Charge of the Light Brigade

They're fast, they're feathery, they're superfly. The year's best lightweight hikers.

OK, SO YOU'RE NOT trudging up some distant 6,000-meter peak with a 55-pound pack. Instead, you're zipping up a well-marked trail in the Adirondacks. Why burden yourself with heavy rock-crushing lug soles and full-grain leather uppers for a day hike in August? Our selection of lightweight hikers are built to handle rough trails and daypack loads up to 20 pounds or so. (Indeed, with board-lasted construction, firm midsoles, and nylon shanks for rigidity, they're just like hiking boots, only lighter and more comfortable.) But with grippy outsoles and reinforced uppers, they're also made to take a beating. With that in mind, we took nine of the best out for some serious punishment. Here's how they stacked up.

OK, SO YOU'RE NOT trudging up some distant 6,000-meter peak with a 55-pound pack. Instead, you're zipping up a well-marked trail in the Adirondacks. Why burden yourself with heavy rock-crushing lug soles and full-grain leather uppers for a day hike in August? Our selection of lightweight hikers are built to handle rough trails and daypack loads up to 20 pounds or so. (Indeed, with board-lasted construction, firm midsoles, and nylon shanks for rigidity, they're just like hiking boots, only lighter and more comfortable.) But with grippy outsoles and reinforced uppers, they're also made to take a beating. With that in mind, we took nine of the best out for some serious punishment. Here's how they stacked up.

Mountain Athletics Drop-In, Nike ACG Air Dredge, and Hi-Tec Remote Mid

Mountain Athletics Drop-In (Top)
$80; 800-445-5545; www.mountainathletics.com
With a cushy running-shoe-style EVA midsole, a half-length nylon insole, and uppers wrapped in lightweight nubuck and nylon glued to a durable rubber sole, the Drop-In is an all-terrain oxford capable of taking you anywhere that doesn't require a top rope or a black tie. The downside? Well, as with all the shoes in this review, they aren't much for big loads--push it beyond 20 pounds and EVA assumes the consistency of microwaved Spam--but it's best to travel light with these 2-pound shoes anyway (all weights are per pair, size nine).

Nike ACG Air Dredge (Middle)
$85; 800-344-6453; www.nike.com
The 2-pound Dredge is a running shoe on creatine. Exactly as it should be. While boasting plenty of cushion--thanks to Nike's air-suspended heel insert--the Dredge has been tanked up with a polyurethane midsole and a nylon shank. Trailworthy right down to the lugs, it has one of the best loose-dirt chevron patterns we've used, with angled cleats in the forefoot that grip going up, and
opposing heel cleats that dig in going down. Easily our top choice for covering a lot of ground fast, whether you stroll, scramble, or sprint. Gripes? The 50-cent foam footbeds are worthless. Toss 'em and insert some drugstore, or better yet custom, orthotics.
Hi-Tec Remote Mid (Bottom)
$55; 800-521-1698; www.hi-tec.com
Cut from handsome gray or brown nubuck, the Remotes look as nice as shoes twice their price, and because they employ a light-duty midsole and a steel shank, they have ample beef for day-hiking loads. All of which would be meaningless if the Remotes weren't comfortable. No worries: Nicely padded uppers and a well-shaped footbed make this a no-break-in boot. On smooth trails carrying moderate loads they'll provide blister-free performance right out of the box. Just don't expect robust alpine support--despite their midheight uppers the 2-pound, 5-ounce Hi-Tecs collapse under high-angle side loads.

Merrell Chameleon Velocity, Salomon Super Raid, and La Sportiva Energy

Merrell Chameleon Velocity (Top)
$100; 888-637-7001; www.merrellboot.com
Although they're named after a reptile, the Chameleons actually sport leather uppers (from cattle) and soles covered with suckerlike rubber disks called Octogrip. (We're assuming Merrell's marketers preferred "Chameleon" to "OctoCow.") Do the suckers suck? Well, no, but they do grip well on a variety of surfaces. Adept at combining urban and rural duties, the 2-pound, 2-ounce Chameleons are handsome and comfortable on sidewalks (which you can't say about all hikers), yet capable under a light pack on any trail. Try as we might, though, we couldn't get them to change color with their surroundings.

Salomon Super Raid (Middle)
$120; 800-654-2668; www.salomonsports.com
Salomon put the 1-pound, 15-ounce Super Raids on the Oprah diet, from ultrathin Kevlar laces to synthetic uppers to a bonded midsole sandwich of EVA, polyurethane, and plastic. Slip them on, yank the laces tight with one finger on the rip-cord loop, crank the Velcro ankle wrap, and you'll feel like running with the wolves. The high uppers and snug fit add up to supernatural control on off-camber slabs and other dicey routes. There's also enough support for a Raid load: water bladder, GPS, goat cheese, and a few packs of Gauloises--ah, the French.
La Sportiva Energy (Bottom)
$75; 303-443-8710; www.sportiva.com
Boasting a friction coefficient that would embarrass ten-year-old rock shoes, the 2-pound, 4-ounce Energies are flawless on steep trails under trekking loads, and make for enthusiastic bouldering partners on tempting detours. A fat rubber rand around the sole adds grip for toe and heel jams while protecting the uppers from abrasion. Polyurethane midsoles and wood-fiber insoles provide both support for loaded hiking and enough cushioning for head-height peel-offs. Better yet, at only 75 bucks, the investment is low enough to suggest intriguing bartering possibilities at the end of the trek.

Asolo Focus, Scarpa Vento Mid, and Vasque Fusion GTX

Asolo Focus (Top)
$80; 877-888-8533; www.asolo.com
A low-cut shoe with the sole of a backpacking boot, the Focus boasts about the sturdiest foundation you can find inside 2 pounds, 4 ounces. A polyurethane midsole is topped by a fiber insole and underlined with a shallow but stiff Vibram sole. As long as your ankles don't fail, you just can't overload these shoes. Carrying a 40-pound backpack with a breeze cooling your ankles is a novel experience. Yet thanks to a nicely shaped and padded footbed, the Focuses don't feel overly rigid with a lighter load. Think of this shoe as a Humvee with the top down.

Scarpa Vento Mid (Middle)
$130; 801-278-5533; www.scarpa.net
The midheight Ventos look like dedicated hiking boots, but at 2 pounds, 8 ounces, they're lighter than most. So how do these seemingly contradictory characteristics perform? The answer comes on the trail: Despite the stiff heel and arch, which fend off sticks and stones with aplomb, the boot is airy and flexible. Great for hot-weather hiking, the fabric-and-leather uppers ventilate freely, while still guarding ankles against rocks. Just don't overload them: The aggressive look notwithstanding, you'll feel every pebble under the ball of your foot if you're carrying a pack that weighs more than 30 pounds.
Vasque Fusion GTX (Bottom)
$130; 800-224-4453; www.vasque.com
If your local mud season lasts from March to November, you need extra-waterproof footwear. Vasque's Fusion GTX has a midheight top and a Gore-Tex liner so you can wallow through the sludge with impunity. Plush ankle-bone coverage and stout uppers protect your dogs during rough-and-tumble bushwhacks. On the trail, a polyurethane midsole and fiberglass/polyurethane insole augment the ankle support. The result? A 3-pound package burly enough to handle light backpacking duty in rainforest conditions.

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