The North Face Ultra Trail ReviewMarch 9, 2014
- Outstanding marathon and ultramarathon racing shoe
- Very quick turnover
- Extremely comfortable upper
- Smooth rolling, nimble, and energetic
- May be too low and firm for some runners
- Reduced traction on loose surfaces
- Feels underprotected in really technical terrain
North Face hit this one out of the park. It is really that good. The Ultra Trail also has enough comfort and protection to handle long distance races, but an extremely low weight that makes even shorter runs an absolute blast. Recreational and mid-pack runners will probably find the ride to be firm (close to the ground) and more suitable for short-distance racing and off-road speed work.
The North Face Ultra Trail is truly in a class of its own. Compared to trail flats, it is almost as responsive but has enough added protection that you can focus less on foot placement and more on running faster. Compared to cushioned trail shoes, the Ultra Trail is lighter and far more runnable.
What really lets this shoe fly however is the combination of responsive midsole foam, moderate heel-to-toe drop, and low overall stack height. The foot is low enough to the ground that forefoot stability is greatly enhanced, the heel stays out of the way on tight terrain, and the 8mm drop quickens turnover and reduces calf fatigue on long climbs—all with minimal energy loss and a dreamy ride that just begs you to open the throttle. A form-fitting upper and full-length Vibram outsole seal the deal.
As a marathon and ultramarathon shoe for the competitive runner, the Ultra Trail is going to be hard to beat, although some might prefer a touch more cushioning for runs beyond 50 miles. Recreational and mid-pack runners will probably find the firm ride more suitable for short-distance racing and off-road speed work. This is probably not the best shoe for easy/recovery runs or minimalist runners.
Comfort & Protection
The midsole foam in the Ultra Trail is definitely firm. So from a cushioning perspective it is perhaps a touch less comfortable than most mid-weight shoes, but definitely more comfortable than the typical trail flat. Where the Ultra Trail excels however is the upper, which absolutely cradles the foot with no pressure or hotspots. The material (including the overlays) is highly flexible and soft to the touch. The fit is very consistent from heel to toe with no areas that are either too loose or too tight. The full-length outsole provides more than adequate push-through protection from rocks and other trail hazards. If there’s a weakness, it’s that the upper being so thin and lightweight doesn’t protect very well from impacts to the top or side of the foot. This would really only be a concern on very rocky trails and highly technical off-trail routes.
Security of Fit
Runners with average to above average foot volume found foot security to be excellent. With the fit dialed in, the Ultra Trail literally feels like an extension of the foot and inspires tremendous confidence, with minimal slipping of the foot or rotation of the upper relative to the midsole. On the other hand, runners with narrower feet reported a looser feel, and the minimal upper lacks the structure necessary to really provide any added lock down. This is probably a shoe that should be evaluated carefully for fit by prospective buyers.
Speed & Energy Efficiency
The sub 9-oz weight, excellent balance, and 8-mm heel-to-toe drop combine to make a shoe that turns over very well. The Ultra Trail is a bit stiff for the ride to be best in class smooth, and a trail flat will turnover a little better in absolute terms due to the lighter weight, but relative to other mid-weight trail shoes there is almost no comparison.
At higher speeds on firm surfaces the shoe almost transforms into a marathon flat. However it handles the climbs just as well with a perfect balance between flexibility and stiffness: flexible enough to give some ground feel, but still stiff enough to mitigate unwanted deformation and energy loss on steep grades. Rotational control on off-camber trail also was excellent for the same reasons.
Agility and Traction
Precision foot placement was no problem in the Ultra Trail given the low forefoot height. Although the heel-to-toe drop at 8mm might be considered high by some, the overall stack height is low enough that the heel stays out of the way. Traction was generally very good, but testers unanimously noted the reduced grip on loose surfaces. Runners who prefer or are used to a bit more float when running downhill will not find this to be a problem.
At an MSRP of $110, the price is fairly typical, but given the quality of the shoe the value is above average.