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Trail shoes – Group Test

Peter MacfarlaneI spent my early days running around the hills in trainers carrying a cheap rucksack with a nylon cagoule and a spare jumper in it. Before I knew it I was head to toe in technical gear, with big boots on and suffering frequent attacks of buyers remorse.

These days when I’m packing to head out, my gear more closely resembles what I carried all those years ago, some call it going lightweight but I think simplicity is a better description. Footwear is a big part of that and trail shoes I find come with a freedom and adaptability attached to them so for many years shoes have been my first choice for the hills. My feet and knees are happier for it and I can cover bigger distances without the aches or blisters I used to get in boots.

A trail shoe isn’t a magic cure for trouble with your feet though and the review shows the range of options, all of which will give you different results. Softer shoes are great on feet used to the extra flexibility on rough ground which can be tiring until your feet get used to it, thinner soles are designed to give you a more natural walking action but let you feel every stone you stand on, again that’s tiring until your feet toughen up. Thicker soles and tougher uppers will give you the freedom of movement with extra protection.

Shoes5

Grip is something to look at. None of the shoes here have terribly bad soles but many trail shoes do have minimal grip, great for summer tracks and trails, but on wet descents it can get a little hairy. Waterproofness is another thing to look at, it’s great having a liner when walking on muddy paths, but on an open hillside water will get in over the cuff and in a waterproof shoe it stays there until walking action pumps it out or it eventually dries. Not so bad if you have good socks and the shoes fit well as you won’t get rub-points so easily, but it can be annoying. Also, waterproof liners will fail at some point, the constant flexing at the toe and grit getting in destroys them.

Last thing is fit, it’s more important than grip, construction, brand loyalty or colour. Try them on, wear thin socks, check for heel lift, make sure the added flex at the front is good around your toes and even go for a run around the shop. You’ll quickly find any issues and you can enjoy wondering if the assistant thinks you might be running for the door hoping for a free pair of shoes.

My feet are a size 9, with a slightly narrower than average heel and an average overall volume so any fit comments relate to that. All the sizes on test were a UK9 and all fitted me to various degrees enough to use, but a half size up or down is pretty common in trail shoes, so again – try them on. The weights are for a pair of 9’s, all taken by me.

Shoes1

AkuAku Nuvola GTX

£135.00
952g
Women’s version available

The Nuvola’s are a traditional looking approach shoe with a Gore-Tex lining. The weight looks high but they feel quite light on my feet and the weight isn’t in the upper which is comfortable mix of suede and mesh, it’s all in the sturdy sole unit. The sole is a good one for rough ground, there is some flex at the forefoot but the sole is quite stiff overall which protects when boulder hopping. The outsole tread pattern is shallow and the lugs have smooth edges which takes some grip off in wet and loose conditions but Aku themselves say, “for walking on easy terrain, for active spare time pursuits and urban trekking”, and I can’t think of a better way to sum up the Nuvola.

The lacing which goes down to your toes gives a great secure fit, there’s a simple footbed, the toe box is stiffened with a rubber rand and once worn in a little they’re an all-day comfy shoe.

BerghausBerghaus Vapour Claw

£90.00
648g
Women’s version available

The Vapour Claws are a running shoe and while light they’re not trimmed down too much so there’s a good bit of underfoot cushioning and the uppers are a good balance between mesh for breathability and letting the water back out along with reinforcing to keep the shoe in shape and add a bit of durability.

The heel is well shaped and very secure on my feet while there is a good amount of flex as you go towards the toe which gives a nice roll to your step. The forefoot area is wide and allows your feet to swell a little with the miles so these have stayed comfy.

The outsole is made up of tall angular lugs designed to find grip in any direction and in softer conditions they do have some bite.

The toe area has some stiffening which does protect your toes when you whack a rock and the padding round the high-ish ankle cuff and heel gives good protection on rockier ground. The tongue is well padded and there’s a decent Ortholite insole.

HaglofsHaglofs Gram Comp

£95.00
510g
Women’s version available

The Comps are a lightweight trail running shoe with minimalist uppers but still have some meat in the sole for a bit of protection. The fit is quite neat, I’ve been wearing the thinnest of socks with them and it works fine but I’d need a half size up if I wanted a bigger sock or perhaps to swap insoles.

The upper is mesh with a thin plastic overlay, the heel has some padding and stiffness and is a good shape and although the ankle is cut quite low my skinny heels have been quite secure. The toe has a rand but no added stiffening, so watch those rocks and your toes until you get used it. Going from boots to shoes does take a bit of adjustment.

The outsole is very flexible and has an aggressive lug pattern which has a decent bite on soft and wet ground. The tongue is thin but the fit is good and I’ve had no pressure from the laces and the insole is basic.

Of the shoes in the test the Comps are best for feet already used to the flexibility of lighter shoes.

HanwagHanwag Belorado Low GTX

£125.00
1015g
Women’s version available

The Belorado’s are the roomiest fitting shoes in the test, I can wear thick socks with them and have also tried volume reducing insoles instead of that basic types included to tune the fit. It shows the importance of trying footwear on but also that there is a trail shoe out there for most foot shapes. The upper is a mix of suede and fabric with protective randing all around the front and additional overlaying around the heel and ankle cuff. This along with the rockshoe style lacing which goes down to your toes gives the shoes a feel of a scrambling shoe which carries on to the sole which is quite low profile and doesn’t have a lot of padding. You don’t feel small stones underfoot but the shoes do feel quite hard underfoot, something that I helped by chance when I was tuning the fit with insoles.

The outsole has a more rock oriented tread with a flatter toe area at the front to get purchase on the crag and the rest has a shallow lug pattern which does a good job in drier conditions, but not so well on steep wet stuff. The Vibram sole can be replaced, they are designed to be resoled to give the shoes a longer life.

I think for summer scrambles the Belorado’s might be a good choice, and that larger volume fit might be just what some folk are looking for.

La SportivaLa Sportiva Helios SR

£100.00
476g
Women’s sizes available

The Helios are the lightest shoes in the test but the weight savings come from the unusual sole unit and the upper is quite substantial with a well padded tongue, heel and ankle cuff. The rest of the upper is a mix of mesh and plastic reinforcing with a little additional stiffness at the toe. The tongue forms part of an internal gaiter which tries to keep some of the dirt away from your toes as it comes in through the mesh fabric. This does actually work to an extent and the double layer doesn’t really add to the drying time as it’s a light construction anyway.

The sole is very flexible but comfortable to walk, and indeed run on. The unusual look is good on rough ground, but better in dry conditions as although the tread pattern has deep ridges in it, they’re rounded so don’t bite very well.

The fit is neat, on the narrow side with a longer toe, a little bit like a traditional fell running shoe last and there’s a basic Ortholite insole. I’ve been wearing them with super thin socks and it’s been fine.

Like the Haglofs shoes, probably best for feet ready for the additional flexibility, but there is a little more comfort built into these than the go-faster look might suggest.

LowaLowa Renegade II GTX

£135.00
1016g
Women’s version available

Not all trail shoes have to be brightly coloured, you can still have understated looks along with the freedom of a low cut style as the Renegades prove. These are a chunky walking and general purpose shoe with good underfoot cushioning and a Gore-Tex waterproof liner. The outsole has a tread pattern with a lot of lugs but the pattern is quite shallow so the Renegades work better on drier trails than on steep wet grass.

The fit is roomy, I can wear a thicker sock with these no problems, but the heel cup is still a good shape and holds my narrow heels well.

The toe area has no reinforcing and the upper is quite soft so the Renegades are by no means a big boot with the ankle cuff missing, they feel like a shoe. I do think they’re more of a general purpose outdoor shoe than a mountain shoe though.

The tongue is gusseted so they’re waterproof right to the top of the high-ish ankle cuff and there’s a basic own-brand insole.

MammutMammut MTR 71-II Low

£85.00
682g
Women’s version available

The snappily titled MTR 71-II Low is a running shoe with quite a low sole height but the midsole protects you from those pesky pebbles and there’s enough padding to keep you comfortable. The tread pattern is better in drier conditions although the wide spaced blocks do have some bite when it gets steep or wet. The sole has a flexible forefoot and a stiffer heel, a combination I like as it feels secure on rough ground but you still have control of your foot placements from the feedback you get from softer shoes.

The upper is mesh and plastic with a stiffened and padded heel which fits me very well, the tongue is well padded and the insole is basic but has a little moulding for some extra padding.

The fit is pretty regular and it sits in the middle of the shoes in the test, the forefoot is a little narrower than some but I can still spread my toes out and I can wear thin or medium weight socks with them.

MerrellMerrell All Out Charge

£95.00
620g
Women’s version available

The Merrell’s are a running shoe but they’re not too stripped back and have a few interesting quirks that make them a little different.

The uppers are mesh with plastic reinforcing. The mesh is layered so the uppers aren’t too thin, the heel and ankle cuff have padding and the toe has some reinforcing. The tongue is well padded and is part of the upper so only folds down one side when you lace up the shoe. This works well and along with a neat lacing system that incorporates long webbing loops instead of regular eyelets it makes the lacing area very low profile, comfy and secure.

The fit is neat with a reasonably snug heel cup and a low-cut ankle cuff, the forefoot has a little extra room which allows for a bit of foot spread after putting in the miles.

The sole is quite thickly padded and also very flexible which means you get a bendy shoe with a good bit of protection from treading on small stones – the bane of a minimalist trail shoe wearer’s life.

The outsole has a decent lug pattern which bites into soft ground but doesn’t like wetter conditions on steep slopes. The heel design which is rounded off to make for a softer heel strike when stepping forward is also something to watch for at first as on steep descent you don’t have anything to dig in with.

They feel light on my feet and they come with a basic footbed.

SalomonSalomon X Ultra 2 GTX

£115.00
836g
Women’s version available

The Ultra’s are a beefier shoe than you might imagine. The outsole has a good flex with an aggressive lugged sole that has decent grip in loose and wet conditions and the upper has reinforcing all the way all the way around and a sturdy toebox with a rubber bumper. They look like a running shoe at first glance, but they definitely feel like a trekking shoe to me.

The ankle cuff is quite low cut and the heel is a little wider than other Salomon trail shoes I’ve used but as the shoe moulded to my shape through wear the heel lift reduced and I haven’t had a big problem with them.

The Gore-Tex lining will work for some but not all, here the sandwich of fabrics that holds the Gore-Tex membrane makes for a smooth outer surface on the upper which is pretty abrasion resistant and doesn’t hold dirt.

The single-pull lacing is great and there’s a decent Ortholite footbed.

Shoes4

The Last Word

Trail shoes are as diverse as boots and as diverse as out feet. Whatever you like the look of you have to try it on, never leave the happiness of your feet solely in the hands of any reviewer.

I wear trail shoes all the time and although I knew what to expect from doing this review I still had some surprises.

The Merrell’s have an interesting design, the lacing system is the most comfortable in the test and the shoes have a different overall feel to the other running shoes. I liked them and was pleased to find there was more grip than I expected.

Mammut and Berghaus sent in pretty similar shoes, both are good all-rounder for what I do but I think Berghaus just edged it with a wider forefoot and a better outsole. Definitely made with UK conditions in mind.

Aku were my choice from the approach shoe styles, very comfy, decent grip and I have to say it, I just like the look of them, these kind of shoes are all day wear and have to look good with jeans you know.

None of them did themselves any favours on wet rock, rubber that grips wet rock will wear out fast elsewhere, I think we’ll have to live with that until technology catches up. Most shoes had basic cheapo insoles as the thinking often is that we’ll ditch them for after-market soles, so the manufacturers don’t want to spend any money there. However, the cheapos worked just fine, they dry fast and when they do wear down you can replace them then. It’s worth seeing how they perform before you stick something expensive in there instead.




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