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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