A Review of Shoe Technology for the Jungle – Vibram vs. Contagrip vs. Adidas Kampung Technology
I’ve been jungle trekking since 1997. That’s 12 years. I used to be do it for business and pleasure. Now I just do it for pleasure. Twelve years of walking the jungles of Borneo, I can boil it down to three essential take-home lessons:
- Keep it simple. You don’t need any high-end gadgets in the jungle. GPS system? Expensive camping bits and pieces? Nothing beats a good team of local trackers and their parangs. They work in all weather conditions too. All the other branded stuff are whistles and bangs and add to the cool factor. When it boils down to it, it’s you and your team.
- Relax. Drop the ego and don’t try to be the first, the fastest, the bestest. Enjoy the ride, whatever level of fitness you’re at.
- Invest in a pair of good shoes, a pair of good shoes and a pair of good shoes. This may or may not mean a pair of expensive shoes. What are good shoes? What makes them good? Good shoes do three crucial things – they support your ankles, they support your arches and they have good shock absorption. If you suffer from plantar fasciitis, which about 30% of Asians and 25% of Americans do (I’m in that 30%), you REALLY need good shoes.
Jungle shoes that work for me are what I want to talk about today. I don’t trek for work anymore because I effectively wrecked my feet and knees bushwalking Borneo 2-3 weeks a month, every month for 5 years, through rivers (some of them raging), up mountains and down cliff-hangers, in shoes that didn’t support me. Adidas kampungs are a great Malaysian invention. Village kids used to wear them to play football, then jungle trackers started using them to walk the forest because they were cheap, waterproof (100% rubber) and had fantastic grip because of the studded and super flexible soles. Generally, the average 120-pound dripping wet Malaysian with normal feet does very well with them.
I’m not your average 120-pound dripping wet Malaysian with normal feet. First off, I’m not 120 pounds. Second, I have collapsed arches. I didn’t know that at the time. I used to have spare pairs of these shoes stuffed into my backpack and use them up like wood through a chipper. They were so cheap (used to be USD1 per pair, now they’re about USD2.50), I would leave them at the village when I came out of the jungle and buy new ones the next month. They were fantastic for grip. It felt like I had tactile feet, like monkeys and apes. I could almost wrap my feet around roots for grip. But the lack of support was another thing.
Much pain, a stint when I had to use crutches, expensive shoe inserts and on-going therapy later, I switched to my first pair of Chaco sandals, Montrail trekkers and Vibram technology. Vibram is an Italian company founded by Vitali Bramani, who invented rubber soles for shoes back in the early 1900s. The name Vibram refers to the type of soles in any brand of shoes. Vibram rubber is known to be harder, tougher than normal rubber soles and is supposedly known for their traction. In fact, back in 1935, the motivation for Vitali Bramani to invent soles for mountaineering was because he saw six of his climbing buddies slip and fall to their deaths because of inadequate footwear.
My take on Vibram: in Chaco sandals, it’s great. It’s tough, shaped to provide arch support and lasts for years. In fact, the straps in my Chacos are gone but the Vibram soles looks hardly used.
In my Montrail trekkers, for rainforest conditions, Vibram is overrated. In wet rainforest conditions, the soles are too hard and amazingly, way too slippery. I’ve lost count of the number of times I slipped whilst crossing a log in my Montrails (but not in my Adidas kampungs or my Salomons, which I’ll come to later). It felt like I was clomping around the jungle in clogs. Better support than Adidas kampungs, but a little too slippery and hard for my tender feet.
Enter my pair of Salomon Fury, with a sole technology called Contagrip. I’d never heard of it before when I fingered the Fury at World of Outdoors in KL’s MidValley Shopping Centre. They felt pretty good on my feet though.
I didn’t break them in before I hit the trails in Bako National Park. They served me mighty well that day. About five hours of trekking. The support was there. The traction was definitely there. In fact they felt like Adidas kampungs with cushioning. They were supportive enough to cushion the impact of my extra large frame; and soft enough for my feet to dance across the jungle floor yet not too soft that they didn’t provide support.
A few months later, I trekked across the heart of Borneo island with them. Beautiful. Four hours of walking through shin-deep river and three hours of up and downhill. No problemo. For the first time in years, I felt like my feet could finally catch up with my stamina.
So, a sum-up:
- Adidas Kampungs – use them for water sports, etc. Fantastic. If you don’t have feet problems, collapsed arches, high arches, plantar fasciitis, or an overly large frame like mine, go for them. They’re only RM9.90 (~ USD2.50) per pair at Teck Kong or shops like that. In fact, I’m going to get a pair for kayaking purposes.
- Montrail, with Vibram – for rainforest conditions, I personally would not recommend them. The support is there, but the comfort – not really.
- Salomon Fury, with Contagrip – my favourite at the moment. Love the lacing system, love the look. Most of all, for my poor collapsed arches, love the support and flexibility.
I have a new pair of Montrail Perimeter Control, with Gryptonite soles. I’m in the process of breaking them in right now. They feel promising. More on them after I bring them out for hardcore testing.
What shoes work work for you?