FiveFingers or hiking boots?

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5

I have been wearing Vibram FiveFingers exclusively for three years now. I day hike in them, I exercise in them, I go to to work with them, I hit the beach and swim in them. I have tried wearing "regular" shoes now and again and they cause me pain. So the first thought that came to mind when my wife said let's go hike Scotland was cool I'll buy a new pair of TrekSports for the trip. Then I started to worry that maybe I should buy a pair of hiking boots. I have never gone on a multi-day hiking trip, 4-6 miles a day at 3000' elevation change. I googled a solution but I couldn't find anything definitive. I am heading to Scotland in August.

Should I hedge my bets and buy a pair of hiking boots "just in case", or do you think I would do fine with a couple of pairs of FiveFingers? Any opinions or links to where I can get more information would be appreciated. I am really looking for someone that has gone on a multi-day 60 mile or so hike, with their FiveFingers, that can pass along a little advice.

Varuuknahl

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 303

3Just my anecdotal experience: Five Fingers make great hiking shoes, I love them. Unless I'm carrying weight. If you're backpacking you need a stiff-soled shoe to support the weight. You're feet aren't designed for carrying extra weight while backpacking.theJollySin 2013-07-31T22:58:52.507

Answers

52

I would say the answer is somewhat subjective, and in order to make a fair assessment you will need to invest some time. Carrying a 30-pound pack up and down hills with a week's worth of food and gear produces different stresses on your feet and joints than a water bottle and rain jacket. The fit may seem less perfect if the material between your toes starts to dig in when descending a steep slope. Of course, being so accustomed to the VFFs, it might take you an even longer time to break in new hiking boots and get conditioned in them.

Personally, while I might wear my VFFs or sandals on a short day hike, I am skeptical they would be sufficient on a serious multi-day trip. That is no indictment of Vibram the company or the FiveFingers as a product; for many of the same reasons I would not attempt a mountain hike in Tevas, for example. The reasons include the following:

  • Traction - FiveFingers generally have rather thin soles. In slippery conditions (streambeds, mossy rocks, any kind of wet), having a deeper tread as on a traditional boot will provide better traction and stability.

  • Trail obstacles - Any natural trail has some rough patches. VFFs are thin and provide minimal toe protection. Even when trail running in FiveFingers, I can definitely feel pebbles on the path dig into my sole, and remember every branch I stub into. I've also encountered thorny branches underfoot that pierced their side (though not the sole). Remember, you will be weighed down with gear for 4-6 days' travel, not just your day pack, so your footfalls will be much higher impact.

  • Cold - VFFs are not designed for warmth; end of story. In a sudden mountain rainstorm, your feet will get much colder than they will in traditional boots and socks.

  • Dirt - It will be difficult in muddy, dusty, or sandy conditions to keep grit out of your shoe. This is true to some extent in boots as well, but the effects are moderated with high sides and/or gaiters, tight lacing, and two pairs of socks. I suppose it is possible to wear socks and gaiters with FiveFingers, but I have a hard time picturing an effective combination.

  • Bugs and plants - This may or may not be an issue in Scotland, but in my part of the world it is not uncommon to walk through a patch of grass and come out with a half a dozen ticks on your boots and pants, searching for a patch of skin. Chiggers, leeches, sharp reeds, thistle, poison ivy, and other hazards may also be underfoot depending on the trail. I suppose the bugs could be partly addressed with a permethrin treatment.

  • Snakebites - Again, this may not be so much an issue in Scotland, but snakes were a known hazard where I grew up in Southern California. A boot and socks are thick enough at the ankle to mitigate injury from a small, young snake, but on the other hand I think I only saw about six snakes in the wild in my entire childhood.

  • Stiffness and ankle support - There are pluses and minuses to stiffness, of course, and that is part of the appeal of FiveFingers— that they do not restrict movement. Many hikers are undoubtedly overshod. Still, with a heavy backpack, it is surely easier to maintain lateral stability with a stiffer ankle.

None of the above may be dealbreakers on their own, but they could impact your pacing; perhaps you walk more deliberately around obstacles or stop more often to adjust your toes.

choster

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 980

7Very good and comprehensive answer, although I would disagree that the answer is subjective. For mountain walking in Scotland five-fingers just aren't suitable, particularly with a 30lb pack and if you're doing a multi-day. You really need some cushioning on your soles and good ankle support. They're great when unencumbered, but follow the lead of all the mountain walkers out there who don't use them, at least for the first trip.spikeheap 2012-06-13T12:36:00.913

6If someone was completely used to wearing five fingers the lack of ankle support shouldn't be a big deal even with a heavy pack. I'd say the biggest concern (for someone who is completely used to five fingers) is most definitely the warmth factor and, depending on the terrain, traction.crasic 2012-06-21T20:47:39.183

7Would the person who downvoted explain what they were critical of? This is a fairly comprehensive answer and if possible I'd like to address any criticisms with improvements to the work choster has already given us.Russell Steen 2012-07-02T21:57:18.273

17

Just like you I enjoy hiking in VFFs and I wondered how it would be to do a long backpacking trip in them. I chose the seemingly short 74 mile PCT section in Washington state, that has about 20,000' of elevation gain and loss and most of the trail is rocky. First day was great, just as any day hike, even with the heavy pack. Although my feet started to hurt after about 20 something miles, which was more than I day hiked before. Second day, my feet were in pain and I couldn't do more than 13 miles. Third day felt better and I had no problem covering 20 miles. Last day was the toughest though, for one thing the last 16 miles are all rocky and it was also very hot. Feet were bit swollen and each step was painful. After that, it took about 2 to 3 days to recover and walk/run normally again.

My advice would be, if you plan to do only few miles a day, you'll do just fine. For longer and faster trips, trail running shoes would work better. But then again, you gotta hike in VFF more to condition your feet, so at some point it might be good idea to go for it.

Jiri Vetyska

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 271

3+1 for personal experience rather than speculation.Mr.Wizard 2013-08-28T20:30:52.810

1I have had a very similar experienceDudeOnRock 2013-08-28T23:21:56.897

10

as far as the issue of warmth - they do make special five-finger, wool socks for the VFF that fit perfectly with the shoes. I've combined these and they work great in cold weather. the only time i ever had a bad experience in my VFF was walking several miles on asphalt. trails with rocks, streams, mossy paths - no problem.

Heather

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 101

1I second this. One additional thought: VFF are not water tight. Muddy terrain can cause water to enter from above the shallow rubber sole. Of course they also dry a lot faster than any other hiking boot.DudeOnRock 2013-05-08T17:56:38.957

7

Like the original poster I do everything in VFF's. Anything else causes me pain. Specifically nerve pain, or neuromas, in between the bones of my foot due to compression of my toes.

I've easily hiked 5000 miles in VFF KSO's over the past four years. The majority of which has been on the Pacific Crest Trail. I've hiked for months at a time. My pack baseweight is about 12 lbs. With a fully loaded pack I'm between 30 to 40 lbs. I tend to avoid snow, but I can handle 10 miles or so of slipping around. The cold isn't a problem as long as I stay moving. I use trekking poles, and I am highly dependent upon them. I also use dirty girl gaiters.

scott

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 71

2Thanks for sharing your experience scott. Could you please update your answer with a few links and format it a little bit more? I'm afraid that your answer in its current form is likely to be converted to a comment. However, I feel like it has a lot of potential which would be wasted as a comment.OddDeer 2016-12-29T10:44:25.907

7

The FiveFingers are going to weight less than one pound combined: Buy yourself some hiking boots, and bring your FiveFingers along with you. That way you can test them out without relying on them.

Jason

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 81

7

I hiked about 1000 miles this year in VFF KSO's, most of which was on the PCT. My pack weight varied from 20-35 lbs. The only serious issue I had was the occasional badly stubbed toe. I used dirty girl gaiters.

Like you I have been wearing VFF's everywhere for several years. Also, normal shoes cause me pain. There was very little snow on the PCT in California this year. Had there been more snow I would have employed Lontras. In mud, snow, or ice the KSO's turn into skis.

Sasquatch

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 71

4

I've done a lot of UK upland walking in minimal shoes, plus long Alpine treks with packs up to 30 lbs or so.

A lot depends on the ground you are going to cover. If it's stony, I find that the soles can get a bit tender after a few days of bashing. You might prefer something with a minimalist rock-plate, or buy/make a removable rock-plate (my own solution). On grass or dirt this is a non-issue.

If you're heading anywhere wild, my main concern would be toe protection. I've seen more than one report of broken toes in FiveFingers, which could be very unpleasant in a remote spot. I'm also not convinced that they are ideal for long, steep descents on rough ground.

None of the other issues mentioned in the accepted answer will be a problem in Scottish summer walking: cold, plants, snakes and so on...

For UK conditions my own strong preference is for minimalist conventionally shaped trail shoes like the VivoBarefoot Trail Freak or the New Balance Minimus. These give good ground feel and drainage, and provide good protection for the toes. The Vivo also has protection against anything penetrating the sole - I've had a couple of thorns penetrate the NBs, though without causing any injury.

Obviously, there is a price to pay for the lightness and pleasures of wearing minimal footwear in wild country. Every two or three days you are going to get an eye-watering moment of pain when you do something clumsy. But I've never had anything approaching an actual injury, and a couple of minutes later all is well. You probably understand that already.

So my advice would be to compromise and go for a minimal trail shoe - in my experience if you're fully transitioned you'll be fine. Boots are overkill and will probably cause you trouble now you have adapted to minimal shoes.

This isn't just my opinion, by the way. Chris Townsend and many others have done long upland walks in Scotland in lightweight trail shoes.

Tullochgorum

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 10 068

3

I love my Vibrams, and have been walking, hiking, swimming, climbing and running with them.

I would not use them for multi-day hikes, though. Stepping on the wrong things (sharp/pointy) can give bruises. On a one-day outing I those were in my experience harmless; no problem there.

But in a multi-day hike, it would really not be any fun if you step on something bad the first day (don't need to draw blood, just something that gives you a sore spot) and then have to live with that pain for the rest of the time. I'm not talking about stepping on a rusty nail, that will go through any hiking sole, just your average bad luck.

There are things inbetween Vibrams and boots - look for "trail runners", "offroad runners", Roclite or something like that... Very very comfortable but a lot more material between you and the elements.

AnoE

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 783

3

The options you're proposing are VFFs or hiking boots. There are lots of other options.

What I use most of the time here in California is running shoes. They work great when conditions aren't snowy or wet. The weight is much less than the weight of hiking boots, but if I step on a sharp-edged rock, I have more protection than I'd have with VFFs. I use lightweight gaiters (Dirty Girl brand -- google it) to keep pebbles out.

In certain conditions, sandals such as Cachos can be extremely comfortable. However, in certain conditions (e.g., powdery dust), they can be miserable.

Where are you used to hiking? Are the conditions there comparable to Scotland (which could be wet)? If they're comparable, use what your feet are used to.

GoreTex hiking boots are great when you're hiking through a lot of mud or snow. Other than that, there isn't much reason to put all that weight on your feet, and the weight will just decrease your efficiency. However, the number of miles you're planning to hike is very low, so efficiency may not be an issue.

Ben Crowell

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 18 052

3

I'd go with the vibrams anyday. But do pay attention to road especially when your tired. I once bumped my toes and that wasn't funny.

And remember: if you say your feet need support, you also need support for your jaw! ;-)

Han

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 61

2

I would NOT attempt a backpacking trip of that length with only VFFs if you have only done day hikes in the past. You definitely want to bring a backup pair of shoes.

I have a pair of Altra trail running shoes that are GREAT when my feet get sore. They are all zero drop, and they all have a super wide toe box (I have very wide feet, and my toes comfortably fit in the toe box without touching the sides of the sneakers at all), the sole lugs are extremely grippy, AND they have attachment points for trail running gaiters. They are also lightweight. The main difference between different models is the amount of padding in the sole.

I carry a pair of Altra Olympus 1.5 trail runners in my pack for multiday hikes. They have a TON of cushion, which is perfect when my feet are all beat up from rocky or rugged trails. Look through their selection on Amazon, the level of cushion goes all the way from 1.5" on the Olympus to 15mm super-grippy Golden Spikes.

Chris

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 21

2

I have been wearing my FiveFingers for 2 years now. Since I have put a pair of xc on, I've never put on another shoe except for church. I work, swim and play in them. I really enjoy hiking. I use xc for long distance with no problem. Love them. I do off trail. And find I am more sure footed and no longer slip or turn ankles. I was initially worried about that but do much better in them. I have 18 pairs and depending what I do, I decide what pair to wear. I also live in cold regions with snow. My xc are water proof and warm.

Ray rosen.

Posted 2012-06-12T19:12:13.630

Reputation: 21