by Matt Colon | 2005-08-13 03:00:00-06
Spend a couple of days walking the floor of this summer’s Outdoor Retailer, and a couple of things start to become clear. First of all, the apocalypse may indeed be upon us. Although there is clearly an abundance of superb gear packed into the 348,000 square foot Salt Palace, there is also plenty of chunder. I guess it only makes sense to expect some chaff with the wheat, but sometimes you just have to scratch your head.
How bad can it be, you ask? Well, consider that there are two separate booths hawking Hummer™ branded products. Hummer™ flashlights, camping lanterns, jumbo windproof umbrellas, stainless steel multi tools and, naturally, Hummer™ footwear. A gentleman at the footwear booth explained that the parent company, Roper, has licensed the brand from General Motors “for people who think Hummer. They don’t necessarily drive Hummer, but they can afford the shoes.” Honest, that’s what he said.
But a second, more useful impression from this year’s Outdoor Retailer is this: there really are some interesting new ideas out there. For example, it looks like there’s movement afoot in the outdoor shoe industry with a little more substance than automotive brand extension. And more to the point, some of the changes in the way manufacturers are thinking about footwear may have significant implications for the lightweight backpacking community.
Most of us are probably at least vaguely aware that Nike has been marketing a line of training shoes designed (according to the company’s marketing materials) to mimic barefoot movement and thereby help “build your body’s natural abilities.” But you may not be aware that there is at least one company that has the jump on Nike. Inov-8, an English “off-road” running shoe company, not only introduced the concept of barefoot-like running to the marketplace well before Nike, they are also apparently the first company to create this type of shoe for trail runners and fast packers.
When I asked company founder and president Wayne Edy how he happened on this approach to building trail running shoes, he said, “We just sat down with our biomechanics consultant and we said, ‘blank sheet – what do you need when you’re walking on off-road terrain?’ I asked him what’s the best footwear… what would be his wishlist for the ideal footwear for that type of terrain, and he said, barefoot. But, with protection and a better grip. So I went away and I made it.”
Mr. Edy’s efforts have paid off. Lest anyone think that this is simply another gimmick, riding nothing but the fortuitous wave of Nike’s marketing push in a similar direction, Inov-8 has established some serious credibility in its own right. Most recently, Andrew “Trail Dog” Thompson, who broke the Appalachian Trail speed record on August 1st, did so wearing Inov-8 trail running shoes. But, as Wayne Edy points out, Inov-8 got a very quick start in world of competitive trail running shortly after bringing the shoes to market a couple of years ago.
The philosophy behind Inov-8 shoe design comes from the notion that that the human foot has evolved over tens of thousands of years to walk over all kinds of terrain, and is actually quite well-suited to deal with the demands of human locomotion without loads of supplemental support. Advocates of what might be called the “barefoot biomechanical” approach to shoe design argue that heavily padded, more rigid shoes actually interfere with our naturally evolved foot-strike and result in biomechanical misalignment. This misalignment, they argue, can lead to a host of complications, but at the very least it leads to inefficiencies. The increase in efficiency resulting from this different design approach, the reasoning goes, is why competitors have been so successful in these shoes.
Inov-8 founder Wayne Edy explained that when people make the transition to this type of shoe, their body typically needs time to adjust to a different way of running. Many who have switched over to Inov-8 trail running shoes have reported an unfamiliar soreness in their calves for about a week as some of the smaller muscles in their legs are reactivated. After this period of recalibration however, they also tend to like the new approach. “A lot of our runners say that the great thing about Inov-8 product is when they’re running in (our shoes) they don’t have to worry about their feet, they can focus on their running.”
In a similar vein, there is another recent release in the world of footwear that takes its design inspiration from the bare human foot. The Five Fingers from Vibram wears sort of like a glove – for the foot. It’s basically a stretchy, snug-fitting slipper that provides really good traction. The Five Fingers was originally designed to be used in conjunction with water sports, but the company now recognizes much broader applications. Like Wayne Edy at Inov-8, Tony Post, president of Vibram USA also touts the potential physiological benefits of going “barefoot.” He too cites biomechanical advantage and increased strength in the affected muscles as benefits of this approach. But these “shoes” are definitely not suited to running trail races or carrying a pack over distance. Vibram originally conceived of them as an approach shoe for water sports.
So how might these rather odd looking critters be useful to lightweight backpackers? At about 8.5 ounces a pair they’re not weightless. But they might end up being just the ticket for those willing to carry a bit of weight as a trade-off for a little extra in-camp comfort. They’re certainly heavier than the lightest flip-flops, but they are also probably better at protecting feet and they really do offer good traction. They are also more packable than other camp shoe alternatives. You can roll them up or just shove in to any available nook in your pack. Vibram currently offers only one model, slated for limited release in the US at $70, although Mr. Post said that they have plans to introduce a second model in the near future.
Another promising development in footwear for lightweight backpackers has come from the grueling world of top-flight adventure racing. Timberland, formerly known for making the ubiquitous light brown “workboots” of a decade ago, has released a pair of shoes that may end up catapulting them into the spotlight for fast-packers and adventure racers. And in a way, these shoes also seek to free the foot from the constraints of conventional footwear. But in this case, the issue has to do with shedding water and keeping feet free of debris under the gnarliest of conditions – both significant factors in blister prevention. The Delerion was designed by Timberland to deal with moisture by inviting it right on into the shoes and socks of the wearer – and then encouraging it to head on out once conditions permit. The idea was to create a shoe that absorbed no water itself, while simultaneously letting the foot breathe as much as possible so it could dry quickly.
Timberland created the Delerion in response to feedback from their highly experienced and highly competitive AR team, and the results appear to be impressive. The racers challenged the company to build a shoe that would enable them to swim a river, climb out on the other side and then run thirty miles, without having to waste precious time by stopping to deal with their feet. Both Billy Mattison and Isaac Wilson of the GoLite/Timberland Adventure Racing Team have been extremely positive about the results. In addition to being hydrophobic and highly porous, the Delerion also has an integrated stretch-gaiter that does not require a chord or strap of any kind around the sole of the shoe.
Mr. Mattison reports that this seemingly small innovation has been enormously helpful, given the type of terrain the team has to cover. He said that in the past the team had been plagued by gaiter failure due the repeated disintegration of conventional retaining straps. Timberland responded by creating a way to eliminate the need for the straps altogether. Instead of a cord or strap holding the gaiters in place, the Delerion has a track system that is integrated into the sides of the shoe. The gaiter attaches by sliding into these tracks and thereby creates a good solid seal, while eliminating the need for straps.
If the Delerion ends up performing as well for lightweight backpackers as it has for Mattison, Wilson and their teammates, the shoe will likely become a hot item in the lightweight backpacking world. At around 25 ounces a pair, the shoes provide significant protection, good torsional rigidity, and a super-efficient approach to dealing with the elements. They also provide evidence that innovations in gear driven by adventure racing can have meaningful applications for lightweight backpackers, and will almost certainly continue to be a source of new ideas in the future.
As I indicated at the outset, the Outdoor Retailer can be an odd mix of experiences. There’s always a lot of flash and salesmanship, but there’s also always tangible evidence of extraordinary creativity and hard work. Some of the things you see down here really do make you scratch your head. But these recent trends in footwear actually strike me as a bit refreshing. Rather than selling more technology or more protection from the elements, these guys are in a way suggesting that maybe less will do. And given that this notion is patently consistent with lightweight and ultralight philosophy, that’s a suggestion I can appreciate. We won’t really know how they’ll play out in our particular field until we get to head out into the hills and kick the tires a bit. But somehow it’s encouraging to know that when we do, we won’t have to worry about battery life, memory cards, megapixels or deciphering pages of instructions.
We’ll just have to keep on walking.
"Footloose," by Matt Colon. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/footwear_trends_orsm05.html, 2005-08-13 03:00:00-06.