The first pair of truly minimalist shoes I owned were Vibram FiveFingers Classics. I bought them in mid 2006 and after several years of heavy use, they were eventually relegated to light-duty tasks like mowing the lawn. To replace my beloved Classics, I bought a pair of FiveFingers KSOs (which are still going strong). I found the KSO worked very well for almost everything: walking, running, hiking, backpacking, racquetball, tennis, weight training, and just plain-old everyday wear. It became my go-to shoe for any activity in temperatures warmer than 30 - 50 F (depending on my level of exertion). To this day, no matter how many different shoes I test I find myself always coming back to the KSO.

Despite loving the KSO, there have been many occasions that I have wished for something similiar without separate toes. What are my issues with separate toes? Well...

  • They get cold. In cooler conditions, especially when the ground is wet, my toes get numb. While adding extra insulation from a wool sock or a neoprene upper (i.e. the Flow) helps a little, it isn't enough. Nothing beats having the toes together for maximizing warmth.
  • Sock options are limited. I like to wear my shoes with merino wool socks. It keeps the smell down, regulates temperature, and prevents chafing and blisters. With normal socks I have lots of options. With toe-socks, only one company makes a merino wool model - Injinji. While I don't mind Injinji socks (although durability isn't their strong point), I often wish I had more options. Being able to use normal socks means that I can use any brand/model/style I want. This is especially important to me in the outdoors where I use different socks at different times depending on the weather conditions.
  • They look... different. I actually like the way FiveFingers look, but many others (i.e. my father-in-law) don't like the monkey feet. Additionally, having shoes with separate toes sometimes draws more attention than I would care to have. As an example, I have been hassled several times in fitness centers by staff who said that FiveFingers weren't acceptable attire for lifting weights. Although I don't think their arguments hold any water, sometimes I would rather not put up with the hassle of arguing over it.

I always thought that if someone were to develop a KSO-like shoe without the separate toes, they would have a killer product. Based on my initial impressions, the Altra Adam appears to have pulled it off. I had a good laugh when I saw that my test pair had been shipped in a recycled KSO shoe box.

So far, I have worn these shoes to work, casually around town, working out, running on an indoor track, running on pavement, and on a couple of trail runs. I haven't taken them on any hikes yet, and probably won't until spring when the snow clears. Based on the last month of testing, this is what I have found:

  • The fit is excellent. The toebox is wide and enables the toes to spread. It actually feels a little disconcerting because in any other shoe, a toebox with that much width would be too sloppy. Yet the snug fit through the midfoot and arch locks the heel into place like no other shoe I have worn. I was expecting my toes to jam into the front on the downhills, but that hasn't happened yet. The stretchy uppers, snug fit, and wide toebox gives both the feeling of security and freedom - not unlike the KSO. I am beginning to feel like I can have my cake and eat it too.
  • The flexibility and ground feel can be fine tuned. The shoe can be worn with or without an insole, and there are two different insoles included with the shoe. Without an insole, the 3mm razor-siped rubber sole feels much like a KSO, allowing excellent ground feel. Adding the 3mm gray strengthen insole adds a little more protection, providing ground feel similar to that of the FiveFingers Bikila (use caution when clicking that link at work... ;-). Using the 5mm yellow support insole ups the protection and stiffness a little more, making it feel similar to the VivoBarefoot Evo. Adding/removing insoles can also allow for different thicknesses of socks, which I think will prove to be very useful for hiking and backpacking.
  • They are warmer. I have been able to wear them in much colder temperatures than I would ever consider doing with my FiveFingers. My initial estimates are that they will work in conditions approximately 15 degrees F colder than the KSO.
  • The materials and construction appear to be top-notch.
The shape of the last can easily be seen when the insole from the Altra Adam is compared to that of the Inov-8 X-Talon 190. (Note: the insoles are NOT from the same sized shoe, the Altra is a 9.5 and the Inov-8 is a 10.5)

Despite all of the good qualities, I have a couple of concerns:

  • The shoes have a lot of exposed stitching. Exposed stitching can be a problem for shoes used in high abrasion environments (i.e. talus, rocks, and roots). In those conditions, abrasion can wear through the stitching causing the shoe to fall apart.
  • The Velcro strap across the top of the foot runs through a small webbing loop, designed to hold it in place. The hook side of the Velcro (the abrasive side) catches on the webbing and causes it to fray. Every time I undo and loosen the strap, the webbing frays a little more. It is a minor (mostly cosmetic) annoyance at the moment, but I will be watching to see if it becomes a bigger problem down the road.
    Update: After reading the review, Altra commented on the strap issue and had this to say about it: "As for the Velcro Strap going through that top loop---it shouldn't be through there! For whatever reason, the factory put them through there---simply pull the velcro strap out of the loop and everything will be just fine." - Good to know!

Based on my initial impressions, if it isn't already apparent, I really like the Adam. As I have learned though, a good first impression doesn't always pan out in the long run. Only time will tell how well these work, and I am looking forward to putting them through their paces over the coming months. Stay tuned for future updates!