Guest post by Richard Mandelbaum
I recently used my Vibram Five Fingers for an overnight backpacking trip and thought I would write up a little review of my experience for those of you who might be considering using your VFFs that way. There have been several hiking reviews recently on this site, all of which I read and appreciate, and hope to add to that with some detail of what worked for me, some limitations, and some of my thoughts.
Read Richard's review after the jump!
- There are plenty of people who are more hardcore backpackers than me, but I have a fair amount of experience, including being on the trail for a month at a time twice, once to hike the Long Trail, which runs the length of Vermont from the border with Canada to the border with Massachusetts. Two years ago I hiked the Teton Crest trail in Grand Teton National Park, WY.
- I tend to carry a heavy pack – I don't like to give up the amenities once I hit camp, and I don't mind the extra exercise it gives me. Some of my gear is ultra light weight, but not all of it. Although I didn't weigh it before leaving, my guess is my pack was around fifty pounds.
- I've been using VFFs since Spring 2010, starting with a pair of KSOs that I mainly use for running. But from the beginning I had been hoping they would work well for hiking as well, since that is my passion much more than running, which I mainly do just to keep in shape. Since then I have picked up a pair of Flow Treks that I had a relative bring back from London for me (pricey at 120 pounds but I couldn't resist, and glad now that I went for it), a pair of TrekSports, and most recently a pair of Sprints which I haven't used much yet (I really wanted a pair of Smartwool Classics, but as I max out the VFF sizing at 47 for KSOs, so far at least I can't fit in them).
Since then I have been on many dayhikes with all these models except the Sprints, sometimes with up to 30 lbs on my back (my daughter), and overall had a very positive experience. So I decided to try my hand at an overnight trip a few weeks ago. Based on my experience dayhiking and walking in VFFs, my concerns were the following:
- weather: VFFs are great in dry warm weather, but I had some concerns about how comfortable I would be using them in cold and/or wet weather.
- Lack of protection for ankles and toes: this of course is the necessary flipside of why we all love VFFs – the barefoot experience – so was less a concern per se than just an awareness that I would have to be very mindful of my footing since it would be much easier to twist an ankle, especially carrying a loaded pack. And I already knew from learning it the hard way that stubbing a toe against a rock while wearing a VFF downright sucks.
So based on this I decided to stay closer to home and limit my mileage. I chose Harriman State Park in the Hudson Valley in New York state, just south of West Point and only 50 miles North of Manhattan, and surprisingly underused for how wild and beautiful it is. Harriman is a rocky, hilly park with very little level hiking, and I mapped out a three day loop that maxed out at 12.5 mile days (versus a more typical 15 for me).
I also decided to wear my Flow Treks – the weather was cool (in the lower 50s during the day, down to the high 30s at night, with unusually strong winds), and ended up wearing Iniji socks with them the entire time for added warmth. I was curious to see if wearing the socks would increase rubbing and movement inside the shoes and possibly cause hotspots, but in the end it all performed very well. I also threw my TrekSports into my pack in case I got the first pair too wet and wanted to change them out (in the end it didn't rain so I didn't end up needing them, but that is definitely an advantage to the VFFs – they are so lightweight that this was no big deal). For wearing around camp I did my usual – I packed a pair of Teva sandals. Normally this is to get comfortable in camp, but this time it was because of the cold – there is no real way to bundle up the feet in VFFs, but with Tevas I could wear thick wool socks. (I should note that the circulation in my feet is about average – used to be better than average until I got them way too cold on a freight train hopping trip years ago – but that's a story for another day).
One thing I successfully experimented with was using gaiters with my Flow Treks (Outdoor Research half gaiters – see photo). I decided to try it in case of rain (which didn't end up happening) but in fact they did a really good job of keeping my pant legs from dragging on the ground, so I think I will probably use them whenever I hike in long pants.
What I learned
- Overall the experience was very positive.
- The extra tread and thicker midsole of the Flow Treks probably helped. They gripped rock and trail well, probably about the same as my Lowa hiking boots (with Vibram soles). They got a bit nicked up from scraping on rocks – to be expected I suppose, but for the price I would hope for maybe some more resiliency (my KSO seams are also pulling apart which is also a bit disappointing).
- The bottoms of my feet got a bit tired after all day pounding on rocks (in Harriman at least 50% of steps are on solid rock not dirt), which does not happen at all with typical hiking boots, but it was not too bad and didn't bother me much at all. Overall my feet felt wonderful and it was a welcome change of pace to finish the day's hike and have no real desire to change my footwear since my feet were already perfectly comfortable! Like I wrote above, I only took them off to keep my feet warm – in warmer weather I look forward to not having to change out of the VFFs at all, except maybe if they are wet.
- I definitely had to be aware of my footing and had some close calls with stubbing etc. Overall I welcome gradually becoming more aware of my footing and am glad that the VFFs are forcing me to pay attention.
- Muscle use: like I wrote above, I have been running moderately in my KSOs and also day hiking with VFFs for eight months or so, so I didn't put much thought into my muscles having to adjust much more to the barefoot gait. I was wrong. In contrast to backpacking with big hiking boots, which I feel most in my quadriceps, in this case I felt next to nothing in my quads and felt the burn in my calves and to some degree in the inner thigh. So in the end I was glad I had decided to keep the mileage down, and even though I have no idea how typical this is, I would recommend to someone wanting to backpack in VFFs to take it easy the first time around, even if they have been using them in other ways for a while.
I am definitely going to backpack with my VFFs again, and in warm weather I think they will now be my default hiking shoes for both day and overnight trips. But I will think twice if the weather is frigid and especially if cold and wet.
Wish List for Vibram
I would love to see Vibram develop a model of Five Fingers specifically designed for backpacking. I think the outer soles and midsoles of models like the Flow Trek do not have to be changed at all, but for the uppers I would be thrilled to see something that would be (1) waterproof and breathable – Goretex or some similar material and with sealed seams, (2) with an extension, maybe removable, that would cover to up above the ankles. I am picturing something that would zip up after the shoes are on. And finally (3) with a clip specifically designed to work well with gaiters.
I would also like to see Iniji or some other company manufacture toe socks that are slightly thicker and warmer than what is currently available. Socks that are too thick would ruin the barefoot experience, but I think there is room for a sock that is slightly thicker than what is out there, made of a wool/synthetic blend, even if it means bumping up a size in VFFs and having a designated colder weather pair.
These two things together would allow for almost year-round use in climates like the Northeast where in the cold and wet times the VFFs don't quite cut it.
Thank you Richard for all of your effort in providing us with this extensive information on backpacking in VFFs. We know our readers will find it invaluable.