Sometimes a shoe comes along that is more special than any other shoe in all the land. But before I tell you about that shoe, I have to tell you about the events leading up to those shoes.
One of the things I love about hikers is we’re storytellers. We can never just answer a question with a word or two; we tangent and fracture off in verbal side trips like the river tributaries that dance and weave through the maps we find ourselves poring over night after night. Get a group of hikers together and even the introverts will fight to get a word in edgewise as one mountain story triggers another mountain story and the words flow like a North Cascades scree field in late summer.
Boots Vs. Trail Runners
Hence the story of the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II Mid Hiking Boots, which starts way before I took them out on the trail. It starts with the shock of winning the permit lottery to walk all 221 miles of the John Muir Trail (JMT). These permits are highly coveted and incredibly hard to snag — the past few years have seen a 97% rejection rate — so to see the congratulations email from the National Park Service was a pretty surreal and fantastic moment. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I read the fine print and see that the permit is for the full meal deal, starting at the true beginning in the west end of Yosemite Valley and including the bonus side trip up Half Dome, then finishing with a summit of Mt. Whitney. Talk about a dream trip!
The only catch is it’s for a few less days than we originally thought we wanted (12 vs. 20). But that just means we move a little faster, do more miles per day, right? Easy peasy, right? Well, probably. However. The new timeline made my head swivel from the hiking boots I had always assumed I’d wear, if I was ever lucky enough to get permits, over to the trail runners that I travel so well in, to the boots again. Then back to the trusty trail runners. Like a cartoon tennis match, my mind shot back and forth between these pros and cons:
- Stiff soles
- Ankle support
- Great for cooler temps
- Recommended when carrying a heavy pack
- Added protection (scrapes, bugs, water, rock)
- Great for warmer temps
- Cooler/less sweat = less blister potential
- Nimble, good traction for rocks, scrambling
Pick A Shoe, Any Shoe
I do this before nearly every big hike, the footwear debate. Unless it’s obvious what’s called for (Rainier with temps in the teens and icy slopes = Mountaineering boots. Run around the base of Mt. St. Helens in 12 hours in July = trail runners. Basic day hike = Basic day hiking boots) I start this back-and-forth weeks in advance. And the JMT has a little of everything, from miles of flat dirt trails to slabby granite High Sierra mountain passes, plenty of robust water crossings, and weather in September which can be hot, cold, smoky, dusted with snow, riddled with thunderstorms, or picture-perfect. One can easily make a case for either boots or trail runners; there is more than enough supporting evidence for each.
Most people immediately think “boot” when looking at those sorts of distances (twelve twentyish mile days with no rest days) and with that sort of weight (only one resupply stop means carrying up to 6 days of food at a time), but my trail runners got me up Mt. Whitney in a day and to the top of Glacier Peak in two, and performed like a dream on Mt. Stuart and Mt. Langley, and boots are seemingly the correct answer for those climbs. But I’ve done a lot of unconventional things in the mountains just because they felt right and worked for me, and that’s the whole key, especially about footwear, but also about things like layers and nutrition, is you find through trial and error what works best for you, even if it’s not status quo.
The Best Of Both Worlds
And then like something out of the Twilight Zone, just as I’m mid-mental-debate and mindlessly scrolling social media, an ad pops up: LaSportiva debuting their new shoe, a boot version of the Ultra Raptor.
What? I did a little head-shake double-take. My trail runner, the same grippy, nimble, comfy shoe…but with ankle support?
I almost dropped my phone; I immediately looked around for the little faeries that were no doubt circling my head giggling with delight, so pleased to have created exactly what I would have dreamed up, if I thought it was possible to dream up your ideal footwear. Still thinking it’s Big Brother’s psychic practical joke, I went to the LaSportiva website to check but boom, there they were. I wasn’t imagining things. They exist.
I thought about serendipity and how when things are supposed to happen, the universe gives you green lights all the way, and I ordered a pair. JMT here we come! I went with my boot size (41.5) not my trail runner size (41) figuring my feet are apt to swell a touch on those long days, plus I’d like to try the Injinji toe sock liners at some point before the trek as I never have but a lot of through-hikers swear by them. Also because the words “tight shoes” sound terrible especially given the scope of the trip.
The LaSportiva website describes them as: “Designed from the inside out to withstand the harshest conditions on unpredictable terrain, the Ultra Raptor II Mid GTX is the perfect option for hikers who need a shoe that can handle the daily grind. Stable, all-terrain cushioning with a waterproof and breathable lining provides reliable protection on rough, wet trails.” Yep. So far that sounds like my kinda shoe. And check out the following features:
- Comfort collar for ankle protection with an easy-fit spoiler
- High-frequency, durable lacing harness
- High-weave AirMesh is abrasion-resistant and breathable
- Anti-shock rubber toe cap
- Innovative lacing system distributes tension evenly throughout the shoe
- Microfiber mud guard adds protection from the elements
- FriXion® XF 2.0 outsole with Impact Brake System™ and Trail Bite heel provides excellent traction on any type of terrain
- Weight: 16.50 Oz (470g)
- Materials include: High-Weave Airmesh / Microfiber Mudguard / Hf Tpu Lacing Harness/ Tpu Transkinetic Evo Heel Stabilizer / Gore-Tex®
But I must confess that when they arrived two days later and I frantically fumbled them out of the box and slipped my feet into them, I didn’t have the immediate love-at-first-step that I did with the low-tops. They felt way too big, and stiff, and overall a bit awkward. I put my own orthotics in on top of the factory insoles, which helped, then I played with the laces and found my fit. And off I went.
The Test Drive
I took them for a quick spin up PooPoo Point, a hike so short and so close to home that if my feet absolutely hated these shoes I could turn back and walk down barefoot and wouldn’t have wasted a half-tank of gas on getting there. Plus it’s a trail I do often, and for that reason I have tested other new gear there.
The first few hundred yards I was overthinking every lace hole and seam and trying to imagine walking the Sierra Nevada in them. But then as I got into forest mode, I stopped thinking about my feet altogether. I passed my usual landmarks and noticed the first trilliums of spring starting to bloom, white stars against all the green and lush and ferns and moss. I heard birds singing far off, the sun was out for the first time in a while, and I moved swiftly up the familiar stone and dirt path.
At the one-mile point I stopped to take a layer off. It was there that I realized I hadn’t thought about my feet at all since that first little bit. I also realized that if I didn’t look down, I could toggle my mind back and forth to imagine I’m in boots (feel that ankle support!), or trail runners (so light!). I started off again, now intentionally just feeling my feet, and they felt springy, strong, agile, secure. The rocks of various shapes didn’t hurt my soles, and the uneven terrain didn’t make me roll my ankle. Running downhill (my favorite part of any hike) I felt so stable, so supported. Got close to a PR on the way down without even trying, the Hannah Montana theme song in my head the whole time.
I had found my perfect shoe. Boot. Shoe-boot.
Likes & Dislikes
Since any decent gear review will actually review the gear and talk about specific features, not just wax poetic about kismet and fate, I’ll get down to business.
First, some backstory. I have a narrow foot with high arches and a high instep. They aren’t blister-prone but I’ve lost or blackened my fair share of toenails. My extremities tend to run cold and I live in a cool, damp climate. I’ve rolled my right ankle enough times that I imagine the tendons sounding like the waistband on old sweats when they stretch for the final time, that dry creaking sound.
And I like mountains that are a little on the untame side: some scrambling, a bit of scree, a decent incline, unmaintained, remote, unpopular, rugged. But I live next door to a huge trail system that is very well-kept and chill, so I spend a lot of time walking up those hills and running down them. My feet are hardy and tough and can take a great deal of punishment; but I do want to keep doing this so I need to treat them with kindness.
- Width: LaSportiva runs narrow
- Warmth: I like the men’s as the toe box is wider than the women’s (air pocket = warm)
- Combo: This is my first hybrid boot-shoe. Having the ankle support while still being nimble is amazing
- GoreTex: Waterproof shoes are practically a requirement in western Washington
- Arch: High but not intrusively so
- Versatile: Hike up, run down, multi-season
- Laces: They don’t cut in or put pressure on any one part of the foot
- Color: Black is the new black. Yes they come in other colors but I’m not a bright-shoe person so it’s nice to see something neutral from a company that loves their neons and other bold colors
The Big Hike isn’t for another five months. My plan was to get these now, wear them a few times, and then JMT in them in the fall. But I don’t want to stop wearing them. So this might just be the first pair, and I’ll JMT in the next pair. Does anyone else stockpile shoes? Find one you like and buy a few? It’s costly at the time but you don’t have to worry about yours being discontinued and being left in the lurch.
Because finding a shoe that jives so well with your anatomy and your hiking style is rare and special and when you finally find your solemate (sorry, couldn’t help it) you should stock up. Shoe companies change and discontinue things all the time. When you’ve found The One, hold it tight and never let it go. And that will only sound overly dramatic to the non hiker/runner/mountaineer, the rest of y’all know exactly what I’m talking about.
I hope you out there reading this finds your solemate, your one shoe love. Maybe it’s this shoe, maybe it’s another shoe, maybe you haven’t found it yet. Maybe this will just serve as inspiration, so you can hold on to the hope that your shoe is out there, because it sure is a beautiful feeling when you finally find them.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.