The Merrell Vapor Glove 3 is impressive, but perhaps not immediately. At first, we were slightly disappointed that the toe box is narrower than many other barefoot-inspired shoes we tested. When we ventured into rugged off-trail terrain, however, this narrower profile allowed us to be more precise with our footwork. After many years of foot strengthening work and a long, slow season of training, we were able to take these from town to trail, and even on some scrambling adventures, truly pushing the limits of the shoes as well as our own footwear needs. These were adequately protective while allowing tremendous freedom and the pure enjoyment of floating around the hills and feeling impeccably light on our feet, and earned our Top Pick for Trail Running.
Merrell Vapor Glove 3 - Women's Review
Compare prices at 2 resellers Pros: Lightweight, precise, nimble, versatile
Cons: Less durable, narrower toe box
Our Analysis and Test Results
The Vapor Glove 3 from Merrell is an excellent minimalist shoe. The toe box could be wider for those who really like to spread their toes, but the more svelte, narrow fit allowed us to feel more nimble on uneven terrain. In contrast, the SoftStar PRIMAL with the extra-wide toe box felt excellent on pavement and smooth trails, but as soon as the going got rougher, that wider toe box flopped around and hindered precise foot placement.
The 6.5 mm total stack height is soft enough to feel the ground very well underfoot. This was one of the softer soles we took into seriously rugged terrain. In fact, after months of very slow and progressive foot strengthening, on top of years of cycling through the same foot strength training, we decided to take this shoe on a very rugged scrambling adventure in the Rockies—and loved them. This was well beyond the intention of the shoe, but with proper progressive training on our part, this shoe was able to keep up. It was as if Merrell took the precision and sticky rubber from a climbing shoe and adapted it to a trail running shoe. With very careful and attentive movement, we could float gracefully over talus and scrambling terrain. We had to alter our movement techniques to be very gentle and spider-like, balanced, and close to the ground, using our hands often on 3rd class terrain—a movement style we loved.
At times, we would have liked a little more room to spread our toes, but the narrower fit did keep our foot placements more precise. A tiny bit more toe spreading room could work, but probably not a lot.
The large toe rand protected our toes from rocks and debris and helped them stick to a variety of terrain features. When running on the road or a mellow trail, we did lament the narrow toe box, but the off-trail performance was so enjoyable that we think this is a great shoe for many adventures, and certainly one to include in your quiver—because we know from the barefoot coaches and pros that variety is key in our footwear habits. This may not be the one-shoe-fits-all answer, but it's pretty close.
The Vapor Glove is aptly named—it fits a lot like a glove, or at least like a lightweight mitten for your foot. The shoe features a 6.5 mm stack height, zero-drop, very lightweight upper materials, and overall low weight that makes it feel as if it's barely there. The toe box could be wider to allow for more barefoot feeling, but we did feel the narrower toe profile allowed for more nimble movement and precise foot placement in rugged terrain.
The forefoot is also very soft, and the sole is easy to bend upward or downward as you move through your running stride (we have learned to lift our toes slightly, just before landing, to pre-tension our arches as part of the barefoot running style—this helps absorb shock). This ease of toe lift has become one of our favorite attributes of minimalist and barefoot shoes, as well as the wide toe box.
The TrailProtect padding in the sole is thin enough to allow excellent ground feel, but still resists sharp rocks and sticks when we ventured further off-trail.
The Vapor Glove is one of the lightest shoes in this review, with an impressive 11.5 ounces for a size 9.5 women's (or 40.5 European). The Vibram KSO is still 3 ounces lighter but does not offer quite as much protection for the top and sides of your foot.
This Merrell shoe held up again to its name regarding weather adaptability. It offers lightweight protection from the elements, just like a lightweight glove. The upper is lightweight and breathable so that we could move fast in warmer temperatures, but as the conditions changed or the weather turned, we could manage some wet weather or cooler temps (especially with socks). The breathable mesh lining is not impermeable to dust or water but provides an adequate level of resistance for trail and off-trail use.
This was one of our favorite features of the Vapor Glove 3. The sticky rubber and generous toe rand made this shoe feel nearly as nimble and sticky as a climbing shoe—but one that we could run in because it doesn't have a downturned or pointed toe.
The softer sole allowed us to mold our foot to the surface of rocks and concrete slabs, creating maximal friction. And the lug design provided maximal surface area contact while shedding water and dust through the channeling pattern of the lugs.
The sole of the Vapor Glove 3 gets top marks for durability, which extends generously to the toe rand as well. However, the upper material is easily abraded on rocky terrain. We scuffed the inside of the arch on a rock, which cut a deep groove in the outer material. This did not cause the shoe to fall apart or hinder its performance in any apparent way; however, it did make the shoe look more worn. This is not a shoe that will last very long if you take it on a lot of off-trail adventures, but we had so much fun romping around the mountains with it that we think it might be worth the cost of wear-and-tear.
Remember, importantly, that we trained for years to make our feet strong enough to handle rugged off-trail adventures in shoes like these. This kind of a scuff could be painful for untrained feet.
The Merrell Vapor Glove is an excellent trail shoe. And for diligently trained barefooters who want to experiment with lightweight footwear in more rugged off-trail adventures, you might really enjoy this one. For pure running, we found the narrower toe box to be a little limiting and would have enjoyed more toe-spreading space, but the tradeoff was worth it in more rugged terrain, as this narrower toe profile allowed for exact foot placement in rougher terrain.
At $80, the Vapor Glove is a shockingly great deal. This is not the most durable shoe we tested, but for the price and enjoyment we got wearing it, we think it is well worth the cost. We would expect to blow out a pair of these in a single summer season of trail running. The sole will go much further than the lightweight upper materials, but the foot freedom and nimble movement we enjoyed is well worth the cost.
The Merrell Vapor Glove 3 - Women's is one of our favorite minimalist or barefoot shoes in this review. It features a very thin and supple zero-drop sole, lightweight uppers that promote ease of foot movement. The toe box is on the narrower side, but we appreciate this narrower toe profile on more tricky and technical trails where we need precise foot placements. This shoe feels a lot like a climbing shoe merged with a trail running shoe. After years of prolonged and progressive barefoot training, we thoroughly enjoyed pushing our minimalist footwear to the max and taking these shoes off-trail and into more rocky terrain. And Top Pick-winning shoes really managed to keep pace.
— Lyra Pierotti