The Vibram FiveFinger shoe should have been branded the ‘marmite’ shoe as it rarely engenders indifference. People who’ve spotted them on my feet have fallen firmly into the ‘love’ or ‘hate’ camps.
I bought a pair because a) I wanted a go-anywhere, do-anything, off-bike shoe that would be lighter in my pannier than my much-loved, well-worn and very-much-in-need-of-replacement Keen sandals and b) I’ll admit it, I was sold on the advertising blurb about the postural and foot-health benefits of going ‘barefoot’. Plus I love the quirky style.
Some extensive googling determined that the KSO Trek was the Five Finger style for me, but after failing to find a pair to try on in the shops I ordered them on-line following the sizing advice given on the Vibram website. In future I’d prefer to buy them in person as although the sizing advice was accurate and they fit well, there appears to be a manufacturing defect in the toe-pocket of the right big toe where a seam sits proud and can leave an uncomfortable groove up the end of my toe. The left shoe is exquisitely comfortable and has no such seam problem…..but at the time I needed them my only option was to get them online and there was not enough time to get them replaced. The only other sizing issue was with the velcro strap across the instep. At first I felt the strap was ridiculously short. I could barely get it to overlap and close. After a few weeks use though it relaxed and now fits perfectly…I just hope it doesn’t continue to stretch and become too loose.
I bought the shoes in January 2013 and immediately took them out for an excited prance around in the snow…..confirming, to no surprise, that they are best suited to warmer weather. Nonetheless I wore them a couple of times whilst walking the dog up the lane and really enjoyed the new sensation of pebbles and snow and changes in the texture of the road beneath my feet.
I wore them around the house to get the feel of them and then, when we resumed our travels they were brought into service as my off-bike footwear. I have to admit that whilst in China, the filthy state of many of the pavements, particularly around markets, meant I was loathe to wear them as I was still in that state of ‘new-shoe-rapture’ that didn’t want to see them sullied. But on the times I did wear them I found them to be very comfortable. They also received a big thumbs-up from the young and trendy hairdresser who spotted them on my feet in Kunming.
In Laos I decided to set aside my pride in their appearance and use them properly on a three-day trek/kayak. I was nervous about stubbing my toes, bruising my instep or twisting my ankle so started the trek in my familiar sturdy walking shoes to assess the terrain, but at lunchtime on day one switched to the Five Fingers. We climbed up and down steep, damp, slippery hillsides, and wove our way around clumps of bamboo and the buttressed trunks of towering trees. The terrain was predominantly a narrow, leaf-strewn track with the occasional fallen branch or cut-back sapling to watch out for. The first thing I noticed was being able to feel small twigs and stones below my sole. It wasn’t painful, just….interesting. Occasionally leaves and twigs would be scooped up between my toes, which was a little irritating, but then quickly became easy to ignore. The thin fabric and snug fit gave sufficient protection from marauding ants and I quickly began to relax and enjoy the new sensations underfoot.
As the path began to climb steeply the Five Fingers were in their element. My spread toes and the well-cut tread gripped firmly and gave me confidence in my foot placement, allowing me to push on upwards with unusual alacrity. But best of all was the comfort around my heel. With stiffer soled shoes, climbing on steep paths (where you are forced up on your toes) usually results in blisters on my heel even in the most familiar and well-worn walking shoes, but the Five Fingers cupped my heel softly and flexed so perfectly that my heels remained as comfortable and blister-free as if I were indeed barefoot. The lightness of the Five Fingers is also a joy on the climbs, leaving my legs and feet feeling far less burdened.
Downhill was, admittedly, not quite so comfortable. In normal shoes there is space in front of your toes to prevent them banging into the front of the shoe on descents. In the Five Fingers your toes are already touching the front of the toe-pocket so they do feel a little bit compressed on steep descents. In hindsight I should have taken more care to trim my toenails as the ones on my little toes in particular were a bit too long. I stubbed my toes a couple of times and did get a small bruise under the little toenail of my right foot…..but I think this would have been much less of a problem if my nails had been properly trimmed in the first place.
One of my initials concerns about the FiveFingers as trekking shoes was the lack of protection, and I did find I was taking more care placing my feet as I didn’t want to step on any sharp stubs of bamboo, which I’m sure would been painful, especially if I’d planted my instep on them or banged my toes off them, but overall, the FiveFinger experience in the wild was a positive one. The minor toe discomfort downhill does not detract from the delight of being able to feel such a positive contact with the ground. I felt nimble and sure-footed (an unusual sensation for me) and had no desire to return to my previously well-liked walking shoes.
The second day of trekking involved a rockier walk along a river bed. Again, the Five Fingers excelled. They remain comfortable to walk in when wet, so instead of picking my way over rocks I was just as happy to step into the water if it made for smoother progress. Damp, greasy rocks remained as slippery as they would in any shoe, but the way you can curve your foot to fit the rock when wearing the Five Fingers made for sure-footed enough progress….even for someone like me who remains rather cautious on slippery surfaces after breaking an ankle a few years ago on a patch of ice.
The biggest downfall of the Five Fingers as trekking shoes became apparent towards the end of the trek. I don’t yet have any toe-socks so although I was wearing long trousers there was nothing to tuck the trousers into….so at the end of the river trek, when I removed my trousers to ford a larger river, I was not best pleased to discover that a couple of leeches had made their way up the inside of my trousers and were greedily feeding in places where you really don’t want to find unwanted visitors…..still, that should be easily preventable in future if I can get hold of some long socks with toe pockets.
Given their comfort when wet and their relatively quick-drying nature, the Five Fingers were the obvious choice for a day’s kayaking in between the two days of trekking. I wore them all day, both in the boat and swimming in the river, and loved them more and more. No more cautious stumbling on rocky river-bottoms: the thin sole of the Five Fingers gives just enough protection to allow you to walk with at least a little dignity, and if, like me, you’re a bit of a wimp when it comes to strange, slimy sensations on your feet they give you peace of mind.
As you can probably tell I’m pretty pleased with my Five Fingers so far. The only disappointments are the uncomfortable seam in the right big toe-pocket and the fact they haven’t cleaned up too well after their muddy jungle trek (but I am resigned to the fact that sometimes shoes are there to be worn not to look pretty.) I do think they’re over-priced, but I guess if they end up lasting as long as my lovely old Keens did then I’ll perhaps forgive them for that….time will tell. But at the moment I’m enjoying them and keeping my eyes open for the next sale as I’d like to try some of the other styles.