It is already feeling like spring in many parts of the US, but if you live near mountains and like to go up into them from now until May/June, you are likely to encounter some snow still and otherwise harder conditions than ideal for the average trail shoe. I’ve put a handful of winter trail shoes through some miles and tough conditions this winter/early spring and give you some of my thoughts. What follows are my experiences with each shoe starting from my favorite on down. The great news is that they all have something new/unique to offer in a design space that has seen little innovation over the last 5 years.
Scarpa Atom S
When it comes to a pure mountain winter running shoe, this is it folks! Scarpa pulled out all the stops on the Atom S and came away with the most comfortable and functional shoe of its kind. The upper is lined with Outdry all the way up to the top of the gaiter, thus making the shoe waterproof all the way to the top. The gaiter seals up on the calf with no zippers and disappears after a few minutes. The midsole is stiffened up a bit from the Atom with what I believe is slightly firmer foam and a harder strobel material. The outsole is Vibram Icetrek and works great on everything I’ve taken it on. While the Atom S is currently only available in Europe, I believe there will be an Atom S Evo that is coming this next winter that carries over a very similar upper while putting the new Spin midsole and outsole on it. Should be even better!
The North Face Ultra MT Winter
I really hope the Ultra MT Winter is not a one off shoe (which is what I expect). They pretty quietly put out this shoe this winter and it is fantastic. The Ultra MT Winter has a super comfortable upper on a winter shoe and in a bit lighter, less mountain specific application (non-waterproof back half and gaiter which helps with breathability). Vibram IceTrek outsole as well on this shoe and I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the compound. It is the MegaGrip equivalent for winter. The Ultra MT Winter also has the distinction of being the only shoe with speedlaces that I’ve not yet felt the need to cut off. The ample tongue padding and thicker/softer lace cord (hint hint Salomon and others) really take care of the major issues of speedlaces and haven’t been a problem for me. Well done The North Face and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last winter shoe they produce. Yes, these types of shoes probably don’t sell in big numbers but for a company focused on producing mountain specific product, they give credibility to that aim. They are on sale now and I’d highly recommend grabbing a pair for the mountains this spring or even for saving for next winter.
Altra Lone Peak 3 Neoshell Mid
I’m a big fan of Altra’s application of Polartec Neoshell on their Lone Peak series. I enjoyed the original Neoshells last year and was very excited to hear of a boot version coming down the pipe for this year. I’m happy to say that I was not disappointed. The Neoshell Mid is THE shoe I would use for long winter slogs and currently would be the option I would go with for a winter 100 miler if I was to tackle one (Susitna 100, White Mountains 100, Arrowhead 135 for ex). Since knowing about the Iditarod Trail Invitational and running a 45 mile winter race in Alaska in 2014, I’ve always been evaluating winter shoes for their potential utility in these long and insane winter races and the Neoshell Mid tops the list for me so far. The wide Altra toebox, stiffer midsole and harder outsole compound relative to the regular LP 3.0 is welcome and actually makes it run better than the LP 3 in my view. The upper is super comfortable and warm and does not pick up any water weight…huge bonuses if you have to be out all day in the cold and or wet.
Salomon S-Lab XA Alpine
The XA Alpine is no doubt the most niche of all the shoes I tried this winter and I love that about it. It is at the same time a nimble trail running shoe, with gaiter, great wet-grip contragrip outsole and designed to use flexible crampons (Kahtoola KTS for example). The fit is one of the best of any Salomons I’ve tried and the midsole, while stiff is adequately protective and runnable. The shoe just has great design style and construction as well (a continual strong suit of Salomon). I wouldn’t recommend them for the average runner just looking to keep snow out or stay dry on trails in the winter, but as a tool for mountain travel in the winter or even spring/summer in the high mountains it is very specifically designed and nothing else comparable exists on the market (…yet, Scarpa has the Atom Tech releasing next winter which should be comparable). The XA Alpine adds to Salomon’s technical credibility and I respect Salomon for pushing a shoe like this out there to the general public since they could easily just make these for their high caliber athletes only.
Saucony Razor ICE+
I was pretty excited to see Saucony get back into the winter running shoe market with Razor ICE+. They were one of the first to do such a shoe with the original ProGrid Razor and the ICE+ has a nice clean and light design aesthetic. Of all the shoes in this round-up, it most reminds me of the old New Balance Winter MT110 which was and still is the lightest winter specific shoe out there. The 110 Winter’s big drawback was the lack of winter traction and adequate cushion for frozen ground. The Razor thankfully rectifies some of this but still comes up a bit short in the traction department. The Razor ICE+ has decent cushion for a lightweight shoe and I’ve had no problems in this regard for runs up to 2 hrs (haven’t taken it out longer than that). The traction scenario is a bit perplexing. While, on one hand, the shoe delivers some superb grip on wet and smooth ice due to the implementation of Vibram Arctic Grip (something only available to Wolverine Worldwide companies currently; think Saucony and Merrell in the running space), the tread design is very light and shallow for a shoe that you will spend most of your time in mud, snow and generally nasty conditions. It’s grip on anything but hard pack dirt and ice is subpar. I’d recommend the shoe if you are looking for something to perform on ice without having to use metal spikes, even road runs, but if you are looking for an all around winter trail shoe, there are better options listed above in this post. The good news is the overall design and implementation of the shoe is good and so there is some potential to be tapped into. If Saucony can redesign with a full Everun midsole and deeper lugs and either more smartly implement Arctic Grip or ditch it all together in favor of Ice Trek or Mega Grip, they’d have a pretty slick winter trail shoe.