There's no reason smaller feet should equal smaller ambition
A few months ago, I took my daughters hiking up a small peak here in Santa Fe. We weren’t trail running, but every kid who hikes is a trail runner—they’re always breaking into some kind of frenzied dash when you least expect it. This is the unofficial motto of childhood: Why walk when you can run? Maisy, who is seven, was wearing her New Balance 440 sneakers with a Velcro strap. She’d hiked in them plenty of times—too many. What little traction the soles once had wore out a long time ago. On the way down, Maisy slipped on a loose and rocky section of trail and tumbled sideways, landing on her cheek just below her eye, which puffed up red and angry.
As soon as her tears subsided, we hiked two miles back to the trailhead and drove straight to the shoe store to buy a new pair of proper trail sneakers. The problem was we couldn’t find any.
Our local shoe store stopped carrying kids’ kicks last year, and when I drove to the mall on the other side of town, we found a lame selection of lifestyle sneakers from the big brands that looked like they might hold up on the playground, but barely.
Kids’ outdoor gear is a lot like women’s gear was a decade ago. Slap on some bright colors or perky graphics and call it good. Not good. This is especially true of sneakers. Why do some companies seem to think that as long as there’s a foamy rubber sole, it qualifies as a kids’ running shoe?
Like moths to a flame, so too are kids to mud. They are always slopping about in puddles and scrambling across rocks. They need shoes for running and exploring—with grippy traction and good laces—that will stand up to serious abuse but won’t weigh them down. I wouldn’t saddle myself with overbuilt shoes; why would I do that to my girls, who are half my weight? I hold to the same standards when I’m shopping for them as I do for myself. But some companies are doing it right.
And they don’t all have to be pink. For example, my daughters’ popsicle orange and purple Salomons (you can read more about them below) set the trails on fire without being overtly girly. Technical gear for kids should be the norm, not the exception. Consider the company Isla, which builds scaled-down town, road, and mountain bikes for young riders that don’t skimp on design, fit, or components. Chaco’s kid-sized river sandals are modeled on its adult single-strap classics. It’s time we saw the same focused, intentional design for kids’ trail shoes. Not because kids need to run competitively or should be logging long miles in the mountains like we do, but because they deserve to have shoes that fit well, grip hard, and don’t slow them down. If they do, chances are good they’ll grow into teens and adults who live to play outside and move their bodies through nature. And when they do, everybody wins.
Salomon Speedcross ($75)
We picked up this trail runner at REI, and it has seriously sticky traction and a well-built upper that’s a sized-down version of the grown-up’s version. At a featherweight 108 grams, the Speedcross is built for velocity. The only minor quibble is Solomon’s proprietary lacing system: Though you can ratchet the cord for glove-like fit, it sometimes proves tricky for little fingers to loosen without help. Still, the shoe is impressively light and stable, and I know my daughter will outgrow it long before the upper, with its reinforced toe, wears out. She’s worn it tearing up the trails of New Zealand, walking (and sometimes running) to school, playing early season lacrosse, and, yes, running laps on the school playground.
Altra One Jr. ($60)
The Utah-based company specializes in zero-drop trail runners for adults, and that experience shows in the One Jr. At 114 grams, it’s not a trail-specific shoe, but its low-profile platform is built on the same model as Altra’s adult runners, with a tougher upper to withstand kids’ abuse.
New Balance FuelCore Nitrel ($55)
The traction on this grade-school trail runner treads a middle ground between the bomber trail Speedcross and the more minimal road-centric Altra, making the FuelCore Nitrel a solid hybrid choice. A mesh and leather upper means this isn’t the lightest in the bunch (New Balance doesn’t list a weight—all too typical for kids’ gear—but the women’s version tips the scale at 214 grams). Still, it seems more attuned to appearance in the schoolyard than performance on the trail.