Andy Callan treads boldly in search of the perfect all-rounder; the go-anywhere approach shoe
Looking for something a bit more comfortable as regards footwear now that summer’s coming - fingers crossed!? Approach shoes were originally designed for climbers/ mountaineers who wanted a comfy shoe to wear on long walkins to their chosen peak, but needed something more substantial than your average trainer. The result – Approach Shoes, hybrid footwear with characteristics common to hiking boots, rock climbing shoes and trainers which can be worn comfortably while walking over long distances and has a sticky rubber sole that gives good traction on a variety of surfaces. Like all hybrids it performs neither discipline perfectly and it must be said that there’s still no substitute for boots over more rugged terrain especially if you’re carrying heavier loads. I read somewhere recently of a lightweight backpacking guru who was suggesting that we all “overbooted” and the best way to develop
This is the bit of the shoe that holds your heel and ankle in place right at the back of the shoe. To do its job effectively it needs to be quite stiff in order to lock things in place when you’re on uneven ground. A sloppy heel counter can cause blisters, so check the stiffness by squeezing the uppers in and around the heel area especially at the base.
You’ll need to crank the laces tight when walking over uneven ground so it’s important that the tongue is well padded and sits neatly in the shoe. Look for laces that are easy to tie - thick ones tend to open constantly but skinnies can cause pressure spots. Well designed shoes should pull your foot back from the toe box and down towards the sole, laces should extend down to just behind the toes and be attached to the uppers by stiffer materials, forming a kind of exosketeton that connects them directly to the sole unit.
Obviously thicker uppers tend to be more durable with leather being the best option of all. If you’re running you’ll be more interested in saving weight and breathability so mesh will be high on your hit list. Waterproof linings are great if you’re walking through wet grass but sooner or later you’ll get wet by water coming in via the ankles, linings also tend to make the shoe much warmer in hot weather.
Just like in a pair of boots you’ll need room for your toes to expand slightly as you walk so look for a shoe with a bit of space at the toes. As a minimum, your shoe must have a toe bumper protecting its front; good shoes will also offer some protection across the top of the toes.
If you wear a pair of trainers for any length of time on rough surfaces the sole will begin to part company with the uppers. To protect this vital joint look for a good rand or bumper that goes right around the shoe.
Obviously if you’re going to be pounding along a trail when you’re out for a run then cushioning your legs from the surface underneath is important. The same applies if you’ve got a load on your back or travelling any distance. Try and get a feel for how well a shoe copes with the impact of your foot strike by
ankle strength was to wear either super-light boots or Approach Shoes. I’ll say it once and once only – anything off-track requires boots giving good ankle support, unless you’re a fell runner when it’s all about speed. So Approach Shoes are really all about walking on trails and waymarked paths, or for when you’ve slipped off your boots at the end of the day and want something comfy and casual to wear to the pub. You could always wear trainers, but they tend to wear out quickly and the sole unit is made for tarmac rather than rough tracks. Same applies to those of us who like to go for a run, but too much pounding the tarmac is (a) boring and (b) wrecks your joints, so try trail running instead, whether it be in your local park, football field or a convenient bit of woodland. At this stage all boot manufacturers offer some sort of Approach/Trail running shoes so here are a few points to remember when buying. walking heavily down some steps in the shop if possible. If there are no stairs available just ease on to your toes and come down hard on the heels. If you intend using the shoes for cycling or scrambling, look for a stiffer sole with less cushioning than you would for walking or running.
I’ve said it time and time again, no piece of footwear is any use if it doesn’t fit properly. As mentioned already, your foot expands slightly during the day more so if you’re standing or exercising for long periods. Allow for this by being able to slide a finger inside an unlaced shoe at the back of your heel. The upper part of the shoe should fit snugly without pinching.
The sole unit is made of 3 parts – Outsole, Midsole and Insole
The quality of factory fitted insoles vary greatly, some give good support others are little better than shaped foam. It’s worth investing in good quality insoles such as Superfeet or Conformable, these can be custom fitted to your foot depending on the model chosen.
Just like your boots, Approach shoes need some lateral rigidity, test for this by grabbing the shoe at heel and toe and twisting it. If it bends to easily it won’t give much support – see how easy your trainers bend and just twist and aim for something stiffer.
This is the most obvious part of the sole unit and the bit that should keep your feet on the ground. Look for a recognisable brand if possible such as Contagrip, Vibram or Skywalk and a reasonably deep tread pattern which will grip better in muddy or wet conditions.
To avoid any confusion I’ve split the shoes reviewed into 2 categories – Approach which are suitable for general or multi-activity and Trail Running.
Trail Running Salomon XT Wings 2
115 / £95
120 / £90
Salomon have gone into the adventure racing market in a big way – their Pro and Comp lines are aimed more or less exclusively at this area. The XT Wings are a different animal however, focussing on Trail runners who would be more concerned with comfort than shaving a half gram here or there. As a result the XT Wings are very comfy straight from the box, with plenty of cushioning especially around the heel. They use a very quick and easy lacing system which gives a good secure fit; any spare lace is tucked away in a little pocket at the top of the padded tongue. I used the wings over a variety of surfaces, grass, tracks and tarmac and was pleased with how well they performed, even allowing for my dodgy ankles. My only gripe is that there’s maybe a bit too much padding in the heel, I found myself almost being thrown forward slightly when running downhill. Apart from that though, it was hard to fault them on anything, the XT Wings are a stable and comfortable platform which should suit most trail runners, just remember that Salomons tend to be about a ½ size smaller than other manufacturers shoes.
A new venture from Columbia in that the Ravenous is their first attempt to break into the trail running market, their most impressive feature was the way the heel counter holds the heel and ankle in place. Most other manufacturers have it hidden inside the shoe, the Ravenous has it’s on the outside so it doesn’t affect comfort but still holds the foot securely. The shoes arrived late in the testing schedule and even though they were an English size 9 in reality they were more of an 8 ? (similar to Salomon sizes) so long runs weren’t an option if I wanted to keep my toenails! Apart from that though they were both light and comfortable, this midsole is stiff enough to give enough support without interfering with a normal running action and the outsole should work well on most surfaces, if a bit on the shallow side in terms of mud-plugging. Even when totally immersed the Ravenous dried out rapidly and toe protection is very good too. In short, the Ravenous is a decent all – rounder’s trail shoe, once you get the sizing right!
Walsh Spirit Lite €70 / £60.00
Walsh are renowned for their fell running and athletic shoes, I remember suffering for a couple of years while trying to orienteer in ordinary trainers until I copped on and invested in a pair of their PBs. The effect was almost instantaneous, no more slipping and sliding and my times improved considerably as a result. The Spirit Lites are a dedicated trail running shoe with superlight fast drying uppers on a knobby Pyra grip sole. Walsh have used the same tried and trusted rubber compound on their soles since the 60’s and the sole pattern is designed to maximise multi-directional grip over a variety of surfaces. These shoes will suit those with a broader foot; I found my skinny feet tended to slide about a bit inside even if the heel counter did its job effectively. I wasn’t impressed with the Spirit Lites insole and replaced it with a Superfeet model; this also helped to reduce the space inside the shoe and improved their fit as a result. In fairness the Spirit Lites are more of a racing shoe, the other model in the range, the React may be more suited for non-competitive running.
Timberland All Mountain Inferno Low 105 / £90
Obviously trail running must be the “new thing” for footwear companies because here’s another model that represented a recent first foray into that market for a well established mark. The major thing about the Inferno’s is their rubber outsole, containing 42% recycled rubber. They’re also Gore-Tex lined, in theory that sounds great, but firstly it makes the shoe more expensive, secondly it’s not effective (water will come in over the ankle in any case), lastly a lined shoe is much warmer than an unlined version. Having said all that the All Mountain Inferno Low is a stable shoe with plenty if cushioning in both heel and forefoot, so combined with its studded outsole it gives good traction over most surfaces except for deep mud which would require something much more knobbly. The Infernos were very comfortable and the uppers have taken a lot of abuse without showing any appreciable signs of wear and tear. Toe protection is good at both front and sides while the shoe itself is very airy. All in all the Inferno’s while suitable for trail running are probably better used as a multi-activity shoe, anyone interested in a more dedicated trail shoe should consider Timberland Route Racer instead.
Approach Shoes Berghaus Cuesta II
69.95 / £50
Keen Targhee Lowe
115 / £89.99
Described as a “performance ascent shoe” the Cuesta has a low profile midsole with an Opti-Stud outsole. Its uppers are mainly suede with sticky rubber reinforcements at heel and toe and a hard-wearing nylon heelpiece. Lacing extends all the way down to the toes just like a pair of rock shoes and the outsole also has a smooth area at the front for those who want to have a go at some easy rock. The Cuestas are extremely comfortable when left loosely laced but pull the laces tight you can crank a bit more performance out of them. The Opti-Stud sole is quite bendy which has advantages if you’re trying a bit of easy bouldering but don’t expect too much in terms of rough walk-ins. A bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, I really liked them and found they wandered onto my feet more often than most of the other shoes tested.
Instantly recognisable by the wide toe box throughout their range Keen’s Targhee Low continues in the same style. Its outsole wraps up and around the toe box giving masses of protection and an almost indestructible bond between the Nubuck/Nylon uppers and sole unit. The sole unit itself is chunky with plenty of midsole cushioning a decent tread pattern and is quite stiff so it supports the foot properly. I found the Targhee Low quite comfortable but a bit too broad for my feet other than that it’s an excellent walking shoe even if it looks a bit clumpy, but it actually weighs a lot less than you would think. My only niggle is the sole is quite flat, a deeper heel breast would give you more braking power when going downhill; it’s also quite pricy too.
Meindl Respond XCR €120 / £100
The Meindl Respond which is a new model for 2010 with a much fresher look than its longstanding stablemate, the Emotion; a shoe familiar to many Irish walkers. The Respond is hailed as a “multi-terrain” shoe but has a less aggressive tread pattern than that of the Emotion. I must point out however that it’s a Contragrip unit which gave good grip over a range of surfaces during the test period. Again it has a midsole stiffener that provides enough flex while supporting the foot. Thankfully the toe profile on the respond is much broader than that of the Emotions, I found myself wearing them more often as a result, even though they’re still slightly too broad for my narrow foot. These are a real multi-activity shoe; I wore them as trainers to the gym, cycling, running and for general lounging around and couldn’t find any real fault with them, especially since they’re a bit lighter than the Emotions.
Brasher Krypton GTX
€120 / £95
An almost all Nubuck leather shoe (the tongue is made of padded mesh for breathability) the Brasher Krypton is also lined with a Gore-Tex bootie to make it waterproof and breathable. As expected from Brasher the Krypton is extremely comfortable but instead of their usual broad last I found that they fitted me quite neatly which unusual to say the least. The sole unit is quite stiff, this is great if you’re walking any distance as your foot is well supported, but the sole pattern is fairly shallow so it’s not ideal on rougher surfaces. My major gripe is the narrow toe profile which squashed my tootsies a bit, maybe a half size up would have been a better idea.
Scarpa Mystic GTX €140 / £120
If you blend an approach shoe with a rock boot, what will come out is the Scarpa Mystic, a Gore-lined shoe with a sticky rubber Vibram Spyder sole. The Mystic is low cut and torsionally stiff, suitable for lightweight scrambling, approach or trail wear. A well cushioned midsole also contains reinforced anti-torsion arch supports and a substantial rubber rand encloses and protects the toes. The outsole is stiff enough for easy rock climbs with smooth areas around the toes for better friction and “feel”, while the remainder is aggressively treaded for a positive grip. Again a slightly deeper heel breast would improve traction in descent. Testing time with the Mystics was limited but seeing it’s basically a Zen complete with a Gore liner and I’ve been wearing a pair of Zens for the last year or so, I have no problem recommending them to anybody looking for a slightly more technical approach shoe.
Regatta Formation XLT €70 / £60
Prices are approximate and for guidance only
The Formation is a good multi-purpose shoe made with suede/mesh uppers and lined a Regatta Isotex breathable and waterproof bootie. At first glance the sole appears to be a low profile unit but a bit of further poking around reveals quite a bit of cushioning in the heel and forefoot. The outsole is extensively cleated but is quite shallow so mud plugging isn’t an option, in fairness this isn’t what the Formations are intended for in any case. Both the toe box and heel are quite stiff so they do their respective jobs well and they’ve substantial reinforcements. Their fit is fairly broad, this meant I had to really reef the laces in tight to keep my foot from squirming about; at least the tongue is well padded so there were no pressure spots. The Formation is the cheapest shoe tested, but works well as a casual or multi-sport shoe once you don’t expect anything too technical from it.