Initial Review of Sockwa X8
Note: I paid for these shoes with my own $$; my barefoot life is a completely non-monetized operation 🙂
With a five-day Grand Canyon backpacking trip looming, I’ve been trying to figure out what my foot-wear strategy will be.
Back story: A bit over a year ago, I did a six-day trip (arranged by the same wonderful folks at the Grand Canyon Field Institute), and had immediate shoe issues.
Hiking Grand Canyon is a bit different than hiking in the mountains; in the canyon, you first go down-down-down, and then come back up-up-up later. The initial descent can ruin your toes/toenails if your shoes don’t fit properly, with the constant bumping against the end of the toe-box resulting in blood-filled black toenails that eventually fall off. No fun.
The whole thing becomes especially problematic if you never wear shoes that cover your toes in day-to-day life . . . that would be me.
During last year’s Grand Canyon adventure, I showed up at the trailhead in my Merrell Pace Trail Gloves (the original model from their “barefoot” line). One of the reasons I wore them (besides hoping they would function well as backpacking footwear), was to not freak out the other backpackers on the trip, none of whom I had ever met . . . all of whom were wearing traditional hiking boots, and who would have probably not allowed me to join the fun without footwear that made me look like I knew what I was doing, since the trails we were about to travel for the next week were majorly steep and rough and rocky.
Well, I do steep and rough and rocky all the time at home, but not with 30 pounds on my back, so like a good scout I did try to wear shoes the first couple of jagged miles. Ouch. I knew my toenails were headed into oblivion, so I replaced the Merrell shoes with Merrell sandals: the (sadly discontinued) Pipidae Wrap Minimalist models. I had backpacked short distances (5-7 miles a day) in these, and they were very comfortable; their only drawback was the annoying quantity of pebbles they allowed to sneak between my foot and the shoe-bed.
Long story short on the Merrell sandals: (wasn’t this going to be a Sockwa review?) they are lightweight and comfortable and allowed me to keep up with my heavily booted companions down the Bill Hall Trail to Thunder River, along Tapeats Creek to the Colorado River, rock-scrambling along the Colorado River trail to Deer Creek, and then up the Deer Creek trail back to the Bill Hall and our cars (30-ish miles).
I now own two pairs of these sandals . . . one I wear to work every day (slipping them off as often as possible), and the other has remained my go-to backpacking shoe. Until now.
The constant attention to flipping tiny trapped rocks out from under my sole while traversing treacherous terrain gave me a hankering for another solution.
Enter the Sockwa: bought online from the company itself last Friday night ($59 + tax, free shipping), grabbed off my doorstep five days later and slipped on my feet immediately, and, finally, trail-tested this morning during an hour of steep up and down on the Chutes Trail outside of Irvine Park, near my hometown of Orange, CA.
Thus begins the review:
Sizing: I had measured my feet, as the web site suggested, and came up exactly between their (unisex) sizes. Drat. One size fits 9-10” feet; the next size up fits 10-11” feet. My feet are exactly 10 inches from heel to long second toe. I went with the larger size, since I don’t like things strangling my tootsies. There was room for my toes to wiggle this way, which I liked.
Initial feel: OK to pretty good. Did I mention that I really really dislike wearing anything that covers my feet? These are not too annoying to wear, however, with thin and stretchy uppers that wrapped my toes and continued up to grab my ankles in a snug-but-not suffocating fashion. I had read other bloggers mention being able to feel the stitching inside, but my feet got used to that quickly. There is a molded-in arch which is moderately annoying to feel pressing up against my foot (remember: my baseline is zero . . . nothing on my feet . . . so everything is noticeable), but my brain was soon able to tune that sensation out as well.
Weight: Nice and light, under 3oz. each.
Ground feel: With 4.5 mm of sole and mid-sole that the manufacturer claims compress to 2mm when you step on them, the ground feel is pretty darn good . . . comparable to my old SoftStar Grippy Roo Moccasins, which I wear to work when I want to feel like it’s winter in So Cal.
“Protection”: I put this category in quotes, because it is not a priority for me. I would not hike and trail run barefoot 100% of the time if I were concerned about this. For the purposes of backpacking, though, I guess this is why I bought the shoes . . . to help me keep up with my companions no matter how cold or hot or gravelly the surface (these are the three conditions I avoid during my solo wilderness travel . . . heat and cold, by planning the time of day of my outings; the gravel I have no control over, but it doesn’t really bother me without a pack on my back.)
Traction: I made a point to travel a trail with eroding sandstone ledges . . . that thin layer of grit can take you by surprise and cause a slidey-slip if you’re not careful. The Sockwa’s shallow, hexagonal tread worked fine as I stepped up and down and over rounded rocks and ledges, and I only lost traction and slipped once, about the same as when I am barefoot.
Toe-stubbing: The reduced proprioception that comes from covering all those fabulous nerve endings on your soles comes with a price: your subconscious is less vigilant, and you start catching your toes on rocks (i.e. tripping). (This is why people in big ol’ hiking boots trip all the time . . . their nervous system is asleep.)
I can go for months without this happening, or I can have an odd day and stub my toes two or more times in just a couple of hours. During my Sockwa test, I counted just one toe-stub, and since that toe was covered (the sole wraps up and around), I did not end up with skin torn off. (Which does not bother me much, since my feet have super-circulation and heal very quickly from these minor owies . . . yet another benefit of regular barefooting.)
I walked a lot and ran a bit, both up- and down-hill, for about an hour.
And . . . after that hour was over . . . I could not wait to strip those things off my feet and get back to honest contact with the friendly dust and rocks again.
Cons: a few minutes into my test, I bent down to take photos, and noticed a thread dangling loose over the toe box of the right shoe. I pulled it. The stitching began to unravel. WTH? (What-the-heck?) I got out my knife and cut the thread to keep more unraveling from occurring, but I’m a bit concerned, and may return these for an un-raveling pair after the trip.
Questions: Heat is an unknown factor . . . it was in the mid-60s during my test this morning, and my feet did not sweat or feel overheated. What will happen in warm weather? I know Barefoot Ken-Bob cited this as a major drawback for him (but he’s even more of a shoe-hatin’ rambler than I am).
Bottom line: I feel good about bringing these lightweight and stretchy shoes backpacking next week. While they do not look “normal” at all, they should inspire more confidence in my new hiking-friends-to-be than if I showed up stark raving barefoot. I will also bring my Merrell Pipidae sandals as a backup, though, since I know I can hike very rough terrain in them. And, as soon as the trail allows, I will be shoe-less, for sure.
Enough: At $59, this wisp-of-a-shoe is comfortable enough, has good enough traction and ground feel, and looks shoe-ish enough to keep folks from freaking out about traveling with a barefoot weirdo.
Grand Canyon, here I come.