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The Future of Trail-Running Gear

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Minimalist shoes are so last year, and other trends from the Summer Outdoor Retailer trade show floor

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Last week, we once again ventured to Salt Lake City, Utah, for the biggest outdoor trade show of the year—Outdoor Retailer (OR)—in an effort to scope out the latest and greatest in the gear world.

What we found was a little different landscape than the one we’ve visited at recent OR shows. While the trend the last few years, particularly among running shoes, has been toward minimalism, the industry seems to be moving back toward something in the middle—new, not-easily categorized shoes that match lower heel-to-toe drops drops and lightweight materials with ample cushioning and aggressive tread.

Here, we explore this pendulum swing back toward more “traditional” running footwear, as well as several other high-level trends in the world of trail-running gear and apparel.

For a chance to win entry into next weekend’s Steamboat Stinger (full and half marathons), let us know in your comment on this article that you’d like to run the Stinger! (This contest has passed; winner Travis Trampe was notified on Monday, August 11; thanks to all who participated!)

Trend 1: The Running Shoe Mold Has Been Broken

Forget the trail-running shoes of yore—beefy, plodding road shoes outfitted with knobby outsoles to transform them into “trail shoes.” Forget, too, the sleek, feather-light, trail-friendly slippers that emerged out of the minimalist movement in the last few years. Like a love affair that burnt out fast, the lightest, most minimal shoes are no longer the stars of the show.

What’s emerged instead is not some hot, new prototype all companies are scrambling to mimic, but rather, a willingness among running-shoe companies to try something different entirely … a bold desire to truly innovate.

From Vasque, we’ll see the Shapeshifter—a 10.6 oz, 6mm-drop shoe with Boa quick-lacing (most often seen in ski boots, but beginning to make a splash in the running-shoe world) with “high-rebound” EVA for reduced foot fatigue on long runs:

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Dynafit, long renowned for its top-of-the-line backcountry ski gear, will launch an entire “Alpine Running” line of shoes, apparel, packs and other accessories. In giving us an overview of what to expect come spring 2014, Dynafit told us, “We don’t want to follow the trend of the lightest, most minimal.” The forthcoming Pantera trail-running shoe will feature an 8mm heel-to-toe drop, structured polyurethane heel and cantilevered midsoles to help with pronation.

From New Balance, we’ll see a burly new zero-drop Minimus (the 00v2) with 7mm lugs:

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Speaking of mold-breaking … how about a leather running shoe? ECCO, one of the top five manufacturers in the world of premium leather, is going there. This trail-running shoe made with Tibetan yak leather will launch in February.

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All this—the willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of what defines a running shoe—is nothing but good news for trail runners.

Trend 2: Athlete-Driven Design

Across the board, companies are inviting athletes to be a part of the design process. At our meeting with Patagonia, a solid contingent from the Ambassador team joined in to share their roles in developing Patagonia’s Spring ’14 line of trail runners. Jeff Browning, in particular, has been involved at every step of the way in creation of Patagonia’s brand new, road-inspired, 4mm-drop EVERlong trail-running shoe (available mid-November this year).

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From left to right: Patagonia Ambassadors Jeff Browning, Krissy Moehl and Luke Nelson

Before our meeting, Luke Nelson had done his first test run in the EVERlong, taking it up and down the nearby Mount Olympus (9026 feet) in the Wasatch Range. He reported back on how secure his feet felt in it, especially on the descent.

Over at Ultimate Direction (UD), another pioneer in athlete-driven product design (including a line of signature hydration vests from Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka and Peter Bakwin), Jenny Jurek and a team of women athletes have been working on a special line of women-specific packs, available January 2014. Read on to learn more!

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Trend 3: Women-Specific Gear

Many running companies, UD among them, are making great strides toward appealing more to their female customers.

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Like many existing UD packs, the women-specific Ultra “Vesta” features front bottles, though the bottles are smaller (10 oz. each) and situated higher up on the chest than on the men’s signature series packs. The Vesta is also made with softer materials, and features adjustable double straps in front to accommodate a variety of women’s chest sizes.

Gone, too, are the days of drab, unflattering tech tees! Many companies are sprucing up their women’s apparel with ruching, lacy mesh inserts and other feminine designs touches:

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From left to right: New tops from Merrell, Mountain Hardwear and The North Face

Trend 4: Innovative Ways to Fuel and Hydrate

We were asked repeatedly throughout the course of the tradeshow, “What have you seen out there on the floor that you’re really excited about?”

Most of our answers to this question fall in the hydration category.

Osprey, a stalwart in the packs industry, is releasing a trail-running-specific series of hydration packs—the Rev line.

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Available in five different volumes, the Rev is brimming with handy little innovations:

  • A “shelf” design, rather than a traditional hook or hanger, that keeps the reservoir in place inside the pack to prevent excess sloshing
  • A water-resistant “DigiFlip” pocket flips down to offer quick, touchscreen access to your phone or media player
  • A clip imbedded in the hydration tube that allows the reservoir to be easily removed and refilled independently of the tube—a godsend for aid stations when time is of the essence!

Sawyer will release a Mini version of its popular backcountry water filter:

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The Mini weighs in at a scant two ounces, and can even be imbedded directly into your hydration tube for easier-than-ever filtering on long trail runs.

In December 2013, inov-8 will expand its ultra line with new vests (featuring front bottles we’ve come to see more of), waistbelts and a compressible handheld bottle.

In the energy fuel category, we were excited to see that GU has introduced a brand new flavor of gel—Salted Caramel—and did so in Salt Lake with a splash: an oversized caramel fountain, complete with skewers of fresh fruit and macaroons. Yummy.

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Trend 5: Natural Foods Continued

In our Winter 2013 Outdoor Retailer gear preview, we mentioned a trend toward more natural ways of fueling—fewer processed foods, more whole ingredients, a wider range of vegan, raw, gluten-free and/or organic energy fuels for athletes.

Here’s a smattering of treats we were excited to see on the tradeshow floor!

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  • Bonk Breaker: Gluten-free, dairy-free, calorie-loaded (220-260/bar) snacks made primarily of oats, rice nectar, nuts and nut butters, flaxseed, honey and other natural ingredients
  • PowerBar Performance Energy Blends: A jargon-y name to describe this awesomely portable, 80-calorie packet of fruit puree
  • Fuel100 Electro-Bites: Newly launched last month, gluten-free and soy-free Fuel100 bites are made of potato starch, organic coconut oil and agave syrup. These tiny bites dissolve quickly on the tongue and come in flavors like simply salty, salty vanilla and salty vinegar–a welcome alternative to overly sweet electrolyte replacements.
  • Epic Bar: Tasty, soy-free, 200-calorie protein bars made of 100% grass-fed bison, with additional flavors added like the bacon/cranberry combo pictured above.
  • KRAVE Turkey Jerky: Another option for the Paleo folks … all-natural jerky that comes in flavors all across the sweet/spicy spectrum. Pictured above is our favorite–the basil citrus flavored turkey jerky.
  • PRO BAR Fuel Superfood Energy Bar: Vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, 160-calorie bar made of fruits, nuts, oats and chia seeds