Sunday, January 2, 2011

ZEMgear shoes - Winter Running Review

Getting ready to head out to complete the Winnipeg Resolution Run on Jan 1, 2011 in my Zems. Its a balmy -29 degrees Celcius with the windchill, and yes I am wearing a kilt.

Winter running was going to be a different type of challenge for me then your average runner. I have found my running bliss in utilizing my au' natural soles, and did not want to resort to going back to running shoes to conquer the snow and ice of a typical Canadian winter. Even though I was planning to complete the occasional bare foot run through the winter, realistically once the temperature drops, or the snow on the trails was to deep, I knew I would have to utilize some type of footwear. This being said, I started on my journey of researching numerous types of minimalistic footwear, to find what would work best for me and my challenging requirements.

My first thought, was to utilize my current minimalistic footwear, the 'toe shoes' for my winter runs, but decided this would not be feasible since my toes were currently getting cold and numb in them, and we have barely started into the cold temperatures yet. I found a few other options, but I really did not like the looks of them or felt they were not minimalistic enough to suit my needs. At this point, it was looking like I would be going back to my old water shoes for the winter, not my first choice as they fit very loosely on my feet, which I do not like at all.

A few days later, I was reviewing some postings on the Barefoot Runners Society web page ( ), and I came across a post regarding these shoes by ZEMgear, that some of our members were using. I will admit, I was drawn to the name first of all, so I thought I would read some of the postings and see what they were about. After reading some of the comments, I was intrigued, and decided that it was worth taking a closer look and accessed the ZEMgear website ( After spending a couple of minutes on the site and looking at the shoes closely, the hamster wheel in between my ears starting whirling with reckless abandonment, Zem's would be my winter running shoes.

All filled with excitement I contacted ZEMgear by email, expressing my interest in their product as well as what I wanted to use them for, I honestly felt like a little kid in a candy store with thoughts of grandeur and anticipation of things to come. I must of intrigued someone at ZEMgear, because a couple of hours later I got a return email from one of the co-founders of the company, that's what I call personal touch. They were intrigued by the idea as well, to see how their product would hold up to the cold Canadian winters.

So with this a new adventure has begun.

My new Zem's (I was utilizing the Lo Boot Round Toe model), arrived in mid October, and I started utilizing them for my everyday activities as much as possible. Because this fall was unseasonably warm and we did not get snow until mid November , I did not want to give up my barefoot running until I had too, so the running trials for the Zem's did not start until that point. But when they officially started they started with a bang.

The Review - Concerns

Taking into account that Zems were originally designed as beach volleyball shoes, I honestly did not know how they would hold up to everyday use in the cold and snow with a mix of salt and chemicals from the sanding trucks that are typically utilized to keep the roads clear, etc. Throw in asphalt and concrete sidewalks and the thin sole and the unique wrap around fastening point of the uppers of the shoe to the bottom would be truly tested for endurance and stability in the winter. The other concerns I had are listed below and would be tested and graded along the way:
Warmth - if you ever spend anytime outdoors in the cold in Winnipeg in the winter, this is always a concern, even winter boots can sometimes not keep the feet warm enough. Toes get mighty cold at -30 degrees and lower.

Traction - The soles of the shoes are thin (this was one of the things I was drawn too), and traction is minimal at best.

Resistance to Salt and Chemicals - As noted above the city uses a combination of salt, sand and chemicals to keep the roads and sidewalks clear and from becoming a icy skating rink.

Reaction to Getting Wet - As you go into a warm area then go back out into the cold, there is a large possibility that the shoes will get wet, and then have to endure freezing.

Reaction and Performance of the Tech Bands - Would the tech bands hold their shape and perform as intended with the added stress of the cold.

Flexibility - With the cold temperatures will the flexibility of the shoe remain, or will they become stiff and rigid subject to cracking or outright breaking?

The Feel of the Ground - This is my most important test, will I loose the feel of the terrain as the weather, the shoe and ultimately my feet get colder?

First I have to say, I have been wearing my Zem's as my where ever I go shoe (other than work) since I have received them, and they have quickly become my favorite to date. These are definitely the closest to barefoot that I have come across, that still give me protection from the frozen ground that I was seeking. I wanted to put them through the worst conditions that our climate has to offer so I could get a true test of what they could handle and where the shortcomings are. Yes they have worn through in places, but considering what they have been used for and what surfaces they are being utilized on they are performing well beyond my expectations.

I have used them for everyday use so far this winter including snow shovelling, tobogganing, walking, travelling back and forth to work, driving, etc. I have also used the same pair as my running shoes since the snow got to deep and the temperatures have dropped below -20 degrees Celsius. Overall the one pair of Zems have been subjected to 2 plus months of Canadian winter abuse (Nov and Dec and parts of October), and more than 100 miles of running mileage thru snow, ice, drifts, frozen concrete sidewalks, asphalt, chemicals, salt, puddles, slush and numerous freeze/thaw/freeze scenarios and conditions. I made a point of not avoiding anything that was in my path of travel to ensure I could give a truly objective review.

Back to the questions above, these are my findings:
(Ratings are out of 10)

Warmth: I first starting wearing the Zems outside without socks to see how low the temperature could go before I would resort to them, I was pleasantly surprised that -10 degrees Celsius could be achieved for a reasonable period of time. Once below this temperature I could comfortably wear the Zems with a pair of ankle high sport socks and as long as my feet were moving they were comfortable (similar to a pair of running shoes), so far I have hit -31 with the windchill for reasonable periods of time. Note when you stop moving, your feet do get cold fairly quickly due to the thin layer of sole between your feet and the ground. So in short, movement is a must. For running, I have utilized my toe socks and a pair of thermal socks over top to assist in regulating my foot temperature with great success. Even bounding thru snow drifts and pounding the pavement per say have kept my feet quite warm, with no loss of feel for the ground. Overall rating of this category is a 7.0.

Traction - This one is a little harder to evaluate, as when I run, I lift my legs instead of the typical leg swing that most runners utilize, so traction does not affect myself or most barefoot runners quite as much. But this being said, I also used these for day to day use as well, and the general consensus is there is little to no traction available. Going up hills can be a challenge, but if you tread lightly and walk on the mid to front of your foot, you can accommodate for this. Overall rating of this category is a 3.0.

Salt and Chemical Resistance - I really was not sure how the Zems were going to hold up with the onslaught of salt and chemicals that are put all over the roads and sidewalks of Winnipeg, especially since there really is no buffer zone between the upper shoe fabric and the ground surface. I figured that the chemicals and salts would eat away at the upper materials as well as the tech bands and I would be scrambling to find a product to keep them together and function able. Not the case, although there is definitely some visible wear around the edges of the shoes, the tops and tech bands are holding their own. Also with the wash ability of these shoes, the lasting effects of salt is not a factor. Overall rating of this category is a 8.0.

Getting Wet - I was expecting good things from the shoes in this regard, and here I was a little surprised with how they performed. I figured with the existing uppers current material (a four way stretch Lycra), and that they are used quite frequently in water sports, they would far exceed the standard running shoe in this category. Unfortunately, in the cold conditions when they get wet, they hold the moisture in and freeze quite easily (no wicking that I noticed). They perform on about the same level as a typical shoe, but will get wet quicker due to the closer proximity to the ground. Thermal socks do give added protection from the moisture but Gortex socks would be a must for early spring and the snow melting season. Overall rating of this category is 4.0 (same rating I would give a standard running shoe).

The Tech Bands - I was pleasantly surprised at the performance of these features, as they definitely create a secure feeling for the shoe to the foot, and they did not lose any of their performance in the cold or when switching from barefoot in the shoe to socks or a couple of layers of socks. The shoes never felt loose or felt like they were slipping no matter the conditions at hand. Overall rating of this category is 9.0.

Flexibility - In normal conditions the flexibility of the Zem shoes is unbelievable, you can roll a shoe into a ball if you want too, this is one of the reasons that I like them so much, because they form to the ground so well. With colder conditions you would naturally expect the flexibility to be reduced and become more rigid, and with the decrease in temperature you would expect the soles to be subjected to cracking or even up to even breakage. Boy was I surprised, I have taken my Zems out in weather approaching -40 degrees Celsius with the wind chill and i have felt no sign of drastically reduced flexibility and there is no evidence of crackage over the period of time they have been in use. Even going from the cold outside to room temperature inside have produced no weakening of the soles nor reduction in flexibility that I have noticed. Now this being said, I am only inspecting with my eyes and touch, so this should not be assumed that there has been no damage done by the cold, but I am impressed none the less. Overall rating of 9.5.

Feel of the Ground (Comparison of Barefoot) - Well it should be said, that there is no comparison to the feel of your barefoot in contact with the numerous different types of ground conditions, but Zem's performance are quite impressive indeed. I find they have a better ground feel than the toe shoes, and some others that I have tried previously. So taking this into account, and especially in cold conditions. Overall rating of this category is 9.0 (no product can receive a 10.0 in my books, but these take a close 2nd).

In summary, the Zem's have performed very well so far based on my current winter experiences with a Total Rating of 7.0 out of 10.0, not bad for a shoe that was designed for Beach Volleyball in Southern Florida.

I have included some pictures of my Zems based on almost 3 months of more that typical abusive use in Winnipeg. Also note I have done no repairs or modifications to the existing shoes, all wear and tear shown in the pictures have not been touched up. Considering the abusive nature of the conditions that I put the shoes through over the last 3 months, I expect them to last for the next 3 months of Winnipeg winter prior to having to break in a new pair. To me that is very impressive, and this being said, in my opinion, with normal use I would expect them to perform admirably.

My Zems after 3 months of abuse. Still holding up very well.

Some small visible wear spots thru the sole at the big toe from running with a front foot strike

Larger wear area of sole at big toe (I must have a heavier right foot) from running. Also note the wear at the heel, this from the miles of walking on concrete and asphalt, no repairs done period.
Tech band fastening points and shape holding up as required.

Another shot of the Zems from above, you can see the wear areas at the heels a little clearly. And yes that would be a lot of snow the Zems are sitting on a planter that is about 24" high.


  1. Thanks for posting this review. I currently try to run barefoot as much as i can in the summer. I managed to get through last winter wearing leather toe shoes with wool toe socks. Although I've found my limit to be about -20C. It's suppose to be -30C in the morning so I'm now i have to miss another run.
    I live in Northern Minnesota, and mostly just stick to running snowmobile/hiking trails. These are much cheaper than alot of the other options. I'm definitely ordering a pair.

  2. thank you so much for posting a review of these shoes. I don't do running, and I live in BC so if they hold up this well in Ontario weather than I'm sure to be impressed with them in BC. I am so sick of normal shoes and this is just the kind of review I was looking for.

    -- Coty

  3. Good review! I was wondering if one could paint on a thin layer of a sort of liquid synthetic rubber material on the wear spots. I've seen Mukluks using sort of silicon painted on to the leather bottoms. Its quite resilient. If it was done in a thin layer, you could replace wear spots as they occur.

    How do they size? Bigger or smaller than typical shoes? Some manufacturers vary substantially from the norm.

    When you wear socks do you use them in the same shoes? Aren't they tight? Would it better to use 2 pairs: one for barefoot and one perhaps a size bigger for socks? Or is the length not so critical?

  4. @ 2befree,

    Thanks for the comments, you brought up a valid point with the liquid synthetic rubber it definitely could be a option, to make the Zem's last longer.
    Sizing at least as of last year was based on XXS, XS, S, M, L type of system which were detailed on the website for the size classifications. For example S was based on a Men's 7.5 to 8.5 and a Women's 8.5 to 9.5. ZemGear has a printable foot sizing chart on their site. The newer releases including the 360 (which I am currently set to review for the winter), H2O, etc will be using a standard sizing chart.

    I personally size up, I am typically a size 8.5 but find the Mediums fit perfectly.

    Believe it or not I used the same shoes between barefoot and socks, typically I found that the shoes rebounded quite well, and if the tech bands released to much I would send them through the wash and air dry and they rebounded really well.

    Length is critical, you want to ensure the material wraps on the playlo's are not sitting under your foot, this will get uncomfortable and will prematurely wear them. The sole is flat and your foot shape should not overlap the seam line.

    Hope this helps and any other questions I can help with please let me know.

  5. I am currently struggling with figuring out how to run as barefoot as possible in winter conditions, and have been trying to find something more normal looking than my mukluks!!

    did you ever try to put those slip-on ice gripper things on your zems?

  6. Sorry Toby, I have not. But if you decide to try it let me know, as I would be interested to hear how it worked out. Last year all my winter running was done in homemade mukluks when the temps were really cold and the balance was in my Vibram KSO's or barefoot when I could. I did take a pair of ZEM 360's out a few times but I was having mixed success with them in icy conditions.

  7. I have a pair on the way and am going to give it a whirl; will be sure to let you know. I did call zemgear today and found out they are just in the process of releasing a new running "boot" called the can find a pic of it on their US website:

    They told me it is fleece-lined and I'm hoping it will be my answer to winter running....the lady said she was sure the hero could nicely handle putting grips onto them, kind of like I used to do with regular runners, so I'm really hoping they work.

    Currently they aren't in stock, but I was told it would only be a few more weeks and they are going to contact me as soon as the stock hits Canada. The number at zemgear is 1-855-296-4327 or 1-705-646-0074 if you'd like them to keep you updated as well.