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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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?!
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: