Are Vibram Soles Good for Hiking and Backpacking?

Famous-Vibram-Sole2

There was a time when Vibram outsoles were the best in the business and used on the majority of hiking boots made. Vibram was the first company to make a vulcanized rubber outsole in 1937, including a standard lug pattern called the Carrarmato (meaning “tank tread”) which is instantly recognizable (above) by hikers worldwide.  They build up a huge business, invested heavily in product development, manufacturing, and quality control, and expanded into other markets including climbing and mountaineering, work boots, running shoes, motorcycle boots, and lifestyle shoes, among others.

Many shoe companies came to Vibram and had them create specialty soles for their shoes, which were becoming increasingly specialized for different sports, seasons, and markets, including companies like Vasque, Danner, Scarpa, and others. If you look at hiking boots, mids, trail runners, and other outdoor shoes today, every single new shoe has its own unique outsole. That’s diluted that exclusiveness of the Vibram brand since it’s hard to tell if any of these unique the outsoles make any difference at all and which is best.

As the outdoor shoe and apparel market expanded, more and more shoe companies started developing their own outsoles to reduce their costs instead of outsourcing their design and manufacture to Vibram. Big beefy hiking and mountaineering boots have been superseded by lighter weight footwear in the intervening years, diminishing demand for the outsoles that Vibram specializes in. Gone also, are the days of replaceable soles and heavy hiking or mountaineering boots, only to be replaced by mids and trail runners that you throw away when they wear out.

Today, the Vibram brand name is poorly differentiated when it comes to soles for hiking shoes and boots, much like the other component companies that license their technologies to third parties including Gore-Tex, Primaloft, Nalgene, Cordura, Polartec, and Easton. They make so many different product variants that you can’t assume that their inclusion in products provides any discernable performance advantage anymore.

My advice. Don’t be fooled by marketing brand names like Vibram but evaluate each product you’re considering individually for its intended purpose.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. In addition, Philip volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

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20 comments

  1. My first pair of hiking shoes were Merrill Moab Ventilators with Vibram soles. The uppers on the shoe fell apart rather quickly IMHO, but the soles were still in good shape. Still use that pair as chore/yardwork shoes……..

  2. So is there some kind of minimum level of grip that can be expected from all the different Vibram soles, is there much divergence in the actual rubber material made for each shoe?

    I understand that some shoes may fail where the sole connects to the shoe, which would be the shoe company’s fault, but can we expect a certain baseline of quality from the sole alone?

    • You probably can, but who knows. They probably make thousands of different soles. Would you expect the grip for a hiking shoe to be comparable to a pair of workboots, or running shoes?

  3. I think that these days “Vibram” might just equal “Grippier”. At least, that’s my experience with Altras. The Olympus models I have have the Vibram brand on them. They are quite a bit better on the rocks here in NY, than my Timps or Lone Peaks. The Olympus soles are also softer, and might conform to uneven ground better.

    On the flip side, I bought a pair of Oboz a few years ago. They too had the Vibram brand on the soles. I quickly realized that though they fit well, they were the worst shoes I’d ever worn in roughly 50 years and more than 10k miles. Hard, slippery and unforgiving. I’m a fast and agile biker, even at 63. So I need precise shoes.

    I admit to some brand loyalty based on nostalgia. When I started hiking in the mid seventies Vibram was king. I loved my Vasque Hikers :-).

  4. Come on now. Vibram is on a TON of hiking and running shoes as well as boots. I’m not sure what brands you’re talking about with solid, proprietary soles. Salomon makes great stuff but I don’t trust their Contragrip on anything wet or loose as far as I can spit. If there’s a Vibram logo it’s Vibram. Maybe if you’d offered up some options, that are as good or better, it would have served your point. But you didn’t. And that’s because I’m not sure you can.

    • Salmon, la sportiva, keen, oboz…that enough?

      • Is Salomon Contragrip made by Vibram?

        And is it pronounced “Vie…” or “Vee…”?

      • Pretty sure it’s not.
        “Vee”

      • I will not buy a shoe without Vibram soles. La Sportiva soles worn down in no time. Big Solomon fan and user but soles workout quickly. I’ll continue to search for the right fit but if it doesn’t have a Vibram sole, my foot won’t be in it.

      • La Sportiva has their own shoe rubber in 3 or more grades called Frixion. From my experience its much stickier and lasts longer than vibram if you purchase the proper grade to match your mission. Vibram to me has been glassy on rocks in comparison.

    • Adidas has a partnership with the Continental Tire company.The grip is pretty amazing on rock, wet or dry. Also Michelin Tire company makes different soles for a few different companies

      • A couple of companies that make great motorcycle tires, which absolutely must grip in the wet. Silicon is a material found in some tires, basically fine shards of glass that cut through a liquid film to make contact with the surface beneath, even improves traction on ice. I believe it’s being used in some cold-weather boots now.

  5. Dimitrios Kamitsos

    In my kloweledge Vibram makes not only differernt sole patterns according the activity but that goes also for the grip .There are hard compounds (that’s why we heard of soles lasting 15 yrs) and softer compounds that grip much better but last less .There is a large scale from very soft to hard and if we add the different paterns that drives us to a big portfolio.
    I think tire makers like Michelin and Continental have the knowlwdge and ability to make comparable soles but shoe makers usually don’t have the resources to extended developement,thus they offer good soles but not at the level of the equivalent Vibram (activity,grip level,longlasting,etc.) .My Kayland Globo has a relatively soft Vibram sole that suffers from chunks but offers very good grip.I don’t expect more than 1500km from them but i feel safe .As hikers,backpackers we know make compromises

  6. I have woosey soft feet. I started my AT thru hike in Moabs when headed south but my feet were torn up from roots and rocks in Maine. Made the move to Vasque Breeze GTX with Vibram and went through 4 pairs in 2000 miles. Finished the trail in Salomans. Once again too soft on the bottom. Wish I could still get the Vasques like I had then.

  7. Great topic, but I’m dismayed by how many people are fooled by marketing. Vibram lost their edge long ago.

  8. My Olympus soles seem to be wearing faster than my LaSportiva. I also feel my LaSportiva grip better esprcially on rocks. It could be the overall design of the shoe itself. They seem to “roll” less than the Olympus.

    • La Sportiva has the best grip in the industry. Ideal for rock and wet rock. They’re a climbing shoe company afterall.

      • Glad to see this discussion, I’ve been having lots of issues with slick, wet rock in Shenandoah (because I venture off the AT, down some of the 400+ miles of side trails in SNP). So many people rating shoes at the seller’s sites hike in the dry or on less challenging terrain.

  9. LMAO… Here we go again!!!! For 40 years the Manufacturers of NON-Vibram soles have been attacking their use… Personally I will not wear a pair of Modified over priced Sneakers they push these days since they were responsible for a few Stone Bruises I acquired and took months to heal along with a Calcium deposit on my heel…. This also goes for the purveyors and Hawkers of substandard Duck Down in place of Goose Down and still charge outrageous prices for their Cheap product and have a huge marketing appeal and getting people to wear their LOGO on expensive cheaply made Shirts… I know this will not appear in print so I can let loose.. Back in he 1980’s all these questions were answered by the Industry themselves… Goose Down is still the #1 Insulator and Vibram Soles protect your feet from so many injuries… Just like I am seeing Hikers going back to Leather Boots with Vibram soles on the Trail I help maintain in Alabama… You have to take care of your feet or you will be staying home……. .

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