Trail Running Shoes
Technical hill runs, big races, training in the park, hillwalking, scrambling, crag approaches and long distance backpacking - trail shoes have a lot of uses. Eight models go head to head here.
In this long term test three keen trail runners spent spring and summer 2013 putting five leading off-road shoes through their paces. Here's what they think of the Scarpa Spark, La Sportiva Raptor, Mammut MTR 141, TNF Ultra Guide and Berghaus Vapour Light Claw.
Scarpa are known for ski, mountain and hill walking boots. This year they have extended in to the trail running market with a collection of trail shoes. You may think that this a market already saturated with product. Scarpa however think otherwise and are offering a small concise range that should be taken seriously by any trail runner.
For the past few months I have been running in the Spark, their first shoe out in the range. Described as a “Mountain minimalist” it has a 6mm heel to toe drop so sits nicely between the traditional 9 – 12mm and barefoot 0 - 4mm drops, making them a great transitional shoe for anyone wanting to make the move towards a more 'barefoot' style of running.
The low drop encourages a mid to forefoot strike but has enough padding in the heel to accommodate the occasional heel strike. There is a nicely cushioned EVA sole which offers good support, and coupled with the high tensile fabric rock plate that is situated under the forefoot it means there is a fair amount of protection from any sharp rocks or roots. On very rocky trails the shoe offers as much protection to the sole of the foot as any of the traditional deeper drop shoes I have worn.
Made with an ultra light weight polyester mesh upper the shoe breathes fairly well and weighs a surprising 538g (pair / size 42), a lot less than you expect when you see first see the rugged make up. There is a lot of padding in the tongue which gives a very comfortable fit, however it does have a tendency to retain water if the shoe has been submerged.
The sole itself is made up of two parts. The outsole is a stiffer rubber with slightly higher carbon content to give enough grip but add extra durability. The main strike sections are a softer rubber to give additional grip where it is most needed.
There are ample amount of helix shaped lugs across the sole to provide a great multi directional grip, they are deep enough to hold traction on wet trails but in thick 'claggy' mud the lugs just aren't deep enough to shed mud and hold the foot stable. On the heel there are reverse lugs in what Scarpa describe as a 'dedicated breaking area'.
A major feature of this shoe is its Eco friendliness. 'Although green in colour, the Spark is also green in construction being fully loaded with recycled materials' say Scarpa. These are: 29% recycled polyester mesh; 40% recycled synthetic leather; 50% polyester recycled lining; Lace and webbing 100% Ecosensor recycled polyester; 25% recycled rubber out sole. In addition the mid sole has ECOPure EVA additive to promote degradation in landfill conditions.
Performance wise, the Spark did not disappoint. It has a fairly wide fit throughout and opens in to a very roomy toe box. I have fairly narrow feet so was a little worried they may feel a bit sloppy once on but was surprised to find that they wrapped around my foot without creating any bunching on the upper (there are seven lace points per side that allow the shoe to form a solid cage around the foot). The comfort was noticeable straight out of the box and on their first outing it was like wearing a trusted old friend.
They have met with every kind of condition this year but have really started to come into their own since the ground began to dry out. On dry hard packed trails they just stick to the ground, allowing precise solid foot placements. Even on wet rocky mountain trails they give a solid landing without any worry of a slide out. Due to the way the foot is cradled there is no forward slide within the shoe, meaning no banging of toes against the front. A low slung heel also grips the back of the foot but does not pinch or rub against the achilles.
The pair I have are carrying a good 600 miles in the sole but feel just as good and as comfortable as the day I first put them on. The fit for my foot is so good that even on longer runs (up to a 35 miler so far) I've had no issues with blisters.
This is a shoe that I would use for anything from short road runs through to high alpine tails without any concerns. As the Spark was the first to be released in the range, I would say that Scarpa have started on a great path. They have taken decades of mountain boot experience and transfered that knowledge and quality in to a fantastic trail shoe.
Mammut, a brand well known in mountaineering and climbing circles, are now focusing their knowledge and experience towards the trail running market, producing not just a range of trail running shoes but also clothing and backpacks.
The MTR 141 is the mid range model from their new range of shoes.
Weighing 662g per pair (size 42) they are not super light but they are built on the traditional 9mm heel to toe drop so are comparable with other shoes of this ilk. A Gore Tex version is available weighing 686g per pair (size 42).
For a mid range shoe the 141 is packed with the kind of technology you would expect from a brand such as Mammut:
The upper is lightweight and made from an 'impressively tough and abrasion-resistant 3-D polyamide fabric, with a 3-layer hybrid shell for enhanced support and protection'. A venTech lining is designed to give the shoe exceptional breathability, and memory foam is used in the tongue and ankle collar to increase the overall comfort. Reinforced liquid overlays give the upper a durability that I have never experienced in any other trail shoe and a substantial toe rand offers maximum protection without making the forefoot feel boxy. Small areas of reflective material are built in - a good safety feature on any road sections at night.
The laces are threaded through four sections that loop under the foot in what Mammut call their base fit; this encourages the shoe to hug the foot for a more precise fit. A quick lace draw cord system is fitted to give a more secure hold whilst fitting the shoe and a 'garage port' is built in to the tongue to tuck away the excess lacing.
A large “360 heel cup” sits at the back of the shoe which holds the heel firmly in place when the shoe is fastened.
Mammut's 'Gripex sonar sole' is based on a concentric ring pattern spreading out from the mid foot. This places forward facing lugs from the mid foot all the way to the toe encouraging a strong forward motion. Rear facing lugs spread back from the mid foot to the heel assist in braking whilst heading downhill.
The section under the heel is slightly splayed to offer additional support on off camber terrain and help prevent ankle roll, while a lightweight EVA injected wedge built in to the heel provides a shock absorber for heel strikes. The EVA wedge continues down in to the mid foot to give additional arch support. The pivot point of the sole is set just under the forefoot to give the shoe a nice rockered movement to encourage a more efficient and natural 'push off'.
On test the MTR 141 performed very well but even with all the technology involved there were a few niggles.
The fit was great, locking the forefoot in to the shoe to give solid foot placements and the '360' heel cup did a great job of holding my incredibly skinny heels exactly where they should be. This meant there was no rub on steep ascents and therefore no risk of blisters.
On the downside the quick lace system is small and fiddly and when caked in mud is very difficult to unfasten, so I removed the slider after a few runs and found that the laces alone performed much better.
The hard wearing upper has stood up to the rocky and gauze strewn trails I tend to run - in fact I don't think I have ever had a pair of shoes last as long as these without tearing the uppers. They are also incredibly breathable unless the foot becomes submerged; and then they really hold water. This I think is more to do with the memory foam in the tongue and collar acting as a sponge than a poor performance in the upper material.
Initially the sole felt very stiff and the splayed heel quite restrictive for foot placements, however after a couple of outings the sole softened and became quite flexible. The splayed heel did take a little bit of getting used to but once you do it does seem to help give extra stability on off camber terrain. The grip worked well in a variety of conditions, giving stable footing in all but the muddiest of fell running conditions. It even felt great on tarmac.
Overall this is a nice shoe, if a little overbuilt, and with a few changes, possibly even down grades in some of the technology, then it could be a great shoe suitable for all levels of trail runner. If you are looking for a 'door to trail' shoe that will work in a variety of conditions then the MTR141 would be a good place to start.
TNF have been putting thought into their trail running footwear recently, as evidenced by the long list of trade-marked features above. They've partnered with experienced English shoemakers, collaborated with their sponsored athletes and scrutinised up-to-date scientific data.
Based on their research, they've made changes like making the toe box bigger in endurance running shoes to accommodate swelling, and giving their women's shoes a significantly different fit to cater for our different foot shape.
First impression of these Ultra Guides was that they offered a straight-forward, neutral design with a roomy but not too big toe box. They feel nice and light on the foot. The mesh uppers have lasted well – no splitting after a good few months use. I liked that their low stance provided good stability on rocky, uneven terrain but personally prefer bigger lugs. These ones face forwards and backwards but they aren't particularly hefty and seem to have worn away quite quickly.
The 'Cradle Guide' system is designed to cushion the forefoot on impact and promote natural movement, meanwhile a 'Snake Plate' forefoot plate winds back and forth to offer stability while still allowing the foot to bend. I basically found that the soles offered a good amount of soft flex to deal with uneven ground, combined with a nice springy but minimalist feeling.
These shoes are soft, flexible and lightweight - yet still supportive and robust. The women's-specific fit and roomy toe box make for a comfy all-day shoe. On the down side these are the highest priced shoes in this test.
Like the Ultra Guides, these shoes are new for Spring this year. They are what I'd call all-rounders, well suited to a variety of terrain from mud to tarmac.
To take slippery, muddy terrain in their stride they have big lugs, and these are well spaced so that the soles don't get mud-clogged easily. Meanwhile there's plenty of cushioning too, to deal with hard packed surfaces from dry rocky trails to roads.
The Vapour Lights were apparently tested on the Dragon's Back race in Wales - a five-day, 300km epic with 17,000m of climbing. They have have a well-padded tongue and ankle cuff - perhaps to add some pamper factor for multi-day races in demanding environments!
They look quite chunky but when you pick them up they are much lighter than first impressions suggest. The whole of the upper in front of the ankle is a see through mesh, with material reinforcements. It's proved hardwearing – no splits – and makes the shoes light and breathable. Great in warm conditions. The chunky look is partly to do with the wide fit and roomy toe box - my toes didn't suffer at all on the downhills. I've got narrow feet so they weren't an ideal fit for me though. I also found them quite high-heeled and the soles springy but quite stiff torsionally. I personally prefer a lower stance for more stability and a softer flex on uneven rocky ground, though for some runners the drop will doubtless feel ideal. They were lovely on stretches of flatter, hard trail and also nice and bouncy on the inevitable tarmac sections.
These are good all-rounders, with plenty of cushioning for hard surfaces but an excellent tread for sloppy ground too. The uppers are light and breathable, and there's a roomy toe box and a fairly wide fit throughout.
La Sportiva have been making mountain boots, rock boots, approach shoes and trail running shoes for a long time, and they are renowned for their high quality. The Ultra Raptors are priced at £100, which is one of the highest in this review, so I was expecting a high quality shoe, and I was not disappointed.
I have used these shoes for the last six months, including a 30k mountain race in the alps, two 10k trail races and my day to day trail and mountain running. They have also doubled up as general crag approach shoes for rock climbing. They are still in good condition with little wear (see recent photo of the shoes at the crag).
The fit has been excellent, gripping the front of the foot, but still being very roomy in the front end, and limiting movement on the heel (I have very skinny heels). The build quality is very high, the cushioning excellent and the shoe gives a very solid feel on the foot, giving confidence on wet slopes. I have had no rubbing or blisters, even when running for more than five hours in damp conditions.
The grip on wet grass and mud is superb, but the grip on wet rock is less good, and considerably worse that say a sticky rubber climbing approach shoe. This is of course normal for traill running shoes.
The whole feel of the shoe is very beefy and tough. The wider fitting toe box gives the feet room to spread, and the extremely well cushioned heel, plus the solid support mean that this shoe is ideal for longer trail runs, and ultra marathons.
A solid, well built shoe that is ideally suited for long trail runs. If you want something abrasion resistant, and if you like a snug fitting heel but room in the toe box, then this shoe is well worth a look.
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