In my original Vibram FiveFingers review last summer, I described the revolutionary product as a disruptive innovator for the manner in which it completely changed the market in ways that mainstream footwear companies never anticipated. Since that time, Vibram’s popularity has soared, and the shoe industry is still scrambling - sometimes thoughtfully, other times rather hysterically - to figure out how to respond.
And while their increasing appeal guarantees that Vibram won’t take anyone by surprise anymore, they continue to take the “innovator” label very seriously: between fall 2009 and fall 2010, they will have introduced no fewer than four new models to their product line, effectively doubling their previous lineup. Many of the tweaks and upgrades are driven by user feedback; since the activity profile of Vibram FiveFingers (typically abbreviated VFF) users is incredibly diverse, the company invites and embraces customer feedback about new applications and ideas for improvement. It was in just such a manner that the KSO Trek was born.
In a nutshell, the KSO Trek is a more rugged version of the popular KSO model that I’ve reviewed previously. The KSO had become the de facto model of choice for trail runners – including myself – because to that point it was the most durable model Vibram had to offer. High mileage trail runners experienced some issues with durability of the uppers and traction of the outsole (this was the primary drawback I experienced), and Vibram has addressed both of those concerns quite effectively with the Trek, which is now identified on the company website as the designated model for trail runners.
The updates are fairly dramatic, and easily apparent. They’ve also triggered a bit of discussion among consumers for various reasons, which will be pointed out shortly. For now, let’s get to the review - starting from the top, and working our way down.
One concern identified by longtime VFF trail runners was the durability of the KSO’s mesh upper against various ground hazards. During any trail run, there’s a good chance that parts of the upper will rub against rocks, thick pine needles, fallen branches, and all manner of sticks or twigs that get jammed into the top of the foot or lodged between the toes. Some of these hazards would potentially cause punctures or loose seams with long-term use. Vibram’s solution to this concern is the use of kangaroo leather on the upper of the KSO Trek.
Kangaroo leather is a pretty amazing material – it’s incredibly soft and smooth to the touch, and feels like velvet against your skin. It is very thin with outstanding breathability, but is as strong and tear resistant as traditional cowhide. The specific kangaroo leather Vibram uses is called K-100, which provides excellent water resistance and a "microblok" anti-microbial treatment to help with the inevitable stench factor. However, it’s also a material choice that stirred up a bit of controversy when it was originally announced.
Although kangaroo products are a traditional commodity in the Southern Hemisphere, animal rights proponents in various locales have objected to its use over the years. As recently as 2007, it was illegal to buy or sell kangaroo products in my home state of California, but today kangaroo meat and leather goods are commonly exported all over the world. Although they’re much cuter than North American cattle, kangaroos essentially serve a similar industrial need Down Under – and in much of Australia, they are seasonally hunted like deer (because for obvious reasons, they’re harder to shoot than cattle) as a means of population control. Nevertheless, some Vibram users object to the notion of killing Kanga just to make a pair of foot coverings.
Part of this probably has to do with the fact that many early Vibram adopters were the barefoot crowd - a group that has traditionally had a distinct Earth-loving tree-hugging vegan peacenik hippie element to it. (Remember this ambush interview by the Raw Food folks?) For that particular crowd, any animal products will be cause for protest – but if you’re already a meat-eater or consumer of animal products, the use of kangaroo leather shouldn’t be a moral issue for you.
(Sorry for the digression. Stepping off my political soapbox now … )
The middle of the Trek features a 4mm EVA midsole, which is a full 2mm thicker than the standard KSO. It’s a tangible increase in cushioning compared to the KSO – which makes pure minimalist runners raise their eyebrows – but I didn’t notice any sacrifice in ground feel. You can still detect every bump and pebble on the trail, but your foot feels more comfortable on all types of terrain.
Underfoot, the Trek makes a significant upgrade from the KSO by using a lightly cleated 4mm performance rubber outsole for improved traction. In my KSO review, the only performance-related drawback I encountered was some slippage on steep slopes with loose gravel. I’m very happy to report that the new outsole is more than adequate to take on that kind of terrain, as well as any other trail conditions you encounter.
My Treks happened to arrive right on the cusp of our rainy season, so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to get them muddy and sloppy over the past several weeks. I’ve gone up and down rocky slopes, traversed muddy single tracks, and done quite a bit of rock-hopping back and forth across stream crossings. While the knobby outsole isn’t at the caliber of the grippiest shoes I’ve ever worn (in my book, that’s still La Sportiva's Wildcat and Crosslite, with the Salomon SpeedCross2 a close second), they perform as well as the majority of dedicated trail shoes out there.
From top to bottom, the Trek is an outstanding improvement over the KSO for dedicated trail runners: it’s comfortable, durable, and rugged, and built to handle any type of terrain. Best of all, despite all the augmentations to the shoe, somehow Vibram managed to keep the weight the same; the Treks weigh 5.7 oz each, identical to the original KSOs. The only thing that’s heavier about this model is the price.
This has been another source of discussion among VFF users: the retail price of $125, which is a significant increase from the $85 KSOs. Most of the inflation is attributable to the upper - apparently high-performance kangaroo leather doesn’t come cheap – and like all VFFs, there’s no “500 mile rule” for midsole breakdown, so the $125 you spend for Treks should last you much longer than the same amount for a pair of traditional trainers. But justified as the price point may be, it might be hard for some folks to embrace the benefits of “barefoot” wear that costs more than most bulky or high-tech performance shoes.
Consequently, the decision to go with the Treks over standard KSOs should boil down to your intended use. If you want something to use equally on roads and trails, or if your local trails aren’t terribly technical, you can probably get by with the regular KSOs. If you’re a devoted trail runner who takes on all sorts of terrain and wants something tough enough for all conditions, the Trek is well worth the investment.
From my standpoint, the Trek is absolutely ideal – it features all the improvements over the KSO that trail runners have asked for, while maintaining the lightness and ground feel of purely minimalist footwear. In fact, I’m so confident about their comfort and performance that doing an ultra in the Treks seems completely manageable. I’m hoping to build my overall mileage in them significantly over the course of the spring and summer, and I’ll keep you posted with updates as I look towards potential races in the fall.
The Vibram FveFingers KSO Trek retails for $125 from TravelCountry.com as well as other online vendors.
*Product provided by Vibram USA
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at email@example.com.
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