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Hands-on Gear Review
The North Face Ultra 109 GTX Review
Cons: Not the most durable
We've awarded The North Face Ultra 109 GTX our Editors' Choice again this year! This is the best shoe we tested for folks that both hike and trail run. If you are accustomed to the fit and feel of running shoes, this is a perfect choice for dayhiking rough trails, wandering around the mountain trails with a daypack, or short backpacking trips. It's comfortable and provides enough foot support to keep you happy while light backpacking for a couple of days.
The North Face describes the Ultra 109 as a trail running shoe, but points out that the ESS midfoot shank and EVA midsole create the support and comfort for dayhiking and backpacking trips. It's quite heavy compared to many popular trail runners these days, but provides much more support and foot protection. It's one of the best shoes out there when you want one shoe for hiking, light backpacking, and trail running.
The Salomon XA Pro 3D is a very similar shoe we've reviewed in our review of the best trail running shoes, and if you're trying on some Ultra 109s, try the XA Pro 3D as well. They perform much the same and one may fit your foot better than the other. The lacing systems are both very good, but quite different, and preferring one over the other may be the deciding factor.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The North Face Ultra 109 GTX delivers the best combination of features for a hybrid trail running-hiking shoe. Comfortable, supportive, and durable, this hiking shoe has the fit, feel, and heel cushioning of a burly trail runner, with good support. The lines between types of outdoor footwear are arbitrary, and this shoe performed very well during our variety of hiking adventures. We also tested The North Face Hedgehog Hike GTX, a higher volume fitting shoe with a stiffer midsole. The Hedgehog offers good foot support, but we didn't find it as comfortable or versatile as the Ultra 109.
The Ultra 109 GTX was our top scorer in our hiking shoe review. Check out the chart below to see where the rest of the shoes fell in line behind it.
One of the more comfortable shoes we tested, the Ultra 109 GTX feels good on the foot right out of the box, hikes well with minimal breaking in, and is supportive enough to remain comfortable during long days out. There's a bit more arch support than average and we found them to be cooler in warm weather than most of the other models we tested. Along with the Keen Targhee 2 and non-waterproof Vasque Juxt, this shoe earned the highest score for comfort.
We quite like the lacing system on this shoe, which has four lower webbing eyelets and two closely spaced traditional upper eyelets. The lower lacing eyelets are more widely spaced though, creating less bulk on top of the foot and accommodating more tightening for narrow feet. The two upper eyelets provide the opportunity to use one or both and custom fit the collar and heel.
Along with the Keen Marshall WP, this is the most breathable waterproof shoe we tested. A substantial portion of the upper is lightweight mesh reinforced with a thermoplastic urethane overlay. The mesh lets the Gore-Tex liner breathe well and the narrow TPU overlays provide a bit of additional support and serve to protect the mesh from abrasion.
The size 12 model that we evaluated weighed in at 2.26 lbs, right in the middle of the nine products we tested. The other trail runner-like shoes we tested - the Adidas Outdoor AX 2.0 GTX and Vasque Juxt - weigh an ounce or two less, but just aren't in the same performance class as the Ultra 109.
We scored this model in the middle of the pack for foot support. The ESS midfoot shank and molded EVA midsole create a somewhat stiff midfoot with a flexible forefoot. This is a great combo for running and moving quickly in rough terrain.
For folks that want more foot support, the Keen Targhee 2, a pure hiking shoe, provides much more foot support at the same weight, but keep in mind that the Targhee is not well-suited to running. The La Sportiva FC ECO 2.0 and The North Face Hedgehog Hike GTX also provide more foot support but aren't as versatile.
The North Face's proprietary UltrATAC rubber sole features a series of lugs that vary in size and depth, and offer excellent all-around traction. Check out the chart below to see where the rest of the shoes in our lineup ranked next to the Ultra 109.
Unstable gravel and mud on the trail are no problem for the Ultra 109 GTX. When hiking fast or running, we were confident our feet would stay put in these challenging surface conditions. Rock slabs and wet rock was also no problem. The Ultra 109 was the only shoe that performed well in all four of our traction tests.
The Ultra 109 GTX is an exceptional do-everything shoe, which is why it won our Editors' Choice Award. We used it dayhiking, fast hiking, and while carrying moderate loads climbing and backpacking. It's comfortable for all these activities, with enough foot support to carry a pack. This is one of the shoes we tested that provided good traction across the board. The North Face describes this model as a trail runner burly enough for light backpacking, and we agree. It was easily one of the best shoes we tested for running on trails.
With the slim profile and low key upper, it makes a great casual shoe, too. Folks that are on their feet a lot for work and need a comfortable black shoe love the cushioning and support.
The uppers of this model beaded water well for a time, but they will benefit from a fabric treatment applied regularly. These shoes kept our feet bone dry playing in the edge of the river and splashing through puddles. However, the GORE-TEX liner will eventually become compromised at the forefoot flex point. This shoe can soak up a fair bit of water if repeatedly splashing through puddles, but dries fairly quickly.
While this model effectively beads water when new, regularly cleaning the shoe and reapplying a spray-on DWR treatment will help when you get out on the trail in the rain, or splash through puddles.
The North Face has done a good job adding some key features to the Ultra 109's upper to give the lightweight materials added life. A burly TPU toe cap up front protects your toes and the upper. TPU overlays help protect the mesh, and the leather portions have a PU coating at high-wear areas. That said, the single stitched seam where the leather meets the mesh at the forefoot flex point is a prime spot for early wear. Use some Seam Grip here. Finally, the relatively soft rubber soles deliver great traction but wear faster than harder formulations.
Our Editors' Choice winner is designed for hiking and rough trail running in varied terrain. It's a heavyweight among trail running shoes, which makes it great for dayhiking and carrying light loads. Indeed, it handled the whole range of our "hiking" adventures better than any other we tested. Backcountry running and fast hiking adventures are super fun, but often require you to hike in for a day. If you're planning to hike a day into a basecamp with a pack and then set off for a few days of trail running and peak bagging, this is the perfect shoe.
$120 is a very reasonable price for such a high performing product, and you'll sometimes find a good sale price.
The North Face Ultra 109 GTX is comfortable, light, and has great all-around traction. If you want one shoe for trail running, hiking, and light backpacking, look no further! This was an easy choice for our Editors' Choice award! Dayhiking and sightseeing, or chewing up miles before it gets dark, we love this shoe.
Other Versions & Accessories
Ultra Fastpack GTX
— Brandon Lampley
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