Vibram FiveFingers, probably the most well known brand of minimalist footwear on the market today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.