Vibram TrekSport

   12.25.13

Vibram TrekSport

Few things in all of the outdoor world have intrigued me as much as Vibrams FiveFinger. They’re for runners, and that is one thing I am not. But when Vibram released a hiking shoe, the TrekSport, they had my attention.

Let me get this out of the way first: these shoes will make you look like a weirdo. You can rationalize it all you want, telling yourself that they help with balance and make your feet stronger and your grip more sure, but never forget that they make you look weird. If you can’t get around that, time to get off the train right now. These are not shoes for self-conscious folks.

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Second caveat: there is a substantial and painful break in period with these shoes. I got them more than a month ago from Vibram. Since then I did what should be a mandatory break-in. There is a lot of information out on the web about these shoes. Some of it was useful, but most wasn’t. I am not sure if this is the right way to get adjusted to these shoes, but here is what I did.

For the first week I wore them about two hours a day inside, substituting for shoes I wore around the house, the office, and in the shop. After that I upped that to three hours a day (or thereabouts) with an hour or so of outdoor time — no hiking, just walking and doing yard work kind of stuff. Then last week, I started going on long walks, a few miles or so, and wore them quite frequently.

One thing that happened during the testing period is what New Englanders know as fall, which other parts of the country call winter. You see, in New England it goes from 60 degrees during the day to snow on the ground in about two weeks. I tried to get the shoes in the early fall, but that didn’t work out, so a lot of my testing was done with the shoes on frozen ground. The last real use before I wrote this was a 40 minute hike in a nearby park with lots of uneven terrain, tons of rocks, and a healthy crusting of snow and frost heaves. I don’t think these are designed to work in those conditions, but I wanted to give the shoes a real test.

The break in period was pretty darn difficult. At first I got muscle aches in places I didn’t know I had muscles. My feet, it seems, were reawakening forgotten parts of my body. Eventually I got some serious wear on my feet. I have the flattest feet on the planet, like two scuba flippers, so I imagine the lack of support was a bit of shock for the soles of my feet.

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Yes, I know my feet are creepily flat.  They eventually started to get raw and red, but I kept going. After two walks about two miles each in 30-40 degree weather, I was ready to try a real hike. My feet were adjusted, and the soles of my feet repaired themselves and were ready to go.

Here was the terrain:

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It was lots of rocks, a few sets of man-made steps, and a bunch of large boulders. I know they have shoes just for mountain climbing, but as far as hiking shoes go there is nothing like the Vibrams. I have a pair of rather nice LL Bean hiking boots that I brought along for comparison’s sake, and it was night and day.

First, the Vibrams are very, very light. Together they weigh about a quarter of what one boot weighs. That made hiking much easier, especially on flat terrain where the lack of a sole meant very little (though even flat terrain, during the break in period, it was painful). It felt like I had souped up legs, because, well, I kinda did. The shoes force you to balance or more accurately and balance every step. With regular shoes, so much of what our legs naturally do is covered over or muffled by lots of fabric and molded rubber. With the Vibrams I could take paths I would never be able to in normal hiking boots. They afforded me an agility that I thought I no longer possessed. (It was my 36th birthday this weekend….)

But agility wasn’t the only benefit. In fact, it wasn’t the biggest benefit. The place where the Sports Treks kill it is in grip. I could hold on to rocks and trails at angles that seemed fitting only for Spider-Man. The rocks on the day of the hike were very cold, very slick, and yet the Vibrams held on tight. Here is a shot of the shoes holding on to a rock at something well past a 45 degree angle, though it is tough to tell in this picture:

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The reason for the extra grip is pretty simple: there is more surface area in contact with the ground. Unlike a normal shoe where the stiff sole bends only so much, the Vibrams allow your feet to bend to fit the contours of the ground. Every curve and crevice is now a point of contact, enhanced by the grippy but very thin sole. Along with the reduced weight, the grippy feel made the Vibrams worth the hassle.

Some other things of note: First, though they have very thin soles you do not feel every pebble. This isn’t like walking barefoot over broken glass. Second, despite the lack of insulation I found them to be sufficiently warm.

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Snow is probably pushing it, but cold weather is not a problem. Cold weather on pavement is probably not the best idea either, but cold trails are fine. Third, your feet really do get stronger. This isn’t like those shoes Kramer wore; they do actually work. Finally, once I figured out how to put them on, they were relatively easy to get on and off.

It’s more difficult than putting on a regular shoe, but with practice it takes about the same amount of time. There are lots of demonstrations of how to do this online, but here is the method I used that is slightly different. For me the big problem was the pinky toe wanting to join the second smallest toe. Here’s how I put them on.

First, bend the shoe so that the heel is 90 degrees away from the toes. Then, guiding the toes with your hand, reference the big toe and the second biggest toe all the way over to the right or left (depending on the foot). Then push your feet in. If your toes don’t properly align, either try it again or use your fingers to push them in to place. Once the toes are in, grab the heel of the shoe and stretch it around your actual heel, making sure to put the padding the right place. Finally, to really lock your feet in, undo the strap, place your feet on the ground and push forward to make sure the shoe goes around your feet and that your toes are all the way in. Once this is done adjust the strap and lock it in place using the Velcro. It sounds much more complicated than it is, and once you get the hang of it, it is pretty fast.

Final Thoughts

The Vibrams had a few drawbacks in addition to the break in period and the weird looks. First, you have to relearn how to treat your feet. In regular shoes I use my feet all of the time to help lift things, to sit on, to hammer things in place. I did that for a while with the Vibrams and my feet got sore. Second, you have zero protection for your toes. In rooty ground or in places with lots of rocks, a stubbed toe is more likely and vastly more painful. You have to be a bit more conscious of what you do with your feet. Third, I found my shoes very tight initially, even though I ordered them a half size too big. Fourth, and this is a small thing, most of your pants will be too long. The lack of a sole cuts off about an inch to an inch and half in your leg length. No biggie, just cuff your pants.

In the end, I came to these shoes as a curiosity, not as a barefoot runner or a crazy anti-shoe proselytizer. I genuinely had no opinion one way or the other. Having worn and used them for about a month now, I can say that I do like them quite a bit. This is a big change because around week three I had all but given up on going hiking with them. The break in period was pretty painful, but once I worked through it and got out on some trails, it was totally and completely worth it. They work well on trails, especially non-frozen ones. The grip and agility they afford is like nothing else you will find in regular shoes. There is a steep learning curve. Some might find it too steep, and I totally understand that, especially given that these are not cheap shoes. Still, if you like hiking and want a different, more agile experience, the Vibrams deliver in spades.

Finally, here is a picture of me being that guy. The total gear geek dork. Oh yeah.

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