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Reviews > Footwear > Trail Shoes > Vibram Five Finger FLOW > Test Report by Mike Curry

VIBRAM FIVEFINGERS FLOW
TEST SERIES BY MIKE CURRY
LONG-TERM REPORT
November 14, 2008

CLICK HERE TO SKIP TO THE FIELD REPORT
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TESTER INFORMATION

NAME: Mike Curry
EMAIL: thefishguyAThotmailDOTcom
AGE: 38
LOCATION: Aberdeen, Washington
GENDER: M
HEIGHT: 5' 11" (1.80 m)
WEIGHT: 235 lb (107.00 kg)

I've been backpacking, climbing, ski-packing, bushwhacking, and snowshoeing throughout the mountains of Oregon and Washington for the last 25 years. I'm an all-season, all-terrain, off-trail kind of guy, but these days (having small kids) most of my trips run on the shorter side of things, and tend to be in the temperate rainforest. While I've carried packs (with winter climbing gear) in excess of 70 pounds (32 kilos), the older I get the more minimalist I become.


INITIAL REPORT

PRODUCT INFORMATION & SPECIFICATIONS

IMAGE 1
Vibram FiveFingers FLOW
Manufacturer: Vibram
Year of Manufacture: 2008
Manufacturer's Website: www.vibramfivefingers.com
MSRP: US$ 90.00
Listed Weight: 6.6 oz (187 g) each, 13.2 oz (374 g) per pair (Men's Size 42)
Measured Weight: 7.1 oz (201 g) right, 7.0 oz (198 g) left, 14.1 (400 g) per pair (Men's Size 43)
Other details:

Size tested - Men's Size 43.

My normal US size is 11 1/2 (EUR 45), however I determined fit for the FiveFingers FLOW using the sizing chart and measuring method provided at the manufacturer's website. The measuring technique involves placing a ruler on the floor with one end against the wall, then placing your heel against the wall, and measuring the length of your foot on the ruler. The length is then looked up on a chart at the manufacturer's website to determine the appropriate size.

Sole option tested was the camo sole, described at the website as being made of Vibram TC-1 performance rubber.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

The Vibram FiveFingers FLOW shoes arrived with a small brochure (describing the FiveFingers line of shoes, their suggested uses, and instructions), and a small sheet providing Fitting Tips for the FLOW shoes.

My first impressions of the FiveFingers FLOW shoes were that they looked really interesting. I tend to be attracted to anything unusual, or that might be considered a conversation starter, and these certainly fit the bill. The first thing I examined was the uppers, which are constructed of relatively thin neoprene material. The stitching seems very well done, and overall I find the uppers very attractive.

IMAGE 3
Vibram FiveFingers FLOW Straps
Turning my attention to the straps, I continued my initial examination. Two straps exist on each shoe, both originating from a common point on the outside edge of the sole, with one passing over the arch and one passing behind the heel. On the inside edge of the sole is a flap with two slits in it that the straps pass through. The straps then pass back over themselves and attach with hook and loop closures. The heel strap passes through a loop below a heel pull-tab to keep it in position. These construction details are visible in the photo. The material these straps and the heel pull tabs are made of is a thin, rubbery feeling material (described at the manufacturer's website as Hypalon) that has absolutely no discernable give when I try to stretch it. The stitching and quality of construction on the straps appear to be quite good.

Examining the soles, I was pleasantly surprised to find several things. First, the Vibram TC-1 performance rubber they are constructed of is thicker than I expected, looking to be about 0.1 in (2.5 mm) thick in most locations. I was also pleased to find the soles are flexible, yet feel fairly tough. While I expected something that felt more like a rock climbing shoe sole, the material is less flexible and less "sticky" than climbing shoes I've used.

The biggest surprise, and one that made me very happy, I discovered when flexing the shoes. While the FiveFingers website describes the black soles as being siped for better traction, I had the impression from the way they phrased it at the website that the camo sole was not. I was more than a little surprised to find siping at the heel and across the ball of the foot on the sole. The siping is not obvious except when the shoes are flexed, as in the photo below.

IMAGE 2
Bent Back to Show Siping
Last of all, two hang tags were attached to the shoes. One provided basic information on the FiveFingers shoes, and on the back suggested wearing them for 1-2 hour intervals for the first few weeks. The second described the Aegis Microbe Shield technology, which is supposed to "provide protection against odor, staining, and deterioration caused by bacteria, fungus, and other organisms." Odor control is something I'll watch closely.

READING THE INSTRUCTIONS

The provided instructions, both in the brochure and the lid of the box, provided tips for getting the FiveFingers FLOW shoes on. The brochure included care and cleaning instructions, which indicate machine washing (gentle cycle) with cold water and a powder detergent followed by hang drying is the preferred cleaning method. The tips for getting them on were very straightforward, but included a number of things (like walking barefoot on a carpet for a few minutes before putting them on, and inserting toes before pulling up the heel) that might not be intuitive.

TRYING IT OUT

Putting on the FiveFingers FLOW shoes for the first time was somewhat challenging. While I basically followed the instructions, my feet were a little sweaty at the time, and sliding sweaty feet into snug neoprene isn't easy. Two things that may have made it easier for me is that I used to be a scuba instructor and am used to putting on neoprene shoes (low-cut dive booties are somewhat similar in feel to the FiveFingers FLOW), and I can easily spread my toes apart.

My first thought, after slipping them on, was surprise at how comfortable they felt. While my toes were spread slightly wider than they usually are when I walk barefoot (because of the material between my toes) I didn't find this at all uncomfortable. Aside from my toes being separated, they reminded me of low-cut dive booties, though the sole on the FiveFingers FLOW conform to my foot shape, where dive booties do not.

My first couple of steps were my next surprise. While I found them comfortable, on a continuum between walking barefoot and wearing running shoes, I found the feel to be more in the middle than I expected (I guess I had expected more of a "barefoot" sensation). I found it difficult to move my toes independently because of the resistance of the neoprene uppers and the soles. The sensitivity of my feet to the ground was greatly improved over running shoes or hiking boots, but not as close to being barefoot as I'd expected. Mostly this was due to the thickness of the sole, but after walking outside over gravel and pavement, I think it strikes a good balance between being more sensitive while still providing good protection to the soles of my feet.

I have to admit that in terms of overall fit, I was pleasantly surprised. My foot shape is somewhat odd, but these shoes allow for a good fit even despite most of my oddities. The most difficult aspects of shoe fitting for me (my wide ball of foot and broad toe spread) were no problem at all. The narrowness of my foot ahead of my Achilles tendon (above my normal width heel but below my ankle bone) is not a problem due to the flexible neoprene material. The only fit concern I have is my toes, which are somewhat bulbous at their tips, and my big toe, which is fairly wide. I've experience some pressure and discomfort (and at times, pain) the first few days of wearing them, but am hoping it is due to my feet needing to adapt to the unique footwear. I have noticed that usually discomfort only seems to occur after periods of sitting, and isn't as much a problem when I'm moving. I will pay close attention to this throughout testing.

Having worn them for four days now, trying to get my feet used to them, I've made some additional observations. First, I tend to be more sure-footed than normal in these than most footwear. Also, while the soles offer a lot of protection, they offer more sensitivity than I suspected at first (as my feet have adapted, I've become more attuned to the sensations, and it's more like being barefoot now than I thought at first). Finally, I'm only able to wear them for about 4 hours before my toes become too uncomfortable to go on (which may be why the manufacturer suggests wearing them only for an hour or two for the first few weeks). This discomfort isn't because of the toe spread, but rather from pressure points I believe. I'm going to keep a close eye on this, and am hoping I can get to where I can wear them all day comfortably.

PEOPLE'S REACTIONS

I feel people's reactions deserve a special note in this report, due to the somewhat unusual nature of this footwear. My kids both love them. My wife still isn't sure if she likes them or not. At my office (the first place I wore them) my staff and coworkers gave a range of reactions. The first comment from a staff member was that I looked like a dork (which may have stemmed from the fact that I was wearing jeans and a polo with them). Others that were clearly intrigued and thought they were cool, or at least interesting.

After several days of wearing them a few hours each day to get my feed used to them, most often to the YMCA, I'm surprised at how many people I find staring at my feet, and how few people actually say anything about them. People often stare, and sometimes talk about them to each other, but nobody has said or asked anything about them directly to me.

SUMMARY

Overall, I have found the Vibram FiveFingers FLOW shoes to appear well constructed, fairly comfortable, and definitely an eye-catcher and conversation starter. I look forward to seeing how they perform on the trail on a variety of surfaces over the coming months.

I would like to thank Vibram and BackpackGearTest for the opportunity to test the FiveFingers FLOW shoes. This concludes my Initial Report. My Field Report will be appended to this report in approximately two months. Please check back at that time for additional information.


FIELD REPORT

FIELD LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS

I have used the Vibram FiveFingers FLOW shoes on backpacking trips and day hikes totaling approximately 15 days during the field report period, and have worn them as general footwear on approximately 10 additional days to better assess their comfort and performance on a variety of surfaces. I try to wear them for at least 4-6 hours 2-3 days a week, even if just around the house, as I find that my feet need to adapt to them again if I do not.
IMAGE 1
FLOWs on Trail at Mt. Rainier


Terrain has ranged from flat (coastal beaches) to steep (day-hiking at Mt. Rainier), at elevations ranging from sea level to over 5,000 ft (1524 m). Temperatures have ranged from near 40 F (4 C) to 95 F (35 C). Surface treads have included sand, duff, dirt, mud, asphalt, concrete, cedar boardwalks, gravel, wet and dry rock, grass, and general vegetation.

Weather conditions have been generally dry, though I have worn them during occasional showers as well. Pack weights I have carried while wearing the shoes have ranged from 10 lb (4.5 kg) to 22 lb (10 kg).

PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD

Overall, the Vibram FiveFingers FLOW shoes have performed well under a broad variety of conditions. Before addressing their general performance, I would like to discuss my experience surrounding their comfort.

I can't say I find the shoes comfortable, but I do enjoy wearing them. Initially, I wasn't sure if the discomfort was caused by the shape of my toes and feet or rather my trying to wear them too long, too soon. I decided to break myself into them more gradually, wearing them only an hour a day, and adding an hour each day until I was up to 6 hours. In doing so I discovered that some of the discomfort I felt was due to my feet not being used to them, some of it was due to foot care habits, and some of it was due to the shape of my toes.

The gradual break-in relieved much of the general aching I'd experience at first. It also allowed me to notice that for the shoes to be comfortable I had to keep my toenails trimmed very short. Not doing so caused pain after a couple of hours under my toenails. Also, I discovered that my callouses needed to be almost entirely removed or I would experience pain at those points. After addressing the foot care issues, I was left with only two points of soreness while wearing the shoes, both on my right foot (which is my larger foot). One is the toe next to my little toe, which must be longer than normal as it feels jammed, and becomes painful after about 4-5 hours. The other is the outside of the joint on my big toe. Even after removing the large callous that I've had for years in that spot, I still experience shooting pain there after about 6 hours of wear. It appears that where the sole wraps around the side of my toe applies pressure on this spot, but only on my right foot, and it is only painful after several hours. For these reasons, I try to limit their use to no more than 5-6 hours a day.

Beyond the comfort concerns, there are several other disadvantages I have experienced, all of which I consider minor. When in a pack, or tossed in a corner, the hook and loop closures on the straps tend to stick to each other in all sorts of weird ways and can be challenging to untangle. Sometimes the straps will grab each other while I'm trying to put them on, but if I'm paying attention to what I'm doing this rarely happens. The rear strap, over my heel, rides lower than I'd like. Though it hasn't caused any problems, it doesn't feel secure, which causes me to be less confident in my steps when reaching up with my toes, as it feels like the heel might just pop off. Also, the ankle opening doesn't keep soft, dry sand out very well, but it also doesn't seem to bother me having sand in these as much as it can with other footwear. Finally, I find the shoes remarkably hot in warm weather (and look forward to wearing them more this fall as our temperatures begin to cool off).
IMAGE 2
FLOWs on a Day Hike at the Beach


Now, with all these potential disadvantages, why do I still enjoy wearing them? Because they offer excellent traction over a very wide range of surfaces while allowing me to feel like I'm almost barefoot! Of all the surfaces I've tried them on, the only surface they didn't provide at least as good of traction on as other shoes I've worn is steep, muddy slopes. Here they offered about the same quality traction as going barefoot would, which is basically dig my toes into the goo and pray. On most surfaces I would say their traction is comparable to good soft-soled trail shoes, but on the surfaces I generally find most treacherous, including slippery, damp cedar boardwalks and smooth, wet rocks, I find their traction superior to anything else I've tried. I'm not certain if this is because of the sole itself or the fact that I have better sensitivity through the sole, but I've experienced absolutely no slipping on these surfaces.

It's important to note that I'm a person that likes going barefoot, and often walk around camp barefoot while on backpacking trips. I like the ability to feel what is under my feet, but rarely hike any distance barefoot out of fear of foot injury. On a recent day hike along the coast, I actually stepped on a piece of broken glass in the gravel parking lot coming back from the hike, and the sole of these shoes not only protected my feet but don't appear to have sustained any damage.

The sensitivity while wearing these shoes is not that of being barefoot, but is fairly close. I can easily tell without looking if I'm walking on grass, pavement, gravel, or dirt, and can feel, for example, a small pebble laying on a sidewalk. Unlike being barefoot, however, stepping on a sharp-edged rock on a sidewalk isn't painful while wearing these shoes, but I sure know it's there. While rock hopping across a stream, I feel perfectly the shape and contour of the rock beneath my foot, though the thin, flexible sole also requires a lot of foot flexibility. The more I wear these shoes on uneven terrain, the more of that flexibility I seem to develop.

While the shoes are uncomfortably warm for me in hot weather, they offer excellent protection from hot surfaces (like asphalt) and even though my feet sweat profusely in them after about an hour, they haven't developed any of the smell my family usually fears from other hiking footwear. In many ways, I've found these shoes to be full of compromises, but they are compromises I'm willing to make for being able to feel better connected to the ground on shorter trips, or trips where I'd really like to be barefoot.

SUMMARY

Overall, the Vibram FiveFingers FLOW shoes offer excellent traction on most surfaces, and allow me much of the sensitivity of walking barefoot while providing protection from injury. Though not comfortable for long periods due to the shape of my feet, I still find them to be an enjoyable and utilitarian addition to my hiking footwear.

I would like to thank Vibram and BackpackGearTest for the opportunity to test the FiveFingers FLOW shoes. This concludes my Field Report. My Long-Term Report will be appended to this report in approximately two months. Please check back at that time for additional information.


LONG-TERM REPORT

LONG-TERM TEST LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS

During long-term testing, I have worn the Vibram FiveFingers FLOW Shoes for approximately 8 additional days during day-hikes and as camp shoes on backpacking trips. Locations continued to be on the Olympic Peninsula of Western Washington, at elevations ranging from sea level along the coast to over 4,000 ft (1,219 m) in the Olympic Mountains.

Terrain has continued to be varied, including rock, gravel, and sand along the coast, and duff, dirt, heather, and rock in the Olympic Mountains.

Weather conditions have primarily been dry and warm, with temperatures in the 55-90 F (13-32 C) range. Within the last two weeks I have had the opportunity to test these shoes at temperatures that were lower, down to 38 F (3 C). I also have recently been able to test them in heavy rain for the first time.

PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD

The Vibram FiveFingers FLOW shoes continue to perform admirably in terms of traction on most surfaces. Jagged rock can be uncomfortable due to the sensitivity provided by this footwear, however it is far less painful than going barefoot. Mud, or wet clay, seem to be the only surfaces where traction is less than ideal, and I would rate it fairly poor (about the same as trying to climb a muddy slope barefoot) under those conditions. Outside those conditions, however, I would say they provide outstanding traction.

I have found that the shoes are more comfortable for me at cooler temperatures, especially below 50 F (10 C). I don't know if it is because my feet are less prone to swelling at lower temperatures, or because my feet are numbed somewhat (my feet tend to be cold in cooler weather), but the overall comfort, particularly around the pressure points at my toes (described in my Field Report), is much better at cooler temperatures than at warmer temperatures. Down to 38 F (3 C) I continued to find my feet comfortable in terms of foot temperature, however I'm used to having cool or cold feet, and don't generally find that uncomfortable. At 38 F (3 C) my feet were definitely cool, and I wouldn't want to wear them in temperature much lower.

There was a two-week period when I did not wear the FiveFingers FLOW shoes at all shortly after the Field Report. Upon putting them on again, I had to take several days to get my feet adjusted to them, however it took less time. I also had not cared for my calluses prior to starting to wear them again, and the large callous on the outside of my big toe created a painful pressure point again. Removing the callous helped, however that continues to be a source of discomfort any time I wear the shoes for more than about four to six hours.

The shoes continue to look good. I have not washed them, however a small sweat stain between the toes disappeared after wearing them in the rain for several hours. There is no noticeable wear on the sole, which surprised me. There is some minor fraying of the outside edges of the hook and loop closures along the straps, but other than that they look much as they did when I received them.

Stream crossings are another area in which I have been able to test the shoes during long-term testing. Most stream temperatures I would estimate at 40 F (4 C). I have generally forded most streams barefoot in the past, with the numbing cold reducing the discomfort of crossing our mostly rocky streambeds. The FiveFingers FLOW shoes greatly increased my comfort, provided excellent traction on slippery rock bottoms (at least as good as going barefoot), and kept my feet warmer in the cold streams than other methods.

I would like to add a final comment on people's reactions to these shoes. I have had, over the course of testing, over a dozen people interrogate me regarding these shoes. The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, with most people asking me where they can be purchased.

SUMMARY

Overall, the Vibram FiveFingers FLOW shoes provide excellent traction on a broad variety of surfaces, and provide the best traction on wet rock and cedar boardwalks of any footwear I've used. The sensitivity provided by the thin soles provides a good balance with the need for foot protection. The only drawbacks I have found is that they take some effort to put on, and with my larger toes there are pressure points that can cause significant discomfort if I wear them more than 4-6 hours at a time.

CONTINUED USE

I anticipate that I will continue to use the Vibram FiveFingers FLOW shoes in the future, but on a much more limited basis. While I love them for slippery rock-hops along our coastal stretch, or along our sandy beaches, I will probably wear them for no more than a few hours at a time in these locations, due to the discomfort I experience with long-term wear. I will likely also continue to use them for stream crossings, as well as short day-hikes with my family, especially during cooler weather.

This concludes my Long-Term Report. I would like to thank Vibram and BackpackGearTest for the opportunity to test these shoes.

This report was created with the BackpackGearTest.org Report Writer Version 1. Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.

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