If there’s one thing outdoor brands learned from the minimalist footwear boom and bust is that consumers prioritize comfort and durability in their shoes. Weight’s still important, but not at the cost of the latter attributes.
The holy grail is light footwear that lasts.
The trend is not only being driven by everyday consumers — upset that those minimal kicks fell apart after six months — but also from the industry’s fastest growing ranks. Three of the largest outdoor trend increases were adventure races, trail running and off-road triathlon, according to the latest Outdoor Foundation topline report. That market surge is leading to a mix of rugged shoes built for wet and rocky trails in the form of hikers, runners or a combination of the two.
And this season, El Nino promises another wet fall and winter for much of the country, so the durability and waterproof features of trail hybrids are expected to trump breathability and lightweight − for a few months. The demand for all-weather performance will likely extend beyond backcountry footwear to casual urban shoes.
Whether it represents a crossover trend or trail shoes are a gateway to hiking, Glory Bowman, an assistant manager at Walkabout Outfitter in Roanoke, Virginia, sees plenty of customers reach for trail runners to meet their hiking needs. “Customers are more familiar with the comfort of a running shoe, which is usually not associated with a hiker,” she said.
As shoe companies look to fill the gap between trail running and hiking shoes with hybrid designs that look comfortable, so too are they using ingredients brands to callout from display walls: GoreTex, Vibram, eVent, Michelin, OutDry, and Continental.
Take Hoka One One’s Tor Ultra Hi WP. The crossover shoe — is it a running boot? — builds upon its cushioned running reputation with Vibam’s MegaGrip outsole and eVent’s breathable, waterproof leather and nylon upper. Those ingredients are clearly labeled on the side of the shoes.
Even among hikers, Bowman noted that Ahnu Montara boots were a popular choice. The boots use Vibram soles and eVent uppers, an ingredient partnership that ripples throughout the Deckers family, from Hoka and Ahnu to, yes, Ugg.
Vibram is leading a surge of new sole partnerships and expanding the presence of its MegaGrip outsoles, which promise improved grip on wet surfaces and lugs that don’t wear down fast on rugged terrain. This fall, the Saucony Xodus 6.0 won acclaim from ‘Runner’s World’ for its use of cushier Vibram lugs on the outer rim of its soles. Various iterations of the MegaGrip compound will be on the shoes of at least eight brands come spring.
“Vibram has a company strategy to continually improve the performance of our products,” said Lawrence Anastasi, Vibram’s director of sales for soles and components. “Not only responding to customer demands, but pushing our own solutions for improving the end-user experience. MegaGrip performance was proven out by our internal tester team; then shared with customers who trialed it with their own athletes and testers.”
Salewa has an established reputation for making shoes that protect and perform in the mountains. The shoe company worked with Vibram to create a rocker-shaped sole, or rolling gait system,” in its Speed Ascent, which won an ISPO design award this year. The success with Vibram didn’t keep Salewa from teaming up with Michelin for its spring season shoes designed for fast hiking and mountain running.
“These ingredient partnerships provide duel benefits — they invoke strategic marketing partnerships that allow Salewa to leverage the well-recognized, well-regarded, and well-proven ingredients like Michelin rubber, and they give the ingredient brands in-roads to new consumers in new market segment — in the case of Salewa, highly technical footwear with deep mountaineering heritage,” said Salewa marketing manager Jamie Starr.
Michelin soles correlate to several of its mountain bike tire treads. Two of its outsoles will appear on Salewa’s spring/summer 2016 mountain trainers: the Ultra Train and Lite Train. For its partnership with Under Armour, Michelin took inspiration from its “Wildgripper” tire tread for use on the full-range of Fat Tire and Verge shoe lines. The Fat Tires retain the look of a bike tread under a boot, while the Verge Low GTX is another trail run hybrid with a waterproof GoreTex upper.
"Working with Michelin was an opportunity to bring something fresh to the market that tied in with our vision for disruption around the Verge launch,” said David Dombrow, Under Armour footwear vice president. “We’ve been extremely pleased with the traction and durability that Michelin offers with several compounds that allow us to “fine tune” the performance expectations for multiple surfaces."
Adidas has worked with Continental soles in its Terrex footwear in the past, but this year’s Agravic does a better job promoting its grippy tread and lug profile based on Continental’s Der Kaiser 2.4 Projekt mountain bike tread. And Adidas is sticking with its proprietary Boost cushioning to quell worries of the shoe wearing out too fast.
Gore-Tex remains an industry go-to for waterproofing, upping breathability performance with its Surround technology with lower and side venting ports coupled with an undersole mesh “pump” of sorts that keeps the air flowing with every step. OutDry continues its partnerships with Columbia and Montrail, it too, targeting breathability with venting ports as part of its comfort story. And Event, mentioned earlier, has made inroads in the outdoor market while maintaining its presence as an upper in other sectors. Polartec NeoShell makes its footwear debut in this fall’s Altra Lone Peak NeoShell. Polartec, like OutDry, claims its waterproof layer is on the outside, which prevents the upper from absorbing water, without trapping foot heat. For weight-weary runners and hikers, shoes that don’t hold water are ounces lighter than waterproof shoes that get soggy on the outside.
Mountain shoes are more eager to point out their technology, but it’s not hard to image that these performance callouts will trickle-down to more shoes. After all, that Cole Haan and Nike partnership is still going strong.
And while waterproof uppers and rubber soles fight for a presence in footwear, it’s worth noting that those are only two parts of a shoe, so there’s room for more. As Glory Bowman noted while explaining that she still sells good old-fashioned hiking boots every day, “Almost everyone that comes in here brings their own insole.”
-- M.T. Elliott