BornToRun.com

Check out SurThrival for products designed to support your ReWilding process, and....

Thank You — Sincerely — for reading this!

~D