When the first chilly week of October crashed through the seemingly endless heat, I suddenly realized how woefully prepared I was for the winter — at least where footwear was concerned.
While my motley assortment of cheap Payless shoes usually achieved the goal of minimal arch support (by sheer lack of quality), they also had no traction and pretty much zero insulation. Having suffered a couple of embarrassing falls and several brushes with frostnip last winter, I decided it was time for an upgrade.
Which brought me to the somewhat daunting quest of finding barefoot-style winter shoes. For most people, “barefoot” is still more a running fad than a lifestyle, and my attempts to locate a non-athletic barefoot shoe a couple of years ago had turned up empty-handed. So I embarked on this search with dubious expectations.
Fortunately, a couple of years has made a huge difference. It’s still rare and mostly limited to one-off forum posts, but people are starting to express interest … and the market is answering! In an attempt to alleviate some other poor soul’s search, here’s an account of what I was looking for, what I found, and how I like it.
After surveying my daily habits, I decided that I would need two styles of shoe to see the winter comfortably through: warm snow boots for those 12-16 inch days, and a decent pair everyday shoes for the rest of the time.
Besides the obvious criteria (e.g. waterproof), I had a few stylistic wants:
I love the fivefinger look, but I tend to get very cold feet, and since I don’t usually need access to each individual toe, I decided it was wiser to go for the “mitten” approach. Also, I didn’t want to spend a fortune on toe socks.
- Minimal arch support, but good traction:
As I mentioned above, it’s actually pretty easy to find lack of arch support in cheap shoes, but they usually have poor traction. So, to get both, I would have to go high end.
As much as I enjoy Native American culture, I didn’t want to spend an entire winter in Pocahontas-style moccasins. I wanted my shoes to look cute in a urbanesque setting.
So the search began. Getting these basics turned out to be surprisingly difficult. I dropped by my local REI thinking that they surely had something, but all of their close-toed barefoot shoes were athletic in nature (read: garish colors and mesh fabric) and often only water resistant at best (as in jog through a puddle, not as in walking through snow). Their winter boots were all of the traditional, clunky, raised-two-inch-heel variety. So I turned to the great world wide web.
My first search was for a good snow boot. I immediately found the Vivobarefoot Brooklyn Boot, for which I’d seen good reviews. They seemed like a decent choice functionally, but at the time, I didn’t like the way they looked: a little too fitted, a little too urban. I guess I was just going more for an Ugg boot look.
That’s when I stumbled upon a moccasin company called Soft Star Shoes that made a lovely Phoenix Boot:
It was perfect: Relaxed fit, easy to slip on and off, well-insulated, and charmingly rugged. Even better, they have flexible Vibram soles (albeit a bit on the thick side, at 13mm, as this review points out).
I admit I was hoping for black, which they didn’t have. However, I was very pleased to find that, when treated with Sno-Seal, they deepened to a very dark brown:
My second conquest was a good pair of everyday shoes. Ideally, they would be comfortable enough for daily wear, but stylish enough to pair with a business casual outfit. I’ve always like Mary Jane style shoes and leather seemed like a natural waterproof choice, so I was super-pleased when I found Vivobarefoot’s Kali shoe.
These have received high praise from Living Barefoot, and they haven’t disappointed me yet. They’re pretty much as the review states: The soles are very flexible in every direction, but the heel takes a little bit of breaking in. You can either wear the elastic band over your foot for a tighter fit or under your foot (you just step on it) for a slip-on feel. I initially thought this would be very uncomfortable, but because the sole is actually a little curved from side to side, the elastic fits very naturally against it.
(By the way, I highly recommend buying these from PlanetShoes: They ship for free and have an amazing return policy.)
A close runner-up in this category was the Vivobarefoot Mary Jane (the Kali’s were just a tad lighter). I also later discovered the Kigo Flit, which look lovely and are slightly cheaper; however, I don’t think they’re waterproof and they lack the dress-up potential of the Kali’s.
So now that it’s snowed a couple of times, what do I think of my gear roundup? I admit, I’m superbly happy. Which is great because, believe me, after putting out a few hundred $$$, I was a bit nervous.
Any last thoughts? In hindsight, the Brooklyn boot is looking better, although I still love my Phoenix’s. Maybe they can be an extra splurge next winter? … As for the shoes, I’m incredibly pleased with my Kali’s. I do hope I have the opportunity to try the Kigo Flit’s somewhere down the line though.
Hopefully, this was helpful to someone out there trying to save their poor joints and stay warm this winter. :) The barefoot shoes market is growing by leaps and bounds –I’m very excited to see where it goes!