Approach Shoes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

Approach Shoes

Backcountry footwear that's part hiker, part running shoe, part Reinhold Messner
By Bob Howells

The indefatigable mountaineer is certainly familiar with the term "approach shoe": It's what he wears over trail and talus slope to the start of some 8,000-meter exploit. But to the rest of us, it's a new take on outdoor footwear that has a down-to-earth mission. Such shoes must be responsive enough to see you over scree and loose dirt, and yet supportive enough to help you comfortably schlepp a load. That mix of capabilities is something any trail-happy athlete can appreciate, K2-bound or not.

Of course, almost any lightweight backcountry shoe will support a daypack and give you the freedom to do some unburdened scrambling. But an approach shoe will do that combination of things better. It feels more athletic than any lightweight hiker--many models are lighter, cut lower, and built on running-shoe lasts--and yet it's less schizophrenic than an outdoor cross-trainer. That is, approach shoes don't pretend to be both soft enough for 10k trail runs and stiff enough for serious mountain-biking. Predictably, each manufacturer follows its own recipe, but all of the models I tested basically fall into one of two groups: those better suited for walking under a sizable load, and those that favor speed over support.

The heavy-duty models are built something like day hikers, with a straight and wide last, a relatively stiff midsole, and a beefy outsole. The wide footprint gives you lateral stability, while the midsole, which sometimes contains a fiberboard insole or a steel shank running from heel to arch, supports the load and keeps rubble from piercing your feet. Naturally, approach shoes with uppers made mostly of leather are more supportive, expensive, and heavier than those with fabric uppers.

Light travelers will want less. Minimalist approach shoes are built on quicker running-shoe or cross-trainer lasts and usually have EVA midsoles. Compared to the polyurethane used in some of the stouter shoes, EVA is lightweight and springy, perfect for a long trail run but not so stable when you're wearing a pack. Also, lighter approach shoes often have outsoles with flex grooves--horizontal strips or wedges cut out of the rubber--for better flexibility while you're rock-hopping or scrambling.

In testing numerous pairs of approach shoes, I generally acted out those outdoor footwear advertisements--hiking, running, and scaling--and emerged with 11 models that I think represent the best of what's available. They're all worthy of some serious scampering--or shouldering a rack of climbing hardware to the base of a granite conquest. All weights listed are for a shoe in a men's size nine. Unless otherwise noted, all of these shoes are offered in men's and women's versions.

Adidas Equipment Adventure Claw Hike

The Adventure Claw (one pound, two ounces; men's only; $85) is the quickest of all approach shoes. Start with the spare, carbon-rubber outsole: Three "pads" at the heel and four at the forefoot, designed to mimic an animal's paw, are spread wide for stability, with only soft EVA between them. This makes the running-shoe-lasted Claw particularly light and flexible, for a more sensitive ride on the trail and the rock. The same approach, favoring light weight over support, extends upward, with a padded spandex tongue and a well-ventilated synthetic-leather upper, secured by three hook-and-loop straps. It's not enough for supporting much more than a hip pack, but the Claw makes you feel very fast.

A.D. One Skyline Ultra

The Skyline Ultra (14 ounces, men's only, $80) is a shoe with what you might call compliant support. While there's a foot-coddling neoprene bootie and a high-cut leather upper, there's nothing that you would recognize as a tongue, leaving a webbed-nylon strap that runs from heel counter to midfoot to shore up the Ultra. The whole package is placed atop an EVA midsole and a flex-grooved outsole to yield an athletic, comfortable, backcountry high-top. Because there's no tongue, the stretch bootie breathes quite well, but unfortunately the gap welcomes trail grit. The cross-trainer last offers decent lateral stability should you be toting a daypack. A women's version, called the Silverado, will be available in the fall.

Hi-Tec Saguaro

For trail-walking under a light load, punctuated with an occasional burst of speed, the one-pound, three-ounce Saguaro was my favorite of the bunch. In addition to stiffening the shoe, the fiberboard insole shields the arch from rocks, and the midsole is sculpted to cradle the foot, offering a touch of lateral support you don't get in the real lightweights. EVA cushioning makes the Saguaro somewhat lively, and a moderately lugged, recycled-rubber outsole gives decent traction on loose rock and steeper slopes. For $89 you also get a quality nubuck leather upper (and, as yet, men's-only sizing). Special pedal-gripping grooves in the outsole let the Saguaro do limited service on a mountain bike.

Jansport Granite

In keeping with Jansport's luggage-making heritage, the stylish, Italian-made Granite (13 ounces, $90) looks like a cross between a canvas desert boot and a Cordura duffel bag. There's more of the nylon fabric here than in the other shoes, reinforced with just a couple of swatches of synthetic leather and some rubber around the toe. But that's not a problem. The Cordura is coated with Teflon for water-resistance, and it's tough enough for all-around trail use. The polyurethane midsole is reinforced with fiberboard and a steel shank, so there's a reserve of arch support, but the shoe is tuned to flex easily at the toe. In fact, despite its hiking-boot last and lugged, block-heel outsole, the lightweight Granite is best for those who like to keep the load on the leaner side and move along at a fast clip.

Merrell Solo

Where the Adidas Claw is quick, the Solo (one pound, four ounces; $75) is sturdy--just what you'd expect from a hiking boot maker like Merrell. The Solo is nearly waterproof, thanks to a specially tanned, wax-treated leather upper; the steel-shank insole is very supportive; a polyurethane midsole cradles the foot; and the outsole has deep lugs for tremendous traction. Though you'd never dream of running in it, the Solo will help you carry anything short of a backpacking load down a rocky trail. What makes the Solo an approach shoe as opposed to a day hiker? It's cut below the ankle for sneakerlike mobility when you're skipping around.

Nike Air Escape III WS

The Air Escape (14 ounces, $85) gives you the sensation of a running shoe--from footwear that's appropriate for lightly burdened all-day hikes. A wraparound rubber rand and split-grain leather upper don't say speed, but an air unit in the heel and grooves in the forefoot of the outsole give cushioning and flexibility should you want to take off down the trail. The Escape is built on a somewhat straight cross-trainer last for support. The rand and polyurethane midsole contribute to the shoe's stability, a sticky rubber outsole enhances traction, and a liner in the upper renders the shoe waterproof.

One Sport Scree

The Scree (one pound, two ounces; $82) has plenty of beef for toting heavy loads across talus, but it's as lively a hiking shoe as you're going to find. A Goodyear outsole gives it traction for rock-hopping, and an EVA midsole provides lots of bounce. What makes the cushioning different is that the EVA is denser in the heel than in the forefoot for added durability, and the midsole's rigidity is augmented by a steel shank. For lateral support and added protection, there are plastic counters and substantial rands at toe and heel, and the shoe is built on a hiking boot last. It's even stiff enough that I would consider the low-cut Scree for long mountain-bike rides.

Reebok Cliffhanger

The Cliffhanger (one pound, $65) is a trail-running shoe with hiking boot modifications. Just like a dedicated off-road runner, it gets its cushioning from a thin, firm EVA midsole that keeps your center of gravity low over uneven surfaces. But the footbed surrounds your foot for lateral support, and a steel shank protects your arch. The thick upper, made predominantly of leather, is also more boot- than shoe-oriented. On the trail, both personalities come through. Unladen, you can run a bit in the Cliffhanger--though it feels a tad heavy--and yet the shoe will keep you happy even when you're striding quickly along with 20 pounds on board.

Rockport La Plata

Sporting a fine, nubuck leather upper, the La Plata (14 ounces, $115) is almost too handsome to sully on the trail--and it wouldn't look out of place around town. But the Rockport's hide is similar to those used in rugged hiking boots, with which the shoe shares a pedigree. There's a lugged, block-heel Vibram outsole, a steel shank, and a waterproof lining. An extended heel counter also contributes to the good support, even when you're carrying a long day's worth of supplies. What makes the La Plata playful is a lightweight EVA midsole, which delivers some springiness and comfort; it keeps the shoe flexible enough for short walks and forays onto the crags.

Tecnica Hurricane

Even when you're carrying a pack, the Hurricane (two pounds, two ounces; men's only; $85) is ready for fun and games. Despite its polyurethane midsole and midcut fabric-and-leather upper, the shoe feels nimble. The main reason is the strong but lightweight full-length nylon shank--it's stiff laterally but tuned to be highly flexible in the forefoot, so you feel like hopping rocks even when your pack is full. The Hurricane isn't waterproof, but urethane shields cupping toe and heel help keep you dry through the puddles.

Timberland Topozoic Class II Day Hiker

With a high-cut, ankle-buttressing, full-grain nubuck leather upper and rugged D-ring lacing eyelets, the Topozoic (one pound, eight ounces; $110) has hiking boot written all over it. And indeed, that structural oomph will support daypack-style weight. But read between the seams and you'll find elements that also make this shoe surprisingly fast and light. A thick wedge of EVA in the midsole gives the Topozoic ample cushioning from rock shock, and the carbon-rubber outsole is durable while still providing enough give to let you bound from one piece of slickrock to the next.

Bob Howells frequently covers backcountry footwear for Outside's Review pages.

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