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April 21, 2011

Hiking Yosemite in Vibrams: Minimalist FAQ

Today’s post is something of a precursor for one to follow next week – or perhaps it’s more of a long tangent that I figured would justify a post all its own.

The main story next week will be how our family spent two days hiking some of Yosemite National Park’s signature trails, in conditions that would be called adventurous even by ultrarunner standards. The side story is that I did both hikes in Vibrams – just as I’ve done for all of my hiking over the past year and a half – and about all of the comments, inquiries, and occasional snickering that I received along the way.

Freak feet!

I’ve mentioned a few times that minimalist footwear is becoming a bit more commonplace in the ultrarunning community, to the point where you’re not automatically considered an idiot or a freak for showing up to run 50 miles in a pair of moccasins or barefoot shoes. However, among hikers, there’s definitely still a strong element of surprise and disbelief. If I had a nickel for every time I heard something like Did you see what that guy was wearing? or Oh my gosh, that guy was in toe shoes! or even some kind of smart aleck remark after I passed somebody going the opposite direction, I would have finished the hike noticeably wealthier than when I started.

I’m pleased to note that several other people didn’t just make comments in passing, but actually stopped to ask me direct questions about the Vibrams - and since I ended up answering a lot of the same inquiries multiple times, I thought that a public debriefing would be useful to anyone who might come across another minimalist idiot in Yosemite someday. Because chances are, that idiot might very well be me.

So here’s what I heard most frequently on the trail over the two days of hiking …

Q: Do those give you enough support?

A: This was probably the most common question I received, and it’s quite clear that conventional wisdom about having a sturdy footbed and firm structure around the ankle is alive and well among recreational hikers. Of course, the proper answer is no, they don’t give me any support … but that’s the whole point. Unfortunately, passing someone on the trail doesn’t really afford you enough time to have a whole discussion about the inherently brilliant natural architecture of the foot, so I typically summarized this point by saying “I just let the foot do the work”. Which I’m sure didn’t make any sense to half of the people I told, but you never know.

Q: Don’t you need any cushioning?

A: If question #1 was about support, #1A was about cushioning. To be sure, Yosemite’s classic trails have a huge amount of granite, often irregularly shaped and jagged, which to many hikers means you need a thick, soft midsole to absorb the impact.

There's a trail there somewhere

My answer for this was similar as the first one – I let my foot do the work – with one caveat: I do tend to “pick my line” a bit more carefully when I’m descending the steep, rocky trails than I used to in standard trail shoes. It’s very similar to the accommodation I make while trail running, where I take the steep downhills noticeably slower than my previous “bombs away” fashion – but it’s not as big of a difference as you might expect. I still jump down onto rocks, or bound from one jagged granite step onto another … but there’s just an extra dose of caution thrown in there for good measure – which, considering that I was hiking with my kids instead of racing to get a belt buckle, is probably a good thing.

Q: Do your feet get wet?

A: Yes, definitely. Depending on the conditions, this is the one legitimate drawback to wearing Vibrams on the trail; if air temperatures are decently warm, it’s not a big deal, but if it’s cold outside (or if the ground is cold – see below), your toes definitely get chilled far more easily than in standard footwear. The flip side of this is that if you’re doing full immersions at stream crossings, the Vibrams dry much more quickly than traditional shoes – and at Yosemite in the springtime, crossing runoff channels just goes with the territory.

Hard to see ... but there's a stream running straight down the trail

The only time when I had an issue with comfort was during a stretch of about 45 minutes of continuous snow; between my feet being soaked and the frigid ground sucking heat away from me, my toes got a little bit painful. Luckily, the only remedy I needed was to sit on a warm rock every now and then and let the sun shine on my black-clad toes for a while, and I was fine. But if there hadn’t been rocks to sit on every so often, I would have been fairly bummed.

Warming my toes in the sun

Q: How is the traction?

A: Pretty much the same as regular shoes, but for this trip, I decided to be a little extra cautious and chose my newer pair of Trek Sports rather than my traditional standby KSO Treks, because the outsole lugs were a little more worn down on the older Treks. Between the knobby outsole and the ability of your foot to grip the ground naturally, traction has almost been a non-factor for me in Vibrams, with a couple of exceptions.

Thick mist + slick rocks + steep steps = a challenge coming back down

On steep descents, if the rocky surfaces are both irregular and wet, I have to be even more careful about where I’m placing my feet. If the steep descent has a lot of loose gravel, I have some occasional slipping, but I’d say it’s about equivalent to the troubles I see other people having in their super-lugged SUV boots. So I wouldn’t say they’re slip-proof, but they’re probably the equivalent of most standard trail shoes or boots out there.

Q: Don’t your feet hurt?

A: The short answer is no, but I’m always careful to include something like “it takes some getting used to” or “I’ve been doing this for a while”. Over the course of a couple of years, I’m now at the point where spending all day on my almost-bare feet on rocky trails isn’t that big of a deal, but if you’re a newbie minimalist and try to hike up and down some crazy rugged trails, you’ll definitely get sore feet afterward. Last year, I did the Mist Trail hike in Vibrams; it was one of the first day hikes I had done in them, and I do remember having significant soreness afterward. This year, I did the same route with no problems at all. So there’s obviously an adaptation curve to all this, and I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that you just slap on a pair of Vibrams and everything’s suddenly a breeze.

Q: Why do you wear those?

A: Because it’s fun! Actually, check that – it’s magnified fun. The same pleasure that I feel in connecting with the earth during routine runs on my home trails of Monterey County is increased about 100-fold when I’m in one of the most majestic places on the planet. Part of the joy I take in being in wilderness areas is the way I feel at one with the landscape – and when I can feel every bump, pebble, and contour of that landscape as I’m moving across it, I feel even more connected than I ever imagined.

Overlooking the Silver Apron above Vernal Fall

Among all of the minimalist shoes I’ve tested, nothing matches Vibrams in their replicating a true barefoot feel, as if they are a natural extension of the foot – and that’s why they’re my shoe of choice for long days of hiking. And if there was some way for me to put into words the exhilarating feeling of swinging your nearly-naked feet over the precipice of a cliff or the lip of a high waterfall, I think folks would be lined up at the door wanting to experience it for themselves.

Having said all that, however, wearing the Vibrams wasn’t even the highlight of the trip … but for the rest of the story, you’ll have to wait until next week.

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Juls 4/22/11, 7:22 AM  

Great post covering the questions heard over and over and over. I especially like your reason "why" because I really haven't found a more true answer for why I like them for running. I always felt like there must be a better answer but now I feel a bit differently. Thanks for that!

Hope to see you at the Big Sur expo.

Tammy 4/22/11, 7:50 AM  

I brought Vibram 5 Fingers back from Europe in 2007 and wore them hiking and paddling from March to November for 3 years before they finally had to retire. I live on the Coast of British Columbia and tend to hike often in the back country. A few weeks into wearing them, after letting the feet adjust and muscles strengthen to the subtle movements- I must say that I preferred to be on the trails in these than in any other form of footwear. Okay, I have been known to wear mine to the grocery store and also to church when the mood struck me... They are fabulous. As a long distance, but not ultra, runner- my feet and leg health are important to me..

Also, the longevity of the product is amazing.. I throw these in the washing machine and hang to dry after each outing.. because honestly, who likes day old mountain river smell?

Thanks for great articles.. I look forward to your emails!

Ameer the trail running shoes reviewer 4/22/11, 11:04 AM  

lolz "toe shoes", this could be used as a synonym.

When I saw the title of your blog, I thought I would as you some similar questions in this comment box but guess what I got my answer-"I just let the foot do the work" lolz.

@Tammy I don't know if I got this correctly, Is your VFF served you 3 years after all those torcher? That's amazing..

Anne 4/22/11, 2:43 PM  

I'd say about a quarter of the field in my last trail race was wearing these shoes. Glad to hear they work for snowy hikes too.

Gretchen 4/22/11, 7:34 PM  

I've expressed surprise and disbelief on Yosemite trails because I've seen people in high heels, hiking Half Dome, with no water. In August. THOSE are the idiots.

Truthfully though, I give you big props for putting up with the remarks and questions. Even though most of them are probably fairly innocent, just attracting that much attention is reason enough to deter me from wearing Vibrams. It's not that I care so much what other people think - it just sounds like a lot of attention, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Anyway, it's Yosemite, and you were in your fun shoes, and I bet there were roaring falls, and how could it not be awesome, right? :) Can't wait for the full story.

Andy Dufresne 4/24/11, 6:01 PM  

I finally bought a part of Treksports. I went to the store thinking I'd be buying Merrell Trail Gloves, but just wasn't satisfied with the way they felt. KSOs are what got me back into running after a several year layoff after continuously injuring myself. This post had a lot to do with my purchase.

Donald 4/24/11, 8:55 PM  

Tammy: thanks for the great feedback! Sounds like they've been awesomf for you as well.

Andy: thanks for letting me know. Good luck with your Trek Sports!

The five "finger" approach to running 4/30/11, 3:43 PM  

"the proper answer is no, they don’t give me any support … but that’s the whole point." - Exactly!! People never seem to understand that when they ask about them! Good post! I need to try my Vibram's out on some rougher terrain.

Rohit,  8/3/11, 1:52 PM  

Dude! It's great to hear my thoughts reflected! I climbed several Yosemite trails in my KSOs. Just thought what the hey! Lets do this! And it was magnificent! I had a hard time coming down because I'm the controlled fall descent kinda hiker, but by the by, totally worth it!

Anonymous,  7/23/12, 10:29 AM  

I climbed Mt St. Helens in my vibrams yesterday - 9 miles round trip and 1 mile up. It was my first big hike in them and they felt great! When you can feel the ground beneath you, you dont feel so much like you are just stomping over it. I know why i love my vibrams :)

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