Hoka One One Challenger ATR 4 ReviewMarch 7, 2018
- Excellent cushioning
- Great ventilation
- Responsive trail feel
- Flimsy upper materials
- Outsole durability
- Weak traction on wet trails
- Minimal upper padding
The Hoka One One Challenger ATR sets the industry standard for lightweight, cushioned off-road shoes, and the new fourth version picks right up where the Challenger ATR 3 left off. The first thing most runners will notice is that it’s shockingly lightweight. At 9 ounces for men’s size 9, the Challenger ATR 4 is the lightest shoe in this round of testing and 0.5oz lighter than the Challenger ATR 3. That’s lighter than a lot of flagship road training shoes, including the Brooks Launch 5 (9.2oz for men’s size 9), Nike Pegasus 34 (10.0oz), and Saucony Freedom ISO (9.1oz). To get that weight in an off-road shoe is surprising, but to get that weight in a trail shoe maximalist cushioning (31mm rear stack/26mm forefoot stack) is jaw-dropping. The Challenger ATR 4 is even lighter than Hoka’s own performance-oriented Speedgoat 2, which comes in at 9.5oz (men’s size 9). No other trail shoe with this much cushioning is anywhere near this light, and as a result, the Challenger ATR 4 is lively and responsive on the trail. They’re just fun to run fast in, as one of our wear-testers put it.
However, to get the new Challenger ATR 4 down to 9.0oz, Hoka One One shaved down the upper materials. The previous Challenger ATR 3 had a web of lateral and medial heat-bonded overlays, plus internal structure and a substantial stitched-on toe bumper. To save a half-ounce, the Challenger ATR 4 has a stripped-down upper with no midfoot overlays and a heat-bonded toe bumper. Some internal structure comes from lacing bridges that connect to midfoot area (a bit like Nike’s Flywire system or Saucony’s ISOFIT wrap). The result is an upper that’s substantially lighter (and aesthetically simpler), but our wear-test team reported problems with feeling secure and locked in, especially in the midfoot and toebox. It was similar to the feeling a couple of our wear-test runners had in the in the Altra Duo, which has a similar maximalist sole wedded to a stripped-down minimalist upper. It’s worth noting that this was far from a deal-breaker, and one of our runners said he could avoid the entire issue by wearing slightly more cushioned socks. The amazing ride and cushion of the midsole was worth making some small wardrobe changes, he noted.
Runners with high-volume feet that fill up the voluminous upper or those who prefer cushioned trail socks in the first place will find almost nothing they don’t like about the Challenger ATR 4. It’s a great introduction to maximalist trail running, because it undermines stereotypes and assumptions left and right. Folks who assume an all-terrain shoe this big will be sluggish or slow will be pleasantly surprised that the Challenger ATR 4 is lively, responsive, and lightweight. One wear-tester called it, “my favorite maximalist of the season, but not without its quirks.”
The Challenger ATR 4’s stripped-down uppers save weight by sacrificing padding and structure, and our wear-testers noticed it. One runner on our team wrote in his wear-test notes, “very minimal padding throughout the upper, which looks and feels a bit a bit cheap and flimsy.” Another concluded that the only place the shoe fell short for him was the unstructured upper, which didn’t feel plush and left room for lateral and forward movement. The toebox was an area of particular concern, and some wear-testers felt like it was simultaneously too tapered in width and too voluminous in height. Runners who prefer a high toebox will appreciate the Challenger ATR 4, especially since that’s such a rare feature in trail shoes. One wear-tester compared the toebox height favorably to the Salomon XA Elevate, where the low toebox made an incredible trail shoe so uncomfortable it was almost unwearable.
Hoka One One sticks with what works here. As one wear-test runner wrote, “I’ve always been surprised by how easy it is to run fast in the Challenger ATR, and the 4th iteration is no exception. Getting up to speed was easy and the Challenger ATR 4 moved easily through my gait.” Since a midsole this thick is naturally less flexible than a thinner midsole, Hoka One One builds its shoes with a slightly curved midsole (which they call a Meta-Rocker) for quick heel-to-toe transition. The Meta-Rocker design combined with the light weight make the Challenger ATR 4 feel speedy on the trail. It feels much quicker than runners might expect if they’ve only seen the shoe on their local running shop’s wall.
Security of Fit
The weight-saving stripped-down upper gave our wear-test team some concerns about fit and security. As one noted, “Hoka saves weight by cutting back on the padding in the upper, but that cuts out some of the margin for error in delivering a secure fit.” That runner got around the fit issues by wearing thicker socks, but others felt they shouldn’t have to adapt their sock choice to fit their shoes. Runners with high-volume feet (or who prefer thicker trail socks in the first place) may not have an issue with the voluminous uppers, but runners with low-volume feet may be forced to crank down on the laces to feel secure. Even then, the unstructured uppers made some of the runners on our wear-test team feel less confident on technical terrain. They felt like their feet weren’t cradled or held securely the way they would be by shoes with more structured uppers. One area where this isn’t an issue is the heel cup, which has enough rigidity and structure to feel secure. One wear-tester noted that the heel “lends itself to a secure fit on the uphills and an efficient feeling when striding. No foot slip, all forward energy.”
Most runners assume they’ll have to sacrifice agility to get the level of midsole cushioning in the Challenger ATR 4. Our wear-testers said that wasn’t the case here. As one put it, “lot of cushioning can make quick, precise movement slower and inaccurate. I never found that to be the case with the Challenger ATR 4. I even felt confident on steep, fast, rocky descents where a misplaced foot meant a rolled ankle.” Another noted that she expected her feet to get tired from pushing that amount of midsole around during long runs, but was pleasantly surprised that it kept feeling agile and confident even when she was tired. There was some concern, however, that the Challenger ATR’s outsole wasn’t as well-suited for wet conditions and loose soil as something with more bite. For comparison, the Salomon XA Elevate and Brooks Caldera 2 have smaller, more pointed lugs that bite confidently on wet rocks and roots.
The Challenger ATR 4’s thick EVA foam midsole is surprisingly responsive for its massive stack height (31mm in the heel, 26mm in the forefoot). The only thicker trail shoe in Hoka One One’s line-up is the monster Stinson ATR 4 (39mm rear stack, 34mm forefoot stack). The runners on our wear-test team had only praise for the Challenger ATR 4’s responsiveness on the trail. One described it as “the perfect balance of cush and pep” and another wrote that it feels, “snappy and responsive given the thick foam and high stack height.” First-time Hoka One One runners will be surprised that the midsole feels responsive and lively, and not like a sponge or marshmallow.
The Challenger ATR 4 excels here. Even without a rockplate, the midsole is thick enough to protect from trail obstacles and sharp outcroppings. The shoe is light and responsive enough that it doesn’t feel disconnected from the trail, and our wear-testers reported that the Challenger ATR 4 has great ground-feel. However, the thin unstructured upper made some runners on our team feel like all the protection was below their feet. One noted that he would have been willing to sacrifice some of the weight savings to get a more substantial toe bumper and better protection in the upper, similar to the previous Challenger ATR 3.Continue Reading
Over the course of a few weeks, our wear-test team does multiple runs in each pair of shoes they test. They aim for a variety of runs (easy recovery runs, long training runs, harder race-pace efforts) across as many different types of trails as they can manage. The team is spread across the country, so we are able to test under a variety of different conditions, terrains, and types of trail, from gently-rolling fire roads to highly technical mountain singletrack.
Jason is a trail runner and ultra-marathoner who lives with his wife and children in the frozen tundra of northeastern Wisconsin.