Last year I thru hiked the AT and for about 1600+ miles I wore KSO Treks. I thought I would give some additional thoughts.
I went through two pairs, the durability averaged out to 800 miles a pair. the first pair being completely destroyed after about 750 miles (It went through worse conditions, could have been replaced at 600miles), and the second pair that is still in descent enough condition to wear after about 850miles (Mostly dry thru the summer months)
To start I want to talk about the problems that I had with the VFF shoe design. In order of occurrence.
1.The VIBRAM LOGO TAG located under the heel was the first thing to cause an issue on both pairs. It bunched up and caused rubbing and discomfort. Had to be torn out before they caused blisters. The fact that it was there is senseless, it serves no purpose.
2. Similarly, The LEATHER BOTTOM INSOLE wears and bunches, due to water, pressure and movement. This like the tag caused a deal of discomfort. I found my self with both pairs sitting in the middle of the trail at some point scratching with my nails and snipping with my Leatherman at the bits of leather bottom, till all but the leather up in the toes and around the sewn edges was gone and the EVA foam underneath was exposed. Knowing what the problem was with the second pair this event came more preemptively.
3. The STICHING AND FABRIC failure between the toes is what made the first pair unusable and it began to happen on the second. Holes either rubbed or stitches tore. it was not a big deal on the small toes but, the big toe was wear I had the most problems with the fabric and it is directly related to number 4 below. Towards the very end of the first pair the rubber was starting to delaminate from the tips of the toes as well. And the left big toe had completely ripped away from the rubber. It kinda of flopped around but was not a huge problem.
4. The BIG TOE RUBBER looks like it needs another 1/4 of rubber added on to the inside, heading towards the second toe. Once the fabric wore out completely my big toe would pop half way out and I would be walking directly on my toe. (also wore a hole through my socks in half a day).
*Caveat - this may not be an issue for every one. This only happened on my right side and I believe it is because of my body and walking gait. At my hip I measured 5mm shorter on my left then on my right. Watching my feet walk, even with all intention towards good form, my Left foot/ Big toe would roll inward onto the extra rubber of the VFF and be cupped in rubber that is on the outside of the big toe. My right foot/ big toe would push outward to the side, causing my big toe to "want to slide off" the rubber, once the fabric wore away, it did. This was a very subtle movement of my unique walking gait but it did play a role in the performance of the shoes. The last 50 miles before Waynseboro VA I was walking directly on the ground with half my right big toe. IT held up pretty well, toughened up.
6. Over time the VFF will BECOME LOOSER on your feet as stitches and fabric stretch and/ or break. When I received my second pair in Waynsboro, VA. The new VFF felt very tight on my feet. While some of this may be attributed to foot swelling, mostly it was because I had gotten so used to the first pair which by that point were in disrepair and falling of my feet.
5. In a related note, the adjustable strap adjust pressure down as well as forward. This became a problem. It was never more evident then when going down the "Priest" (4miles continuous down) With the fabric of the shoe becoming loose, It was important to tightten the strap down. For Three reasons
1.in order to hold the sole of the shoe onto my feet
2.keep my feet from sliding forward causing the fabric in between my toes to cause discomforting pressure
3. keep my feet from sliding forward causing the tips of my toes to jam in to the tips of the VFF, (Think turf toe)
The design of the strap only compounded the problems of 2 and 3. The tighter I strapped my foot down and in, the more the strap would push my toes forward. The Priest was the first time that the trail and my choice to wear VFF caused my feet "irregular pain" that lasted for about a week. I.e. not the regular swelling, but structural in my toes. Normally even when the shoes were loose it was not a problem because you alternate up, down and flat. It was the continuous 4miles straight down that put me over the edge.
OTHER PROBLEMS (in order of importance)
1. MAN MADE SURFACES SUCK!!! Regrettably for most of the time I did not have camp shoes, they were stubbornly deemed not worth there weight. In hind sight I wont hike in VFF again with out some other foot wear. I could not walk more then a hundred feet on any man made surface before my feet would be screaming at me in pain. Through all the rocks of PA and all of the other terrain I crossed nothing compared to the pain that man made surfaces inflict. It is not even close. There is something about a hard flat surface that does not agree with bare feet. I can not emphasize this enough. This was by far the worst aspect of only having VFF as shoes. Even when trying to walk with the best form and placing my feet as gently as I could it still was a problem. Town became a get to the hotel and don't move experience. In one episode while blue blazing on a rode with two fellow hikers I just layed down on someones front lawn, because my feet told me no more road. The solution to that situation was stubbornly wearing my hiking partners hot pink crocs, the desire to be self sufficient and the embarrassment of hot pink crocs was outweighed by the thought of a tasty meal in town.
2. STUBBING TOES - it happens, not that big of a problem, only one stubbed right pinky toe hurt for longer than 30 seconds. But I looked at the ground and my feet a lot!
3. I found the TEMPERATURE MINIMUM for these to be 40* when wet. As for dry im not really sure I would not recommend going below freezing.
PROS - In order of importance
1. NO HEEL LIFT allows the heel to go all the way to the ground, converting from regular hiking shoes the biggest benefit was while going down hill, since your heel was allowed to go down further your knee is not pushed out in front over and past your feet as much. Instead you stay over your feet more putting less strain on your the front of your knees.
(Edit) Additional anecdote: Topic Plantar Fasciitis, I believe that this no heel lift or lowering of a your heel compared to traditional shoes, prevents or helps to alleviate Plantar Fasciitis. With no heel lift your tendon fully stretches. Lifting the heel makes the tendons used, shorter. Previous to the trail I never suffered from this, during the trail this was not a problem. But after the trail when the weather became colder I started to wear Big clunky winter boots with a huge heel lift and Super Feet insoles. after about a week of wearing them one morning getting out of bed as my feet hit the floor and I had a shooting pain in my heal. Little bit of reading online, and I realized what had happened, my tendons had contracted causing minor PF. A little bit of stretching, removing the insoles and limiting the boot usage, I was fine. Ironically on the trail I had tried to convince a fellow hiker suffering significantly from PF of this hypothetical theory (I had read it somewhere at some point prepping for my hike). It was not until it happened to me did I fully believe this to be true.
2. NO ANKLE SUPPORT allows free rotation of ankle, coupled with only a 4mm sole, allows for a greater margin of "error" when taking awkward steps. In a traditional high top or mid top, your ankle is locked in place. Which transfers the torque of a bad step up to your knees and hips. Also you are standing on about an inch of rubber. When you take a bad step, ie, a misstep or a unseen rock, your foot has that much further to go till it catches itself. The VFF allow your ankle to rotate free and to roll on to inside slightly if necessary, it does not have an inch to fall off of the platform of the shoe.
(Not sure if I am being clear about this point, but it is a huge benefit)
3. BALANCE, coupled with point number 2, the VFF give you a better sense of balance. It is that process of placing the onus onto your feet, ankles and calves, that strengthens your entire lower body. I fell only twice during my entire thru hike, and only once was it in VFF. (In VT I came to the crest of a small hump one step heading downward I put my feet together to break... it was pure mud... I plopped right onto my butt as my feet slipped forward.)
4. Increased feel for the ground
5. As stated above and before by others it strengthens the foot and lower leg. When I switched to Adidas Adi-zero shoes (Love them) at the base of the White Mountains after about a week my feet felt better than ever. I think the conditioning of the VFF on my feet made regular shoes, even minimal ones feel like a cushy palace!
6. Conversation starter, boy is it, I do not know how many people stopped and asked about the shoes, I never minded answering the questions, sometimes I would go into more detail than others depending on peoples interest level and my energy level. But my Hiking partner defiantly started getting sick of it, later she said partly because people were stopping to talk to me and not her. :)
7. Did not have a single blister the entire trail. Not sure if that is because of the shoes or just my feet and the conditions. I always wore socks I found Injinji Merino Wool Outdoor Blend worked the best. The synthetic Micro socks I did not like, the looked and smelled awful.
8. I liked the leather upper, it protected my feet well enough from sticks and things and the smooth inside feel was nice. Also the leather upper was durable, fabric failure at the toes was at the seems and the mesh between the toes.
9. The bottom of the shoe really held up well. I found that the rubber did not wear away that quickly and only towards then end of both pairs did it start to de-laminate in spots. I thought that it provided good enough traction for the conditions
I enjoyed my thru hike, and the VFF Treks were a good part of it. They forced me to slow down and pay attention to my walking, how and where I placed my foot almost every single step. This I think played a part in only falling one time wearing them. So they provided a level of safety. But at times they limited my movements, like when in town on man made surfaces. Not unlike alot of thru hikers, my feet had some pain and swelling almost always.
I had reasons before the trail on why I wanted to wear them, I was looking for balance in my life physically and spiritually. Just like the trail the VFF had its ups and downs. Would I wear them again on a thru hike? I don't think I would. I experienced it and now like the AT its time to experience new shoes and new trails. I have my eyes on NB Minimus and the PCT!
For the shoe
1. Eliminate Tag under heal
2. Eliminate leather sole, the EVA foam was fine on its own.
3. Independent strap system for Heel and forefoot which allow for maximum control over fit (this system is used in other VFF models)
4. Additional rubber for the big toes (ie wider)
For the user
5. Wear with socks, Injinji Outdoor
6. Be in tune with how you walk, though these almost force you to.
7. If out on the trail for a while have secondary shoes, ie camp/town shoes
8. Hiking poles help take the weight off a misstep, which you feel sooner because of the sensitivity VFF provides. Also I recommend on nicely groomed trail to just carry them in your hand as to not become dependent on them for balance over time.(ie train your muscles). In summary to maintain muscle balance I would have poles but only use when necessary over extended periods of time.
9. Like others have said ease into it with miles and weight
10. Walk Softly and carry a big spirit
To end my comments on VFF I would like to share a comment a friend and fellow thru hiker said to me on the trail near Slatington PA.
"You know Herro, there are parts of the trail where I think you could wear those...I don't this is one of them!"