Protective Trail Shoe Review Roundup 2016: Montrail Trans Alps, La Sportiva Akasha, Saucony Xodus ISO, Altra Lone Peak 3.0, Pearl Izumi Trail N3, The North Face Ultra Endurance
Posted on December 14 2016
In an effort to consolidate the vast amount of shoes I’ve been able to try in the last 4-6 months, I’m going to group shoes into a couple categories and give brief reviews on each of them. I’m still planning on doing in depth reviews on shoes as well (and have a few shoes already set aside to do so) but in an effort to give some testing feedback on as many shoes as possible I’m going to put together three different round-up reviews of Light Trail Shoes, Protective Trail Shoes and Mountain Running Shoes. Hopefully there is at least a shoe or two that every reader is/was curious about! The second in this series is going to be the Protective Trails Shoes and there are some great new shoes in this category this year. I’ve ranked them in roughly the order of my most favorite first to the shoe needing the most improvement at the end. Specs via Running Warehouse (click on shoe name) unless otherwise indicated.
1. Montrail Trans Alps – 365 g (13.0 oz) mens 9, 29mm H, 21mm FF, $130.00
Montrail has successfully, in my view, rebooted and reinvigorated their trail line-up in 2016. Despite some restructuring as a company, and further re-branding coming in 2017 where they will be called Columbia Montrail, they still managed to put together some good product (see previously the reviewed Caldorado) . I almost wrote off the Trans Alps when I first saw it. Fortunately, Montrail sent me a pair anyway and I was more than surprised at how well the shoe ran. What looks like a lead filled hiking shoe with tank-like construction runs really smoothly and is the most protective shoe I’ve probably ever run in while still be enjoyable to run in. The outsole is aggressive, yet not overly so and it has a supportive and yet still comfortable upper.
The midsole geometry and design is what really saves this shoe. It features Montrail’s Fluid Guide construction which has a graduated, seamless density of foam that is softer in the heel and gradually firmer through the midfoot and then softer in the forefoot. The result is a very stable shoe that transitions really well for how stiff and protective it is. The shoe has a rock plate and external midfoot shank too which further adds to its ridiculous levels of protection and support. I, for one, am glad Montrail is willing to produce a shoe like this, which is nice to have in the tool bag for long and rough ultramarathon events and mountain adventures. I equally enjoy their F.K.T. treatment to the Trans Alps that came out this fall where they simplify the upper and remove the Fluid Guide to lighten of up the shoe and allow for a more nimble option on the same platform. Very good shoe from Montrail, one of my favorite new shoes this year, and one of the best values on the market since the shoe is easily a 1000 mile shoe I would guess based on the near zero wear I’ve had over a hand full of rough mountain style outings in it already.
2. La Sportiva Akasha – 285 g (10.1 oz) mens 9, 31mm H, 25mm FF, $140.00
La Sportiva doesn’t come out with as many new models as other brands, but when they do, I usually pay attention since they build shoes with a very purpose-built mountain design aesthetic. The Akasha is their most highly cushioned shoe to date and the focus of design was on building an all-around trail and mountain shoe that could handle a variety of terrain and distances. I think they’ve generally met that goal and the Akasha is one of the better all around, protective models I’ve tried this year with good precision for the level of protection and a comfortable yet secure upper. One of La Sportiva’s strengths has always been its fantastic rubber compounds for their outsoles and the Akasha is another representation of this. It uses a combination of the sticky XF rubber in addition to small amounts of the more durable AT compound (red rubber) at the heel and big toe. The rubber wears really well and performs even better with great traction on most every surface. The lug shape (one aspect of design I have keen interest in) is good too with lugs going in the direction of travel when they should an providing breaking traction in appropriate areas.
The midsole is a decent (though not outstanding) injection molded EVA that offers enough life and cushion, yet is still firm enough to not be too squishy or unstable on more technical terrain. I did modify the heel after a few runs to narrow up what, in my view, was too chunky of a design that was the only glaring flaw in the ride. After doing so, the shoe performs very predictable on downhills and uneven terrain and in accordance with its protection and stack height. For runners that are looking for one shoe to cover a wide variety of applications, the Akasha would be near the top of the list as a fantastic all-arounder.
3. Saucony Xodus ISO – 297 g (10.5 oz) mens 9, 29mm H, 25mm FF, $130.00
I haven’t had great luck with Saucony’s trail line in the past. The Peregrine 5 is probably the best of the bunch and I did like some things about the Nomad TR. I’ve not tried previous versions of the Xodus, mainly because they looked overbuilt, heavy and too tapered in the toebox. Saucony made a significant overhaul to the Xodus with the new Xodus ISO. The fit in the heel and midfoot is very good, particularly for a Saucony. It is secure, but the ISO overlays don’t cut into the foot at all. The only glaring issue with the fit for me is the still, very noticeable tapered toebox. I’d recommend sizing up a 1/2 size in them to alleviate this issue. As is, with my size being 13, I can’t size up a 1/2 size to remedy this so the shoe ends up feeling a bit short at the big toe due to the taper. The midsole and ride of the shoe are above average. The geometry is good and they keep the profile narrow enough to not feel bulky. The Everun topsole does help give a little life to the otherwise somewhat dead and firm-ish compressed eva. The shining component is no doubt the PWRTRAC outsole. It is making its way onto most all of Saucony’s trail shoes at this point and is a great soft, but durable compound and in a good tri-flex patter on the Xodos ISO. I really like this outsole and if it was on something closer to the Nomad TR last, it would be a big win for long mountain races/runs.
4. Altra Lone Peak 3.0 – 277 g (9.8 oz) mens 9, $120.00, available July 2016
I tend to think of Altra’s Lone Peak as their most recognizable model and it has surely seen great success in the last few years and they are solid fixture at every trail race I go to. The 3rd full version sees the most substantial update of all versions before it with entirely new outsole, midsole and upper. I had some issues, particularly with the upper not being secure enough on the Lone Peak 2.5, but really liked the Neoshell version in which the neoshell upper is more secure by not stretching during the run. The Lone Peak 3.0 attempts to address some of the issues I had with the 2.5. First, the midsole is a little softer and gives a slightly more responsive ride to it which makes it run better on hardpack/smoother trail; more responsive and lively which I like. That said it feels like there is a little more stack height and a slightly softer foam so it comes across as an almost quasi-maximalist experience in feel to me and drifts just bit away from the core Lone Peak position as Altra’s all around trail option. I tested this out on two different Lone Peak 3.0s (pre-production model and production pair) and it still feels softer and more flexible than the 2.5. This basically creates a bigger gap between the Superior and Lone Peak experience. Oddly enough, with the added stack, there actually seems to be less structure to the midsole due to the midsole compound being slightly softer and softer outsole rubber as well compared to the 2.5. This results in a more flexible ride overall and bit more bouncy feel (good on hardpack, but worse on uneven/tech ground for my tastes) and it leaves me feeling that the shoe just doesn’t quite commit to either being a more protective, bomber long run option (which is what I always have wanted it to be) or more minimal/lighter option since it has elements of both. Since I’d prefer the more protective approach (lighter option is already the Superior) I think they could thicken the Stoneguard rock plate (which feels pretty light) to add some structure to the soft and flexible ride which would also give the shoe just a bit more spine and protection for the long outings is it best suited for.
The upper is much improved with solid overlays and a much better heel fit than almost any other Altra I’ve tried. Good progress in the upper. However, the last is still too voluminous in the midfoot for my tastes and I have trouble getting the shoe tight enough on technical descents, however, it is a lot better than the 2.5. I just ran in the new Altra Torin 2.5 for the first time and the performance last on it is great; super wide in the forefoot yet still secure in the midfoot and heel. I’d love to see the Lone Peak on this performance last, but I’m just not sure if much of Altra’s runner base prefers extra volume in the midfoot/instep and I’m in the minority or if there are more runners out there that would prefer a more secure fit. I still think the shoe is an improvement over the 2.5, but it still being held back from being great in the small ways I’ve mentioned. I’ve always imagined the Lone Peak to have the potential to be the perfect long distance trail shoe, but it still falls just a bit short for me. All in all a good shoe and I’m really looking forward to the mid-height winter version coming in a few months. It think it has tons of potential for being a great winter running shoe as well as a light hiking shoe for backpackers/through hikers.
5. Pearl Izumi Trail N3 – 300 g (10.7 oz) mens 9, 29mm H, 21mm FF, $135.00
Pearl Izumi and their E:Motion line has been a staple in the trail and ultra running scene for the last 3-4 years. Their comfortable uppers and well rounded models have been well received and the shoes generally work as intended. They offer good middle of the road cushion, protection and traction with soft and comfortable seamless uppers. All of these good qualities make them great options particularly for the runner who wants one shoe to do everything. However, as I’ve discussed in my previous review of the Trail N2v2 and N1v2 the lines get blurred a bit between the models where the N1 and N2 aren’t that differentiated featuring similar protection and cushion at similar weights. Unfortunately the Trail N3 continues this trend with it coming in at nearly the same weight as the N2v2 (and N2v3) and while softer with more cushion, the protection feels somewhat similar as well. The good news is that all the features that you’ve come to expect from PI are there with a soft and comfortable upper, smooth-ish rockered ride, rock plate and good protection to weight ratio. That said, being that it still comes in as a very similar middle of the road option with just slightly more cushion than the N2, I’m just not sure where they differentiate the line that much and it will lend to runners buying just one of the models rather than considering two or all three as different tools for different uses. As it is, I see them as very similar tools with just slightly different leanings. The N3 runs pretty decent, fits well and works as advertised but doesn’t bring anything new to the table, nor blow me away on any level. In the end, I think I still probably would go with the N2 to split the difference between the N1 and N3 and have it give me the best of both models. Since reviewing these, Pearl Izumi announced they are shutting down their run division. Definitely an interesting move by PI and in many ways sad to see them go.
6. The North Face Ultra Endurance – 323 g (11.4 oz) mens 9, 26mm H/18mm FF, $125.00
I was pleasantly surprised by the North Face Ultra MT last year which had a great mountain design and was the first shoe I ran in with the, then new, Vibram Megagrip rubber compound, which is fantastic. Seeing that the Ultra Endurance was going to feature a more shallow lugged outsole with Megagrip on a more well-rounded platform, I was pretty excited to test out the results. It was supposed to have injected EVA, rock plate (North Face calls it a Snake Plate) and middle of the road 8mm drop. Turns out, they couldn’t have gone with the injected EVA (that or it is really poor foam) and it instead features just a generic low grade EVA material that substantially detracts from the shoe. This shoe runs very dead to me and it is such a shame! In this day and age, you just can’t get away with that low of quality of foam and hope runners don’t notice. Secondly, the rock plate literally feels like they forgot it. The shoe feels thinner and less protective than many other shoes I’ve tried this year but at an 11.4 ounce weight this just makes no sense. They need to beef the rock plate up quite a bit to give the shoe some structure and protection. The upper is actually somewhat decent fitting, although, arguably lower volume for most folks for the type of end use it is marketed for (long trail runs). The outsole is the one shining point with a great design and of course great rubber compound. The shoe need not be just discarded and is completely salvageable in a version 2 if they can upgrade the foam and beef up the rock plate…maybe lighten the upper up a bit here and there and have a little taller toebox height it really could be a sweet little shoe. As is, I can’t really recommend it other than for casual hiking or something.