There are a few notable things about hiking boots: they tend to be durable and feel solid in your hands, they usually have a higher shaft than running shoes in order to support the ankle, and they have rugged soles with deep lugs to give you traction on the trail.
It is often this last characteristic—the impressive anti-slip sole—that hikers like to look at when they’re shopping for a new pair of hiking boots.
Staring at the bottom of a hiking boot may seem to be nothing more than an exercise of momentary escapism—imagining the miles and miles of wilderness you’ll explore as those boots carry you along the trails—but it’s actually providing hikers in the know some information about the hiking boots.
The bottom of some hiking boots have a yellow octagon embedded in the rubber sole, which serves as an indication that the hiking boots have a Vibram sole.
What’s a Vibram sole? Should you buy hiking boots with a Vibram sole? Are there other shoes with this type of sole?
In this guide, we will discuss what a Vibram sole is and why they are special.
More specifically, we will cover:
- What Is a Vibram Sole?
- Are Vibram Soles Better Than Regular Soles?
- Types Of Vibram Soles
- Benefits Of Vibram Soles
Let’s get started!
What Is a Vibram Sole?
For any runners who immediately associate the word Vibram with the toe running shoes popularized after the release of Christopher McDougall’s bestseller Born to Run, let’s quickly note that the Vibram soles we are discussing here are something a bit broader.
Although they both have to do with footwear for athletic activities and are actually produced by the same company, Vibram soles are a feature of certain hiking boots or other types of outdoor athletic footwear, while Vibram FiveFingers are a specific model of barefoot running shoes.
A Vibram sole (pronounced “vee-bram”) refers to a specific brand of shoe sole made by the Italian company Vibram.
Named by taking parts of the first and last names of the founder Vitale Bramani, the Vibram company produces and licenses their soles to other footwear companies who then build hiking boots or other types of footwear atop their sole.
The origin story is that the company’s founder Bramani lost six friends in a tragic mountaineering accident in 1935, deaths that Bramani attributed to the inadequacy of the climbing footwear his friends had to wear.
Up until that point, climbing shoes only had a felt sole or a leather sole fitted with hobnails, neither of which provided reliable traction on frozen ground.
However, frozen terrain is almost synonymous with mountaineering in the Italian Alps, and Bramani believed that the incompetency of the climbing shoes on slippery snow and ice is what cost his friends their lives.
Bramani took his grief and used it to “build a better mousetrap.” He engineered the first rubber lug sole with the deep tread patterns we are accustomed to seeing on hiking boots these days.
An interesting piece of trivia is that he actually named his design “carrarmato,” which means “tank” in Italian since the aggressive lug pattern on the rubber Vibram soles resembled the deep treads of a tank.
Bramani went on to patent the design of what became Vibram soles, and his invention soon became the most desirable sole for all mountaineering gear.
By 1954, the Italian climbing team who made the first climb up the infamous K2 were outfitted in boots with Vibram soles.
Although Vibram soles were initially used exclusively for maintaining footwear such as hiking boots and climbing boots, you can now find these soles on nearly all types of athletic footwear, including trail running shoes, rock climbing shoes, and water shoes.
According to the company, Vibram soles are now incorporated into footwear products of over 1,000 different shoe manufacturers.
Are Vibram Soles Better Than Regular Soles?
So aside from name-brand recognition, what’s so special about these soles? Are Vibram soles really better than regular rubber soles?
Although Vibram soles, like the soles of other hiking boots and outdoor footwear, are made from rubber, the rubber that forms a Vibram sole has been treated to specifically improve the use for the designated activity.
In other words, a Vibram sole uses rubber compounds that have been either heated or cooked to alter the properties of the material for the desired effect.
The Vibram sole for mountaineering boots uses vulcanized rubber, which involves hardening the rubber to enable it to withstand extreme terrain and conditions, such as traversing over slippery boulders and icy mountaintops.
On the other hand, the rubber used to make Vibram soles for climbing shoes is treated in a way that increases flexibility for enhanced grip and agility when scaling rock faces.
Types Of Vibram Soles
As mentioned, since the release of the flagship Vibram sole for mountaineering boots roughly 85 years ago, the company has expanded its research and development and manufacturing practices to include several different types of these soles for different activities.
The categories of these soles are designed to achieve one of five specific purposes, though any of their sole products will provide some of each feature.
Within each category, Vibram produces numerous different ilks of soles:
- Grip: Designed to enhance traction, Vibram soles with grip are primarily used for hiking. For example, the Indrogrip is designed for wet terrain, and the Arctic Grip is for traction on frozen ground.
- Lightweight: These soles offer the traction benefits but in a streamlined, lightweight design for running shoes and other athletic sneakers. For example, the Vibram Litebase is half as thick as most athletic soles, so it reduces the overall sole weight by 30%.
- Climbing: The flexibility and pliability of these soles make them ideal for indoor and outdoor rock climbing. For example, the Vibram XS FLASH is for indoor climbing and the Vibram XS GRIP 2 is for outdoor climbing.
- Safety: These soles are designed to be super stable and good for working construction or other similar jobs. The Vibram ARCTIC GRIP PRO is an example of a Vibram sole for military, industrial, and work purposes that require frozen conditions.
- Flame Resistant: Flame-retardant soles are ideal for boots for firefighters and electricians.
Benefits of Vibram Soles
Buying footwear with Vibram soles is like an assurance that you’re getting a high-quality product that will keep you safe and enhance your intended activity.
Benefits of these soles include the following:
- Increased traction and reduced risk of slipping due to the deep treads
- Enhanced comfort such that the soles move with your feet as one unit without needing to be “broken in.”
- Better durability, so they last over time (or you can get them resoled).
- Sustainably produced
- Easy to clean because they’re machine washable.
If you do need to repair your Vibram soles, they offer different options depending on where in the world you are located.
Buying shoes with the yellow octagon denoting that it’s a Vibram sole isn’t just a silent nod that you’re in some sort of secret club; it’s a good way to ensure you’re getting quality footwear for whatever sort of adventure you have in store.
If running is your sport and you are looking to purchase some new running shoes, we have a great variety of helpful guides to walk you through each part of the process.
Check out our running shoe guides on your next trip to the store: