Merrell Vapor Glove 4 Review
Cons: Inconsistent grip, short stock laces, potentially short lifetime
Our Analysis and Test Results
The Vapor Glove 4 excels in the barefoot running category, thanks to its lack of midsole and ridiculously thin outsole. Every step counts, and this shoe will ensure that you stay on top of your posture and gait. Because our feet felt so natural in this shoe, we actually found it comfortable to run in day-after-day. A wide toe box combined with a snuggly fitting heel pocket makes this shoe very stable, even on uneven terrain. We also appreciated the Vapor Glove's well-balanced platform in the gym, where this shoe proved its worth by transitioning between disciplines with ease. We were psyched to have this versatile shoe on our feet, and not just when running.
This shoe earns high marks because, simply put, it performs the best with the least amount of effort. The Vapor Glove has a characteristically simple design that comfortably wraps and mimics a bare foot. It has no intention of doing anything special, besides supporting the essential movement of the foot while running. Without the support of any midsole foam, this shoe is very flexible. On both road and trail, our toes were able to splay and easily grip, giving us the sense of the shoe molding to the terrain. With our foot locked in place thanks to a tight-fitting heel cup, the rest of the foot had the freedom to move around comfortably within the shoe, adding to stability and an overall sense of balance.
The Vapor Glove is designed as a road trainer, and in that capacity, it excels, with a feel very similar to a running flat. The shoe is designed with zero drop and no cushioning, and its 6.5 mm of stack height is only comprised of 2 mm lugs, a 1.5 mm outsole, and 3 mm insole — that's not very much material between you and the ground. While this results in the shoe sometimes feeling a little floppy, we love the flexibility of this platform for allowing the arches to react appropriately as shock absorbers.
For those just transitioning to barefoot running shoes, or those who find constant pavement pounding to be hard on their joints, we suggest looking at a different running shoe that offers slightly more cushioning in the midsole or insole.
We were impressed with the comfort of the Vapor Glove, for its ability to provide a protective wrap without feeling like our feet were cut off from any sensation. The upper is a combination of a tightly woven Cordura-mesh, a neoprene tongue, and a thin mesh-lining that wraps around the back of the foot behind the heel. These three components work in concert to create a very breathable shoe that sheds water from the outside while wicking away any moisture that might build up inside. Even though we opted to run in socks most of the time to help prevent potential blisters, the Vapor Glove is surprisingly comfortable to run in without them — toss in an antimicrobial agent to reduce shoe odor, and you have a shoe that shines in both wet and dry conditions. Even after having to cross through creeks on trail runs, we were happily surprised how well these continued to perform, and how quickly they began to dry out.
The Vapor Glove provides an impressive, although sometimes harsh, amount of feedback — you will feel every misstep, every crack in the sidewalk, and every rock on the trail. But the proprioception demanded by this shoe means that you do not have the option of sliding into bad running habits. The Vapor Glove seems to be the perfect combination of design features that result in superior ground-feel: a thin outsole, zero-drop, a wide toe box, and exceptional flexibility. Combine these factors with a low weight, and you have a shoe that is hard-to-beat when it comes to barefoot accuracy.
We noticed that all of these factors promoted better running form. If we began to slouch on longer road runs, our heels and arches would hurt almost immediately. We found ourselves mindful of each step while trail running, choosing a stride that is more stable and more powerful. This direct line of feedback is a premier characteristic for barefoot running shoes — they seem to trick you into believing that you are actually running barefoot. It leads to a very organic running experience, one that puts you in direct contact with the ground and leaves you with an improved awareness of performance.
The human foot is designed for running, and our immediate impression when slipping the Vapor Glove 4 onto our feet was that this minimalist shoe is in no way attempting to change that fact. In a field defined by ultralight designs, this shoe emerges at an incredible 5.4 ounces per shoe (size EU 42).
The breathability of the thin, Cordura-mesh upper is supported by a mesh lining to help wick away moisture from the inside of the shoe. Other than that, the Vapor Glove really has no extras — not even a removable insole. These airy shoes glide over the pavement but are equally suited to hardcore trail runners — just as long as you remain aware of each step.
For a trainer designed for roads, the Vapor Glove boasts an impressive amount of traction on both pavement and dirt trails. The combination of thin outsole and wide toe box allows for your toes to splay and adjust to the terrain.
The flexibility of the outsole between the forefoot and toes allows these two pieces to work together, further supplementing the natural grip of the foot. A sticky rubber compound for the outsole paired with slim, but effective lugs only serve to promote this natural grip. The shallow, widely-spaced lugs also do a solid job of shedding water and loose gravel.
While these lugs do alternate to help improve traction in both directions, the Vapor Glove is not very grippy running downhill on loose terrain, and we did not feel as confident in keeping our pace up as we might in a typical trail running shoe.
One of the major reasons the Vapor Glove rose to our Editors' Choice pick for barefoot running shoes is that it performs well in all disciplines. To keep ourselves in line with a basic principle of minimalism, a great shoe must work well for more than just one purpose. Indeed, the Vapor Glove proved itself worthy of this claim.
As trail runners, we appreciate the design choice to include a thick rubber rand that fully caps the toe box. We found that this protected us from banging our toes against rocks on downhills, but the thickness of the rand tapers off quickly so that it does not detract from the feel of the tips of the toes. The Vapor Glove does a solid job of protecting the feet from the harsh realities of trail running; however, these shoes would not be our first choice for long trail runs. We recognize it is ironic that the main factor that contributes to such incredible barefoot accuracy — a lack of midsole — is also the main downfall when it comes to extended comfort.
This shoe is lightweight and breathable enough for desert trails and does a remarkable job of keeping the feet comfortably dry on rainy-day runs. We also really appreciate the low-profile stability of this shoe in the gym, particularly for running-specific, weight-training exercises like deadlifts and kettlebell lunges. Even as a shoe designed for athletics, we didn't ever feel foolish pulling these on to run errands around town. The only slight against the Vapor Glove in terms of versatility is that this is not a shoe for everyone. It is a near-perfect running shoe for seasoned barefoot-enthusiasts, but it is not a good option for those who are only just transitioning away from conventional running shoes.
We like that the Vapor Glove is thoughtfully designed with the hope of an extended lifetime. Opting for abrasion-resistant Cordura mesh, the upper does a great job of balancing breathability and durability. Add in a substantial rubber toe rand and well-placed patches of TPU on the edges of the forefoot and around the heel cup, and you have a shoe with a long-lasting top half.
What worries us with regard to durability is the sheer thinness of the outsole. Our testing period has a relatively short timeline compared to how long they might live in your arsenal, and this inherently makes it difficult to see how — or if — a product will breakdown through consistent use. Although we did not notice any issues after running a few dozen miles on both pavement and trail, many people have commented that the durability of the outsole on the Vapor Glove is something to be considered over an entire running season. Fortunately, Merrell boasts a pretty solid warranty program, with awesome customer service available to help sort out any problems that might arise with these shoes.
Not to continue to heap on the praise, but the Vapor Glove is not only the best performing shoe in this review, it is also the most affordable. It proves to be the best value one could hope for in buying a new, barefoot running shoe.
For the seasoned barefoot-runner, avid weight-lifter, ex-track star, and adventure-racer, the Vapor Glove 4 strikes a balance of attractive qualities for a minimalist shoe that is difficult for competitors to match. Without a doubt, this hits the mark for those who want to feel barefoot while still having to wear shoes. It performed great in all disciplines, and at a cost that falls below the rest of the competition. While it may be a tough option to jump into for those just switching over from conventional running shoes, the Vapor Glove is a perfect example of what a barefoot shoe can achieve — it is just important to note that the sheer minimalism of this shoe must be respected.
— Aaron Rice