Let’s get into this quickly. I love my Vibram Five Fingers, but they are not with out problems. I’ve had the shoes for almost six months now, and they have seen pretty heavy usage. This review will give some of my thoughts on the construction, care and usage of the Vibram Five Fingers. Hopefully you will find it helpful if you are thinking about picking up a pair.
I can’t walk down the street and not catch someone giving me a weird look. People tend to look at shoes much more than you would think. It doesn’t stop at just the looks; I’ve had everything from giving impromptu product demonstrations in stores, to crowds of people surrounding me in a restaurant asking me about the shoes. For a traveler this is great, as anything that can help break the ice right away and make it easier for people to open up to you can be a benefit.
I’ve been traveling now since May 20th and have seen parts of Germany, Turkey and the Netherlands. I brought two pairs of shoes with me on my travels: a pair of leather dress shoes for going out and formal occasions and my Vibram Five Fingers Sprint for everything else. I would estimate that I wear the Five Fingers around 95% of the time that I’m out and about (around the apartment I go barefoot,) so they see their share of abuse.
After a month or so of really heavy usage the Five Fingers have taken a beating. The soles are holding up well, with almost no visible wear. The cloth used on the top of the sprint model is a different story. The rubber on left big toe got caught on a crack in the sidewalk, which lead to the toe dragging agaisnt the concrete forming a hole (see photo). I also have developed a hole between the big toe and fourth toe (or between the little piggy that went to market and the one that stayed home if you will), that most likely formed through friction (see photo). I was able to find some thread that matched the shoes and sewed a temporary patch, but hoped they would hold up to a bit more abuse.
I was extremely sad when this happened.
Even more so when I found this.
You absolutely must keep up on the cleaning or the shoes become uncomfortable to wear. If the thought of cleaning your shoes weekly (or more) under heavy usage is too much for you, you best look elsewhere. Sweat from your feet mixes with dust that gets into the shoes and forms a black paste that adheres to the microfiber bottom. After a day or two of walking around (about 4-5 hours on your feet walking around a city each day), you have to clean them or the sweat/dust paste starts to get slippery and your foot slides around. It’s a terrible feeling, trust me.
Washing them with water and a bit of soap cleans them right up, and only takes about five minutes. I would recommend hand washing them, as I found the washing machine too harsh on the fabric. The fabric around the toes on my sprints is starting to get frayed after the first washing using a machine (see photo). The fraying is mostly a cosmetic issue, and shouldn’t have any noticeable physical effect on the shoes. While it may not be the best option, to keep them looking better I started shaving the frayed fabric off with a standard razor. The concept of shaving your shoes might seem kind of weird, but it seems to work pretty well and keeps the shoes looking better (see photo). Drying them works best in the sun, which can take only a few hours. If you dry them inside away from the sun, plan on letting them sit overnight.
Fuzziness from the washing machine.
Yep. Shaving my shoes.
Vibram Five Fingers are the Swiss Army Knives of shoes. Going rock climbing then sailing? no problem. Need to walk over broken glass all day? Done that. Here are a few of my experiences with them.
Walking: Walking is one area the my Sprints excel at. You can feel every texture beneath your feet. Walking around Europe has been a dream with cobblestone roads and other textures on the street everywhere. It may not be for everyone, but noticing the various textures has added to my travel experience. On some days I’ve put 5-6 hours of walking in while traveling and while wearing the Five Fingers my feet are in far less pain at the end of the day than they would be if I was wearing other shoes.
The day after I arrived in Germany in May, the football (soccer) team from the town I am staying in won the German championship. A huge city wide party took place and there was broken glass everywhere. There was no way to avoid walking on the glass but the Five Fingers (and my feet) came through unscathed. I wouldn’t recommend walking on broken glass all the time, but if your worried about the durability of the soles it’s a pretty good example of their strength.
The whole downtown of Wolfsburg, Germany was like this. Deutsche Meister!
Slacklining: Slacklining with the Five Fingers is almost as good as being barefoot, almost. You can feel the line pretty well and they don’t get in the way. When wearing them for slacklining I worry about getting my toes caught in thinner lines due to the rubber between the toes. It may not be that much of an issue, but it’s something that I will figure out when I get more experience with them. The only solution to this problem is not falling off the line.
Water/Beach: Sand gets into the Sprints which makes its way into the toes creating a sandpaper type effect. I took them off on the beach as I found the grinding of sand against my toes uncomfortable, and no matter how hard you try your going to get sand/rocks inside them. They don’t seem to dry too quickly once they get wet, so if you are planning on wearing them in the water and then out again, plan on having a slightly squishy feeling until they fully dry. I think some of the other models like the KSO’s would be much better for water activities.
Running: Running in the Sprints is also a pretty good experience, but is something you have to work yourself into. If you try running right away you will most likely be in pain. Gradually work your way into it over a few weeks and let your feet muscles get built up. Though even after the break in period, I find running on grass far more enjoyable than concrete as it puts far less stress on your feet.
Bouldering/Rock Climbing: I tried using them for bouldering on my home wall, but had some problems getting a grip on some of the smaller holds. I have not put them though a full climbing test, but in comparison to my bouldering shoes they appear to have less grip in the heal area, which could cause problems on some holds. If you are thinking of buying them as dedicated climbing shoes, you might want to see them in person before buying them, but for people who want a casual climbing shoe they should work great. This is another area that I will require more experience in before I can give a good recommendation for this usage.
I have flat feet and I’ve been known to drag my feet and wear out the back of my shoes. I also have problems with my posture and my back being sore. While they are not a miracle fix for the issues, since I have been wearing the shoes my posture and back have noticeably improved. I also don’t have the problem of dragging my feet anymore. The fact that your feet are getting stronger while wearing them is a huge perk for me. I’ve never felt like my feet have been in better condition.
The Five Fingers have some issues, but for me the positive aspects far outweigh the negative. There is a break in period, but once you get past it they are great. When my pair wears out, I will be most definitely purchasing a new pair. I just hope by then they have some better color choices.
I suck at sewing but the patch works well.
* Update *
Fast forward six or so months from when this review was written. In all my Five Fingers saw 11 countries in 2009 with almost straight use every day during seven months that I was traveling around the world. I wasn’t exactly easy on then, so the above review should be an accurate deception of what you can expect from them under heavy usage. From my understanding Vibram has addressed some of the durability issues with the newer updates to the Five Fingers and some of the problems I experienced should be taken care of. Though when you put any product under heavy usage for a period of time things fail (as will be showcased in an upcoming article regarding my travel gear).
While in Bangkok in November my Five Fingers finally gave out. The right shoe now has a hole in the bottom about an inch in diameter, and the tops of them have multiple rips from catching my foot on cement. I was sad to retire them, as it meant I had to wear normal shoes for the rest of my adventures. I really miss wearing them and can’t wait to get a new pair.
RIP Five Fingers