Vivobarefoot Ultra review

by nick on February 14, 2012

Midway through last year I embarked on a strange quest – to unearth the ultimate travel shoe! We had an overseas trip coming up which would take me, my wife and our two boys (5 and 3) to Kuala Lumpur for a conference and then to Italy for our dream holiday.

Four weeks, two different continents, conference and travel gear plus entertainment for two small kids and having to lug it all around on planes and trains meant space was at a premium. So the challenge was to find a shoe that could do just about everything: good for travel, decent for sightseeing all day, light, easy to pack and able to stand up to a few solid workouts we had planned.

Hiking the Cinque Terre coastline in our Vivobarefoot shoes.

Enter the Vivobarefoot Ultra!

After spying it online, it seemed almost too good to be true. I still haven’t come across anything else like it. Vivobarefoot calls it  ”a lightweight barefoot amphibious running shoe” – go figure! I’d happily call it the ultimate travel shoe.

Overview

So what’s this shoe all about? I starts with a moulded shell reminiscent of good ol’ crocs. Yep it’s full of holes – hexagonal ones as per Vivo’s branding. These not only make the shoe light, they also help on the amphibious front as water pours out in no-time.

The upper and sole are one flexible piece of EVA, with the sole about 6mm thick and the upper somewhat less. Keeping it on your foot is a simple lock-lace system like on my Salomon hiking/trail shoes and similar to those used by triathletes. Slide your foot in, pull the cord and off you go.Such a simple design means these things are super light: just over 100grams or under 4 ounces without the removable sock-liner.

That’s right – these shoes are customisable. Each comes in three pieces: the outer shell, a plug-in tongue, and a removable sock-liner. This last piece is almost like a mesh fabric sock or slipper, with a thin, puncture-resistant sole. It clips into the shoe at the top of the forefoot like the tongue, but then also at the heel.

All the pieces of this versatile shoe.

So you really get three shoes in one. Just the outer (with or without tongue) for ultimate light-weight shenanigans on land or sea, with the liner inserted for a more secure, shoe-like experience, or just the sock-liner on its own as a glorified slipper. In fact, this “slipper” has since become one of my favourite shoe options, but more on that later.

Fit, feel and function

Getting the fit right in the Ultras can be a bit of a challenge. I did my usual web research and discovered a common issue: the sock-liner insert seems to be almost a full size smaller than the outer shell, so the question is … do I buy for the insert or for the outer?! I had my heart set on using the sock-liner a lot, especially on our trip during plane flights etc. So I bought a 43 to my usual 42 in Vivobarefoots (which are generally a very wide-fitting shoe). I got exactly what  I expected – good fit on the sock-liner but heaps of room when using the shoe on its own.

After a few months of use, I’m glad I went this way. I’ve found with barefoot/minimal shoes that a larger fit is better than smaller. You want your foot to have room to function naturally, especially for your toes to splay – hence minimal shoes usually having a wide toebox. If I go fully barefoot in the Ultras without the sock-liner, there really is heaps of room but this has never become the issue I thought it might. I’ve had no issues with rubbing or slipping, and the pull-lacing system still allows a good fit across the midfoot to keep things secure.

When the sock-liner is inserted the fit issues go away and the whole thing works well together. The system for holding the sock-liner seems almost too simple, but is totally secure, and I’ve done some pretty trying workouts in them with no issue whatsoever.

The big question for all minimal/barefoot shoes is: “how is the groundfeel?”. I can tell you in the Ultras it is awesome! Some people have complained it has a “squishy” feel, which it does, but I don’t find this a problem at all. Maybe I’m not as hardcore as some, but I certainly appreciated a bit of bounce when using them as all-day walking shoes touring around Rome and the Italian countryside. I could feel every cobblestone under my feet, but there was just enough give that I didn’t end up with beat up feet after a long day.

Purist runners may scoff at this slight padding, but hey, they shouldn’t even be wearing shoes in the first place! If you’re on the barefoot journey or even just into the minimal shoe thing, these have some of the best groundfeel out there.

Things get a little more muted with the sock-liners inserted, but it’s still pretty good. The sock-liners have a super-thin (1-2mm) sole which has some form of kevlar-like reinforcement, said to give puncture-resistance. Seems legit: they are very thin but tough.

So the Ultras work in individual pieces as well as all together. I think my only gripe would be that the material on the sock-liner is not as breathable as I had hoped and can get a bit sweaty after prolonged wear. Nothing really new here though.

What I’ve used it for

As I mentioned earlier, I had high hopes for these shoes – and they delivered! They we the ultimate shoe for our travels and featured in many pics throughout the trip.

First up, they were great on the planes and in the airports: light, comfy, easy to get on and off. Tick.

They were great for long days of sightseeing as they had just enough “squish” to take the edge off the rougher terrain. Tick.

They were great for running and crossfit workouts we did whenever and wherever we could: versatile, stable and washable. I even did one crazy workout in Tuscany where we had a pool and I swam in them! I was alternating handstand pushups with laps of the pool at our villa and wore the shoes in basic form, and the water just drained straight out. Tick!

They were great for trips to the beach: no need to change shoes, take thongs (flip-flops etc). These babies can handle sand and water with ease. Tick.

They were great to pack: they weigh nothing and can be squished into any space. Tick.

They were great for random days when anything could happen: we hiked rocky trails in them with sure-footed ease given the groundfeel and flexibility, and even wore them when swimming with elephants in Malaysia.

Since we got back home, they’ve copped heaps of varied use. They’re my go-to shoe whenever I need to quickly throw on something and get out the door, to play with the kids or drive to the shops and anything in between – so easy to wear and versatile.

To be honest, I don’t train or run in them all that much, but that’s more because I have other specialised shoes for this (I have issues!).

But one extra thing has emerged that I was not expecting …

Unexpected Bonus!

The sock-liners are now my favourite running footwear! I can’t really call these shoes, as they make even Vibram Five Fingers seem bulky.

I got the Ultras early in my descent into zero-drop footwear, and of late I’ve been trying to train barefoot as much as possible. I should add that I am still in the early stages and doing fairly short distances barefoot (1-2 km) and have no real plans to become a die-hard, distance barefoot runner. I like the minimal/barefoot approach more for general strength and conditioning and it just makes sense. But I have shifted to a reasonable mid-foot gait, with correct cadence and posture etc, and have pushed out to some 6-8km runs in my minimal shoes, so I’m not swinging in the dark here.

All that said, the sock-liners are brilliant. They a light enough to jam in a pocket or just carry in my hands on a barefoot run in case the terrain gets rough or my feet give out. Or if I know the paths will be covered in debris, I will run the whole time in them, and have even done some light trails that I found too rough for my bare feet. Somehow the sock-liners dull the impact of rough terrain just enough, without feeling like they give away anything in groundfeel.

Sock-liner insert from Ultras - a great minimal running shoe on their own!

Believe me, they won’t change your gait a bit. They really are only a few mm thick, and totally flexible, but they must just disperse the impact enough to round off the sharp points that would stop me in my tracks. Don’t get me wrong, if you land hard on a big rock you’ll feel it, but if your technique is already good they’ll let you keep going where your feet alone may not.

They fit well, stay in place and have a slight texture to the sole which gives good dry road/path grip. Surprisingly, they even seem to be holding up to the unintended usage I’m giving them (Vivo does not promote them for running like this). I am not doing the distances others might, but have so far seen no appreciable wear at all, and I thought they might only last a few short runs initially.

One new pair and one used for running - can you tell which?

 

In fact, here is a pic of the soles of the ones I’ve been using for running and a brand new pair – can you tell which is which?!

Conclusion

In case you hadn’t guessed – I’m a fan of the Ultras. They are definitely weird, an acquired taste and not really exceptional at any one thing. And yet they probably get worn more than any other shoes I own, and if I had to take just one pair with me it would be these.

Couple that with a low price (I paid $90 in Australia compared to nearly double that for most minimal shoes) and the added benefit of a shoe you can wash clean in seconds, and these are hard to beat.

If you are starting in minimal shoes, have a full collection, or just want something great for travel I can’t recommend these enough. They’ve definitely started more conversations than any other item of clothing I own!

And hey, compared to toe shoes, they’re not that strange after all!

Some other takes on the Ultra at:

Maple Grove Barefoot Guy; and

Living Barefoot

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sean February 16, 2012 at 4:30 am

Nice

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nick February 16, 2012 at 6:31 am

Thanks mate – I know how you love your shoes! Wait till I get my shiny new red Minimus Zero – you’ll be so jealous!

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Melissa February 26, 2012 at 5:40 am

Great review they are indeed a all purpose shoe!

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nick February 27, 2012 at 7:00 am

Thanks – I’m still finding new uses for them!

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J.R. March 24, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Hey Nick, the Vivo ultra’s shoe liner that you like so much reminds me of my staple road running shoes, the Sockwa G2. they are really similar to these slippers, the only difference you might find is they last longer. i’ve got 806 miles on mine with most of the treads left on the sole. the company’s website is Sockwa.com. also I did a review of the G2 at Birthdayshoes.com, you can check that out as well.

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nick March 25, 2012 at 6:25 am

Thanks James. Checked out your review and you’re right – very similar. I did go down the aqua shoe/neoprene route initially but found them a bit compromised in fit/construction. How does the neoprene hold up in terms of breathability and smell etc? I’m still yet to get a pair of VFF, so options like the Vivo liner and Sockwa are my best bet. Even my favourite minimal shoes are a far cry from the real barefoot feel you get from such a simple option. Any problems with punctures etc or sharp rocks and the like? The vivo liners are said to have some kevlar compound through them and it seems somehow to disperse sharp impacts a bit, just enough to round off the really sharp stuff.
I just received my first pair of Softstars – the Moc3 and they feel like a luxury version of both our choices!

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Gabriel contreras March 29, 2012 at 2:57 am

Forget shoes, I make my own sandals from vibram sole and seconds leather. End cost: about $25 a pair! I have the new balance 110,minimus 00, and ultras but sandals are the best.

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nick March 29, 2012 at 3:05 am

Thanks Gabriel
I’ve heard of lots of people doing this – certainly a very minimal option. I don’t mind going completely barefoot, but it doesn’t always suit conditions. I do find the Ultra sockliners so light/flexible I can put them in my pocket on a longer run and use them if terrain/time gets the better of me.
Ultimately, even the most minimal shoe seems to be a long way from barefoot feel.
Do you have any issues with the sandals in terms of lacing and stability? What about getting debris between sole and foot? Also, how do you go in colder weather?
Cheers, Nick

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Gabriel contreras March 29, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Hey nick, its a question asked a lot to me. I have run in every climate, hot summer, pouring rain, and light snow covered trails. The best about sandals is in rain, as I just did early march. Pouring rain, mud 35 degrees. Feet wet but no wet shoes. I mostly run on rocky steep stuff and no problems with rocks. I can help you on how to make sandals if you like. Just email me. Gabriel

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