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Gear Review and giveaway: Altra trailrunning shoes
posted by John : October 6, 2014

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Loving their feet

NOTE: Purchasing through the affiliate links below will help support Altra provided gear for our review and use. All opinions are mine (and the kids'). After you read our review be sure to enter the contest to win a pair of Altra Running shoes at the bottom of the post!

Ever heard the saying, "A pound off your feet is like five pounds off your back?" It might have originated with Sir Edmund Hillary on Mt. Everest and it's been proven true in actual scientific studies. Who would study that? The US Army, for one.

But it's not just the government that's working to reduce the weight of shoes. There's been a rash of low-weight shoes on the market in the last few years. I've joined the experiment and used ultra lightweight shoes with mixed success. However, now I've found a lightweight shoe that doesn't sacrifice the sole of my foot to post great numbers. Even better, the kids love them, too.

Altra shoes provide cushioned soles, a FootShape toe box, and zero drop. If that weren't enough, they have a creative tread design making them instantly recognizable, as long as you can see the sole.

I'll warn you now, this part gets a little technical. Before I got these shoes I had no idea about stack height or drop or anything beyond "Do they fit and feel good?" when it came to shoes.

We tested three different models in the Altra line. All of the models are "zero drop" meaning there's no difference in height between the heel and the forefoot. In theory, this helps your form get back to what it's supposed to be and reduces impact.

I have very wide "hobbit" feet so I was more interested in the FootShape toe box. It's much wider and lets your toes spread out. I've been using toe socks for years because boots and other shoes squeeze my toes together and I got blisters between my toes. Altras promise to fix that.

Each of the kids used a pair of Instinct Jr. 1.5 shoes. Henry and Clara got red. Lilly got pink, but it was really more white with pink and yellow highlights.

Each shoe weighed in at 240g, a full 74g lighter than one of the kids' boots. That doesn't sound like a lot, but if you believe in the adage of a pound off your feet is five pounds off your back that means each kid could carry an additional 740g (1.6 pounds).

The Instincts are classified as "light" cushioning with a stack height of 17mm. That means there's 17mm of material between the trail and the foot. There's a layer of recycled material called A-Bound that Altra says is "literally a layer of bouncy ball." I love the idea that they are recycling bouncy balls, but I wonder if they're using "literally" figuratively.

Henry wore his shoes first on a trip up Hurricane Hill in Olympic National Park. "I feel like I've worn them all my life," he said when I asked how they felt. Granted, he's only seven so all his life isn't that long, but it was a pretty good indication there was no break-in period. Plus, they were bright red matching his backpack and shorts.

Later that same week Henry wore the shoes again for his three-day trip to Alta Mountain and Lila Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It was by far his most ambitious trip, climbing more than 5,000 feet over the three days. He continued loving the shoes, though he now sported a green backpack and gray shorts.

Lilly loved the color of her shoes, too, but I must admit they got dirty pretty quickly. A scrub in the sink, though, and they returned to an almost pristine white. She and Clara both wore their Instincts on a 23 mile, three day trip on the High Divide also in Olympic National Park. They crossed creeks, silently padded down mossy trails, scrambled over rocks, and frolicked in the snow with nary a complaint. Both questioned the tail on the sole (called the "TrailRudder"), which they said kicked dirt up on them, but not enough to cut it off.

Clara's notoriously picky about her shoes, but she had no problem adapting to these and running up and down mountains while Lilly and I followed. Lillian has always been more easy going when it comes to footwear so it was no surprise she gave these a big thumbs up.

I had two models to test. I started with the Olympus and I loved them. My toes had plenty of room to spread out, the traction was great on the dry trails and rock I tried them on, and the extra stack height (a whopping 36mm compared to the 17mm in the Instinct Jr 1.5) made the rough trail feel like a smooth sidewalk. I used them on a couple of different trips including an evening trip in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Henry's trips to Hurricane Ridge and Alta Mountain. Bonus for Hurricane Ridge: Mt. Olympus is the big deal on the horizon so my shoes were quite appropriate.

On the bottom of the Olympus is a yellow footprint similar to the Instincts. However, unlike the Instincts (or the Lone Peak I tested later) the rest of the sole is a thin black overlay. With all the sharp rocks I subjected the shoes to the black layer tore and separated from the yellow after 32 miles. Cutting that off meant loss of traction for that section.

When I reported this I got a new pair within a few days, but this time it was the Lone Peak 2.0. (Unlike other vendors the shoes are versioned, which is really handy if you're bargain shopping.) The Lone Peaks are less cushy than the Olympus with a stack height of 26mm, but I still didn't feel the trail. They were a little eye opening, though, because they are bright yellow. (Don't worry, there's a black version, too.)

Since these were supposed to be a lightweight do-anything shoe (325g versus 811g for a boot) I figured I'd throw them into the fire to see if they'd burn. Mailbox Peak is a notorious local trail with dirt, mud, roots, and rocks and over 4,000 feet of gain in just 2.5 miles. I like it because it makes my legs and lungs burn and delights my eyes when the weather is good. Plus, I climb it often enough I know the trees and switchbacks by name. (Don't believe me, come hike it with me and I'll introduce you to VHL, SFT, and the icicle log.) I've been chasing an hour and 30 minutes from the gate to the summit for years, but never gotten closer than 1:35 (and that was two years ago). With reduced weight on my feet I set a new personal record of 1:34:13.

Both the Olympus and the Lone Peak have a "Gaiter Trap" on the back that is compatible with many lightweight gaiters including Altra's Trail Gaiter. They're super light and have no straps under your foot to snag or break.

Since I've hiked in zero drop shoes before I didn't have any problems adapting. However, I remember the pain after eight miles in my first pair of shoes several years ago so I'd recommend following Altra's guidance when transitioning to zero drop.

Overall, I was really happy with all three models. The kids still wear theirs (Clara uses hers for gym class) and the Lone Peaks will be back in rotation as soon as I wrap up another footwear test. In dry weather, the shoes provide great traction, amazing comfort out of the box, and are so light you can really feel the difference.

On the downside, none of the shoes are waterproof. In the Pacific Northwest, this means they are really only a summer shoe. The traction isn't the greatest on wet rock reinforcing my belief that they shine when the sun does.

Additionally, these are high-performance shoes, but not necessarily long-lasting. My Olympus had the tread failure and one of Lilly's Instinct Jr. shoes have a little stitching coming undone.

Final verdict

Would I buy them for the kids? When they're waterproof, yes. Until then, I'll shop the sales to find them, but not at full price. The kids aren't as careful around water and certainly aren't as tolerant of wet feet as I am. They'd use them only on dry conditions.

Would I buy these shoes? Absolutely. Yes, they're single-season shoes, but they're so good and comfortable (especially for a wide-footed person like me) that they're worth it. And when the Lone Peaks with a waterproof, breathable Polartec membrane come out later this year they'll be good from Spring through Fall.


Enter below and you can win a pair of Altra Running shoes. Once the raffle is over the winner will be contacted to choose a style and size for later delivery. (Note that some styles and sizes are so popular there might be delay.)

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