'Barefoot' Running Season is Year-round with New Winter Vibram

Snow and ice used to keep FiveFingers wearers and other “barefoot”-style runners indoors. No longer. The Vibram Lontra, new last month for $150, is an insulated model made for temps more often dedicated to winter boots.

I’ve been putting the Lontras to the test over the past month on winter runs from GearJunkie HQ in Minneapolis, Minn.

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The Lontra becomes the “barefoot” choice as fall turns to winter

My take? In short, the Lontra does exactly what it sets out to do — the beefed-up, multi-layer upper provides a buffer from the cold, and impressive water resistance in sloppy conditions. A light fleece liner inside the shoe adds additional warmth. And an extended neoprene cuff seals snow and moisture out at the ankle and keeps heat inside.

Even without socks, which I’ve never cared for while wearing Vibrams, the Lontra has proven comfortable down to about 20 degrees F. I should make clear that my feet are in no way immune to the cold, and I’d actually qualify my toes as pretty wimpy in cold conditions. So, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of warmth afforded by the Lontras. Many runners might not venture out at as temperature dips below freezing, but we’re confident the Lontras will be suitable for many runners at, and even below, freezing.

In an effort to test the shoes’ traction, I’ve been deliberately running on patches of ice, snow and slush. The aggressively-treaded outsole hasn’t failed me yet, as I haven’t lost my balance or taken a spill yet.

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The Lontra’s super durable sole provides traction in slippery winter conditions

Compared to other Vibram FiveFingers models, the Lontra is a clunker at 7.6 ounces per shoe (Euro size 43). That’s at least 2 ounces more than most other VFF models. But that weight is still well below nearly every minimalist shoe out there, let alone a shoe that can handle the winter.

The Lontras are noticeably stiffer than other VFF shoes I’ve run in — specifically, in the toes. The pinky-toe “sleeve” is so stiff that I have trouble moving it at all, if I raise my foot off the ground and curl my toes. As much as I’d like to say I’m a discerning enough minimalist runner to detect a difference between the Lontras and my Bikilas during a run, I can’t. Which is a good thing. The shoes manage to keep my feet warm and dry, while staying true to their minimalist design foundations. And I get even weirder looks wearing them into the grocery store than I do during the summer.

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Toe to toe: The Vibram Bikila (red) and Lontra (gray)

These shoes — the winter version of the “normal” summer-weight FiveFingers — are certainly not for everyone. If you have experience running injury-free in other VFF models and live in a cold climate, give the Lontras a serious look. If you haven’t run in toe shoes before, winter’s not the time to start.

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Fresh Lontra prints in the snow. No conspiracy theory here.

Over the past few years, I’ve logged regular mileage in my Bikilas during the warmer months in Minnesota, but am always bummed out when I’m forced to retire the shoes for the year at the first sign of winter. Thanks to the Lontra, I’ve managed to avoid my toe shoe separation anxiety this winter.

—Patrick Murphy is an assistant editor.

Posted by Jeff Stapleton - 12/22/2012 09:23 AM

Try barefoot, Patrick! I’m still running barefoot at -10C in the Canadian winter. No Vibrams here, my man! BTW, no problems with the feet, either.

Posted by T Thompson - 12/29/2012 01:31 PM

Barefoot at -10C in the Canadian winter??? What are you, a Hobbit? O.o That’s pretty hard-core. :)

Posted by Karl - 01/02/2013 08:40 AM

I’m not a runner at all, but I am a daily VFF wearer. That said, its good too see that they’re finally taking a stab at some warmer winter footwear. I have 2 pair of KSO and a pair of the leather KSO Treks. My feet stay warm enough with a pair of socks, but the wetness is an issue, and the Treks have durability issues in general anyways. Nice write up as well.

Posted by Geff - 01/02/2013 09:15 AM

I love my lontras. I, too, am a Canadian runner. I’ve ventured out with them as cold as -26c and have been fine, my feet warm up after a couple km. VFF has spoiled me, I have a difficult time running in anything else. Also a well packed snowmobile trail makes for excellent running!

Posted by Kirstan Sanders - 01/02/2013 11:21 AM

Um, I like them – would like them better with a bit more flexibility but gotta trade for something, right? I think I’d prefer more warmth inside – they are a move in the right direction but, even running at 36 degrees, in wet fields, my feet are done after about 35 minutes. Just too cold and wet.

Posted by Fenchurch - 01/02/2013 12:02 PM

I’ve enjoyed my Lontras, but find that they don’t do well in protecting against even moderately slushy conditions. While my toes actually stayed dry (at least the socks were still dry to the touch when I took the shoes off), the icy water can soak into the outside material a bit and create a sort of convection cooling to the toes which are a bit harder to move in the stiffer toe sleeves (and are therefore a bit harder to keep the circulation pumping). But in cold weather that’s a bit more dry, they’re great! And, interestingly, cold weather that’s actually wet and not slushy, they seem to do pretty well (wearing them at home in the Seattle area in the cold rain works great, wearing them on vacation in Utah in the slushy snow, not so much).

Also, I did end up getting some wool-blend outdoor Injinji socks to wear with them, which seemed to help a bit, but were thick enough they further restricted the mobility in the toes.

Posted by Reticuli - 01/02/2013 04:10 PM

How well does the shoe breath with neoprene? Why didn’t Vibram go with Gore Tex for a shoe this expensive? Is it essentially a spruced-up Flow upper with a KSO sole?

Posted by Molly - 02/13/2013 06:30 PM

I wear o’niell reef booties. They stay dry, warm, cheap, and awesome.

Posted by Tien - 02/18/2013 07:54 AM

Ran 22K in -15C with a windchill so -22C in Canada. Got frostbite on my big toes. So beware. But I still love them.

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