Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010: Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers?

Depending on how tuned-in you are to current running trends, you may have noticed that there is a new movement starting to gain traction among runners: barefoot running and minimalist footwear.

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by Damien Tougas | 2010-08-05 15:08:00-06

Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers? - 1
Vibram FiveFingers, probably the most well known brand of minimalist footwear on the market today.

Barefoot/Minimalist Running

Barefoot/minimalist (here-on referred to as minimalist) running is not a new concept, in fact it has been around as long as humans have had feet. Somewhere along the way it became widely accepted that very specific shoes were required for running, and in fact without those specific shoes, runners would make themselves susceptible to injury. Despite runners' best efforts to buy the right shoes, one of the biggest issues that plagues runners today is injury. Depending on the source, injury rates for running are said to be anywhere between 60% and 85% in a given year. While shoe manufacturers have attempted to reduce injury by designing a variety of technologies to support, cushion, stabilize, and alter the gait of the runner, the overall picture has gotten worse. Runners are paying more money for shoes, retiring them more frequently, and yet rates of injury have increased. The minimalist perspective is that modern footwear is to blame for these high rates of injury, and that by making shoes more structured, things get worse.

The notion that structured footwear can hinder more than it helps (an idea most recently popularized in Christopher McDougall's excellent book Born to Run), is not new, but has been relegated to the fringe for quite some time. New research being conducted by various groups (including the military, MIT, and others) is finding that the fringe may in fact be right. If I were to try to summarize all of the theory and research in a nutshell it would be this: one of the biggest causes of running injury is poor form, and one of the biggest contributors to poor form is footwear. Elevated heels promote a heel strike. Thick cushioning dampens sensory feedback, creates instability, and increases shock. Rigid soles are unstable. Rigidity reduces flexibility in the joints, hinders the body's natural shock absorption, increases stresses in other joints, and weakens foot muscles. Arch supports undermine natural stability, hinder the body's shock absorption mechanisms, and weaken foot muscles.

Minimalist Footwear for Ultralight Backpacking

Those findings are fine for running, but are they also applicable to ultralight backpacking?

Years ago I used to enjoy spending weekends in the Canadian Rocky Mountains camping, hiking, and experimenting with a little backpacking. I also did some running to keep up my fitness. Then I developed a problem with my left knee that forced me to give up all those activities (at the ripe old age of 27). Months in physical therapy followed by expensive orthotics and expensive shoes helped a little, but didn't completely solve the problem. I was able to function without pain on a day-to-day basis, but was unable to regain the same level of activity I had enjoyed in the past. I eventually took up cycling and weight training in an attempt to find activities that I could pursue without pain. That worked for a while, but eventually I started to have severe pain between the metatarsals in my left foot and lower back. Through some miracle I got the idea to start experimenting with going barefoot and using minimalist footwear for everyday use. Within a month I was free from pain, and now several years later I am able to hike, backpack, and run (I have since quit cycling) without any pain whatsoever. I wear minimalist footwear almost exclusively for all of my activities.

Based on my experience (and the experience of others) I can say first-hand that yes, minimalist footwear is suitable for backpacking (ultralight or not), and it can have great benefits if utilized correctly. The important principle to keep in mind - like many ultralight backpacking techniques - is that in order to employ this technique effectively, experience and skill are much more important than gear. You need to know your limits and understand the conditions in which you will be travelling. When using minimalist footwear, stability and shock absorption come from the natural strength and structures of the foot. The physical conditioning of your feet will determine whether or not you have a pleasant or painful experience. In order to achieve the greatest benefit (and prevent injury), the conditioning process must be taken slowly just like any other strength building activity. It's not a quick fix that you can try in a weekend and decide whether or not it works for you, it is something that you have to build on.

When selecting minimalist footwear, the following are my general guidelines. Footwear should enable us to operate in adverse environmental conditions and allow our feet to function as naturally as possible. Its design should be protective, not supportive or corrective. Whenever you put on a pair of shoes, ask yourself what environmental condition they are protecting you from. The goal should be to wear shoes that only provide the protection you need and nothing more. But let's be clear about environmental risks; support and cushioning are not environmental risks, cold and abrasion are. One thing to be aware of is the perceived risk. That is to say some of the risk may just be in your head in the form of irrational fear - the same fear that leads people to purchase over-built gear. Learn how to separate the irrational fear from the actual risks when determining the level of protection you need.

Minimalist Footwear

The minimalist footwear trend has started to catch on with running shoe manufacturers, and several brands will be introducing new models at OR this year. The bigger brands are a little more tentative in their degree of minimalism while some smaller brands are going all-out. Whether or not these new models will be adequate for backpacking remains to be seen, but there appears to be a lot of potential.

Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers? - 2
New Balance has just announced their new Minimus line. Designed with the help of Anton Krupicka (an ultramarathon trail runner who does a lot of his training barefoot), the off-road version of the Minimus looks to be one of the more conservatively designed minimalist shoes coming to market. With more structure, cushioning and heel raise than other brands/models, the shoe is positioned as a tool for helping runners to transition to more minimalist footwear. Because it is purpose-built for the trail and has a Vibram sole, it looks like it might be a good option for ultralight backpackers who want to work on building foot strength without jumping in too quickly.

Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers? - 3
Merrell and Vibram have teamed-up to create the Merrell Barefoot Collection. The press release states that "...we saw the clear need to bring barefoot outdoors, beyond running and fitness" and "...to introduce the ideal barefoot designs for all outdoor activities." I find this point of view refreshing in a market that largely appears to be focused on runners. Slightly concerning is a sentence which reads, "An internal support construction secures the mid-foot for optimal fit and responsiveness". The words "support" and "secures" can be red flags for people wanting a minimalist shoe. Looking at the pictures, the shapes of the soles look like they may be narrow through the middle, but pictures can be deceiving. It will be interesting to see how these designs perform when they are released in February of 2011.

Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers? - 4
While some companies like Vibram FiveFingers have been gradually scaling up, adding more bells, whistles, support, and cushioning, to their footwear, other companies have been headed the opposite direction. Inov-8 just recently announced a new model they call the Bare Grip 200. This model features no raised heel, no cushioning, huge lugs for traction, and their sticky rubber. While I love the concept of this shoe, my two main concerns are width and durability. They are built on the Inov-8 performance last which is quite narrow (although I hear the flexible mesh upper helps for wider feet), and the sticky rubber tends to wear quickly.

2010 and 2011 look to be interesting years in the barefoot/minimalist space as companies release new products for this growing niche. Stay tuned over the next several months: BackpackingLight will be publishing a series of articles reviewing the current minimalist footwear models on the market in order to determine their suitability for ultralight backpacking.


Citation

"Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010: Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers?," by Damien Tougas. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/orsm2010_minimalist_footwear_ready_for_backpackers.html, 2010-08-05 15:08:00-06.

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Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010: Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers?
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010: Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers? on 08/05/2010 15:43:46 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010: Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers?

Damien Tougas
(dtougas) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Gaspé Peninsula
Toenails on 08/05/2010 16:11:16 MDT Print View

And no... those aren't my toenails in the thumbnail picture ;-)

Jay Well
(jwell) - F

Locale: Willamette Valley
Minimalist Footwear on 08/05/2010 16:25:12 MDT Print View

Damien-Thanks for the article, I am glad that BPL is finally giving minimalist footwear some attention.

I have used VFF for awhile, but had a hard time with getting my toes to cooperate. Despite the effort it took me to get them on, I thought they were great once I got everything adjusted just right. I have since abandoned the VFF for soft star's RunAmoc Lite. The RunAmoc is super comfortable and has handled everything that I have thrown at it so far. Also I like the fact that Soft Star shoes are hand made here in the US using environmental conscious materials and production methods. I have not taken any extended backpacking trips in these, but plan to in the fall. First I am off on a month long bike tour with these and some homemade minimalist sandals as my only footwear.

Edited by jwell on 08/05/2010 16:32:04 MDT.

drowning in spam
(leaftye) - F

Locale: SoCal
Re: Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010: Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers? on 08/05/2010 16:51:34 MDT Print View

The side strap on the NB Minimus looks like it may be useful for attaching gaiters.

http://www.newbalance.com/performance/meet-nb-minimus-an-interview-with-katherine-petrecca/

Hmm...no insole, low footbed, tons of ventilation, Vibram sole and 7 ounces. It's very intriguing.

Edited by leaftye on 08/05/2010 16:56:33 MDT.

Monty Montana
(TarasBulba) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Re: Minimalist Footwear on 08/05/2010 19:01:32 MDT Print View

Hey, nice coveraqge Damien! I've been using the 8.75 oz NB 600 this season, which may have been their first venture into lightweight shoes and looks nothing like the Minimus that you featured. Still, it gave me some insight into possibilities.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
minimalist footwear on 08/05/2010 21:33:15 MDT Print View

Hopefully as this market niche expands, we'll see some options that combine minimal padding and flat sole with durable materials. That seems to be the achillies heel of the trend thus far (as far as backpacking goes).

Ya'll misspelled "Krupicka."

Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Thumbnail on 08/05/2010 21:41:22 MDT Print View

They are MY toenails! Aren't they pretty?! You're welcome, everyone.

And I fixed the misspelling after double-checking it. Thanks!

Edited by addiebedford on 08/05/2010 21:43:07 MDT.

Damien Tougas
(dtougas) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Gaspé Peninsula
Re: minimalist footwear on 08/06/2010 05:13:51 MDT Print View

I have found that you don't need as durable materials for barefoot shoes as with more traditional shoes. The sensory feedback you get from a barefoot shoe makes you much more mindful about how/where you are walking. It only takes stubbing your toe on rocks a couple of times with a pair of FiveFingers before your body realizes it doesn't want to do that very often. You adapt real quick when pain is involved ;-)

That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement, but I don't think we necessarily need these things to be as bomb proof as other stuff on the market. Usually more durable also means heavier, less flexible, etc. There will be a balance, and companies (and users) are still trying to figure that out.

Jonathan Ryan
(Jkrew81) - F - M

Locale: White Mtns
Re: Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010: Minimalist Footwear - Is It Ready for Backpackers? on 08/06/2010 05:47:59 MDT Print View

Great article. My experience is much the same. I have been using Inov8's for 3 years now with much success. It has gotten to the point where I am afraid to switch to another brand b/c they have worked so well for me. Your comments about building your foot and leg strength are so true. I rushed into minimal footwear when I started and injured myself. After recovering I hit the trails 3 times a week with quick 3 mile runs. After a month I was ready to go.

Christopher Williams
(Griztopher) - F

Locale: Montana
mininalist footwear on 08/06/2010 07:52:02 MDT Print View

Yes! love to see the shift. Had foot problems while training for adventure races...now I rock the Vibram five finger KSOs for everything with no problems.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
minimal footwear and durability on 08/06/2010 16:46:25 MDT Print View

I suppose New Balance MT 100s aren't so minimalist relative to some, but I put holes in mine waaay too fast to be considered acceptable. I'm ok with buying new shoes every 4-6 months, not every 1-2.

Granted, if most of your hiking is on niceish trails and you don't repeatedly soak your footwear on every trip, you might get better mileage than me.

William Puckett
(Beep) - F

Locale: Land of 11, 842 lakes
BPL Coverage of Minimalist Footwear on 08/06/2010 19:09:27 MDT Print View

I'm looking forward to BPL's coverage of what looks to be a bunch of new minimalist footwear that may be great for backpacking!!

Soon (I hope)?

drowning in spam
(leaftye) - F

Locale: SoCal
Inov-8 sandal on 08/10/2010 09:43:41 MDT Print View

Did you guys find out anything about this sandal?

Damien Tougas
(dtougas) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Gaspé Peninsula
Re: Inov-8 sandal on 08/10/2010 09:48:18 MDT Print View

I have seen talk about that one online, it is called the EvoSkin, and from what I understand still in development. While interesting, I have reservations about the material choice: silicone. I can't imagine breathability being very good!

drowning in spam
(leaftye) - F

Locale: SoCal
Re: Inov-8 sandal on 08/10/2010 09:48:54 MDT Print View

Found the answer from hrXXLight.com:

"Finally Inov-8 released a shoe with the name Evoskin. This is an silicon cover, which protects you foot and behaves like a second skin. It is the perfect shoe for barefoot walking and training your foot muscles. The Evoskin weighs 100g (3,5oz)."

3.5 ounces, yowza! Finally, the lighter alternative to Crocs that I've been looking for.

Kerry Rodgers
(klrodgers) - MLife

Locale: North Texas
Re: minimal footwear and durability on 08/10/2010 12:25:00 MDT Print View

Thanks Damien for the coverage, and for your experience with injury and going minimal.

Thanks also to DaveC for talking in another BPL forum thread about the NB MT 100s. These seem to be working well for me as transition shoes, after a lifetime of weak feet and plantar fasciosis. Maybe some of these new products will be the next step in my process.

Noel Hong
(arborrider08) - F

Locale: SouthShore of Lake Superior
EvoSkins on 08/11/2010 10:25:24 MDT Print View

Thanks Daimen for the review. Firm believer in minimalist footwear for hiking and trail running under most conditions. Just need to remember that like any under used, out of shape structure the feet need time to regain their natural conditioning.

When bpl reviews the new minimalist foot gear could they also comment on the shoes ability to keep stuff out when not wearing gaiters? The only real issue I have with the VFF KSO are running in real loose, sandy, gritty conditions.

The Evoskins back strap connections might be a problem. Not sure but the above photo looks like the strap is "riveted" on the inside.

Andrew Skurka
(askurka) - F
I'd like to think my feet are strong and tough... on 09/08/2010 03:05:28 MDT Print View

...so why am I moving in the opposite direction as everybody else it seems, looking for more protective footwear that prevents the pads of my feet from getting all bruised up by whatever I'm walking over. I don't want a "supportive" or "controlling" shoe, but can I please get a lightweight shoe that allows me to walk on rocks (because, you know, there are rocks in the outdoors sometimes) without my feet being angry with me at the end of the day?

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: I'd like to think my feet are strong and tough... on 09/08/2010 03:53:34 MDT Print View

Congrats on your successful trip!

Welcome back

Agree with you about not having my feet angry with me at end of the day.

Henk Smees
(theflyingdutchman) - MLife

Locale: Spanish Mountains
Sandals on 09/08/2010 04:34:37 MDT Print View

Hi Andrew. I feel the same. I’ve just come back from an “easy-going” fortnight in the Spanish Sierra Nevada where I walked about 8 to 10 hours a day (with an awful lot of up’s and down’s) in...... sandals. These weren’t really lightweight (730 gr., just over 1½ lb.), but had sturdy soles. The sandals weren’t “controlling” at all, but the soles did a brilliant job in protecting my foot-soles from protruding stones and rocks on the track. My feet started to love me again :), after having been “locked up” in heavy mountain boots on every mountain trip for the last 40 years.
Sandals Sulayr
Three different ways of “doing” the same trip. Which of the feet do you think were the “happiest”?

Edited by theflyingdutchman on 09/08/2010 06:33:57 MDT.