Barefoot backpacking: Can trend in running footwear cross over to boots?

Minimalist and barefoot footwear has gone gangbusters in the running category, but can manufacturers translate the trend into hiking boots? Some brands are going for it, while others look to borrow just a few key traits.
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Throughout the month of February, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 19-22. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Minimalist and barefoot footwear has gone gangbusters in the running category, but can manufacturers translate the trend into hiking boots?

Unlike the most recent ultralight hiking boom of the early 2000s, in which boot-makers cut ounces with lighter materials and increased mid- and low-profile models, the goal of today’s minimalist and barefoot footwear is more ambitious. They seek to restore the foot's sensory connection to terrain, along with strengthening the muscles and bones of the feet to their pre-modern state by removing cushioning and support and bringing the feet closer to the ground.

“You can absolutely have a barefoot hiking boot,” said Galahad Clark, owner of VivoBarefoot, which exhibited its interpretation of the category with its Off Road Mid and Hi (photo, right; MSRP $150/$175) hiking boots at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. The men’s and women’s boots weigh less than 15 ounces with just 2.5 millimeters of outsole and 4.5 millimeters of multi-directional lugs. An abrasion-resistant leather and rip-stop Nylon exterior combined with a waterproof inner, along with a removable 3-millimeter insole, complete the package.

“Anything with more than 7 millimeters of padding isn’t going to be barefoot,” Clark said. “It might be minimalist, but it’s not barefoot. It’s about providing that extra sensory feedback from the ground to the feet balanced with some protection. There’s a lot of paranoia in the hiking industry that a boot must be a big structure and rigid, but we think that’s corporate [talk].”

Galahad said he suspects a majority of Vivobarefoot’s new hiking boot customers started with the barefoot running footwear and now want the same for their hikes. “When people get into it [barefoot] they really get into it,” he said.

While traditional hiking boot companies like Vasque, La Sportiva and Merrell recognize the growing market for minimalist footwear, they are not abandoning their belief in durable materials and some midsole cushioning and ankle support

“We think the minimalist footwear movement is credible,” said Chris Miller, Vasque’s sales manager. “But in rugged conditions, we think all hikers need protection and most will want support.” As a result, Vasque is trying to meet the minimalist demand halfway — reducing weight, but leaving the cushioning and stability control. “We tend to think about fast and light, not minimalist,” Miller said.

According to Miller, an updated version of the brand’s Breeze hiking boot slated for 2013 will be 20 percent lighter than the existing version. To design it, Miller said Vasque talked to podiatrists to understand the mechanics of foot movement. “Incidentally, most podiatrists told us their business is booming because of the barefoot running fad,” Miller said.

Several boot manufacturers interviewed at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market admitted that they’re trying to cash in on the FiveFingers phenomenon, since Vibram’s expanding line of models reportedly shipped five times as many units in 2010 as it did in 2009. “We’re happy that others are recognizing the benefits of minimalist running we’ve been saying all along,” said Georgia Shaw, marketing manager for Vibram USA. “Runners and hikers now have more tools in their toolbox, and that’s good,” she added.

This spring La Sportiva will release a hiking boot that president Jonathan Lantz called a “nod to super-lightweight, minimalist footwear.” The Xplorer Mid GTX (MSRP $180) has a thin EVA midsole to lower the foot closer to the ground, and a weight-saving mesh and synthetic leather upper. Lateral support is aided by TPU lace molding, which helps cut the boot’s overall weight 450 grams. But Lantz recognizes that minimalist-minded consumers are concerned about more than grams. “We’re designing boots that make you rely more on your skeletal and muscular strength,” he said.

Merrell, which has had success with its Pulse Glove line of minimalist running footwear, brings its new Mix Master Mid Waterproof (photo, below), an all-fabric, light backpacking boot set for spring 2012 release. It has attempted to bring the foot closer to the ground by reducing the drop between the heel and the toe to 4 millimeters.

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Golite Footwear takes a similar approach with its new XT89 (photo, above; MSRP $145), a zero-drop, waterproof hiking boot. “From our perspective, we like the benefits of the zero-drop stride, but we still want to offer the protection from rocks, roots and rain,” said Jody Linehan, director of product management. Golite keeps that protection light with a resin-impregnated rock plate and softer rubber outsole to absorb the uneven terrain.

One manufacturer not joining the minimalist party is Italian footwear maker Salewa. It has resisted adopting minimalist elements into its products, according to sales and marketing manager Federico Sbrissa. “The concept of zero drop works for running, but not for the mountaineering category,” Sbrissa said. “We don’t think reducing or removing the midsole is a good idea because it reduces the cushioning necessary for a comfortable approach on rough terrain.” Instead, he said, Salewa uses lightweight materials — an all-synthetic upper protected by Kevlar strips — to keep models like the Firetail GTX (MSRP $139) and Alp Trainer (MSRP $179) light and flexible. Sbrissa is also dismissive of minimalism’s long-term impact on outdoor footwear. “We think that most barefoot running shoes are actually bought for their fashion appeal,” Sbrissa said. “As a result, I’m convinced the trend won’t last very long.”

--Jason Stevenson and David Clucas

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