Be wary of Gore-Tex running shoes
This time it's Outside magazine's special 2005 Buy-Buy-Buy issue (officially the Buyer's Guide: Outside 2005 Annual) proclaiming the "Timberland Trail Lizard with Gore-Tex XCR" a "Trail Runner of the year."
"Bonus," notes the accompanying copy. "Gore-Tex XCR uppers contribute to all-around environment-proofness."
Now, I don't have a clue as to what "environment-proofness" is, but I'm guessing it's supposed to have something to do with protecting your feet from the environment. Either that or they're trying to say the shoe itself will survive the environment, which for $110 it better.
So we can probably translate "environment-proofness" to mean "it will keep your feet dry."
Only the Gore-Tex XCR won't. It's hard to stay dry when it's so easy for water to get in.
This is part of what makes Gore-Tex trail runners one of the worst uses of technology in outdoor gear. I say this not as some Luddite critic of Gore-Tex. I am a Gore-Tex believer.
I have a Gore-Tex dry-suit for rafting. I have Gore-Tex waders for hunting and fishing. Waterproof-breathable fabrics work.
In fact, they're miracle fabrics, but they are not without flaws.
A big flaw is the inevitable sacrifice of breathability in favor of waterproofness. Gore-Tex might be a wonder material able to stop water and still pass water vapor, but it also remains a compromise.
Try running in a pair of Gore-Tex trail shoes in warm temperatures, and you'll discover the consequences of this compromise. Gore-Tex might breath, but it doesn't breath like mesh. Your feet get hot and sweaty in warm temps.
Warm weather is seldom a problem in Alaska. Wet weather, however, is - and here is where Gore-Tex shoes display a weakness common to all waterproof materials.
They keep water in just as well as they keep water out. Anyone who has used insulated ski gloves with Gore-Tex liners knows what this means. Once you get the insulation in the gloves wet, they are not easily dried.
If you're indoors, you can throw them in a dryer or put them over a forced-air vent or a hair-dryer. But if you're stuck in the field somewhere, you'll discover it's near impossible to dry the gloves.
Much the same goes for Gore-Tex running shoes. They stay wet for a long, long time.
Gore-Tex running shoes are so badly flawed in this regard that I once thought they should be called the worst-ever use of technology in outdoor gear. Then I took a pair for a run on the paved path around Seattle's Green Lake in a light rain. None of the puddles were more than an inch deep.
If this is your idea of a "trail run," then fine, the shoes work. And if Runners World magazine, a publication more devoted to life on the trail than off, wants to declare these shoes sweet on your feet, OK.
But outdoor publications like Outside are supposed to be offering advice to people who actually get Outside - at least out to where the pavement ends and the trails begins to get wet and muddy.
And this is where Gore-Tex running shoes are at their worst. It is only 4 inches from the bottom of a running shoe to the cutout around the ankle. I know; I measured.
It is unbelievably easy to find puddles or mud holes that deep. You step in. The shoe fills up. That's it. Your feet will be soaked for the rest of the day.
Well-ventilated trail shoes made with open-mesh uppers are far better than Gore-Tex in these conditions.
Why? Because even though your feet will get wet faster (maybe), they have a chance to dry. If you get out of the swamps into dry country, your feet will dry out in these shoes.
And the truly sad thing is that there exists a perfectly good alternative to Gore-Tex shoes - Gore-Tex socks.
They have a couple things going for them that Gore-Tex trail runners lack. One is height. Gore-Tex socks are 10-inches high. It's a lot harder to get into a 10-inch-deep mud hole than a 4-inch deep mud hole.
The second plus is that in warm weather you can leave the socks off. Instead of cloaking your feet in hot, sweaty Gore-Tex, you can let them breathe.
The third plus is that they are made of a single layer of material that can be turned inside out to dry. When you get Gore-Tex socks wet in the field, you can actually get them dry again - unlike Gore-Tex trail runners.
The only thing that would make Gore-Tex socks better is even more height. I used to have some Gore-Tex knee highs with Velcro closures for holding the socks up above the calf. They were wonderful. So wonderful I wore them all the time when charging around in Alaska wetlands.
I wore them out. Now, I can't find a company that makes them.
That's too bad, because I'd happily sing the praises of a good pair of Gore-Tex knee highs. They have all the merits that Gore-Tex trail runners lack. People who actually get on Outside trails might find them useful.
E-mail Craig Medred at cmedred(at)adn.com.
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