Water shoe review: Vibram FiveFingers TrekSport

See also: Packrafting shoes or boots

I like to go barefoot so when I spotted Vibram’s FiveFinger ‘glove slippers’ a while back I thought they looked fun. Recently I took the plunge and selected the TrekSport model, thinking they were the most heavy-duty and hike-worthy of the range. The price is nuts, up to £100 or more in the UK, and as it is I’m still a bit shocked I actually paid $85 (£55) for these.

A BBC article shows how Vibram hit the jackpot when a bit of in-house experimental fun coincided with a barefoot running craze in the US. Sales went through the roof, and with success came the attack of the clones which the article describes.
Outside of California, you might feel a bit silly going shopping in a pair of 5Fs, but it has to be said they do raise a smile, and where possible, less clumpy footwear is always better. I’ve read rave reviews about the improved feel and ‘back to nature’ ergonomics of 5Fs, allowing the wearer to reconnect their feet with the [mother] earth so as to run not unlike the virile, loin-clothed hero from the 1980s Countryman movie (brilliant reggae soundtrack, btw).

Out the box the TrekSports don’t exactly slip on like a pair of well-oiled Crocs. It took a lot of fiddling to get my smaller toes into the corresponding pockets. Once done, you tug on the velcro band to secure them round the ankle and step out. On the first walk, heading into Willow Gulch down in Escalante, the baking sand on a 105-degree day burned through to my feet, but at least the close fit stopped any of that sand getting in.
Later on, in the shallow creek, they gripped reassuringly on all surfaces, even wet and slimy, and were certainly better than bare feet; the studded tread worked well. But for boulder-hopping they weren’t quite as secure as the Omniums, feeling a bit like the rubber-soled socks that they are. And after a couple of hours of wading some grit did get in which required a rinse out followed by a repetition of the tedious refitting dance. If there’s a knack to putting them on, I haven’t got it yet because next day up in the cooler Box Death Hollow forests, it took Five Minutes to get each Flipping Foot’s Five Fingers into Freakin’ Place. Tracking and crossing the rushing stream along the faint path for a few hours, the inevitable toe-stubbing plus head-on or side glances meant each time we crossed the stream I lingered a bit to let my throbbing toes numb a little in the cold water. I ended that walk deciding that while clearly not pretending to be a hiking boot, the many-toed TrekSports were too flimsy to be trekky after all.

The Emperor’s new shoes?
And so we must ask the five thousand finger question: do individual toe pockets on slipper-like footwear give any actual advantages in comfort, agility and performance against a regular water shoe?
Short of being a chimpanzee, I have to say not that I could tell. Had they been just a pair of snug-fitting, ten-dollar plimsoles or even a wetsuit ankle boot, they’d have worked as well on the trail and in the river. As it is, the thin soles transmit sharper rocks and maybe I’m clumsy, but in particular, the lack of toe protection bashed my toes as painfully as I recall back in my Teva open-sandal days.
But that is for boatless creek wading. For something like a day paddle in my packraft, with its tight foot area for my size 11 feet, the Vibrams may have a use, being light and robust enough to deal with put-ins and portages. On cooler UK paddles where socks can’t be worn, they may not be warm enough.

And then you have to ask: how long will something this thin and stretchy last? About as long as some of my socks I suspect. I did also wonder if just two toe pockets – a ‘foot mitten’ – might satisfy the anatomical ergonomists who believe in the benefits of full toe articulation while making the shoe a whole lot easier to put on?
It seems so with Vibram patent dodging 3T Barefoots from Bodyglove with three toe pockets. They seem to be pitched at SUP paddlers and not trekkers, but if I’d seen them earlier, I may have gone for them instead. I’m pleased to have tried the Fives but since sold them.

It’s worth remembering that you can’t wear socks (including drysuit socks) with such shoes, so for warm weather only.

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