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Hands-on Gear Review
The North Face Ultra 109 GTX Review
Cons: Not the most durable, mesh upper absorbs water
Bottom line: This superb hiking shoe overlaps the gap between trail runners and hiking boots on both sides.
For the third year running, The North Face Ultra 109 GTX wins our Editors' Choice Award. Fighting off a field of worthy contenders, this model continued its reign over other hiking shoes by performing above-average to excellent across the board. We love this shoe for its hiking ability, which at times feels almost as burly and tough as some mid-cut boots. It's a perfect choice for day hiking rough trails, wandering around mountain trails with a daypack, or even short backpacking trips. It's also lightweight, provides great traction, and capable of taking off on a run at the drop of a sun hat. Whatever you're doing in these shoes, bet on your feet remaining comfortable. It's one of the best shoes out there when you want one shoe for hiking, light backpacking, and trail running.
A few shoes fought fiercely for the top spot in this review. The Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX is an aggressive beast that eats up trails like hikers inhale trail mix, but weighs a few ounces more and offers less support. The uber-comfy HOKA ONE ONE Tor Summit WP came close in points overall, but couldn't match the Ultra 109 GTX in weight, traction, or versatility. To further ice the cake, the $120 price tag is cheaper than six other shoes featured in this review.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Men's Hiking Shoes of 2017
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The North Face Ultra 109 GTX delivers the best overall package of all hiking shoes competing in this review. For the performance it provides, the $120 price tag seems modest. This shoe has a PU-coated leather and mesh upper, Gore-Tex Extended Comfort Range waterproof breathable membrane, and a Compression-molded EVA midsole. Thereunder are an ESS midfoot shank and a proprietary UltrATAC rubber outsole.
One of the more comfortable shoes we tested, the Ultra 109 GTX is supportive enough to remain comfortable during long days out. It handles rocks underfoot well, similar protection to hiking boots. We also love the toe protection, which makes stubbing toes when navigating rough terrain a non-issue. There's a bit more arch support than average, too. These shoes were stiffer than most when we pulled them out of the box and required a short break-in time. After the break-in, the feeling is great.
We 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, 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 for a custom fit of the collar and heel.
If traditional laces are old hat for you, check out the speed lacing systems of the Salomon, Adidas, and La Sportiva models.
Along with the HOKA ONE ONE Tor Summit, this model's thick soles absorb shock better than the rest. It also offers above-average breathability. After our treadmill test, our tester's socks were slightly damp and the feet were cool. 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.
Weighing 1 lb. 15.8 oz., the Ultra 109 GTX is one of three shoes reviewed under two pounds. Only the Adidas Terrex Swift R GT (1 lb. 13.6 oz.) and Columbia Redmond Waterproof (1 lb. 14.1 oz.) are more lightweight, yet neither provides the full hiking performance package like the North Face model does.
We scored this model above average for foot support. The ESS midfoot shank and molded EVA midsole create a stiff midfoot with a flexible forefoot. This is a great combo for running and moving quickly in rough terrain. The maximum forefoot width is 4.75 inches, which ties with HOKA ONE ONE and the Merrell Moab 2 Waterproof as the widest models. This broad area under the ball of our feet gave us a powerful base for each step. The 3.75-inch ankle collar tied for second highest, with the La Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX measuring higher at 4.125 inches. Even minimal ankle support is appreciated when on uneven terrain and when carrying a load.
For folks that want more, the Keen Targhee 2, a pure hiking shoe, provides greater foot support for more weight, but the Targhee is not well-suited to running. The HOKA ONE ONE model also provides more support at nearly the same weight but also is not 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. The "Ultra"-named products lived up to their name in the traction game, landing in the top echelon in this metric. 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 this shoe. When hiking fast or running, we were confident our feet would stay put in these challenging surface conditions. Rock slabs and wet rock were also no problem. The North Face achieved this prowess underfoot without riddling the outsole with deep lugs. The generous space between the tread collects less mud and snow, which helps them maintain traction in sloppy terrain. The Ultra 109 was one of two shoes that performed above average in all five of our traction tests, along with the Salomon X Ultra 2.
The Ultra 109 GTX is an exceptional do-everything shoe, which is why it won our Editors' Choice Award. It surpassed the versatility of the Vasque Juxt and X Ultra 2 GTX, both of which gave it a pretty good fight. We used it day hiking, fast hiking, and while carrying moderate loads climbing and backpacking. It's comfortable for all these activities, with enough foot support and stability. 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. There were models that performed better in specific areas, but no other model crushed across the board like this pair of shoes.
This shoe doesn't look too athletic or too beefy for casual use. Folks that are on their feet a lot for work and need a comfortable black shoe love the cushioning and support.
The Ultra 109 GTX gets its waterproofing from a Gore-Tex Extended Comfort Range liner, which kept our feet dry through puddles, snow, slush, mud, and mountain streams during our three-month testing period. It withstood our five-minute underwater test with ease, keeping our feet dry no matter how much we flexed the forefoot trying to induce leakage. It just wasn't having it. The drawbacks in terms of water resistance are the average flood level height and its ability to soak up water in the mesh upper. This shoe can soak up a fair bit of water if splashing through puddles. For higher flood levels and more resistant uppers, check out the Adidas Terrex Swift R GTX or Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX.
While this model beads water when new, cleaning the shoe and reapplying a spray-on DWR treatment helps 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 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 soft rubber soles deliver great traction but wear faster than harder formulations. To maximize durability, the Asolo Agent GV is your best bet.
Our Editors' Choice winner is designed for hiking and short trail running in varied terrain. It's a heavyweight among trail running shoes, which makes it great for day hiking 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.
This product provides exceptional value. $120 is a 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 the most versatile shoe we reviewed. This shoe is the missing link between trail runners and hiking boots, supporting backpacking trips like a light mid-cut boot and speeding down trails like a beefy trail running shoe. If you want a shoe that pushes the boundaries of a hiking shoe on both sides, look no further. Day hiking and sightseeing, or chewing up miles before it gets dark, we love this shoe.
— Ross Robinson
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