In September, I started working with Andrew Skurka on his guided backpacking trips and was looking for a light hiker that would work well for this task. I was offered to try out the La Sportiva Spire GTX, so here’s my review.
Update: Check out my review of the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II Mid GTX for a mid-height hiker, based on a popular trail running shoe.
My usual advice for anyone doing a long-distance backpacking trip would be to pick a trail runner that you really enjoy, and find that you can wear all-day. The days of extremely heavy, overbuilt, inflexible, high top boots for backpacking are over (save them for special purposes, like full-on Winter conditions).
My pick for both my all-time favorite trailrunner and what I would usually pick for backpacking is the the La Sportiva Mutant. Sized correctly, they hit the sweet spot for me as a more than viable trail runner (I would run an ultra in these, without hesitation), kicks for fastpacking – like my time in the Weminuche, and even for a scramble a low/moderate pitch of alpine rock when the great majority of the time is on the approach – like the Maroon Bells traverse. I personally stick with low to mid height shoes, because of my ankles – I want the mobility that a lower shoe gives, as I want to keep my ankles constantly challenged by terrain – it’s the only way they became, and remain: strong. And believe me, I’ve had some serious challenges with ankle injuries.
But, all shoes exist on a spectrum and no one shoe will work for everything. For a wishlist, I would certainly want:
A more bulletproof upper. Off-trail hiking can cause a number on the uppers of a pair of well-ventilated trail runners.
A tough outsole. I’ll be carrying a lot more additional weight than I usually do – even when I’m on my own fastpacks.
Generally, I want to make sure that whatever shoes I use will last me until the end, and I’m not hobbled – I’m workin’ here.
Enter the Spire.
The Spire GTX has a very low profile (as in attention-getting level) upper, which I am attracted to. I want a shoe to get dirty in. But, if I need to say, get dinner at the fancy lodge, I can wipe them down with a rag, and call them good.
Much of the upper is made of a tough, plastic material wielded together. The Spire is marketed as a waterproof shoe (Gore-Tex and other related goodies, of course), so the less porous materials used, the better. Mesh material is used below the lacing system, so it’s not all a hotbox (my feet never got hot/sweaty). The front of the forefoot is further shielded with a toecap of rubbery material that ends right before the pinky toe. Same material is used on the back of the shoe, near the heal.
Tongue is pretty traditional with no real surprises (which is a positive point). The lacing system uses a series of webbed tunnels rather than eyelets, which seem to help speed up tightening the shoe, but you’ll want to probably use a round shoelace, rather than a flattened one.
The outsole is a Vibram XS Trek and rated as “Frixion Blue”. Mutants, in comparison are Frixion Green – more grip, but less durability than Frixion Blue.
The midsole is really where this shoe moves into, “boot” territory. Stiffness is very apparent when you compare it to a trailrunner, and does take some getting used to. Heel drop is actually pretty generous – drop is not listed on La Sportiva’s site or catalog, but it’s much taller than 10mm of the Mutant.
The midsole uniquely also has channels that go through the entire midsole of the shoe, and are grated off with light piece of wire mesh. This is supposed to help give additional ventilation to the shoe itself (As La Sportiva puts it, “All Around Breathable”).
Sizing seems similar to most pairs of La Sportiva shoes I have worn – I chose size 46, which is the size I’ve used for the Mutant, Helios, Lycan, Ultra Raptor, Akasha, Urango, etc and slightly larger number I would normally do for most every other brand. I’ve gotten used to mentally upping my “La Sportiva size a half, or a full size) when comparing them to other brands.
La Sportivas have a reputation for being narrower than most (and certainly narrow when compared to something like a wide-toebox’d Altra). I don’t have narrow feet, but I do seem to be on the edge of what generally La Sportiva’s last(s) allows (“D” Width). La Sportiva doesn’t list a last or a fit/width for this shoe, like they do for their trailrunners, so unfortunately, I can only guess.
Using my feet as a guide, I’d say this width/last/toebox is not wide, but not ultra narrow, either. I wouldn’t expect much stretch from this synthetic upper, but I did try on the Spire GTX with a much thicker sock than what I usually use for trailrunning, and things felt comfortable to me. I was expecting some swelling from my foot as the days of weighted backpacking went on and wanted to be sure my shoes would accommodate this.
So, How’d They Do?
My chillout shoe for my time guiding was actually a beat-up pair of New Balance Minimus 00’s – more slipper than shoe and absolutely, definitely a 0 drop model from the Born to Run era. Exchanging these for the La Sportiva Spire GTX does really put an exclamation point on how much heel drop these suckers have. But, within five minutes, I got used to it, and it never seemed to be an issue afterwards. My opinion is that heel drop really means less and less as the terrain gets more and more technical. Off trail, you most likely can’t tell the difference.
Our routes were a mixture of on-trail hiking on trails like the High Sierra Trail: very well-maintained (if a bit dusty – *cough* *cough*) and off-trail hiking and scrambling through a variety of terrain we found in the Sequouia/Kings Canyon National Park: talus, scree, boulder hopping, and slabs, slabs slabs. I engaged in a few class 3/4 passes of varying quality and steepness, while also attempting to establish as many first ascents on the innumerable perfect granite boulders we kept passing.
On trail, the La Sportiva Spire GTX fared well and footing was very predictable. The shoes seemed to keep their ventilation promises, and my feet never felt too hot, nor too cold. This was especially nice, as it seemed we hit the last vestiges of summer, with temps in the high 80’s, while we hiked under a cloudless sky and somewhat intense sun. At camp, where temperatures plummeted into the 40’s, I still felt adequate. Andrew (who does run colder than I do) traded his La Sportiva Bushidos for booties, or a wrapped spare puffy jacket.
Off trail, the Spire’s seem to find their niche. The extra added stiffness of the midsole seemed to facilitate many of the techniques we needed. Side-hilling and plunge-stepping into scree was as easy and intuitive as it gets and I left those areas without needing to dump out my shoe of any errant scree (which was a nice surprise!). Footing on talus seemed assured, and I never suffered the start of a sprained ankle. The upper seemed completely resistant to any tearing from the talus, which I certainly can’t say about the Mutant. A minor miracle in comparison. Boulder hopping proved easy, and the outsole provided me with just enough grip when and where it counted.
The heel drop really came into an advantage on the enormous slabs we faced – some well over 1,000 feet long, at an approximate angle of 20 degrees, +/-. Rather than having to constantly be on the balls of my feet, I could step with my entire footbed pasted onto the slab, generating more friction to the slab than if I was simply on the balls of my foot the entire time. This helped with my general fatigue. The entire trip, save 15 minutes beginning of the hike when I’m warming up, I always felt pretty fresh, and ready to tackle whatever was needed from me.
Scrambling the Class 3/4 passes went just fine – these shoes are perfectly capable of the task, and the stiff midsole gave confidence while edging the blocky granite faces.
Sadly (and humorously), I can’t say these worked at all well for technical bouldering! But, I think that you could have guessed on that one. Next time, I’m bringing my favorite rock shoes (the La Sportiva Miura VS, of course!)
Our trips were mostly in fair weather with minimal water/snow crossings, but on the second to last day, we finally hit upon one hell of a storm – the first precipitation in the area since April! Thunder and lightning sounded above us; rain turned to hail as I we lead our group to the campsite where I helped them put up their shelters, made hot drinks (taking requests!), and started a fire in less than ideal conditions (windy, cold, and wet!).
On this day, I used a light trail gaiter to help keep my feet dry. My feet did stay adequately dry, and I believe the Gore-Text upper did its job as was spec’d – no strange seepage through seams, or anything like that.
I may have been one of the only people in our group to have waterproof shoes, and again that helps me do my job to make sure my clients are being cared for. Like all Gore-Tex equipped shoes though, I would be careful if you did get them soaked, as they all seem to take a good while to then dry out. Thankfully, the next day, we all hiked out the seven miles through the giant sequoia trees, and ended our backpack on schedule.
Our collective feet and shoes were stinky no matter make/model, but that may be more from the shared horse traffic we all faced on the popular trails in the national park. Definitely though, no shoes were allowed inside the car itself – occupational hazard!
Afterwards, while examining the shoe itself, I found no real wear that doesn’t seem out of place from what I would expect. Fully dried, they look almost new still, save for a small bit of sag/deflection where the toebox hinges in the upper. I’m not concerned that this will cause a tear in the material, though.
One thing I would point out is the laces used for this shoe. Like many La Sportiva models, they use a tubular type of lace, with a very thin sheath over the core of the lace itself. If you pull on the laces too roughly, you do run the risk of tearing the sheath, and ultimately, ruining the lace itself.
This happened to my after only a week(!), but I found replacing the provided laces with the same length of para chord made for a substantially better performing lacing system! If you’re going off for a few weeks and you’re as hard on gear as I am, replace the laces with better ones that initially come with the shoe. Any tube-shaped lace will work, like the kind you find for work boots (or use para chord, like I did!). Flat laces may not jive as well.
Would I suggest the La Sportiva Spire GTX for your own backpacking? Sure! Being tougher than a trailrunner has its advantages, so long as you’re OK with the height of the heel drop, and you find the stiffness to your liking. Obviously as well, they’re going to weigh a little more. Most clients on our trips opted for trailrunners (as they were instructed). The amount of wear from all our off-trail use was pretty apparent and not something I shared with them, which I was at least pretty happy about! No need to find the shoe-goo.
I’ll probably continue to use these shoes for more casual (read: normal) backpacking duties myself, social hikes where clicking off 6 minute miles on a whim is off the plate, and weighed uphill carries, which I find to be useful as a training tool. For fastpacking – especially in less than ideal conditions, consider the La Sportiva Urango GTX. It feels much like a true trailrunner, with a fairly generous toebox, but with a Gore-Tex upper and integrated gaitor. The midsole is very flexible, and features my personal all-time favorite chunky outsole. But just like most trailrunners, the upper will be pretty much at the mercy of any rough and sharp talus/scree field you find yourself ankle deep in.
As for lifespan, these shoes feel just barely broken into, and I’m going to expect many more hundreds of miles in their future.