Fieldwork and minimalist shoes are not two things I ever planned on combining. Hiking over rubbly lava flows, through dense brush and over downed trees, and on steep slopes, all while carrying a pack loaded up with 40 pounds of rocks, requires sturdy shoes, whether I like it or not. Features like a thicker, stiffer sole and a high-cut vamp (meaning that it extends up around your ankles) help provide stability and protection for your feet and ankles across a variety of surfaces, which is very important safety-wise in the backcountry. However, during the past couple of field seasons (after making the switch to minimalist shoes), encasing my feet in traditional hiking shoes for 8-10 hours a day made my toes feel super cramped, and the larger heel-toe differential and added weight felt really odd (and tiring).
Despite this, I had pretty much resigned myself to having to deal with wearing my traditional hiking shoes in the field. But then, earlier this year (and much to my excitement), Merrell added the Proterra, a hiking shoe, to their M-Connect (Barefoot) line, and I was lucky enough to get a pair to test. Although I was still a bit skeptical about them being able to handle the rigors of fieldwork (they are still more minimal than my traditional hiking shoes, after all), I finally got the chance to take them on some heavy-duty hikes out in the field a couple of weeks ago, and ended up being completely blown away by their performance. Read on to learn why!
Name: Proterra Vim Mid Sport
Color Options: Women’s – Sea Shore (Blue), Aluminum (Tan); Men’s – Castle Rock (Gray)
Weight: 1 lb 9 oz
Drop: 4 mm
Other: 20.5 mm stack heigh (9.5 mm cush); bellows tongue to keep debris out; treated with Aegis antimicrobial solution
The first day I chose to wear the Proterras in the field, I felt like I was taking a risk. I’d already worn them on a couple of short hikes, with well-worn, easy-to-traverse trails, so I wasn’t worried about breaking them in, but knowing that I was going to have to carry 30-40 pounds of rock and hike through dense forest was a bit intimidating. The second I slipped them on my feet that first morning, though, I knew I had made the right choice (especially since I had been wearing my old hiking shoes for a few days before that). My toes finally felt like they had some “breathing” room, my feet didn’t feel so heavy, and the low heel-toe drop felt much more natural. As far as stability goes, Merrell hits the nail on the head with their claim that these shoes provide “control and stability through improved muscle awareness.” The only criticism I have with regard to stability is that, in the Vim Mid Sport version of the shoe, the portion of the shoe that extends up around the ankle is still fairly low, and I think the boot could provide better ankle stability if it was a little higher.
The Proterras are also impressively well made. I admit I was initially a bit worried that the thin material used to construct the upper (which I can only think to compare to a thicker version of the material used to make tents, although it is reinforced by rubber strapping) tearing easily. I managed to snag my boots pretty hard on downed tree branches several times, though, and it didn’t create so much as a scuff on the fabric. However, the thin, mesh-like quality of the fabric does have a downside when it comes to keeping fine dust (like the volcanic ash at my field site) out. My feet ended up very dusty every day, although so did my mother’s, and she wore a traditional pair of hiking shoes.
Obviously, there are some situations for which a minimalist hiking shoe, even one as sturdy as the Proterra, is not appropriate. Very steep slopes, especially ones that are unstable or that require you to be roped up, still require a heavy duty hiking boot, with thick soles and ankle stabilization. The Proterra is also not water-resistant/proof. This means that it is more breathable and an overall lighter shoe, which is great for day hikes, but it would not be a great choice for your only shoe say, on a backpacking trip, where you might encounter rain, muddy trails, or even snow. That said, a waterproof version is already available for men (albeit at a significantly higher price) and a waterproof women’s model is set to be released this fall.
Although the Proterra is lightweight and features a low heel-toe drop, it is definitely what I would describe as rugged and sturdy relative to all of my other minimalist shoes. Of course, this is as it should be, considering it is a hiking boot. Compared to my traditional hiking shoes, the Proterras feel incredible on my feet. They are worlds different when it comes to weight, and there’s few things so wonderful as a wide toe box after your toes have been crammed into a standard width toe box for a few days. One thing I was especially thrilled to discover is that the Proterras lack is the aggressive arch contouring that is present in most of the Merrell Barefoot line (and that requires a somewhat lengthy break-in period to mold them to your foot). The most important thing is that my feet felt utterly relaxed all day, no matter the terrain, while wearing my Proterras.
The Merrell M-Connect line is pretty reliable when it comes to aesthetics, and the Proterras fit right in. They have a very modern, sporty look as far as hiking shoes go. Most of the color options are more subdued compared to other Merrell Barefoot shoes, but this is not unusual for a hiking shoe, and I suppose it wouldn’t make much sense to use bright fabrics that would end up looking dull and dirty pretty quickly upon use. A big plus for some may be that these shoes are not super unusual looking, so you don’t have to deal with strange looks from fellow hikers who can’t figure out what’s going on with your feet.
- Incredibly durable, but still remarkably lightweight and breathable
- Very comfortable, especially the wide toe box that allows plenty of room for both toes and thick hiking socks
- Allow for impressive amounts of stability and control over a wide variety of terrain
- Modern, sporty, but not unusual looking
- No uncomfortable arch contouring as is present in many Merrell Barefoot shoes
- Not water resistant or waterproof
- More ankle stability could be provided by a slightly higher ankle collar in the Vim Mid Sport
As far as minimalist hiking boots go, the Merrell Proterra is what dreams are made of. I was unsure about how these shoes would perform during field work, but found that they are the most comfortable hiking boots I have ever worn in my life. They are an excellent addition to the Merrell M-Connect Line, and will hopefully be the model upon which future hiking boots are built and added to the barefoot collection.
Meagan is a geochemistry research lab manager, runner, Netflix binge-watcher, and Mom to a rescue dog, a bunny, and a human child. She started running in May 2011 and ran her first half marathon in October 2012, followed by her first marathon in October 2013. In July 2018, she joined the triathlon world and completed an Olympic-distance race. After an extended break (pregnancy/maternity leave), she is making a long-overdue return to running and is preparing for a high-elevation half marathon at Crater Lake National Park in August 2020.