When hiking, there are a few items that are non-negotiable: A backpack and a windbreaker; water, beef jerky and sunblock. Shoes, however, can be a surprising point of contention.
It makes sense to wear hiking boots when you go, er, hiking. But, when taking into consideration your individual preferences, the terrain you’re covering, and the season, it’s not always a given. I own several nice pairs of hiking boots, but in the summer, they go back in the closet. I don’t suggest backpacking in flip-flops, but unless you’re hauling your own body weight up a 40-degree incline, trail running shoes might work just as well.
If you want the light weight, breathability, and maneuverability of a running shoe without sacrificing traction and protection, speed hikers like the Salewa Ultra Train 2 are a good compromise. Developed for extreme athletes who want to cover a lot of ground in rough terrain fast, the Ultra Train 2 are what you’d get if you crossed a pair of running shoes with a pair of approach shoes, which are the shoes that rock climbers wear when they’re approaching a climb through rocky ground.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been wearing the Ultra Train 2 for trail running, hiking, and tooling about town. If you’re looking to upgrade your hiking game from a pair of waterproof Converse, these might be your next pair of kicks.
In The Middle
Headquartered in the Dolomites, a mountain range in northern Italy, Salewa has been churning out premium alpine gear since the 1930s. The Ultra Train 2 is the spring version of the Ultra Train Gore-Tex. It has a breathable mesh upper instead of a waterproof Gore-Tex lining, although a rubber rim that extends all the way around the base of the shoe does offer some puddle protection.
The Ultra Train 2 look like a pair of trail running shoes. They fit true to your running shoe size—in casual shoes, I’m a 7.5, and in running shoes, an 8. Salewa sent me the tester model in a size 8 and they fit perfectly. I have a very low-volume foot, but the shoe fit snugly around my heel and midsole, with plenty of room to wiggle my piggies in the roomy toe box.
The Ultra Train 2 borrow many features from approach and climbing shoes. The first thing you’ll notice is the speed lacing system. It’s easy to use: just tug the pull on the lace end. Then, slide down the toggle to lock the laces in place and tuck the slack into the loop on the shoe's tongue. They allow you to tension the laces evenly for greater comfort, and take your shoes on and off quickly to switch between climbing shoes and hiking ones. I liked the speed laces because most of my summer hikes involve water, so, I'll be able to get the Ultra Train 2s off before taking a dip.
The second feature that is borrowed from climbing shoes are the stiff rubber rands, which is what you call the layer of rubber that runs around the outer rim of the shoe’s sole. Rands help you climb. You can use stiff rands and stiff shoe soles to propel you up sheer rock races, or protect your feet when you wedge them into gaps where, frankly, feet are not supposed to go.
I think rands are swell. The terrain that climbers have to cover isn't all that different from the terrain that all hikers have to cover, and the rands offered great protection from stubbing my toes on tree roots or accidentally swinging my heels into rocks or logs. The stiff anti-rock heel cup also protected my feet from more mundane hazards, like my daughter running her wagon into me.
The lugs are enormous and aggressive, made out of Michelin Outdoor Compound X (OCX), which is a material that the tire company uses to make mountain biking tires. They provided grip and traction on the slipperiest of surfaces, even if they were also the exact right width and depth to trap small pieces of gravel and sticks in the treads.
Despite the Ortholite insole, I found the shoe’s sole to be very stiff and hard. This can be partly explained by a protective rock plate in the front part of the sole, which prevents sharp bumpy things from stabbing themselves in the soft underside of your foot.
The fact that it was still easy for me to run over uneven ground with such a stiff sole can probably be attributed to Salewa’s trademarked 3F system. The 3Fs stand for three features: Fit, function, and performance. When you tighten the laces, you also secure a static system of webbing that runs from the insole, to the heel collar, and up to the top of the laces. As someone who has very thin heels and ankles, the 3F system helped secure a vulnerable part of my foot. My foot didn't roll in the shoe, even when running on trails that slanted sideways across steep slopes. As a bonus, I didn't have to pick any pebbles out of the top part of my shoe!
Despite these heavy rubber features, the shoes are still pretty light. Together, the shoes weigh a little over a pound. Even if they don’t have a Gore-Tex lining, they dry pretty quickly. When I soaked them in the sink around 11 a.m., they were dry enough to wear by 1 p.m. They have a neutral platform and a slight 8-mm heel drop. It’s not quite a barefoot running shoe, but it’s not far off from one, either.
To The Limit
The Ultra Train 2s aren't quite perfect. While I didn't notice the speed laces loosening while I was testing this shoe, it seems worth noting that I've had experiences with the toggle getting loose in the past. Within a limited timeframe, it's impossible to test the durability of the webbing that the laces run through, but sometimes this particular type of webbing frays as the thin laces scrape back and forth. Also, and this is a personal preference thing, but as I mentioned, they are really stiff. They work well on rocky terrain, but if you're cruising mainly on dirt and asphalt, you might want shoes with a bit more give.
But in pretty much every other way that counts, the Ultra Train 2s are bomber. On top of that, they're good-looking—you wouldn't feel out of place wearing these if you stop by a bar on your way home. If you're worried about getting gravel between your toes this summer, pick up a pair. They’re easy to slip on and off, suitable for both walking the dogs, and protective enough for two- or three-day weekend backpacking trips. At the very least, they’re definitely better than a pair of flip-flops.
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