The North Face Ultra Vertical Review
Our Analysis and Test Results
While the Ultra Vertical is billed as an ideal shoe for tackling the steeps, we think that instead, it thrives on rough, rocky terrain that simply requires some stomping through, rather than dancing over. For our testers, they fit a bit too wide to offer anything other than a somewhat sloppy fit, but for those with bigger feet, the "quarter geo" cable system that the laces attach to enables one to really crank them down around the midfoot and arch, solidly securing the foot.
They also have an interior sock-like sleeve that joins with the tongue to wrap the foot and hold it in place. We ordered our pair with the black and white color scheme and thought that they were the coolest looking trail runners of the year, certainly wearable out on the town.
The best way to describe the feeling of these shoes under the foot is firm. There is a rock plate in place, which TNF calls a "snake plate" that offers some protection from rocks, but is by no means a solid piece of plastic. The midsole foam is rather thin, and despite the firmness and lack of any sort of squishy, bouncy feeling like one finds on the Saucony Peregrine 8, we were still able to feel a significant amount of rocks and debris through the bottoms of these shoes. The toe bumper is a minimal piece of extra rubber that is a hair disappointing compared to the hard plastic bumper found on the older version of the Ultra Endurance. However, the upper itself is heavily reinforced with rubberized overlays that are not only strong enough to protect the mesh material underneath but which also offer genuine protection for the foot, similar to the Nike Air Zoom Wildhorse 4.
The outsole of this shoe is made in a pretty darn cool yin/yang type color scheme that we have to give props to. In terms of the actual traction, it is comprised of many triangular and chevron-shaped lugs that are roughly 5mm deep and pointed multi-directionally. The rubber, made of Vibram Megagrip, covers nearly the entire sole in one piece, and in our experience is very durable but not overly sticky. As such we think this shoe grips well on big-lug terrain — grass, steep dirt, scree — but isn't as sticky on smooth or wet rock.
This shoe feels pretty stable and rides low to the ground when running. It has a rather middle of the road 6mm of heel-toe drop, not nearly enough to force any sort of ankle rolling. That said, the very wide forefoot is hard for us to lock down super tight (we have roughly average width feet, and can usually wear both narrow and wide shoes without excessive discomfort), leading to a fair bit of slippage, especially on steep downhills. Those with wide feet will likely be able to avoid this problem, but the lack of snugness diminished our confidence slightly.
Comfort is a very subjective metric that not everyone is going to experience in the same way. What is comfortable for us may not be comfortable for you, and vice versa. If there is one single shoe in this review we can say simply doesn't fit our feet well, this is the one. The fit is rather large and especially roomy in the forefoot and even in the arch.
We also think that the footbed feels a little odd, almost like its hollow in the middle, or scooped out, such that our foot makes more contact with the edges of the shoe than it seems to in the middle. This shoe is not what we would call uncomfortable, and there are no points that pinch, rub, or gouge to cause discomfort. Worth pointing out is that this was the second best shoe overall, behind only the Salomon S/Lab Ultra, when it came to not absorbing water or retaining it, as verified by our water bucket test. If wet conditions are in your future, this shoe makes a good choice!
Our pair of size men's 11 shoes weighed 23.4 ounces. While not what we would call overly heavy, they are among a group of shoes that are on the heavier end of the spectrum. For running uphill, as this shoe is supposedly designed for, we like as light of a shoe as possible, and that distinction goes to the Hoka Evo Jawz, which is roughly eight ounces lighter per pair than these are, a significant margin.
The Ultra Vertical is a pretty sensitive shoe, evidenced by the fact that is has a mere 14mm of foam and midsole materials underneath the toes, a very close second to the Inov-8 Roclite G 290 for thinnest midsole. With so little foam between your foot and the ground, it is no surprise that most of the feel of the trail comes through, while some of the edge is effectively removed by the rock plate. This shoe does a very effective job of balancing protection and sensitivity in a way that emphasizes both.
This shoe fits squarely in the heavy trail runner box and is a great choice for pouring the miles into on rougher terrain. It can also handle off-trail adventures, days spent hiking, or faster runs, and is an optimal choice for wet weather conditions.
These shoes retail for $120, about average these days for a pair of brand new trail runners. Provided they fit your feet well, we think they are durable and reliable, and provide good value.
The North Face Ultra Vertical is a bit of an enigma — at once super burly and protective while also very thin and sensitive underfoot. They are most remarkable for their spacious fit, an attribute that should endear them to runners with wide feet who struggle to fit into narrow shoes.
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