Jan.08, 2013, filed under gear
Anyone who has spent enough time in my presence to notice my shoes will know that I’m a committed user of Vibram Fivefingers (VFFs), and have been for the last three years. I am rarely found in anything else when travelling on foot. Initially I started wearing them because they allowed me to walk properly and run again after a serious foot injury. Now I wear them because normal shoes feel weird and wrong, not to mention resurrecting the problems that made me turn to barefoot living in the first place. I have KSOs for work and Bikilas for running.
The problem is, of course, that I live in a maritime climate at a similar latitude to Gothenburg, Yekaterinburg and Fort McMurray. That means that most of the year it is wet, and in the winter it is wet and cold. Outdoor pursuits that involve walking or running in VFFs are out for a large chunk of the year. My damaged foot does not tolerate being cold and wet and VFFs are neither warm nor waterproof.
Or rather, they weren’t.
December 2012 saw the long-awaited release of Vibram’s new insulated and/or waterproof models, the Lontra (and its LS variant) and the Speed XC. To say that I’d been champing at the bit to get hold of a pair is something of an understatement. I’d heard about their coming release back in September and my race season generally starts in March. Losing an entire winter’s training could have scuppered my comeback so I went as far as emailing the UK distributors of Vibram, as well as Vibram Europe and Vibram US.
I think I must have been one of the first UK residents to order a pair, direct from Italy just before Christmas. As I’ve got on so well with the Bikila and the KSO I went for the Lontra as the strap fastening and the neoprene cuff appealed. The shoes arrived on Hogmanay, and our trip down to Fife to see my parents was delayed as I refused to go without them.
They had their first outing on New Year’s Day, on a walk that took us across muddy farmland, along the beach, and back up a muddy path.
First off, this should not be your first pair of VFFs. If you do not already own a pair, this review is of no use to you. Go and try a pair of Classics or KSOs or Treks first. Then you can come back. The reason I say this is because the laminated, water-resistant fabric is very stiff and the fit is snug. I spent 15 minutes getting these on the first time and if my toes didn’t already know what to do I think I might have failed.
If you already own a pair and the fit is on the tolerable side of small, get a size up from your usual. These are tight. The thicker material and overall stiffer shoe affects how your foot sits inside. I have quite small toes — my big toe is indeed my biggest, my little toe is tiny — and the fit is bearably small rather than comfortable. My other VFFs have a tiny gap at the end of the toes and using socks is not a problem. If you live in a very cold climate and want to wear socks then you may find the recommended size too snug for comfort.
You’ll notice from that image that there is a neoprene cuff and an extra loop at the front. If you try putting these on the way you put on KSOs you’ll be there for a while. The instructions are no different, but I would suggest pulling the neoprene up over the heel far enough that the rear loop is accessible and the heel is up against the main body of the shoe, then working the toes into place with the aid of the front loop, and only then pulling the heel up and settling into the heel cup. These are not shoes to use in an offroad triathlon if you want a fast T2.
This may also not be the model for you if you have moderate to high arches. I don’t consider myself to have a particularly high instep, but as you can see from the picture the fastening strap only just reaches the fluff for the velcro. It pops off repeatedly, to the point of irritation. I don’t understand why the shoe has been designed like this, as all it would take is another inch or two of strap and it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s not as if they are worried about putting velcro on the strap — there is plenty of it, but the strap itself is too short. Out of curiosity, I decided to see how compressed the shoe got if I attached the strap near the start of the velcro. Below you can see the shoe done up this way and done up without any compression.
Done up to give a proper foot shape, any flex pops the strap. If I do it up tightly enough for the strap to remain attached, I get painful compression over the top of the foot and my right big toe goes numb. All for the want of an inch or so of strap. It’s mind-boggling.
Performance-wise, these more than live up to expectations. They are warm and cosy, and, although billed as water-resistant rather than water-proof, kept my feet dry through mud, shallow rockpools and even a brief foray into the sea to retrieve a ball a toddler had lost. They let in a spot of wet when I used a jet of water from a hose to wash off the mud, and I can’t complain about that.
Some feedback is lost as the footbed is well constructed to protect against rocks and give traction on slippy surfaces. I had no problems walking over pebbles and rocks, and felt sure-footed over mud. The fleecy liner is comfortable against bare skin — I have not worn them often enough to judge what the infamous funk is like.
All in all these shoes do what I hoped they would do in terms of letting me get out and about in the cold and wet. I am mystified by the strap design, and wish I’d known about the tight fit before I bought them. I would probably have gone for the next size up. I would also have given serious consideration to getting the LS variant, which offers more room for high arches, although I suspect I would still have chosen this model because it has the neoprene cuff. In an ideal world Vibram would offer an LS model with elastic laces and a neoprene cuff, or add a couple of inches to the strap on the Lontra.
For summer walking in the wet these will most likely be too warm and the Speed XC might be the better option.
If you feel the same way about ‘normal’ shoes as I do, then Vibram’s new water-resistant range perform brilliantly in terms of keeping out the wet and the cold. Assuming they are all like the Lontras, they are sized ever-so slightly on the small side; and the Lontras have a serious issue when it comes to the strap design. They aren’t cheap, but there’s not much to choose from when it comes to waterproof, insulated, barefoot shoes.
They are definitely a shoe for the enthusiast, and I hope Vibram will improve on the design to make them a more comfortable, forgiving winter option.