Wearing FiveFingers In Winter

My wife and mother tell me I’m crazy for wearing my Fivefingers Lontra in the middle of winter in Toronto. My friends and colleagues haven’t said anything, but they might well be thinking it.

I’m a die-hard FiveFingers fan. I love the feeling of walking like I’m not wearing any shoes. Back in the autumn, the thought occurred to me more than once to just take off my shoes and walk barefoot to my home from my usual bus stop about a block away. I’ve been wearing FiveFingers almost exclusively since March last year. I say almost because there have been a few exceptions which I can count on my hand. First, working in my mom’s garage simply because I enter her house and leave my FiveFingers at the front door, while I have my old regular running shoes just by the door to the garage. I got lazy and just wore the regular running shoes. Second, it really did get super-cold, about -25*C (-13*F), about 2 weeks ago. I wore my regular, super-duper insulated winter boots that day.

Oh, and my wedding day. Apparently it wouldn’t have been a good idea to wear my FiveFingers that day. I’m not quite sure why, but okay, I bowed to tradition there (and pretty much everywhere else that day!)

So, aside from these *3* exceptions in the 9 months last year since I started wearing FiveFingers exclusively, I have gone with what I believe is the closest you can get to walking barefoot. But that brings us back to the question of whether it’s crazy to wear FiveFingers in the middle of winter. You wouldn’t walk barefoot out in the snow, so why would you wear shoes meant to replicate the barefoot experience when it’s snowy and icy out there?

I continue to wear FiveFingers in the winter because I like feeling the texture of the ice and snow under my feet, and feel the texture of the salt crystals on concrete when sidewalks are cleared. That, to me, is part of the experience of walking in the world. The fact that it’s wet out there means I have to wear my Lontras. The only FiveFingers model that is waterproof is the Lontra. Fortunately the Lontra is also slightly insulated – but not nearly to the degree that full-on insulated winter boots with Thinsulate would be. So that’s why I also wear SmartWool toe socks now in the winter to add in a bit more insulation to keep my feet warmer.

Do my feet get cold out there? You bet they do. But the real question is not do they get cold, it’s how cold do they get.

There’s a difference. Feeling a bit of coldness is not a bad thing. Thermal variation is part of experiencing the environment that sends information to your body and your mind. But, getting too cold is bad. As my wife keeps fearing, if it gets too cold, “you’re going to lose a toe!”

So, I would say it is fine to wear FiveFingers in the middle of  winter under several conditions.

  1. The temperature outside is warmer than -20*C (-4*F)
  2. You are an urbanite
  3. You live in a city with indoor heating
  4. You will be outside for no more than 20 minutes walking distance between your transportation and initial/final destination

If it’s really really cold, the Lontra plus SmartWool socks simply does not give you enough insulation. Your feet are going to freeze. Simple as that. With anything down to -10*C (14*F), I think you could walk for a long time without issue. But when things go colder than that, you gotta be careful. Especially if it’s windy. Below -20*C (before windchill, which means add in the wind and it’s going to be much worse), it is simply not worth the risk to wear your Fivefingers out there. Your feet are going to get too cold, too fast. Even walking to a nearby bus stop and waiting for 5 minutes is going to convince you that this is a bad, bad idea.

So, that leads to condition number 2: only wear FiveFingers in the winter if you live in a major city. I cannot stress this enough. If you are walking in a major city, you can always duck into someplace warm if you get too cold. You can walk into a store, a subway station (well … they’re not really warm warm, but they’re shelter!), a library… something. But if you’re out in the burbs or the boonies, forget it. You are going to face the elements without respite if you are walking from A to B, or your car breaks down and you have to walk to find help.

Condition number 3: only do this in cities with indoor heating. Cities that get really cold, like the negative temperatures we’re talking about, are almost definitely going to have indoor heating. But cities that normally only get down to about the freezing mark or just a bit above, do not. So if you live in a city where temperatures are usually pretty mild around the freezing mark or just above it, be careful if the weather does something funky and you get a spell of really cold weather. With the way the weather has been getting wonkier and wonkier, this is going to be something you’ll have to keep in mind.

Condition number 4 is really a distillation of numbers 2 and 3. I’ve found that when temperatures are below -10*C (14*F… man, it’s frustrating to have to use both units. When are you Americans going to change to Celcius like the rest of the world?) your feet are going to get cold. There’s no two ways about that. The question is how long you can last out there. Having done some 15-20 minute walks in about -18*C (0*F) weather, I think you’re looking at about a 20 minute wall before you have to get indoors and get your feet warm again.

So let’s boil this down to a set of if-then statements.

  • If the weather outside is colder than -20*C (-4*F), wear good, insulated regular winter boots. Skip the FiveFingers Lontras. You will lose a frickin’ toe otherwise.
  • If the weather is between -20*C (-4*F) and -10*C (14*F), make sure you are outside walking for only 20 minutes or less.
  • If the weather is between -10*C (14*F) and 0*C (32*F … that’s the only one I know off by heart! Damn Fahrenheit scale…), you can probably last out there for 30 to 60 minutes of walking before you’ll have to come in to someplace heated.
  • If it’s above 0*C (32*F), you’re golden – stay outside for as long as you want.

The main thing about wearing FiveFingers like the Lontras in cold winters is that your safety margin is very slim. You up your risk of freezing off a toe. Oddly enough, you really feel it most when you come back in to someplace warm – or particularly someplace semi-warm like when you get on the bus – and your feet are able to really complain to you. While you’re out there, the dangerous thing is that you feel the cold and you know your feet are cold, but you don’t know how close you are to damaging your body.

The if-then statements above are based on my own experience, my own tolerance, and my own read on how close I’m getting to the edge of the cliff. If you want to play it safer, then choose warmer thresholds.

Because you have a significantly reduced safety threshold with FiveFingers, if you are going on a long road trip, pack your regular, insulated winter boots with you in the car cabin. If your car breaks down and you have to walk out there, change to your insulated boots which have been warmed up in the same compartment you sit in. If you put those boots in the trunk, you’re going to be putting blocks of ice on your feet.

FiveFingers are not designed for cold winters. You have to make adjustments, like add on wool toe socks – if you can find thicker ones than the SmartWool socks, please let me know. And you have to limit yourself to waterproof models like the Lontra. But… if you’re a FiveFingers die-hard like me… you will still find the experience worth it and still grumble when you have to wear the regular, clunky, no-feel winter boots.

As a final comment, the Lontras aren’t perfect. I wear my Lontras (without the wool socks, but probably with regular Injinjis) when it rains in non-winter weather. Again, it’s that waterproof thing. And yes, they get pretty damn warm in the summer (hence the Injinjis to absorb the sweat). So I can compare how the Lontras feel as FiveFingers against other models. You lose groundfeel with the Lontras. There’s no two ways about that. The sole is a little thicker and harder than other FiveFingers. I think part of that is to provide additional insulation against losing heat through the sole of the shoe as well as the waterproof material in the shoe upper.

Honestly, if I can wear any of the other FiveFingers, I will. They are much better in terms of replicating the barefoot experience – especially the EL-X model – but the Lontra is your only option when you have to have something that’s waterproof.

So now if I compare the Lontras against other regular shoes… I still get more groundfeel and things are still more natural than regular shoes. Let me put it this way – I can feel the salt crystals under my feet when I step on them in the winter. I can feel where they are under my feet. When I walk on uneven ice or compacted snow chunks, I can feel their shape and contour under my feet like I would dirt or stones when out on a summer hike. And they are a world apart from hiking boots and heavy-duty winter boots – those things remove all sensation from my feet, like my feet are trapped in foot jail.

So, if you’re a fan of minimalist shoes or if you’re a big FiveFingers fan, that’s what I can tell you about wearing FiveFingers in winter where temperatures get below freezing – and at this point, only the Lontra is sensible for such weather.

2 responses

  1. Why would anyone want to wear FiveFingers shoes in the winter? Just wear your winter boots to keep your feet warm. It’s just as simple as that. hehe =)

  2. Not quite that simple. When you go from feeling your environment when wearing FiveFingers to feeling almost nothing when wearing winter hiking boots, it’s a very jarring, aggravating, and uncomfortable thing. It really is like putting your feet in jail. It’s like normally having a really tactile experience with your hands feeling clay, sand, jelly, gravel, etc and then putting on a stiff wrist brace and very thick, industrial gloves. That’s how different it feels.

    But, with the cold, cold weather today (windchill -40*C / -40*F … hey, that’s where they’re equivalent!) I’m going to wear my winter boots.

    For me it’s not so much about keeping my feet warm as keeping them just warm enough. I don’t mind a bit of cold in my feet. I do, however, mind losing a part of my body to the cold :)

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