Allbirds Wool Runners: The best shoes ever?

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!

Allbirds Wool Runners
The Allbirds Wool Runners, the choice of kings.

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.

Allbirds lounging in the grass
Feeling lounge-y.

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.

Allbirds lounging in the shade
A shady shot for less sunshiny brightness.

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.

Allbirds back view
You can see how it picked up some mud on the fabric in back.

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.

So:

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.

Allbirds front angle view
You can see some of the floppiness in full effect here.

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:

Allbirds bubble effect closeup
It’s a little more visible from certain angles, but that’s the best I could do.

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:

Allbirds side view
Like a high heel, but sideways.

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:

Allbirds Shoes slip-on
Every shoe should be a slip-on. Somehow.

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.

Allbirds lounging in the sun
Lounging again.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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45 Comments on “Allbirds Wool Runners: The best shoes ever?”

  1. I quit reading at learning they have arch support. I have lowish arches BUT have what it called “intolerant arches.” This means they work FINE if allowed to be a spring, but if forced into direct weight-bearing by an arch “support” they act up. As in months of limping pain after a few days of being “supported.” This is not that uncommon–the big question is, why do so many people’s arches do (sort-of) OK with a forced change of function?

    These shoes look very intriguing, but I can only wear shoes (1) without arch support, or (2) with arch support that I can hack out somehow.

    Enjoying your site!

    1. I hear Converse are “good” for this task, as they have little or no arch support. But that means I hate them, obviously. But you might like them.

  2. Am I the only one whose big toes are visible, making a bump in the shoe? I wear a 10, I bought a 10 but my toe is poking up in the shoe and rubbing. I can’t find anyone else who has this issue. They don’t have 1/2 sizes so I’m think of trying a men’s 9

    1. I haven’t had that problem, and I have a pretty big toe, so maybe the men’s version won’t have this problem. Can’t say for sure, though…

    2. I have had this problem a 9 1/2 would be ideal for me so I’m using a 10 because a 9 caused too much pain in my lower leg and knee.

  3. I have narrow feet as well has very low arches. My feet are very low fill. I can see that little bubble being a really big issue with me, as I have to cinch my shoes down till the sides are touching on all shoes. Really sucks. I like these shoes a lot.

    1. Yeah, it sounds like you might run into the same problem. Most other people who have these shoes don’t have this problem, though…ah well. Maybe we just have skinny feet.

  4. I have been wearing a pair of Allbirds for a year now- biking to and from office, in office, and on weekends around the house. I have not taken them on extended urban treks yet. I love how breathable and light they are compared to Vans or Adidas Terrex GTX which is my go to hiker. Good support all around- better than vans but not as good as GTX. They did stretch a bit and I have had my foot slip around inside the shoe. I throw into wash every month or so and they are looking a bit worn but still serviceable.

    1. The arch support is sooooo much better than Vans. I have a couple Vans that I think look pretty cool, but concrete is not something they can handle especially well.

  5. I have the newer wool loungers. I hope to write a review someday. Their online sizing wizard thingy told me to get size 8. I exchanged twice and settled on a size 10. I believe they are sized differently than the runners. Props on the easy and free exchange process. However, they are not 100% stink free. Maybe my feet tend to sweat a lot and are more stinky than most but I used them a few days in the San Diego summer and my allbirds and my feet became stinky. I let them rest for a day and now I use them without and without socks depending on what my day looks like.

    Another issue. I think part of this has to do with the fact that I broke one of my toes about a year ago, one of my legs seems to be longer than the other and my hips have a tendency to be misaligned but I find that I experience pain in my left knee and along the outside of my left shin when I wear these shoes. I do not experience or notice this when I wear flip flops or other shoes. Maybe some of you foot savvy people could let me know whats going on?

    1. Hmm…that’s interesting feedback, although I’m not sure I have an answer. It is possible to get merino to smell, but it really takes a lot of effort. It’s also possible with certain soaps, and other skin care products; I haven’t had too much experience with this either, but a lot of people say that certain types of deodorant, when the residue builds up on a t-shirt, can form a layer on top of the fabric where it’s easier for bacteria to breed than the fabric itself. Kind of counterintuitive, but apparently that’s something that can happen.

      1. As an owner of the Ably shirt, Mack Weldon shirt and an Unbound merino shirt, I can confirm that this does happen. I’ll wear these shirts 2-3 times before washing them as opposed to the people who wear them for a week or longer. Other people give these shirts glowing reviews and write about how they wore them during long trips with hikes and how they sweated profusely while wearing them. While these people are giving these shirts 5 star reviews, I’d give them a 4 star review as they are quite odor resistant but are not nearly as magical as I had hoped.

        1. Good to know. I won’t push any fabric to the limits of multi-week wear, because there are plenty of ways to get dirty besides body odor. By the way, try a deodorant called Schmidt’s. Incidentally, it uses the same formula as most of the DIY recipes you can find online, and has been quite good for me.

          1. Will this deodorant solve the aforementioned problem? I’m also thinking of trying aerosol deodorant. Unfortunately I can’t take aerosols traveling because I refuse to check luggage.

  6. I had a pair for a week and returned them. They are advertised as four season shoes but they simply are not. If it’s above 70 degrees out you cannot wear them comfortably for a day of walking around, running errands. If you live a lifestyle where you just drive from one air-conditioned place to another, then yes, you can wear them all year round. They’re super comfy and cute. I see so many people wearing them in NYC while it’s 80+ degrees and these people are simply in denial that their feet are burning. I’m sure they will make a lighter one with vents or something for next summer. I might get another pair once the weather gets cooler but for now, they are only good for three seasons.

    1. Personally, I agree. Literally everything feels warm to me, even if it’s fall or spring, but then there are those other people that are just chronically frozen, and they’d probably enjoy these a lot more. If you get into a thermostat argument with a significant other, these might a nice little present for the one who’s always secretly trying to crank up the heat.

  7. I thought these shoes were great at first, and definitely cool looking … but they soon became floppy and, well, not so cool anymore. Bye bye Allbirds, I’ll stick to shoes that last more than a few months.

    1. Merino isn’t so durable, so yeah, I’d like to see something with a tougher exterior, but still with a merino lining. It would be nice.

  8. A Swiss company named Baabuk is also making wool sneakers. I have a pair of the urban wooler and they may be the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned. Many of the same pros / cons apply, however, I prefer the style and color options from Baabuk.

    1. That’s good info. How’s the arch support? That’s kind of the only issue I’d wonder about that I can’t see from the photos.

  9. have worn allbirds all over nyc and paris, walking up to 10, 12 miles a day in warm, but not
    scorching weather. no socks.
    very, very comfortable. no problems, although i occasionally supplement with some talcum
    powder mixed with a touch of activated charcoal to guard against odor.
    i have not worn them in rainy conditions. have had them since may, and they’re holding up well.

    1. They’re pretty good. I think people have built them up quite a bit, so it’s important to understand they’re not quite heavy duty, but they’re great for all-day trips around concrete.

  10. I have a pair of women’s 9s and 10s. I wear a 9.5…. The 9 is a little snug and the 10 feels big. Not sure if they will stretch, therefore, the 9 will be fine as I wear them? Or keep the 10? Can anyone advise?

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