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In the interest of full disclosure: I solicited ZEMGear (via e-mail) asking if they provide a discount for reviewers and was granted a discount as such. Since, at the time of this writing anyone can purchase them online (REI) on sale for almost the same discount, I am going to go ahead and write this review as if I had paid full retail.
With that said, allow me to get on with the review.

From the ZEMgear Website: “ZEM” stands for the Zone of Endless Motion and defines a space where we can discover new possibilities for ourselves. ZEM appeals to any age, any stage, on land, in water, whether one is supremely active or serenely still.

I first keyed in on ZEM’s a few months ago after reading a review of the 360 (running model) on BirthdayShoes.com. I read the article, mentally noted the high marks the reviewer gave, thought they were unique and funky, and promptly filed it under “things I will probably never get”…after all, I had my Vibram Five Fingers, which many consider to be the gold standard of barefoot shoes, myself included…

However, I just kept going back to their website and checking them out. I thought they were simply too damn cool to not own a pair. I decided to go for the long shot and write the company an email expressing an interest in reviewing a pair. I very quickly received a reply offering me a substantial discount + shipping. I responded with my size, desired model, and shipping address, and sent payment.

I have been intrigued by split toed “tabi” style shoes ever since….well since I was a child watching ninja movies on “Kung-Fu Theater” on USA. Ninjas always had the coolest shoes. Let’s pause for a minute to reflect on my misspent youth…

They finally came in the mail today! So without further ado, here’s the lowdown:

Packaging:

The packaging is minimal, which makes me feel pretty good about ZEM as a company. It’s not a regular shoebox, but a hang-able box suited for display either sitting on a shelf, or hanging from a rack.The box is made from recycled material, and printed with soy ink…my eco-conscience is clear. The outside of the package is attractive, featuring several different persons wearing ZEM’s for a slew of activities. (I think I should note that one of the people in the pictures bears an uncanny resemblance to the author of “Born to Run”,Christopher McDougall, ) The ZEM’s in each photo are highlighted with selective de-saturation. There is a small article on the side about Proprioception, a word few people outside the barefoot running community have ever heard, but seems to be all the buzz!

In other words, the packaging design supports the unique nature of the shoes while staying eco-friendly, yet still manages to remain eye appealing.

Construction & First Impression:

Opening the box and taking them out, I was immediately amazed by how little they weigh. The manufacturer’s website lists the men’s at 5.5 oz, and I believe it. (the women’s are listed as 4.86 oz) The zero drop sole’s are thin and flexible, as are the uppers. I was able to roll both shoes up and hold them in my fist! A definite plus if you are looking for a training/running shoe to pack while travelling.

one shoe rolled

The materials feel strong, and they are well put together. There is no sloppy gluing along the seams or soles,  (as I found on the Fila Skeletoes)  nor are there bits of wayward rubber hanging all over the place. In the areas there is stitching, it seems well done and strong. A few tugs revealed no hidden weaknesses...and by tug I mean I couldn’t break the seams, I was trying to. ( I know they’re my new shoes, but, hey, this is a review!)

As a regular wearer of “toe shoes”, I had little or no trouble getting them on. I guess I am just used to putting on a shoe that splits my toes up. I don’t think anyone would have trouble getting into these, and they certainly don’t have the learning curve of VFF’s

WORTH MENTIONING: these shoes seem TIGHT at first, due mostly (I Think) to the  “ ZEM award-winning, patented and reflective tech-bands are welded into the upper material to provide strong lateral stability and enhance nighttime safety.” (quoted from manufacturer’s website)

Man are those things BRIGHT! They shimmer in daylight even! Any direct light is almost amplified as it is reflected, making this a VERY visible shoe in low-light conditions.

After slipping them on and walking around a bit, I found them very comfy, but I also found my first concern. While my big toe in snugly enveloped by the big toe’s pocket, the toe box containing my other four toes feels…well, baggy. “Baggy” is the only word I can think of that accurately describes the sensation. When I roll a straight foot up onto the top, the pocket looks like it’s trying to eat my toes. However, when dorsiflexed,  the toes go right to the front of the pocket and fill it accordingly. I was intrigued by this phenomenon, so I donned my VFF’s (KSO’s, as well as my Trek Sports) and found that they have the SAME SLACK. It just isn’t as pronounced as a full toe box makes it. This made me feel better. If it hasn’t yet bothered me in my VFF’s, it won’t bug me in my ZEM’s

Walking around in them at length proves them to remain a comfortable, yet warm shoe. The four-way stretch upper is a little thick for my tastes, however I am sure I’ll change my mind about that the first time I run with a pack on gravel. This also means I’ll probably be donning these for runs once the temperature drops this winter.

Ground feel is comparable to my Vibram KSO’s, even though they have a tread pattern more like the Trek Sports, and the traction provided by “Green Grip outsole” is nothing short of uncanny. Seriously, I can’t seem to make these shoes slip on anything man-made short of a mud pit,  I can’t wait for a parkour session in these! Excuse me for a moment, Mrs MuddyJ needs me to mop the soapy water I left on the kitchen floor….

The heel cup comes high up the back of the heel, so I am looking forward to running downhill in these. The pull-on loop right above the heel is very reflective and strong, making it useful in getting the shoes on, as well as a nice safety feature for night-time running.

ZEMGear “Terra” VS Vibram Five Fingers “Treksport”:

Let’s face it folks, everyone loves a grudge match, even if the grudge is made up.

which would you prefer at night? I’ll take the one on MY left!

Currently, my VFF Treksports have been my trail running shoes of choice. I put a different shoe on each foot, and decided to compare them closely. There is not currently a clear winner.

Both of these shoes are well constructed. They are as flexible as each other, with the ZEM’s providing just a little better ground feel. The VFFs have a thinner upper, making them a little cooler for walking around, but I think the difference felt once I hit the trail will be unnoticeable.

As their pricing goes, they’re in the same ballpark. The VFF’s retail for more, but I a smart shopper can always find them on clearance somewhere. (beware of counterfeits!)

Because it wears more like a mitten then a glove, I do feel like I would be a bit more comfortable bombing down a trail at full throttle in the ZEM’s, able to care less about my smaller toes getting hooked on anything. That said, I have gone bombing down a trail with the throttle wide open in my VFF’s without incident, but there’s always that little fear.

With no straps or velcro to adjust, I don’t know how stretching over time will factor in. Time will tell how the ZEM’s hold up.

Summary:

Since I am currently on the mend from a foot injury, I cannot currently take these out to the trail and give them a proper hazing, but FEAR NOT CITIZEN! I will write part two as soon as I am healed enough to. I plan on wearing these to run the EisenHOTTER 10k later this month, and I will definitely review their performance during the race, as well as a thorough follow-up and parkour run as soon as I am feeling a bit better.
I had planned on making all of the photos similar to the promotional photos on the ZEM website, but the colour combo I requested just wouldn’t work for that!

Enjoy the gallery, leave comments below, and…as always….

Stay Muddy My Friends!

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