Think on Your Feet

To sort through this season's trail-runner bounty, mix equal parts rugged design and motivational psychology

Jul 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

Salmon's XA Pro Gtx makes a big splash.

IN 1983, WHEN THE FIRST TRAIL RUNNER was unleashed on the world, pavement pounders everywhere quickly derided the newfangled shoes as sneaker SUVs. Indeed, some unfortunate early versions looked more like low-profile hiking boots than running shoes. But soon enough everyone wanted a pair. These days, all the major footwear players stitch up backcountry sprinters designed expressly to tackle roots, rocks, and muck. They're a long way from being a niche-market afterthought for shoe companies.

Any of the eight kicks on the pages that follow will easily propel you through your own private Eco-Challenge or Fugitive-style escape. To help you choose the right pair we've enlisted what we'll call the perceived-weight index. Stay with us.
Perceived weight is a two-part concept: how heavy (or light) the shoe looks when you spy it on the rack and how heavy or light it feels on your foot. So if a tread appears bulky, your brain might trick you into thinking that the overall shoe is heavier than last year's model—even though the reverse may actually be the case. When it's time to hit the trail, perceived weight becomes more important than actual weight—a conundrum Angela Flaviani, footwear product manager for The North Face, deals with in every new shoe she oversees. "It's not raw weight that matters," she says, "but rather balanced weight dispersion. Without it, an eight-ounce unbalanced shoe can feel heavier than a 12-ounce shoe." But, in reality, all-terrain foot-wear needs a certain amount of reinforcing muscle. Some companies craftily hide this needed beefiness in the midsole or upper, where it's less likely to give that lurching, bulldozer-hiker vibe, and—Scout's honor—feels lighter as well.

Sheesh. All that before you even try the things on. This year's crop draws from a mixed bag of construction tricks to address the perception problem. Some models keep their deep-lug tread for maximum traction; others are modified marathoners that sacrifice stability for speed. To pick the right shoe, consider your body type, the surfaces you'll be loping over, the length of your typical run, and whether a substantial-looking shoe will slow you down. When your trail runners are covered in more mud, dust and scratches than your hiking boots, you'll know you've found the perfect match.

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