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What is a Vibram sole?

About that yellow octagon at the bottom of your shoe...

The underside of a boot equipped with Vibram Carrarmato outsoles. Credit: Vibram

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When it comes to footwear, we tend to put a lot of stock into big names like Veja, Adidas, New Balance, and Merrell. But what about the major players who make the components that go into these shoes?

One Italian-born company stands as king in terms of popularity and reliability for shoe outsoles: Vibram. What’s the deal with these soles? And why are Vibram soles so popular?

What is Vibram?

A black and white image of mountaineer and entrepreneur Vitale Bramani sitting on the edge of a cliff.
Credit: Vibram

Mountaineer and entrepreneur Vitale Bramani, inventor of Vibram soles.

Vibram shoe soles get their name from their inventor, entrepreneur Vitale Bramani, who developed them in 1937, as the world’s first rubber lug soles. Most Vibram soles are used on footwear for outdoor and workwear activities, such as hiking, mountaineering, and construction.

Vibram’s story begins with a tragedy. As an avid climber and a member of the Italian Alpine Club, Vitale Bramani led an expedition into the Italian Alps in 1935. During the trek, Bramani’s crew encountered a severe snowstorm and heavy fog, which resulted in six of Bramani’s climbers dying from frostbite and exposure.

Back then, climbers relied on heavy leather hobnailed boots as they ascended a mountain, changing into felt-bottomed climbing shoes as the terrain got steeper. These vintage outsoles were not insulated, leaving the feet of climbers exposed to moisture and cold. They also were prone to freezing, causing boots to become slippery on descent. Bramani was convinced that if his fellow crewmembers had been wearing properly equipped footwear, they would have survived the expedition.

Bramani, who had no previous footwear or engineering experience, set out to invent an outsole that could help lessen the risk of frostbite in harsh winter conditions. He designed a shoe sole using the water- and winter-proof material known as vulcanized rubber—a material patented in 1844 by Charles Goodyear of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company fame. This prototype outsole also had a tread pattern that made them better for traction and abrasion resistance. With additional funding from the Pirelli Tire Company, Bramani started his own brand-name of outsole, and patented his designs. The first Vibram sole was dubbed the Carrarmato, Italian for “tank treads.”

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Vibram soles hit markets in the 1950s, ​​and in 1954, the first successful ascent of K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth (with an elevation of 28,251′), was conquered by an Italian Expedition who wore the brand’s rubber soles on their boots. This solidified Vibram into outdoor-enthusiast fame.

What makes Vibram soles so special?

A colorful collection of Vibram Carrarmato outsoles, part of the company's 80 year celebration of the original Vibram sole.
Credit: Vibram

The Vibram Carrarmato in a variety of colors, released as part of an 80 year celebration of the company.

Although rubber lug soles are commonly found on footwear today, Vibram is favored by shoe manufacturers for being both reliable and durable. The oldest Vibram sole, the Carrarmato, is equipped with large channels that allow mud to pass through and self-clean while walking. It has a reinforced heel and toe for better performance downhill, an internal shank that provides better grip on uneven surfaces, and a PU midsole for shock absorption. Shoes that have this sole include the Timberland Lux Waterproof boot, L.L. Bean’s Bucksport work boot, and the Samuel Hubbard Fresh. Many Vibram soles are also slip-resistant and waterproof.

The lugs found on the bottom of many Vibram soles are hexagonal shaped, as opposed to circular, which the company claims offers a better grip on terrain. These lugs maximize the property of the compound for the given sole, which means the shape, depth, and length of the lugs determine that sole’s particular performance on a given surface. Its logo—a yellow octagon-shaped box surrounding the word Vibram—is a nod to this design.

Beyond the flagship Carrarmato, Vibram also develops a large number of other outsoles. This includes the lightweight Morflex for shock-absorbing lifestyle use, the Arcticgrip for trekking over wet ice, the Megagrip for hiking and travel on dry and wet terrains, and the Ecostep, which is made with at least 30% recycled Vibram rubber. The company also has its fair share of conceptual outsoles, like the chunky Wraptech, and its own boots and shoes.

What shoes have Vibram soles?

Woman wearing a Vibram FiveFingers shoes.
Credit: Vibram

Vibram's FiveFingers shoes feature individual toe pockets for flexibility, in order to replicate the experience of being barefoot.

Several brands use Vibram soles in their footwear, including Nike, Merrell, L.L. Bean, Keen, Reebok, and New Balance. You may even be surprised to hear that high fashion houses like Maison Margiela, Mark McNairy, Giorgio Armani, and Prada also use Vibram in their footwear. The company produces 40 million soles a year for over 1,000 companies worldwide.

Keep in mind that, although the brand specializes in footwear soles, the manufacturer is known for producing two shoes in their entirety: the FiveFingers and Furoshiki. Both shoes are meant for barefoot enthusiasts, the former of which is shaped like a foot that has small inserts for your toes.

Where to buy replacement Vibram soles

A man carving the bottom of a Vibram outsole to repair it.
Credit: Vibram

Vibram offers virtual consultations to those who'd like to repair their shoes' soles.

Because many outdoor enthusiasts and blue-collar workers rely on Vibram soles for safety and traction, the company offers its outsoles for purchase online. You may visit a local cobbler who can order the right pair for your specific footwear needs, or you can purchase your own soles to from the likes of Amazon and eBay to take to a qualified pro. You can also attempt to re-sole your boots and shoes yourself. Vibram also has a shoe and outsole repair catalog that it published for free online. It contains a massive index of all of the outsoles the company has ever produced, along with information on how to repair the soles if they’re damaged. You can also book a 30-minute virtual consultation to meet with a “Vibram master cobbler” who can guide you through the process of resoling boots with the brand’s soles, helping sustain the longevity of your shoes.

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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