Salomon X-Ultra Trail Shoes

I’ve hiked quite a long way in trail shoes, but that still doesn’t make me an ‘expert’. How can anyone make any kind of competent, informed choice when the constellation of brands and models is so baffling, and changes constantly? They’re also expensive; only folk with high disposable incomes can afford to experiment. These of course are exactly the people the makers’ websites target. I strongly suspect manufacturers deliberately make it impossible objectively to compare their shoes online so profligate high earners who don’t care about trashing the planet with landfill end up buying multiple pairs just for the heck of it.

As for physically inspecting shoes in a bricks-and-mortar store, forget it. Only the largest chains can finance stocking even a tiny fraction of the big manufacturers’ ranges and the shoes they do stock are understandably targeted at weekend walkers. Trail hikers are a small market, and we’re something of a mystery to the kids who work in outdoor shops. Their idea of an outdoor adventure is a few hours life-threatening bouldering or biking in a jolly gang followed by a night kippering themselves in the smoke of a campfire while ingesting industrial grade intoxicants, ideally near a vehicle and with 4G. Tell them you’ve just hiked alone for three weeks in all weathers over remote featureless hills with a tent on your back and they look baffled. Who can blame them? But I digress.

I’m a pensioner, I do care about the planet and I object to rampant consumerism. Hence my footwear strategy consists of spotting shoes that look half-decent in a half-price sale then suffering in them until they fall apart, retrospectively learning about the quality, features and benefits of my uninformed choices through bitter experience. Hey, works for me. You’d think blogs would be good places to find and learn from this kind of experience but the fact of the matter is that most buyers of and bloggers about trail shoes are not multi-week long distance trail hikers. Also writing about shoes is boring, but it’s a rainy day in December and somehow I need to overcome the horror of the new WordPress editor, the awfulness of which has brought my blogging to a standstill over the past year and I’m not the only one.

Apart from blogs, about the only other sensible way to learn about footwear is by chatting to other hikers on trails but the big problem with this is that everybody’s feet are different shapes. I learnt this the hard way when one dark and windy evening on a boggy Ickornshaw Moor a Mountain Leader and Spine Racer earnestly recommended to me his Mammut boots. He clearly knew his stuff in general so I bought some: they were a disaster, shredding my feet; seriously, after four days on a trail the misbegotten things were full of blood. Stoic as I am, even I wasn’t prepared to suffer that much so I washed them out and sold them on eBay.

Different brands are different shapes, and hence half the battle with trail footwear is finding the brand that suits your own feet. This is one reason why recommending footwear for trail hiking on social media etc. is such a dodgy business. Another is that after ten days hiking your feet and your footwear start to interact in ways completely different from the ways in which they interacted after only two days hiking. As the shoes settle and wear, the short-term problems experienced by the overwhelming majority of more casual users disappear. New and interesting long-term problems appear. Oh joy.

I have broad forefeet, large big toes and narrow skinny heels that can blister walking round a supermarket. Despite this disadvantage I’ve now walked many hundreds of trail miles in Salomon X-Ultra shoes and they worked pretty well for me. In particular I had no problems with my heels, which routinely blister to raw skin in boots. The toe box is a little narrow so after a week or so I did get pinch blisters under my small toes, however these were easily manageable with Compeed and typically healed after a few more days. In future posts I might tell you about another brand of trail shoe that for hundreds of miles gave me continuous agonising pinch blisters that never healed, and then perhaps about another that gave me none whatsoever and hence is now my favourite brand. That’s if I can stand this editor any longer. Let’s see if I can work out how to insert an image…

This is a Salomon X-Ultra GTX trail shoe after an entire Pennine Way, i.e. 250-odd miles of rough and rocky hill trail. I know it’s upside down; anything to make writing about shoes more fun. As you can see it’s still in pretty good nick. Incidentally I bought these shoes in a legitimate outdoor shop having tried them on as one is supposed to do and furthermore on the recommendation of a rather attractive young lady. The latter is another problem I have in real-world outdoor shops.

The pinch blisters under my small toes having healed after ten days or so, in these shoes I could have turned round and walked the Pennine Way again in reasonable comfort and safety. However they had three other problems. The first was that they were ‘waterproof’. If you’ve read my long tract on the subject you’ll be astonished I bought them at all, but this was way back before I’d learnt the hard way what happens to my feet after two weeks on a wet trail in membrane-lined footwear, which is to say that because they’re writhing around all day in a plastic bag of filthy bog water and sweat that cannot drain or dry out, they stink, rot and acquire bizarre itchy rashes. I now hike in mesh shoes through which clean water continuously flows, keeping my feet sweet. But this was a general beginner’s error on my part, not a function of the brand or model. I’ve written about ‘waterproof’ footwear elsewhere.

I was very sceptical of the skinny ‘Speedlaces’ which could not be undone or replaced if they broke. The young lady assured me this never happens; these laces may look alarmingly feeble, she winsomely explained, but in fact they’re unbreakable and what’s more guaranteed as such. I believed her, as you do, and here is one of the laces after a week on the trail…

As you can see it had started to abrade on the metal cleat thingy. Something of a design error, one might think. After another few days the whole lace situation became slightly alarming…

As they just about held out, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that on my return from the wild and woolly Pennines I took these shoes back to the shop where, to her great credit, the young lady honoured her lace guarantee and gave me my money back. This meant I’d walked the Pennine Way in free shoes; it’s no wonder outdoor shops are going bust. I do hope they got reimbursed by Salomon. Here’s the back end, still pretty wearable if not for the lace issue…

And the soles still have a reasonable amount of grip, although I draw your attention to the backs of the heels…

This was my first trail in shoes, rather than in traditional boots, and I found the relative lack of grip quite noticeable. A consistent problem I found with these Salomons is that although pretty grippy on wet grass, mud and natural rock they were unreliable on wet flagstones, which are frequently encountered on the Pennine Way and other UK upland trails. Specifically the grip at the back end of the heel was nonexistent. Not only was this a problem going downhill in general, I found that consistently at some point during the first couple of days of any trail I’d fall onto flagstones in a characteristic and eventually predictable way. My leading heel would suddenly slip forwards, causing the trailing knee to crash agonisingly onto the stones. Fortunately I walk with poles and after a few scream-out-loud kneecap smashes I learnt the hard way to anticipate this fall mode and arrest it with my poles. I also learnt to take great care to place my feet flat when walking down slopes, something I hadn’t really had to think about in boots. This problem gets worse as the shoes wear further. For example these poor things have done 450 miles through Scotland…

From the above picture it may surprise you to hear that I was very pleased with these shoes and subsequently bought and hiked in a second pair, my third pair of Salomons. At the time they were called X-Ultra Primes. They had traditional laces that could be replaced (but never needed to be) and the uppers were permeable mesh, no silly membrane. For a couple of years these were my favourite hiking shoes and probably still would be but for the slightly too narrow toe box. Even better, when Salomon launched the X-Ultra 3 they also gave us an X-Ultra Prime 3 which had greatly improved heel grip. Check out this picture of the clearly much better model 3, which I cheekily took in a shop…

The question is, can you still buy these practical and reasonably-priced trail shoes? The Salomon website is an impenetrable labyrinth of despair; putting ‘X-Ultra’ in the search box yields 22 different shoes and boots. Tragically at the time of writing the X-Ultra Prime model seems to have disappeared. However they do still offer a plain vanilla X-Ultra which seems to be pretty much the same, having the traditional laces and no membrane and costing a reasonable £90. What I can’t ascertain from the infuriatingly inconsistent website though is whether they have the improved heel grip; frustratingly there’s no picture.

However if you search about elsewhere you can still find X-Ultra Primes to buy. As of today, in December 2020, Sports Direct have them for just £44.99 plus postage. This is a bargain in my opinion and if I was still using Salomons I’d snap some up. As far as I can tell from this picture, which isn’t very far, they may even have the improved heel grip.

The insides of the heels aren’t especially durable, below is yet another pair after several hundred miles of rough trails. As you can see I’ve tried to patch them up with gaffer tape; I was trudging the length of the rather remote Outer Hebrides at the time and replacement options were limited. I have to report that gaffer tape is fairly hopeless at lining shoe heels. I took this picture by a rubbish bin at Ullapool, into which these shoes were then reverently deposited, complete with a quantity of adhering peat.

So in summary I’ve worn out one pair of Salomon X-Ultras and two pairs of X-Ultra Primes on long trails and would recommend the X-Ultra Primes subject to caveats, the first and most obvious being whether they’re still available and preferably in a sale. You should get about 500 miles of rough trails out of a pair which is much less than you’d expect from good boots, but personally after decades of agony I hate boots. The list price is £90, so about five and a half miles per pound which doesn’t seem very impressive really. Obviously at £44.99 they’re a much better proposition.

Ideally to enjoy these shoes you need to have a fairly standard foot shape; with my wide toes I do get pinch blisters although I found I could tough them out with Compeed and they eventually healed. However I have since discovered another brand that suits my wide forefeet better. You need to be careful on flagstones and on slippery slopes, placing your feet nice and flat rather than heel first. Unless you can get the improved model with the better heel grip, the standard downhill technique of digging your heels into mud or wet grass can lead to disaster in these shoes.

For me it’s walking with poles that has in turn enabled me to walk in shoes rather than boots; I’ve learnt from experience to arrest my typical fall modes with my poles. If you’re still a pole refusenik I’d think carefully about abandoning the grip and support of boots for this kind of lightweight footwear and if you do, it might be wise to consider a model with more aggressive grip.

2 comments

  1. Tony Cave · · Reply

    I loved reading your blog especially as I can relate to the content.
    As a fellow OAP who hikes long distances in the NW Highlands I have experienced similar problems with boots falling apart and dodgy laces.I was passing through Ullapool and needed to replace my distressed hiking boots and there was a special offer in the window of the outdoor shop of Karrimor waterproof walking shoes for only £25 .
    I bought a pair and found them to be both extremely comfortable and yes waterproof.
    They only last about 2 years but replacements ( I have moved to mid high boot version ) are under£40 at Sports Direct.I replace the laces annually and carry a spare pair
    One happy customer .

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Brilliant, yes these ‘budget’ brands are well worth looking at. I did two PWs and the SNT in a Regatta waterproof that cost me £25 in TK-Maxx, my partner has £35 Regatta running shoes and loves them. That outdoor shop at Ullapool is great too, I bought a Smartwool merino top in there half price which is now my all-time favourite top. Personally I get on better walking with wet feet than in waterproof shoes but yes if you can get 2 years highland hiking for £40 why spend four times that on the Salomon equivalent? Thanks for reading and your kind comments.

      Liked by 1 person

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