May 20, 2022
Approach shoes. “Like what are they even? How do they differ from takkies??” was the question that sparked off this review. Who uses them and how are they different to trail running shoes? After walking more than a few miles in these shoes, I am here to tell you the answer!
If you’re an outdoor gear guru, wore approach shoes before they were cool, and eat chalk for breakfast, this review is not for you! If, on the other hand, you use your trail shoes for everything from Parkruns, multi-day hikes in the Drakensberg, strolls up Table Mountain and climbing the odd boulder for a majestic sundowner spot, my friend, read on.
Traditionally, Drakensberg hiking has meant rugged hiking boots. When I first started hiking as a teenager, I was gifted a trusty pair of leather Hi-tec boots, and they did me well. Comfortable, sturdy, waterproof… and they just felt like ‘adventure’. A few years of studying passed, and by the time I got back into hiking, the boots were long gone and I used what I had – trail running shoes. Hikes morphed into fastpacking missions and ‘Berg runs, so the takkies stayed – it just made sense. It didn’t seem justifiable to buy a pair of boots for the odd dedicated hike.
Enter the approach shoes – Salewa Wildfires to be precise. The idea of approach shoes is that you can walk to a climbing spot, and then ascend easy climbs/approaches without having to change into climbing shoes. A hiking- and climbing-shoe love-child, if you will. As a result, I ruled these shoes out as belonging to the realm of hectic rock climbers. To say that I have rock climbed is to say that a tomato is a fruit – technically true, but practically useless. I use borrowed gear (and shoes), and get hauled up top-roped routes, i.e. approach shoes were not for me. Or so I thought.
An important point to note is that I am reviewing the concept of approach shoes in general, at the same time as telling you about these specific approach shoes. The Wildfires are the only approach shoes I’ve happened to try and seem well suited to my hobbies and lifestyle. However, not all approach shoes are made equal – these seem particularly well suited to longer distances and rugged terrain, rather than the urban gym or tame crag variety. So bear this in mind as you read on!
My first reaction to this adventure shoe love-child was one of intense scepticism. It looked very much like a jack of all trades, and master of none. Too bulky to climb in, not much of a hiking boot, and definitely not good for running. My running shoes are of the low cushioning, low drop, wide toebox variety – the complete opposite of these bright specimens. However, I gave them a fair chance. I took them on family-friendly 5km strolls, hiked to the top of the little berg, hauled my paraglider up the mountain and ran it off, scrambled up boulders and even tried slacklining in them.
I was worried that these would be too narrow for my wide feet. However, they’re more ‘hug’ than ‘straight jacket’. These feel snug in a good way, plenty of support without feeling clunky or restricting. I like that your ankles are free to move (and stay strong). The climbing-style laces offer plenty of flexibility to tighten the shoes along the entire length, according to your foot shape. The laces were a little long for me, but were easily tucked away. A problem I often have with my wide takkies is that when walking off-path, my feet slide around in the shoes as I step on tufts of grass and uneven terrain. I much prefer the snugger feeling of the Salewas for these situations – they feel much more secure and stable.
The first time I wore these, judging the feel was about as successful as focussing during meditation – I kept forgetting that I was supposed to be noticing them, which can only be a good thing! When hiking in takkies, you have to focus a lot of attention on foot placement. In boots, you can clumsily barge your way through. The Salewas were a good mix – responsive yet forgiving. They performed particularly well on loose rocky paths, where they gripped well and allowed for some agile footwork. While takkies often leave your feet feeling a little battered and tired after a long day on uneven paths, the Wildfire’s provided a smooth comfortable ride.
Right off the bat, these shoes come with a pretty hefty promise – 100% blister-free. This is caveated with the requirement that you need to use them for the appropriate activity, choose the correct size, lace them properly and use good quality socks. My available socks consisted of a 5 year old pair of Falkes and an odd assortment from Jonsson workwear – and I got blisters. If you’re silly enough to take a pair straight out of the box and on a multi-day epic into the mountains, you deserve every blister. Be sensible and wear them in – you don’t know how your foot, socks and lacing will combine.
The grip really stood out for me with these shoes. On damp and dusty rocks I would find myself bracing for an inevitable slip – it never came! These stuck like glue. Not to mention the climbing ability. I clambered up a number of boulders in these and was pleasantly surprised every time. It’s not to say that takkies couldn’t have done the job, but they certainly couldn’t have done it that convincingly and confidently. The rubber on the toe end of the shoe clung to ridiculously small ledges and the sole stuck to any gradient I was brave enough to walk down.
When I switched back to my trail shoes, I found myself slipping a lot, a sure sign that I’d been spoilt with some superior sticking ability. I’m sure actual rock climbers could pull off incredible feats with these shoes, but for your average Joe looking for a view with your cup of tea, you won’t be disappointed – these guys have got your back.
In summary, these exceeded all of my expectations. In terms of their technical abilities, I would recommend these to anyone from my parents wanting a shoe for an afternoon stroll, to my mountain-mad friends wanting a phenomenal hiking shoe. There’s no reason not to recommend these for the applications I’ve discussed.
So what’s the catch? Why would you not buy a pair of these? Essentially this comes down to price and expected use. Now, at the 3 grand mark, these are no more extravagant than your higher end trail running shoes, and are cheaper than many dedicated hiking boots. The problem comes in when you already have a pair of trail running shoes. Can you justify another 3 grand for a ‘nice-to-have’? If you’re only planning one or two hikes a year, or your adventures stop at your local parkrun, probably not. But if you spend your lunch breaks plotting hikes on Google Earth and you burn through your overused trail takkies in a couple of months, it might be time to reconsider. A point to note is that these will prolong the life of your trail shoes significantly, bearing the brunt of brambles and rocks. So while the capital outlay may be higher, it may save you in the long run to invest in a pair.
Will I buy another pair of approach shoes when these wear out? Absolutely. If I was climbing a little more, I might consider a slightly more minimalist pair. However, for longer hikes and my current lifestyle, I think I would battle to beat these.
As I said in the beginning, takkies do the job. Approach shoes do the job convincingly and well.
August 04, 2022
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