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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.

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Just 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 Jul 31 '13 at 22:58

8 Answers 8

up vote 36 down vote accepted

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.

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Very 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 Jun 13 '12 at 12:36
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If 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 Jun 21 '12 at 20:47
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Would 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 Jul 2 '12 at 21:57

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.

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+1 for personal experience rather than speculation. –  Mr.Wizard Aug 28 '13 at 20:30
    
I have had a very similar experience –  DudeOnRock Aug 28 '13 at 23:21

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.

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I 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 May 8 '13 at 17:56

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.

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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! ;-)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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