Finding the perfect summer travel shoe can be an overwhelming task. No one wants to tote around a suitcase full of sneakers and sandals, but it’s hard to have fun on vacation with blisters or a limp. Can you hike all day and walk into a nice restaurant for lunch? What if your travel plans include a morning run? Will French people stare at me if I’m wearing these?
Is there a shoe out there that is at once durable, sporty, good for water, and good-looking? Or should I just give up and put my Chacos back on?
With one minor caveat, I can announce that my search is over. For the past few weeks, I’ve been running, hiking, wading through rivers, and meeting friends for lunch in Vivobarefoot’s Primus Trail Swimruns.
The Swimruns were originally designed for a Swedish race series called the Ötillö Swimrun, which can be described as an off-road triathlon sans the pesky biking portion. These versatile kicks are light, athletic sneakers that are designed to fit like a sock, with a breathable and draining mesh upper for when you go into the water and a durable, sticky, bright orange sole.
You don’t need to be a dedicated barefooter to enjoy these shoes, but if you plan on running in them, you probably should be. I’ve been running for ten years in successive pairs of Merrell Trail Gloves, and even I needed a little time to adjust to the Swimruns. But once you have, you probably won’t want to take them off.
I’m not a doctor, so I can’t exactly recommend barefoot running as a method of injury prevention. But anecdotally speaking, I took up barefoot running ten years ago as a way to strengthen my legs and feet while recovering from an ACL repair. I’m a lot slower now, and I don’t think I’d wear barefoot shoes if I still wanted to race. But I haven’t hurt myself since.
I’m not the only one at WIRED who loves barefoot running, and Vivobarefoot. Galahad Clark, the seventh generation of shoemakers from comfy shoe manufacturer Clarks Shoes, founded the company in 2004 as Terra Plana. They became Vivobarefoot in 2012, and they use innovative designs and materials to activate all the bitty nerve endings in your feet by letting them feel the ground. This can help you fire up ancillary leg and ankle muscles that may be dormant in a more supportive shoe.
The Swimruns slip on like a pair of wetsuit booties, or a pair of socks. I normally wear a size 8 in running shoes, but I had to size down to my casual shoe size in a 7.5. I have an extremely low-volume foot, but it was easy to cinch down the quick laces to accommodate them. The shoes also come with a removable thermal insert for extra padding and warmth if you need it.
I’ve been wearing them without socks for a few weeks, while running and hiking in and out of water. So far they haven’t started to smell, but I do take them off and dry them in the sun every afternoon.
If you’ve never done any barefoot running, it feels less like running and more like padding around a forest like a kitten. it will take you awhile for your feet to acclimate. Even if you’re familiar with it, I suggest taking it easy at first. The Trail Gloves are one of the most stripped-down running shoes around, but even they offer a little more support. It took a week or two of extremely short, slow runs on asphalt, gravel, groomed trails, and un-groomed singletrack for the tendons in my heels to acclimate to the Swimruns.
I didn’t wear the shoes while swimming, but I do take my dogs out on and around the rivers of Portland, Oregon, a couple times a week. Sports sandals, like Chacos, are the water shoe of choice around these parts, but I have mixed feelings about them. Dirt and pebbles can wiggle their way under the soles of my feet, and I have to shake them out. Not to mention my tendency to walk into sharp sticks, or stub my unprotected toes on rocks.
The Swimruns, however, were a great alternative. On one outing, my toddler daughter and I walked out on a narrow wooden barricade that jutted into the Willamette River, only realizing, too late, that we had to negotiate several thickets of overgrown thorns. Rather than sign up for another prickle-and-scratch session, I opted to hop off the barricade and directly into murky, knee-deep water.
The Swimruns have protective, puncture-resistant rubber zones, so I didn’t worry about bumping into, or stepping onto, anything sharp or splintery while wading back to shore with a squirmy three-year-old under my arm. The rubber is dotted with draining mesh holes, so when I got back on the beach, a few steps pumped all the water out of my shoes. Within a minute or two, my feet were dry.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken them through water, sand, dirt trails, and deep mud. After rinsing them off, they still look as good as new.
Though I loved these shoes, I have one minor gripe: they’re not quite as light as the Merrell Trail Gloves. At 500 grams, or slightly over a pound for both shoes, they are just a few ounces heavier. If you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, it’s worth noting.
At least the extra weight doesn’t keep them from compressing easily. For example, they fit in the top compartment of my small Matador daypack.
My family is planning a few trips this summer, in deserts and on beaches, traveling by car and by air, and I’m already planning on taking the Swimruns with me. The quick laces mean that you can easily slide them on and off. You can wear them with or without socks, for sprinting through airports or going on hikes. You can use them as water shoes to protect your feet while swimming or paddling.
And unlike some of Vivobarefoot’s more wacky designs, these look like street shoes. I like the sporty black mesh and bright orange soles (the women’s version also comes in a more toned-down blue). At $135, they’re a little pricey but certainly not out of reach for many people, especially if you’re only planning on wearing one pair of shoes.
If you’re looking for a sporty travel sneaker that can double as a casual shoe, congratulations! The Vivobarefoot Primus Trail Swimruns tick all the boxes. Plus, the locals won’t judge you for your choice of footwear, so you can use all that empty backpack space to tote more snacks, instead.