If you’ve been browsing for a brand new pair of hiking boots or hunting for the ideal pair of hiking shoes, you’ve probably seen the term 'Vibram sole' stamped in a yellow octagon on the soles of many a pair and wondered what it means.
While not all outdoor footwear boasts the iconic octagon, you'd be surprised at the prevalence of Vibram in the hiking world. It's telling that 9 of the 15 boots in our best hiking boots guide are equipped with a Vibram sole.
So, what is a Vibram sole? And is it something you want from your hiking footwear? We take a look at the history and characteristics of this legendary feature of outdoor gear, and explain why you want one when the rubber meets the road.
Meet the expert
Growing up in Scotland, Julia cut her hiking teeth on sections of the famous West Highland Way, as well as climbing Munros and other peaks near Glasgow as a teenager. A long-distance trek across Lapland aged 16 sealed her fate as a lifelong hiker.
She moved to the US for university, after which a stint in Vermont saw her exploring the Green Mountains before she made a beeline for the Colorado Rockies. During her 11 years at high altitude, she hiked 30 Colorado 14ers, countless smaller peaks and trails and visited many of the West’s most iconic National Parks.
These days, she’s spending most of her hiking time clocking up miles in the Scottish Highlands and the French Alps. Needless to say, she’s tested a lot of hiking boots, hiking shoes, hiking sandals and trail running shoes in the past 30 years and has seen more than her fair share of Vibram soles in the process.
What is a Vibram sole?
A Vibram sole (pronounced “vee-bram”) is a brand of shoe sole produced and licensed by an Italian company of the same name. Vibram was named for its founder, a mountaineer named Vitale Bramani. Bramani lost six friends in a tragic mountaineering accident in 1935 and he blamed their deaths on inadequate footwear; at the time, climbing footwear had either a leather sole fitted with hobnails, or a felt sole which offered good tread except when frozen, as is often the case in the Italian Alps.
In response to the tragedy, Bramani engineered the first rubber lug sole, which is essentially a rubber sole with deep tread like you see on a tractor or tank tire (he actually named the design “carrarmato” which is Italian for tank). He patented the design two years later and it soon became the go-to sole in mountaineering gear. In fact, in 1954, the controversial first ascent of K2 was made by an Italian climbing team wearing boots with Vibram soles.
The soles were initially used for mountaineering boots but today you see them on everything from the best trail running shoes to the best water shoes. Today, the company reports that over 1,000 shoemakers utilize their soles in production with over 35 million soles produced worldwide each year.
Along with the likes of Gore-Tex, it's the additional logo you're most likely to see on many footwear brands' products, from giants like Nike and Merrell, to specialist mountaineering and trekking brands like fellow Italian manufacturers Scarpa and Aku.
The latter even recently released a limited edition Conero GTX hiking boot colored completely in Vibram's eye-catching yellow, celebrating their ongoing partnership. We learned all about the respect Aku have for Vibram's products when one of our testers was invited inside their Italian hiking boot factory to learn more about how hiking boots are made.
Is Vibram better than rubber?
As we said, Vibram soles are made of rubber, but it’s not just any rubber. The company uses rubber compounds which essentially means they treat the rubber to harden or soften it according to its use. Mountaineering boots are made with vulcanized rubber, which means the rubber that has been hardened to withstand extreme conditions such as rocky trails and freezing temperatures, whereas climbing shoes will have Vibram soles made of rubber treated to make it more pliable for scaling rock faces.
Are there different types of Vibram soles?
In the last 85 years, Vibram has branched out significantly. They make soles for all kinds of shoes, from recreational outdoors to work to leisure. There are five main categories of Vibram sole with different purposes:
- Grip: these include soles for boots made for hiking.
- Lightweight: these include soles for shoes made for everyday wear and running.
- Climbing: this special line includes soles with the flexibility needed for climbing.
- Safety: these soles are designed for working boots and shoes in harsh conditions.
- Flame resistant: these soles withstand extreme heat and are used by firefighters and other emergency workers.
Each of these categories has many different types of sub-sole within it for specialized purposes. For example, Aku's Trekker Lite III GTX features a Vibram Curcuma outsole, which offers great stability and precision on hikes, approach walks and steep, technical terrain. Whereas Vibram Megagrip – featured on the likes of Scarpa's Crux approach shoe, Danner's Trail 2650 Campo GTX hiking shoe and Aku's Rock DFS GTX hybrid approach shoe – is a compound that provides solid grip on both wet and dry ground.
What are the advantages of Vibram soles?
There's a reason why these soles have become iconic in the footwear world. If you are looking at a pair of hiking shoes with Vibram soles, there are six main advantages you can expect from them:
- Traction: rubber is a great non-slip material and all Vibram soles have tread. The deeper the tread, the more traction you can expect.
- Comfort: rubber is a flexible material, meaning in addition to cushioning, it flexes with your feet and also takes less time to break in.
- Waterproof: Vibram soles keep the water out, so you can hike in rainy and boggy conditions without getting wet feet and painful boot rub.
- Durability: Vibram soles are known for being especially long-lasting against wear and tear, meaning even if you like to hike a lot you can expect to get years out of your boots. And when you do wear yours out, you can get them resoled to save you money and the pain of having to break in a whole new pair.
- Easy to clean: some Vibram soles are essentially self cleaning with deep tread that sheds dirt when you flex your foot in walking, while all are machine washable (you’ll still want to check your shoes for washing instructions before throwing them in the machine, though).
- Sustainable production: Vibram certainly produces a lot of soles, but their Sustainable Way commitment reports that currently 60% of their energy comes from renewable sources to help lessen their impact on the climate.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.