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Backpacking with Vibram Five Fingers Flow Treks

Guest post by Richard MandelbaumI 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 bee…

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!

My Background

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.

The Hike

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).

The Gear

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

    1. Overall the experience was very positive.
    2. 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).
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.

Bottom line

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.

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16 replies on “Backpacking with Vibram Five Fingers Flow Treks”

feelmax makes a thicker wool toe sock. it is called the tundra. i would link to them, but that’s against policy.

i have used them and found that for how i like my VFFs to fit, most any socks are too thick.

Thanks for your post, I’ve found it very interesting and also of help in my particular case.
Regarding your comment:

“…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.”

I reckon from you have been wearing regular Injinji Performance socks mainly made of Coolmax fabric. There is also an Injinji Outdoor line: Nüwool (Micro-Fine Merino Wool, Australia) 70%, Nylon 30%, and Lycra 5% in Crew and Quarter lengths. In some extend they also seem thicker than Performance Mini-Crew.
Curiously, Injinji Performance (Coolmax) in Crew length feel to me slightly thicker and warmer than Mini-Crew, perhaps not so thick as Outdoor line.
I’ve just checked and Injinji Outdoor in both lengths and different colors are available at REI for $16, and only Crew length and forest green color at KayakShed.
Personally I wouldn’t recommend KayakShed because they have recently decided not to ship VFFs out of North America any more.

I second your petition for a FiveFingers waterproof option. I recently purchased a pair of Trek Flows and it was disappointing to learn that water could enter much more easily than in a regular pair of neoprene diving socks, probably water enters through the seams.

I would like to know whether you decided to size up when you ordered Flow Treks respect to your KSOs or Sprints. I didn’t have any occasion to wear them for a good test. I’ve just tried them on twice or so and I’ve found that the length is OK, but I noticed an overall compression on my feet. The seams left marks in my skin after wearing them without socks for a few minutes. I also tried them on with Injinji Performance socks. In that case I could hardly move my toes, I felt as if they were crammed together by the neoprene toe pockets.
At least I didn’t feel pain and it wasn’t really uncomfortable either. The blood flow didn’t seem compromised, probably due to the high elasticity of neoprene.

I’ve read in other posts on VFFs Flow that you need more time to break in and neoprene will eventually stretch, could you confirm that? On the other hand, I know of other users deciding to size up when ordering Flows.
For comparison: These Flow Treks are size M40. I wear M40 KSO, Trek and TrekSport, whereas in Sprints my size is M41.

I would have thought the KSO Treks would have been perfect given the leather (warmth, resistance to wind, quick drying if they do get wet) and the superior traction for hiking.

Good article though. I too am wearing VFF’s to new places all of the time.

Hello – to reply to the comments so far:
-To Jacob, I did not modify the gaiters at all. I was happy to see that they worked as is but took some more maintenance -pulling up, adjusting- than they would if Vibram designed a clip to hold them in place. But even as is they worked very well.

To Robb: thanks, I will check that out.

to Zephyr: Yes I discovered those Iniji Outdoor socks after my hike and have ordered them but not yet received them. Will be interested in trying them out. As for sizing, I ended up purchasing the exact same size in KSO, Flo Trek, and TrekSports (47). On my first dayhike with the Flow Treks I did wonder if they were too small because they did feel a bit tighter on my toes, but I think a three day hike was the true test: the size was right (and I was even wearing socks). But I think this is such an individual thing so I don’t know if this is true for everyone. Maybe they did stretch over time, I am just not sure. In case this helps, my feet and toes are long but not wide – not overly narrow but much more long than wide.

Thanks for your reply regarding Flow Trek fitting, including the invaluable info on the shape of your toes. I feel now more relieved.

Amendment about KayakShed sales policy:
Personally, I won’t recommend ordering to KayakShed because KayakShed has recently decided to change their shipping policy and not to ship VFFs out of North America any more. Ironically, they still keep claiming to appreciate my business. In contrast, a few other retailers such as REI and CrossroadsOnline don’t turn their back to former overseas customers.
This kind of policy doesn’t help American economy at all. The benefit generated by overseas trading remains in US in addition to an extra share related to post and courier service.
The only thing they are helping are those inefficient distribution systems that cause paying extra $35-$55 in shipping fees more affordable than ordering locally (supposing you are lucky enough to find that particular article for sale).

I wear VFFs Speeds for multi-day hiking. Gaiters clip into the laces on the Speeds. However I do travel light. My Full Skin Out Base Weight is under 7 lbs which allows me to run the easier trails.


Did you have any creek crossings or very muddy sections? In my experience when trail running the thinner soled Vibrams tend to collect less mud than those with thicker soles.

Another suggestion to the sock gods is to for any of the waterproof sock companies to make a toe style of sock. I have used this in regular backpacking boots and had great luck with a moderate amount of moisture.

I’ve day hiked with KSO Treks in Fall in the Pacific NW. Trail was fairly muddy but these were great. My feet got a little cold. I had hiking boots along and switched back and forth. Much prefer the VFF.
I tried a pair of Injinji socks and found that my toes were too cramped. I tried going up a size in the VFF but the problem for me wasn’t the length of the shoe but the circumference of the toe slots in the VFF. Maybe I have fat toes? anyone else have this problem?
I second the vote for a Goretex or other waterproofing for VFFs. I intend to try backpacking in drier, warmer weather.

Thanks for the review – Didn’t know that the Flow Treks existed – I think those would work pretty well up here in the PacNW, although my KSO Treks seem to do fine.

+1 on the weather resistant upper – I think Vibram could take a page from some of the really high end gear manufacturers and do a combo hardshell/softshell upper with hypalon reinforcements – eVent fabric would be my choice over Goretex.

I would simply suggest one use caution when hiking in VFF’s… Personally, I’ve injured my foot on a hike (in the VFF’s), which has been healing verrrrrry slowly (the incident happened in mid-September, and my foot is still sore).

In my case, it was a leaf-covered jagged rock which lodged its way up into my mid-foot which caused my injury. Not fun.

Still, I do love the VFF’s… Just probably won’t be hiking in them again any time soon.

Hi all

I agree with all the comments – like I wrote I think in order to hike and even moreso backpack in VFFs you have to be very cautious with your footing – this was my biggest concern going in. But I think in the end it can be a real benefit by forcing us to reground ourselves and be aware of our footing, as long as the learning curve is not too painful!

About the various VFF models, I am sure it is true that models like KSOs with thinner soles would collect less mud, but I would not consider hiking with weight on my back in those unless I were only hiking on dry and relatively flat ground. I wouldn’t give up the extra traction that the Flow Treks provide (or TrekSports). I hike crossing creeks and walking through mud quite a bit and have not found mud sticking to them to ever be a problem. I am sure the KSO Treks would work well too – I avoid leather when I can although I would have bought a pair if the others weren’t available.

fyi for those interested in the Flow Treks, I bought them from Primal Lifestyle Limited in the UK for 119 pounds (yes pricey) and had them shipped to a London address, where a relative received them and brought them over for me. I was very happy with their service, although I can’t vouch for how well intl shipping would work or what it would cost.


What is the “eVent” fabric like? I went to their website and couldn’t get an idea. There’s mo info about that in general info sources. I guess that part of the problem to find info is tat Event is actually a very common word.

I have done a few slot canyon (wet) multi-night hikes mostly wearing KSO’s. Carrying a ~30lb pack largely over sand, rock and sandy bottom stream does take a toll on the foot muscles over the course of a couple/few days, but it far beats any other footwear for constant wet situations. Buddies in water shoes or sandals were bleeding, I was fine. The only other observation I have is with the open toes, on tight grassy trails, you will tend to quickly pick up weeds and grass in between the toes, and the stickers do not feel great. Also, stubbing your toes against a trekking pole kindof sucks too. I will be doing another trip next month, overnighter in the 12+ mile range, and will be wearing VFF’s. Thanks for posting the article.

Hi, I loved your article! I am a true Fivefingers addict! If you want better socks, I found the Smartwool ones are the best; phd run toe sock is my favorite because it is thin enough to not cause me to need a larger shoe. My problem is I can’t find gaiters that fit my Fivefingers; do you know of any?

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