I did an hour hike up and down a back-country ski trail the other day in a custom pair of minimalist shoes. Packed snow, nine degrees Fahrenheit, and my feet were toasty the whole way. They have no heel lift, no cushioning, an anatomically correct design, and are the only shoes I've found other than FiveFingers where I can actually splay my toes; they have excellent traction. No need for snow shoes, or Yaktrax.
A new start-up minimalist shoe company? Nope, this company has been making minimalist footwear for over 100 years. It's the Russell Moccasin Co. of Berlin, Wisconsin, and the shoe in question was produced for me as a prototype after a conversation with the 80-year old owner.
Like many of us, after starting to wear Vibrams on a regular basis, I realized that traditional shoes were no longer going to cut it. I'd been able to find decent, but not great, alternatives for office wear, but the one problem remaining was cold weather. How to get a boot that would be suitable for hiking in the winter in snow and on ice? After a good deal of research, I found that the Russell Moccasin Co. makes custom boots, and some of them sounded close to what I was looking for.
I called them up, mentioned what I was looking to do, and was told that I would need to speak to Ralph. Ralph turned out to be the owner, Ralph Fabricius, who's been with Russell for 56+ years. I explained that I had gotten into running in Vibrams, explained a bit about barefoot-style running and how popular it's becoming, and Ralph cut me off. "We can make shoes like that, we've been making shoes like that since the Army study came out in 1915. Have you seen the Army study? I'll send you a couple of pages..." Ralph was very interested in my story and my project, and asked me to speak to Richard Sanders, who handles marketing for Russell.
Richard and I had a number of discussions. Since Russell has a long history of making barefoot-style shoes for hunters, both Ralph and Richard understood immediately what I was looking to do, and wound up teaching me quite a lot about what I should be looking for. Richard mentioned that the sole he would recommend was the Vibram Newporter, which is a totally flat sole designed to be non-slip. He talked me out of the Vibram Sierra, pointing out that the Newporter was almost half the weight. I wasn’t sure, but went along. He called Vibram and they explained that the Newporter in the regular rubber wouldn't work well for snow and ice, so they sent Russell some soles that were made up in a rubber that would work well on snow and ice.
Ralph had some ideas about what would be ideal for a barefoot experience, and made up the shoe I'm writing about.
I've been wearing these shoes at this point for several months. I've worn them running, I've worn then walking the dog in sub-zero temperatures in Vermont, and I've worn them chasing the dog through deep snow in the woods. I’ve worn them hiking on wet rocks and leaves. And I wear them to the office almost every day. I wear them with and without socks, with wool socks for the cold and cotton in warmer weather.
They don’t look minimalist (which is a selling point!), but you’ll note that there is no heel whatsoever, no cushioning under the heel or the forefoot, and a wide flare at the fifth metatarsal to allow my foot to widen naturally. I can splay my toes in these walking downhill. The only other shoe I can do that in is my Vibrams. To compare them to my Vivo Dharmas, I once tried taking the Dharmas on a hike. My feet slipped around in the shoe, the shoe slipped on the side of the trail, and, in general, it was an experience I will not repeat. The Russell, on the other hand, with lacing over the instep and excellent traction, have been just fine on hikes.
Hiking in them is a different experience from Vibrams, and yet similar. Obviously you have much less ground feel than Vibrams, since the sole is much thicker. You can still feel rocks under your feet, however, and the total lack of cushioning means you must walk the same way as you would in Vibrams. Under foot there are three layers of leather and the sole. They’re unlike the Vibrams in that they have much better traction (even than the Trek), and they are much warmer. I’ve yet to have cold feet in them, and I’ve taken them out in below zero temperatures several times. (I wish I could report at what point my feet started getting cold, just to be thorough.)
The Newporter sole is terrific. With Vibram’s ice compound, the only thing I’ve found that they slip on is smooth ice. They get traction even on rough ice, and anything less slick than that is not a problem at all. I’m happy I took Richard’s advice.
I will point out that the toe spring (the curvature upward at the toe) looks excessive. The curve you see is actually what has occurred from my walking around in them. Wearing them, they feel no different from my Vibrams.
I like them a lot. In fact they're my favorite shoes. I wear them almost every day instead of my Vibrams or my Vivo Barefoot Dharmas, as they're less odd looking than the Vibrams, and fit and breathe better than the Vivos. They're much warmer than both, with the fairly thick (but flexible) Vibram sole. Plus I can wear them to work!
Surprisingly, they're the most breathable leather shoes I've ever worn. I prefer leather shoes after having a bad experience with man-made materials, but I’ve never experienced leather like this. They're so breathable that I regularly find my feet dry and the end of a day, which does not happen with any other shoe I’ve owned. I discussed this with Russell, and indeed their suede is known for this trait, which is of course why Ralph picked it for me. (As I said, I've learned a lot, I wasn't a fan of suede shoes prior to these.)
These shoes are made with the Munson last*, a product of the Army study that Ralph introduced me to. Ralph may have been one of the few people alive who was still aware of this study. Only three companies that I've been able to find still make shoes or boots on the Munson last, and Russell is the only one that will make a minimalist shoe on this tried-and-true barefoot-style last. (More about Munson later).
The Munson last was designed to allow natural foot movement, and it works as advertised. It's a far better design than what Vivo uses, since the Vivo lasts still constrict the toes while simultaneously being too wide through the middle of the foot.
Russell makes each shoe to fit your foot; so your first step in ordering a pair of Russells is to take detailed measurements and a tracing of your foot, and mail it to them. Email or fax is not OK, because the transmission process can alter the tracing. The only major drawback I’ve found is that since the shoes and boots are made-to-order, there is a bit of lead time to get yours, and they're not cheap. (Compared to Vivo Barefoot, they’re a bit more expensive.) But, as I'm learning, they're worth it. Russell also says that they have customers who’ve been using Russell moccasins for year or decades, and that they do hold up in the long run. I’m a happy customer of a product that is expensive up front but lasts for a long time.
My only complaint with these shoes has been that they were a bit snug around the ball of my foot. They’ve since stretched out, but, as Russell likes to say that you don’t have to break in a Russell moccasin, they suggested I send them back and they’d stretch them for me. I declined. I didn’t want to be left without them.
They're also making up the boot that originally inspired me to contact Russell. The first draft of that prototype was the nicest-looking boot I've ever seen. I can't wait to wear it out in the woods and the snow.
Russell also makes dress moccasins a.k.a. loafers. They can make any shoe or boot in their lineup with a Munson last and without a heel.
* A last is a term used by cobbler's to describe the platform-like device shaped like a foot that a cobbler uses to build out a shoe. The shape of the last dictates the ultimate shape of the shoe.