Marketed as the first footwear to offer "the sensation of going barefoot with the protection and security of a sole," Vibram's FiveFingers (www.vibramfivefingers.com) shoe-gloves have stretchy synthetic uppers and thin rubber soles.
Vibram touts its three FiveFingers models as promoting better foot health and stimulating the muscles in the feet and lower legs for greater balance, agility and strength.
Other potential benefits the company cites include better posture and reduced back pain.
I've been testing the Sprint model, which costs $80 and is made for hiking, yoga, sailing, surfing, canoeing and barefoot running.
Naturally, these shoes fit tight, wrapping each toe and following the lines of your foot back to a defined heel cup. The Sprint model has a Velcro strap that cinches over the top of the foot for extra security.
Despite the purported health advantages, first-time FiveFingers wearers have to be careful, especially for running. I am a regular runner, and I prefer shoes that promote minimal support in favor of bolstering foot and leg strength. But the FiveFingers philosophy is the epitome of this minimalism, as there's zero cushioning underfoot.
You feel sticks, stones and cracks in the sidewalk through the shoes. The sole serves only to protect your skin, not your joints.
Anyone with bad knees or other health problems might think twice before trying the Vibram experience.
But in the right physical condition--and with the right technique--running in a pair of FiveFingers is a cool feeling. You can almost sense yourself getting stronger.
For other terrestrial activities, I was less sold. Hiking or walking in the Sprints seemed silly. The company touts FiveFingers for bouldering, but most serious rock climbers would not consider the shoes appropriate for the activity. For casual use, I was too embarrassed to wear FiveFingers indoors anywhere.
In the water, FiveFingers shoes are nice. But for waves or rivers you might look at the $100 boot-like Surge, which comes up over the ankle and has a 2 mm neoprene lining.
As for fit, I'd recommend trying a pair or two on at a store. My foot size is 12.5, but for the Sprint model I ended up going with a size 11.5 shoe for its secure fit in the heel area.
Getting any of the FiveFingers models on is a chore, as the toe slots are small and tight. But be patient. Once on and secured a FiveFingers shoe should fit, well, like a glove.
Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eight U.S. newspapers; visit www.thegearjunkie.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog and an archive of Regenold's work.