People have been asking me for this one for a while, and here it finally is. Allbirds has been generating some adorably cult-like enthusiasm among all sorts of people, and I’ve been spotting them all over the place like it’s the new Whatever Sneaker is Trendy Nowadays. People often talk about them like they’re the best sneakers humans have ever made, and they’ve been winning fans left and right.
So, are these shoes every bit as amazing as everyone says they are?
Well…I’m going to say yes. But not quite for the reasons you might think.
Allbirds Wool Runners review
So if you haven’t heard of these by now, Allbirds shoes are made of merino wool, which is just about as good as it gets for “miracle fiber.” Any article of clothing made of merino wool will convert ordinary people into righteous zealots by the end of the day. The first time I tried merino wool socks, I immediately threw out all my other socks and never went back. Believe me when I say that you should do the same.
And now they come in shoes!
What’s so great about merino?
Merino wool is temperature-regulating, meaning it’ll keep you warm in the cold, and (relatively) cool in the heat. Within limits, of course, but it’s about as good as it gets for comfort in a broad range of conditions. It’s also fairly absorbent, specifically absorbing moisture to the interior of the fiber, while the surface stays completely dry. This is what I consider the most important factor in merino wool’s legendary moisture management ability; it feels dry, even if you’re sweating. Again, within limits, but it’s a lot better than synthetic fabrics, where moisture sits on the surface of the fiber, producing a clammy feeling when it’s against your skin. It also dries faster than cotton, so it’s better in that regard than cotton canvas sneakers. And because it can absorb quite a significant amount of water without feeling too damp, and then dry out relatively soon, it’s also pretty good at handling a brief rain storm. Heavy rain is going to get through, but brief showers are no problem.
If this all sounds amazing, that’s because it is. Hot or cold, rain or shine, merino wool can do it all, better than any single fabric anyone seems to have found. For anyone looking for “just one shoe” or “just one shirt” simplicity, merino is right up there at the top when it comes to fabric versatility.
So why would you ever wear anything else?!
Well, merino wool isn’t going to hold up against a jagged rock the way leather or nylon would. It’s probably going to be on par with cotton, although some of the cotton canvas options out there are pretty tough. These are actually quite pliable, which makes them feel as comfy as slippers, but you’ll probably want to avoid heavy trail use.
They’re also rather fuzzy, so you might not want to wear them on dirt roads at all, as they gather dirt and dust rather quickly. It’s easy enough to wash them, by throwing them in a laundry machine or running them under a faucet (and they can air-dry in a single day, compared to cotton sneakers taking three), but I find myself a little reluctant to walk through mud puddles with them.
Also, they’re warm. Merino wool is temperature regulating and all that, but with as much merino wool as there is here, they’re noticeably warmer than a pair of cotton sneakers. I like wearing them with socks, though, and since I’m always wearing wool socks, the combined ensemble heats me up. If you plan on wearing these in hot weather, try to get a size that works with thin socks, rather than thicker, more cushioned ones.
Alternatively, you can go barefoot, which is a major selling point for a lot of people out there. Because merino wool feels dry even if it’s a bit damp, and prevents odor amazingly well, you can wear these shoes without socks at all, if that’s what you prefer. Washing them in a laundry machine is also quite easy, as they’ll dry out more or less by the next day, which makes it manageable. Personally, I’d rather wear super-thin merino wool ankle socks, but whatever.
And that brings me to:
So why do people love these so much?
I have a theory.
The vast majority of shoes out there are cotton, synthetic, or leather; none of these are particularly terrible, but can potentially cause problems related to next-to-skin stickiness, breathability, overall stiff structure, and so on. I also expect most people haven’t yet been introduced the glory of merino wool clothing, and have no idea how vastly superior it is, especially when it comes to socks.
If any of those people were wearing sticky, icky, smelly, awful white cotton gym socks, and then switched over to merino wool sneakers, and especially if they slipped barefoot into them, it was likely the greatest experience of their lives. No longer would their toes be swimming in a puddle of their own bacteria-infested sweat, but rather swaddled in the soft, comfy, cozy, temperature-regulating, moisture-managing, odor-eliminating glory of merino.
But if you were already wearing merino wool socks this whole time anyway, you might not see the big deal.
And that’s precisely what I was doing. After all, merino shoes over merino socks just means more merino, but as the next-to-skin sensation was already there, it doesn’t do much to add a second layer.
Why do *I* like them so much?
I’m going to go against the tide here and say the reason I like these shoes is actually not because of the merino. They could have been a synthetic soft shell material, maybe even merino-lined, and would have accomplished much the same thing. Even leather, after it softens up a bit, can be quite comfortable. The reason I enjoy these is because they actually added some damn arch support.
Yes, my friends and loved ones, everyone on the damn planet has arches in their feet. Why would any shoe on the planet NOT accommodate this universal human characteristic?! WHY?!?!
But not Allbirds. Whatever not-stupid person was working that day thought, “Hey, everyone’s feet have arches in them, and walking around on concrete is pretty terrible. Why don’t we, like…add some cushioning?”
AND THEY DID.
I cannot possibly overstate the importance of the soles here. They’re actually comfy. On concrete. All day.
I remember a trip a while back in which the only shoes I had available were Vans, and they were so awful that by the end of a week, I literally couldn’t walk for more than half an hour at a time before needing to sit down and take a break. Converse are the same. I have no idea how the hell anyone bothers to think of them as even remotely tolerable. Either they have weirdo monster feet, or they’re just lying.
The Allbirds, as one of my readers has described, feel like you’re “walking on marshmallows.” And although it’s a bit of an odd sensation if you’re used to stiffer soles, there’s no way you won’t appreciate it after a long day of continuous concrete traversal. The heel is more cushioned than the forefoot, but they’re both sufficient enough that I haven’t run into trouble.
They also managed to get this into a lightweight shoe that weighs in at just 18 ounces for a pair (in a size 10), which is about 2/3 the weight of comparable shoes in either cotton or leather. They’re also far more pliable, meaning they can squish down into a smaller space than stiffer fabrics, making them great for shoving into a backpack, for that “extra” shoe, intended for lighter use than a pair of hiking boots or something.
But this is mostly info about the material, which brings me to:
Pros and cons of the design itself
I mostly like the simplicity of the design, which I think is the nicest looking of the merino shoes I’ve seen out there so far, though the fuzziness of the fabric kind of makes them look a bit more like slippers than sneakers (though in retrospect, I think they work better in grey than black). Still, I would like to see a couple changes here and there.
The most significant issue is the tongue. This is practically impossible to photograph, but the tongue isn’t stitched into the shoe along its entire width, meaning it has little triangles on either side of the stitching that can fold over as you’re inserting your foot, and once your foot is in the shoe, it’s difficult to fold them back where they’re supposed to go. Adding a line of stitching to hold it in place might have ruined the visual simplicity of the outside, but I’d like to see a solution of some kind to address this.
There’s also kind of a bubble of fabric that sticks out, just past the end of the laces:
I’ve seen this happen on other people’s shoes too, so it’s not just that I’m lacing it up too tightly. I think maybe it’s just too wide right there, or it stretches out, or something.
Also, the heel sticks out in back quite a bit:
I think this might actually be a deliberate feature, to make the heel last longer. It’s usually the first thing that wears out, so they made it huge to lengthen its lifespan. But when going down a flight of stairs, I scrape against that heel protrusion quite a bit, which felt a little odd, but maybe it’s just to prevent the heel from wearing out sooner than anything else.
But I love the hell out of that little tab that sticks out at the heel, which allows you to do this:
If you tie the laces just right, you can shove your foot in there without having to tie and untie them at all. The heel tab makes this possible, along with the slight stretchiness of the fabric. I don’t do this with regular shoes, as they just end up too loose, but somehow it works out nicely with these. The tongue-folding problem is still a nuisance, but eventually you can slip them in without causing this problem, after some practice getting the right angle.
So, should you get them?
I’m going to say that the enthusiasm behind these shoes is…mostly deserved, as the combination of merino fabric and nicely cushioned sole makes for a slipper-like level of comfort, both in terms of overall softness and pliability, along with merino’s performance when it comes to moisture management, odor resistance, and temperature regulation. They really do feel great.
But at $95 each, it’s important to be aware of the limitations; they’re not going to be as durable or weather-resistant as something synthetic, especially if you’re going on a rocky trail run. But if you’re looking for a lightweight lounge shoe, or an all-day concrete walkathon sneaker (think working on your feet, sightseeing all day, and so on), they’re going to be wonderful.
As a minor side note, I also think they’d make a great camp shoe. You’ll appreciate the soft, slipper-like feel after a long day in rigid hiking boots, and you’ll throw them in the washing machine when you get back anyway, so the problem of picking up dirt won’t matter so much either.
I’d really like to see the floppy tongue problem fixed, and they’re pretty warm. I’d also like to see a soft shell version someday. With nylon on the outside over a merino lining, you could use them in trail situations, heavier rain, dressier events, and so on. It might lose the slipper-like pliability, but it would make a nice addition to the lineup. But if you’re not worried about situations like that, they’re deliciously comfy.
Check them out at Allbirds for more details.
A couple other merino shoe options are from Baabuk, over in Europe (though US customers can get local shipping on a few colors through Huckberry), and I’ve seen new ones show up on Kickstarter here and there. So far I’ve only tried the Allbirds, but the fabric performance should be similar with the others too.