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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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