Ah yes, the great debate about footwear continues, only this time, I have a little bit more insight to share with you guys in regards to the minimalist footwear movement, as well as a particular pair of shoes.
If you followed along this past year, or even going into the New Year, you might be aware that I was, and still am, a huge proponent of the Altra Lone Peak shoes. They are what I wore for almost the entire length of the CDT that I hiked, as well as the Long Trail back in October up in Vermont. I personally think that the LP's are one of, if not the best shoe for thru hiking, but I figured I'd put my feet to the test and try out another pair of zero drop shoes, only this time with much less cushion and support.
After watching some videos and trying on a few different pairs, I ended up picking up a pair of the Merrell Trail Gloves 4's online roughly a month or two back. I was excited to try something different to say the least.
The Merrell Trail Gloves are a minimalist shoe that are designed to mimic and take their place in the barefoot running movement. These types of shoes aren't new by any means, but have recently become popular, especially with the endorsement of Joe Rogan and the likes. Although I haven't seen many thru hikers in these types of shoes, or any for that matter now that I think about it, I have seen them fairly often in the gym, and on the feet of passerby's who seem to do something physical in their free time.
As far as SPECS go, they stand out pretty well in the industry:
- Extremely light at only 8oz per shoe, or 16oz for the pair, the Trail Glove legitimately feels as if nothing is on your foot besides a snug slipper of sorts. Their website actually says, "This barefoot shoe has a sock-like feel for a locked-down fit.". They are unbelievably comfortable, even if for just taking a stroll around the city or a casual day hike at the local metro park.
- The upper is made from a breathable mesh and TPU material, allowing them to breathe well, and dry out quickly, something that I and other hikers will greatly appreciate.
- A "Trail Protect" pad that is built in offers underfoot protection, according to their website.
- The sole of the shoe, made by Vibram, offers lightly cushioned performance and extreme grip.
- Only one side of the tongue is separated from the shoe itself, allowing the tongue to constantly stay in place, something I really love about them.
As far as specs go, thats about it that stands out. There aren't any hidden features, any hidden tricks or tips, or any really 'special' parts about the shoe. It's a zero drop, minimalist, well treaded shoe that I was STOKED to try. So I did.
My first few runs in the Trail Gloves went exactly as planned. At first, I was a little weary on how much I was 'feeling' the trail in the shoes. In the Altra LP's, you hardly ever feel a rock protrude into the sole, and if you do, it's generally a decent sized or pointed rock. Makes sense, right? In the Trail Gloves, your feet feel EVERYTHING. No matter the rock, you'll feel it. This was something that I was both excited for, and terrified of, especially if I was going to be on my feet all day during a hike with them. My plan was to strengthen my feet, so what better way to do it by picking up a pair of shoes that forced me to do so.
At the end of my first week of running with the Trail Glove, I had logged about 30 trail miles in them, and wore them as my primary shoe around town as well. My feet felt good. I was already up to speed on the zero drop, making it that much easier on my calves and achilles tendons. My testing continued on the following week.
I put another 30 or so trail miles on them the following week, and still, no complaints. The mesh held up well to rocks and roots, the tread was great, allowing me to fully grip slippery rocks or roots and get good traction on the ascents and descents. Even after a long run in them, they stayed as comfortable as ever, fitting snug to my feet, allowing no movement or rubbing, and staying true to size. My interest was peaked at this point.
In my first testing phase of the shoe, I only noticed one small defect in the shoe. This is generally the first thing to wear on any trail shoe I've found, but the front toe cap began to peel backwards after kicking so many rocks and roots. It was only pulled back a little, and didn't show any signs of getting worse, so I didn't pay too much attention to it. Other than that, after 60-80 miles of running, and walking around town, the shoe was essentially in brand new condition still, showing no signs of wear or tear on any part of the shoe other than the toe cap.
Fast forward to the end of January. I planned a spur of the moment trip to the Grayson Highlands, a state park in Virginia along the Appalachian Trail. I was excited to really put these shoes through the ringer of a simulated 'thru hike'. I planned to do a moderate amount of miles in them per day, and to hike as if I was thru hiking. Then, and only then, would I be able to tell if this shoe would be halfway decent for thru hiking. I knew that I could run in them, up to 10 miles while still being relatively comfortable, but I wasn't sure if I could hike for 8-12 hours in them while keeping that same comfort.
I packed my backpack, and headed to Damascus, VA to start my section hike. My plan was to hike an average of about 15 miles per day for four to five days, allowing me to see the Grayson Highlands, and have an easy way to get back to my car. My good buddy, Wankles decided to hike with me the last couple of days, which as you'll find out, really helped me out as well.
A mere 6 miles to my campsite made for an easy afternoon on trail. My feet felt wonderful, no signs of any pain or abnormal happenings. Even with an added 18lbs or so on my back, my feet were feeling as good as ever. No added tears, rips, or movement on the toe cap. The shoes held up well to the roots and rocks that the AT throws at you.
An 18 mile hike to Whitetop started in the early morning sun, and went until about 4:30 P.M. The first few miles felt as if nothing changed. The shoes were holding up, my feet felt great, and all was well. Fast forward to mile 12 of the second day: My right foot began to develop a bit of pain on top of my foot, near the tendons that connect to the toes. At the time, it didn't really feel as if it would get worse, but I was starting to compensate for the bit of pain I was feeling. I shrugged it off and kept hiking. Over the course of the next six miles, the pain worsened. Nothing a little sleep couldn't fix, right? Wankles arrived that night, and we began our hike into the highlands the next morning.
No added wear or tear to the shoes other than a few scrapes to the mesh. I was surprised as I had kicked a few rocks during the hike.
The pain seemed to have subsided in the early morning. I was hopeful, but still weary. We were planning 16 miles that day, so only time would tell. No major problems were noticed on this day. The tendons were definitely swollen in my right foot, and I could tell that it was directly from the amount of stress they were under due to the lack of cushion on the shoe itself. The pain stayed only in my dominant foot, and only in my tendons that were being overworked from the shoe. By the end of the 16 miles, my right foot hurt no more than it had that morning, something I was surprised by.
The toe cap began to peel back as we ended Day 3 of our hike. I had knocked a few rocks earlier in the day, and with the toe cap being already peeled a little bit, it was easy for it to come off that much more. A small tear on the right side of the the right shoe formed after rubbing against a few more rocks.
We were planning another 16 or so mile day, which would have left us around 10 miles to get to Marion the following day, but as the day continued on, the forecast got worse and the impending rain was on its' way. We decided to pull a 27 mile day to get into Marion before the rain hit. With the pain already there, I wasn't sure how my foot would handle it, but it was time to figure that out! Over the course of the 27 miles, my foot began to ache, scream, and swell. The tendons were being worked in overtime, and at around 16 miles, our original destination, I wasn't quite sure if I could physically walk on it anymore. The pain had transformed into an unbearable amount with each step. The bottoms of my feet felt fine, and sure, they were sore from the lack of cushion, but what I wasn't expecting was the pain and tendonitis it would cause in my foot. We hiked on, and after another 2 and a half miles, I couldn't take it anymore. Wankles and I sat on the trail, debating on what to do.
I didn't want to get wet, but also, my foot was in severe pain and I was at risk of really damaging my tendons if I continued on. Luckily, Wankles is a good friend and legitimately offered to trade shoes for the remainder of the hike. For the following 8 miles, I wore his Altra Timps, while he tried out the Trail Gloves. The Timps made it bearable for me to put my weight on my foot, especially with that enormous stack height that they provide.
By the end of the section hike, my left foot was nearly perfect, a little sore, but no major aches, pain, bruising, or straining in the tendons. My right foot however; extreme pain in the tendons, bruising on the top of my foot, and really just in bad shape. We made our way to the motel, ate some grub, and passed out. The hike was over. My first real 'test' of the Trail Gloves was complete.
Although my first real hike in the Trail Gloves left me with a bit of tendonitis in my right foot, I'm still convinced that I enjoy these shoes. Although I could hardly walk at the end of the 27 mile day, and 4 day section hike, I'm still convinced that I could use these for a thru hike. I briefly talked with my good friend Neemor about the shoes afterwords. He had really put them to the test this past year as he hiked from Springer to Harpers on the AT as well as some other treks, so I knew his insight would be useful for me. He also did a review of these on his YouTube channel, check it out.
He immediately informed me that, he too, had experienced the same pain in the top of his foot near the tendons in his toes. At this point, I realized that it wasn't the shoe that was directly causing the pain, it was the simple fact that my feet were not strong enough in that area to support these shoes for the extended time I was hoping. The tendons in my foot have never worked that hard before during a hike, which then resulted in the pain that was shooting through my foot. Over the last week, the pain has subsided, and my foot is back to normal. I'm back in the shoes, attempting to strengthen those same tendons that left me hobbling a little over a week ago.
I will continue to wear these shoes during training runs, smaller section hikes, and any other form of activity until I'm confident that I could thru hike in them.
After roughly ~200 miles of running, hiking, and walking in the Trail Gloves, the toe cap has peeled back much more than originally stated, there is one tear in the mesh upper, but nothing major. No significant rips or places on the shoe that seem to be prone to 'failing', so I'm fairly impressed so far. The tread has held up impeccably, showing no real signs of wear at any place in the sole, reinforcing my opinion that these will hold up during a thru hike.
The shoes remained comfortable as far as fit goes throughout the entire 65 miles, and during all of my training runs/hikes. I'm greatly impressed with the shoes ability to dry out quickly, even while on the feet.
If you plan on switching on over to a 'barefoot' or minimalist shoe, I highly recommend training in them as if you would be hiking in them. Log the appropriate miles in them. Make sure you prepare yourself for the amount of time you'll be on your feet. Sure, I ran and trained in them for a few weeks before I went out on a hike, but I never simulated being on my feet for that long. The same goes for switching to a Zero Drop shoe. The muscle groups that get worked while using a barefoot, or zero drop shoe are completely different from the muscle groups you'll work when running or hiking in lets say, a Brooks Cascadia, or Hoka One One shoe.
Take your time while breaking them in. Gradually up the mileage until you're confident that you've made the appropriate gains in the muscles and tendons to support the strain that will inevitably be put on those muscle groups.
Whether you're planning to try out the Trail Gloves, Bedrock Sandals, Luna Sandals, or any other form of minimalist 'Barefoot' shoes, I think taking the appropriate prevention action is of the utmost importance.
Although they take a little more time to get used to and to break in, the end result and benefits of switching to a barefoot/zero drop shoe are tremendous. In my case, zero drop has improved my gate, strengthened my leg muscles, and has made me much more aware of the way I walk and run.
Zero drop and the minimalist shoe might not be for everyone, but I urge you to try them out!
*If you purchase ANYTHING through the amazon link above, whether it be the Trail Gloves, a different shoe, or dog food for that matter, I get a small percentage and it will continue to support my site, hiking, and gear reviews. Thanks!