Ultra refined: a review of The North Face Ultra Trail II. For this review and more shoes gets, see the latest edition of Trail Run Mag, downloadable for FREE here.
Another second-iteration shoe in this edition’s shoe slots, and yet another study in the art of refinement, although in this case The North Face has upped the incremental improvement ante over it’s Nike compadre.
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The Ultra Trail II takes the original and award-winning Ultras and specifically tackles it main weaknesses – durability. Try to see past that bright glowing fluoro orange exterior (they do come in black for the less ostentatious), and you’ll see and feel that the upper is an all new material. The North Face has replaced what was a soft and easily degraded material with a much tougher ripstop fabric that almost feels plasticy.
On foot, that stiffer feel is not noticeable the comfort factor for which I rate these shoes highly remains. The side-benefit of this more durable material – which has been likened to a cross-county spike shoe upper – is a natural improvement in its ability to shed water, meaning you have to get a whole next level dunking for the shoe to saturate in a light shower. Every second your foot is dry and more comfortable is a bonus second in my book when running.
It’s also a super lightweight material, helping it save overall grams on its predecessor to weigh in at 230g/shoe for a US9. It’s one of those shoes you hardly notice you are wearing, such is its lack of beef. That is, until you look down and the glare blinds you. Buy the black pair unless you’re looking to emulate a Dermott Brereton or Warwick Capper (if you know who I am talking about and why them, you are showing your age. Lairy Aussie Rules footballers for those of you aged younger than 35).
Looking to the 2015-released models, The North Face offers three trail running models in the Ultra range – The Ultra II, the new Cardiac (yet to be tested, but it’s coming) and the not-available-in-Australia-but-should-be Ultra MT (it has bigger, beefier grip for knarlier conditions, reminiscent of Salomon’s Speedcross 3).
All three models run a mid-range 8mm heel-toe drop, which is a great sweet spot for most. Those transitioning to mid/forefoot will find it a not-too-aggressive platform, while those more minimalists running 4-6mm will actually find these remain unobtrusive, comfortable and perfect for the longer run where form may drop off, giving leeway for the fatigued landing.
On trail, I found the Ultra Trail IIs gave excellent trail feedback, allowing for a touchy-feely experience making them ideal for fast and technical trails where responsiveness is key.
One key beef I had with the first iteration, and indeed most of the trail models I’ve reviewed from The North Face, was grip. While the Vibram compound is, of course, first rate and gives great stick for the most part, it remains a slip fest in mud and snow. But you’d expect that with anything other than a true lug-endowed shoe, which is perhaps where the aforementioned Ultra MTs come into play. In general, on dry to moist trails tending smooth to rocky and rooty, these were absolutely serviceable and indeed on flat but slippier surfaces, the high ratio of coverage offered by the tread patterns increased grip as compared to most. Therefore, in actual fact, the overall grip rating across varied surfaces is quite high and good for those who don’t like riding rugged on ‘spikey’ lugs, which really are only suitable for super soft and slushy ground.
Adding to the ride comfort is The North Face’s Cradle heel, which has been a winner across most of its trail models for a while now and remains a huge positive, especially for those seeking a neutral run and good cupping of the heel. The Cradle integrates forward with a cushy midsole, providing smooth ride (16mm to 8mm stack) and slight rebound for the mid footer. Yet this shoe could be used by any form of striker, realistically.
Once again, The North Face has produced a refined, sturdy and performance-orientated trail shoe that will sit proudly in anyone’s collection and be used more than most. This is the shoe (and indeed a brand) that should get more attention than perhaps it does in the trail marketplace, given its consistent high quality offerings. Maybe that’s why the orange? It’s trying to catch our attention. But for my money, it needn’t shout like that, for this shoe speaks enough volume when it’s on my feet, on trail. The message is clear: it’s a comfortable, confident runner. And so I go faster and harder. If Warwick Capper was a trail runner, I reckon he’d say it’d help get higher, too.
TAKEOUTS: The North Face Ultra Trail 2
Great for: most mid range trails – including door to trail runs, lairy runners.
Not-so-great for: mud, shy people (if you buy the orange).
Test Conditions: Technical and non technical single track with a smattering of fire road, 95km
Tester: Chris Ord, Trail Run Mag editor
Tester Mechanics: mid foot striker, tends to more technical style running routes, mostly 15-30km range outings.
RRP: AUD $190.00 / NZD $230.00