VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak Review
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First Thoughts on the VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak
As a major proponent and user of minimalist footwear, I’ve run into the challenge of finding a shoe that offers the aggressive and protective tread of a hiking shoe/boot while not confining my foot and removing all ground feel. VIVOBAREFOOT, an established name in the minimalist footwear industry has attempted to address this issue with the VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak trail shoe. The company began in 2004 with the creation of one of the first minimalist shoes on the market and has continually expanded their line to include high-performance running shoes, trail running shoes, and lifestyle shoes. The Trail Freak takes their experience in sole design and applies it to a more aggressive trail runner.
Before I get into my VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak review, a few words about minimalist footwear. The basic premise behind minimalist footwear is the belief that our feet evolved to work over a period of time where we would not have had thick soled shoes and that they are better at functioning properly when they are bare. A large part of this comes from the fact that our feet have thousands of nerve endings called proprioceptors that tell our brains how we are contacting the ground. Compare it to how you can grip something with your hand without looking at it because you can feel how much pressure you are putting on it. Your foot operates the same way and if it has a thick soled shoe on it, it can’t properly gauge how hard it is hitting the ground. There is research showing that this causes the entire body to set it self up wrong for each stride as a result. The other element of biomechanics related to being barefoot is that of foot spread during impact. An unshod foot will spread a bit at the toes and forefoot when it hits the ground and it is believed that this distributes impact. Most shoes made in the last 100 years are strangely narrow at the front and this does not allow the foot to operate naturally.
WARNING ABOUT MINIMALIST FOOTWEAR: It is important to ease yourself into wearing minimalist footwear because there is a real risk of injury if you do not. It isn’t the footwear’s fault; it’s your body’s. Most people have much weaker ankles, feet, and calves than they should because they have protected them from being used fully for most of their lives. You must build this strength up by gradually increasing your time in minimalist footwear before attempting to use them for long distances. You will notice soreness at first because you are essentially “working out” these muscles for the first time.
VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak Features
Now, onto the VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak review! The Trail Freak is designed to offer a solution to those needing the off road grip that comes with trail runners but still wanting a more natural, barefoot-like experience. The Trail Freak combines a thin and flexible rubber sole with aggressive 4.5mm lugs to offer a nice balance between tread and ground feel. I really enjoyed the feeling this provided while hiking in both the desert of Utah and the forested hills of Western Colorado. I was confident in the grip on slippery sections but was able to wrap my foot around obstacles to keep from rolling my ankle like I do in thick soled trail shoes. An obvious trade off when wearing thinner soled shoes is that you are going to feel more of the impact from rocks and sticks and this takes getting used to. However, I’ve grown accustomed to the experience and prefer the more connected feeling. The VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak does offer more protection than something without lugs like the Vibram Five Fingers series. The shoes also offer a wider and more foot-shaped toe box than traditional running shoes and this allows the toes to splay and distribute naturally on impact. I liked how the Trail Freak kept my mid foot stable while allowing room for my toes. The speed lacing system is largely responsible for this.
In order to provide a glove-like fit, VIVOBAREFOOT decided to make use of a one piece upper instead of a separate tongue. This makes the Trail Freak fit like a nice slipper with minimal seams and rough points on the inside, which is great for those who like to wear thin socks. I used VIVOBAREFOOT’s fabulous fitting tool on their website, which will allow you to compare existing shoes you own or have tried on to their lineup. This goes a long way in helping you purchase when you can’t try them on at a store. I was quite happy with the out of box fit and loved that I wouldn’t need to break them in. The speed lacing system is vital to the fit of the shoes because it allows you to quickly get a nice tight hold on your mid foot while keeping the forefoot free. This type of lacing system is also great for getting in and out of the shoe easily when being used as a traveling shoe and also for making adjustments on the fly. These shoes were purposely designed for hot, sunny days on the trail and the mesh upper speaks to this approach. They are extremely breathable and keep your feet cooler on sweaty days. This was great for running some trails near Moab, UT. However, the trade off is that all that breathability lets in a ton of sand if you are in a sandy, desert environment. There is obviously a flip side to a super breathable shoe and that is they lack the versatility to be used as much in shoulder seasons where there can be water and mud in your path. While hiking around at 10,000 ft near Eagle, Colorado, I found myself wishing the VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak was offered in a weather resistant version including a waterproof/breathable membrane to keep your feet warmer and dryer.
Final Thoughts on the VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak
The VIVOBAREFOOT Trail Freak is an overall excellent minimalist shoe and a solid trail runner. It has a great, glove-like fit that wraps the foot nicely and provides a comfortable feel. The combination of a thin sole with thicker, aggressive lugs offers a great compromise between barefoot-like ground feel and solid grip on variable terrain. The Trail Freak makes a great travel shoe as it is light weight and easy to take on and off. Offer a version with a Goretex or eVent lining and these would be one of my go to shoes year round. As is, they have found a permanent spot in my collection and I’ll be happy to hit the trails with them next season. For more information on the Trail Freak and other VIVOBAREFOOT products visit: www.vivobarefoot.com or www.amazon.com/vivobarefoot.