For many years, I’ve advocated ferociously in favor of using just a single pair of shoes while traveling, in addition to a single pair of sandals or flip flops, to cut down on the nuisance of hauling massive amounts of gear around all day and rarely using them. If you bring shoes that look good and feel good, there’s no point in bringing anything else.
This is actually quite simple, particularly for men, who can pretty much pick out whichever pair of high-quality leather shoes they like, and call it a day. Well-built, attractive leather shoes will handle everything from a hike to a night out of failing to impress the ladies. Or gentlemen, for that matter.
But, for all their advantages, leather shoes are generally hotter and bulkier than I’d like them to be. I was willing to deal with these disadvantages in order to reap the rewards of not having to bring anything else (which I still think is a worthwhile trade for managing to achieve minimalist travel), but I was still on the lookout for something that might solve these problems without compromising other features.
And there’s a very promising alternative…which is Tyvek.
Advantages of Tyvek shoes
You’re probably more familiar with Tyvek as a construction material, used to block the rain from damaging a building while under construction, or as a rain cover for a car, or heavy-duty envelopes. Chemical protection suits, too.
But all those weather-protective features are exactly the sorts of things that can be especially useful when it comes to travel footwear.
Tyvek shoes are:
- Water-resistant: Tyvek is used to protect buildings from the elements while they’re still under construction, so they’ll keep the rain from soaking your toes. This is utterly wonderful when walking through wide-open spaces with no shelter, and Tyvek manages to do it more cheaply than certain alternatives. You can maximize this benefit by getting the styles with as few eyelets as possible, so that the toe area is seamlessly smooth, with nowhere for rain to sneak in.
- Breathable: And wow, they are really breathable. Better than some natural canvas fabric shoes of mine, which is surprising, given how water-resistant these are. I generally have a problem with sweatily overheating, even in mild weather, but these are vastly more breathable than I would have expected. Very happy with this.
- Durable: Tyvek is both tear-resistant and abrasion-resistant, so they’ll last much longer than cotton canvas alternatives. (Long-term update: Tyvek colors seem to be just surface treatments, so scratches on the surface can open up the non-colored material underneath, revealing small, white patches, so expect sharp rocks or other abrasion to leave some marks.)
- Light: Tyvek is literally paper-thin, making them exceptionally light, and easier to squish flat than bulky, rigid alternatives, like leather. There’s usually a soft fabric lining on the inside for added comfort, though.
- Smooth: This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s ridiculously difficult to get these things dirty, and they’ll clean up with a quick swipe. That’s nearly impossible with other fabrics, particularly cotton, and it’ll help you look presentable, even if you’re a scruffy backpacker.
- Recyclable and vegan: I was more concerned with the performance rather than the sustainability, but I’m more than happy to have these extra bonuses as well.
Basically…they’re the perfect material for lightweight travel shoes.
Disadvantages of Tyvek shoes
It’s not all roses and sunshine, however. Tyvek has some potential downsides, though I don’t consider any of them to be dealbreakers:
- Uncushioned fabric: This is probably the most significant potential problem, as the super-thin fabric can create pressure points, whereas cushioned shoes (like running shoes) do a better job conforming to the shape of individual feet. Just make sure to try them out to see how they feel. Keep in mind they’ll soften a bit after being worn a few times, though.
- Crinkles: The weathered, crushed paper appearance might not go over well with certain people, and when they’re brand new, they can make crinkly noises while you’re walking. This will also get better with time.
- Casual styling: Most of the Tyvek shoes I’ve seen are styled as brightly colored sneakers. You might not care the slightest bit about this, but they might be too casual for somewhat fancier settings. Just don’t be surprised if you get turned away from an upscale club because your shoes aren’t fancy enough for them and their snooty dress codes.
The Tyvek shoes currently available are quite similar in comfort and style to something like classic Converse or Vans: Thin, light, and casual, but with the added benefits of Tyvek described above. They’re not serious boots, but they’ll do just fine in most situations.
The only things I’d like to see in the future would be slightly fancier styles, for those who want something a little classier than sneakers (when it comes to travel, fashionable is actually functional), and the ability for the heel to fold down flat, making them effortless to pack. Otherwise I see no reason to use much else. A super tough, water resistant, lightweight, highly breathable, relatively packable pair of shoes is an ultralight backpacker’s dream come true.
Where to get them:
I’m currently aware of three companies that make Tyvek shoes, all of which offer multiple options for men and women:
- Unbelievable Testing Laboratory: Focusing on lightweight construction. They make wallets, too.
- Unstitched Utilities: Lots of styles, with a focus on sustainability.
- Civic Duty: As the name implies, charity is part of their business.
The ones I tried:
I generally hesitate to get too specific with options that are numerous and sometimes temporary, though I did try a couple different models, and I’m happy to share my thoughts on those.
Light Wing Franklin (from the UT Lab)
These are the shoes from the above photos, by the way.
The UT Lab seems to focus first and foremost on lightweight construction, which is especially useful for people carrying these in a pack while wearing something else. They’re lighter that any shoes I have ever used, and I’ve gotten compliments on the style as well. They also did a good job minimizing the typical Tyvek crinkle texture.
Sadly, I can’t say I was impressed with the quality of construction, or comfort. Of the several pairs I tried before getting the right size, I ran into several issues; eyelets that fell apart, stitching that came loose in several places, and entire sections where the upper wasn’t glued into the sole at all. All of these problems were fixable (and may have been isolated incidents), though it wasn’t particularly inspiring taking them out of the box and immediately feeling the need to break out the super glue.
The sole is also just not serious enough for all-day comfort. I could feel the concrete going right into my bones. I replaced the insoles with something better, but I think the problem might also be the super-flexible and super-thin outsole. But either way, I have another pair of similar-looking shoes that I’ve worn literally every day for the last three years, and are so worn out that you can poke a hole through the bottom, and they’re still vastly more comfortable than these.
They managed to fit pretty well, though. I decided to keep them, since the super glue and replacement insoles helped out quite a bit, but it was not particularly encouraging that they arrived with issues that needed immediate repair.
The Next Day Low (from Unstitched Utilities)
These are waaaaaaay more serious than UT Lab shoes, with better construction and more comfortable soles. They’ve also got treads, which I expect would last quite a bit longer than the super-thin and super-smooth UT Lab soles.
These are the sort of shoes that you could probably wear all day long and be fine. They’re not trying to be the lightest shoes in the world, because they’d rather be comfy instead.
On the downside, they didn’t quite fit me. They seemed a little wide, so I wasn’t able to get a pair that worked quite right for my skinny feet, but I was otherwise happy with the quality of construction and comfort. They’ve got lots of colors, too. Definitely a good place to look, even if they didn’t quite work for me.
You can find these on Amazon.
Conclusions and future prospects
All in all, I’m enthusiastic about the advantages of Tyvek shoes for ultralight backpacking, as the combination of durability, water resistance, breathability, packability, and minimal weight are absolutely spectacular for anyone who’s ever gotten stuck with big, heavy, bulky, burning hot shoes.
Current options tend to be decidedly casual, which may or may not suit your particular fashion sense, but it’s still an early development from which we may see future options covering more ground. I think they’d look great in natural colors too, as the crinkly texture would mimic a weathered leather look that would be quite attractive, and is also fun to say.
But in the meantime, they’re still a pretty solid option for bringing only one pair of shoes, even for long-term travel, which is great for anyone trying to pack ultralight. They’re definitely worth checking out.