© 2007 Adam Johnson Vibram FiveFingers

Footwear Review: Vibram FiveFingers Surge–A Completely Different Animal

When Keen first emerged on the Kayaking scene, people saw their products on and off the river. Then, some people moved away from Keen when Mion emerged from its parent comany (Keen). Now, there is a new kid on the block: Vibram FiveFingers. We have gone from semi-normal looking shoes (Keen), to a somewhat more unique look (Mion) which many liked because of their uniqueness. With the introduction of FiveFingers, we have something completely different and utterly wild looking.

FiveFingers original philosophy is to provide a layer of protection between your foot and the harsh, sharp, and unpredictable surface while barefoot. Although FiveFingers has footwear for a variety of applications, this review on FiveFingers’s Surge footwear will look at the Surge as footwear specifically for whitewater kayaking (although it can be used for several aquatic applications).

Initial Impressions:
The Surge model comes in an attractive cardboard shoe box with the sole of the Surge printed on the surface of the box, very similarly to the box of Chaco footwear. The shoes also arrive with an informative booklet which tells you how to clean, wear, and get used to the shoe, as well as other information about the company.
What makes these shoes so crazy lies in their design. FiveFingers (as the name implies) has a place for each one of your toes. So, when you put the shoe on, which often proves to be difficult (especially if your toes naturally scrunch together), each toe fits in its designated toe “pocket”. You have to guide your toes into each toe pocket with your hands and actively spread out your toes which does take more time than putting on a normal shoe; however, once you are wearing the Surge, your feet are in there and you really feel like you have a connection between the ground and your foot.
I have been using NRS Desperado Socks as a shoe for both Creeking and Playboating. I have found that, while they work exceptionally well, the neoprene sole of the shoe after a few months of use would either compress or deteriorate. This caused less padding to be between your foot and the ground. I found that sharp rocks would often cause pain when stepping on in the soft neoprene sole. Additionally, due to the flexible “sock” nature of the Desperado’s, they often slide around your foot exorbitantly when hiking out of steep gorges, which causes uncertainty while your hiking up that sketch 500 foot-per-mile “trail”.
The sole of the Surge is an actual sole made of Vibram’s famous rubber (found most notably on Chaco footwear). The rubber is very grippy, providing traction on steep acents and decents. Even though the sole is maybe a quarter-inch thick (in accordance with FiveFingers’s barefooting philosophy), it is rigid enough to protect from sharp objects, such as rock, broken glass, or the ever hated brier patch.
FiveFingers used 2mm neoprene to insulate you during the cold months of paddling. While wearing them, the larger part of your foot stays warm; however, since each toe is separated, your toes quickly get cold because each toe cannot get heat from its neighbor. This could present a problem when paddling in cold weather (anything at or below ~45 degrees).
In addition to toe pockets and a neoprene outer shell, the Surge comes equipped with three straps to secure the footwear on your foot. One over the arch of your foot, one where your foot and leg transition, and one up high around your calf. These things will not come off when properly strapped down (I bet they wouldn’t come off if they were not strapped down either). Take a knarly swim and you might loose everything else, but these things will stay on.
FiveFingers in Action:
I took these things out for a field test on the Upper Blackwater River in northern West Virginia. The “Upper B” is a notorious class V stream which has a good amount of gradient with steep boulder-drop style rapids. The level was around 475cfs for both days–on the high side. It had just rained over the past couple of days, so the ground was wet and littered with Fall colorized leaves.
The Surge’s proved to be a very good creeking shoe. They handle well and stay put on your foot when hiking into and out of the gorge. The straps really secure the shoe on your foot well, creating a solid feeling purchase when you go to step up or down. The straps also help the force exerted when stepping to disperse the load evenly amongst the shoe, which creates a nice, dissipated step. Additionally, you can really feel the terrain that you are stepping on when scouting and hiking, which eases the stress for those sketchy scouts. The acclaimed Vibram sole makes for a good grip on most surfaces as well.
One of the things I liked most about using these shoes is the ability to get individual toes on a rock, tree root, or ledge and actually feel and use each toe to help you step. Most kayaking shoes are much less connected to the ground; whereas, these shoes feel almost like a hybrid between paddling and climbing shoes. You can physically feel the ground under your feet, curl your toe(s) to get a strong purchase, and step up or down with confidence.

During the hike out of the Upper B, a steep, grueling, and uncertain hike up out of the gorge, I found that I truly enjoyed wearing the Surge’s. I thought that they stayed in place on my foot which helped me to hike up. Additionally, the straps provided a dispersement of force, which eased the stress on the front of your foot. I have learned that having a good pair of footwear can actually make hiking with your boat much easier.
Where the heck can I find these things?
Well, you can check out Vibram FiveFingers’s Website for more information and purchasing options. The Surge comes at a steep price of $100 per pair MSRP. I have heard unconfirmed reports of some for less on Google Products and possibly Ebay for those of you cheap, dirtbag kayakers. FiveFingers models are also available in most local outdoor stores. If they are not, maybe try suggesting that they get them and possibly giving you (the suggester) a pair for a discounted price in exchange for the reference.
The Surge is constructed in a solid fashion and seem to provide adequate protection, grip, and versatility for whitewater kayakers. A solid product for those looking to have sure footing on the next river trip. Fits in both modern playboats and creekboats.
Very pricey for a pair of shoes. Since each toe is separated, your toes get cold very easily in cold weather. Hard to get your toes into their slots for the first few attempts.

Overall, I am very pleased with these shoes and give them a 7.5/10. I will certainly be using the Surge’s on each creeking trip.
I would like to add that I am not affiliated with Vibram FiveFingers in any way (this review is independent from any biases).

See you on the water,

-Adam Johnson


  1. wandererimports
    Posted April 27, 2008 at 6:08 pm | #

    Hey man,
    My name is Sean West, and I’m a 21 year old whitewater paddler from Asheville, NC. I own a company that sells symbols for safe passage over water to kayakers. They are necklaces carved by independant balinese artisans out of bone, and I have been wearing one for three years.

    I noticed you did a product review for the Vibram, and was wondering if you would be willing to review these necklaces or mention them on your site. I would also like to exchange links with you if you are interested. You can see the necklaces at http://www.wandererimports.com.

    Keep paddling,

  2. CP
    Posted June 1, 2008 at 11:13 pm | #

    Hi Adam,

    I am living Hong Kong and do you know any online shop selling this stuff to Asian region?
    Thanks for help.


  3. Dara
    Posted November 11, 2008 at 12:13 am | #

    Interesting to know.

  4. Lynn M.
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 1:35 pm | #

    The Surge is now a discontinued model, but there are some for sale currently at Ebay for $35.

    What part of this shoe opens up so you can get it on? I have a high arch and can't get my feet inside the VFF KSO. I'm wondering if the Surge has a bigger opening for the feet to go through as you put them on.

  5. RiotAJ
    Posted November 19, 2009 at 11:34 pm | #

    @Lynn M,

    Please refer to the first photo in the post to see the opening.

    Personally, I did not have any trouble getting my foot into the shoe; I had to work a bit harder to get each of my toes into their appropriate spot.

    Hope this helps,

    -Adam Johnson

  6. Adrien
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 11:38 am | #

    I don’t find where to buy it 🙁

  7. Cyril
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 10:58 am | #

    I’m looking at all taken to buy a pair in size 43 (eu), you know which store he could remain in their stock? praying hard

  8. Posted May 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm | #

    All store/stock/etc questions about these shoes can be answered on their site:


    If you don’t find what you are looking for there, please feel free to contact them and they will be able to help you out better than I can.

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