Review: The Vasque Inhaler GTX and LaSportiva Synthesis Mid GTX

gearreviewMany people are convinced that traditional heavy-duty, ankle-high boots are an absolute necessity for anything longer than a few days of backpacking—mostly, the argument goes, to stabilize ankles and ensure adequate traction on rocky trails.

Boots that offer this type of support, however, can easily add about 3.5 to 4.5 pounds of weight to your feet and overall load. And if you understand load dynamics and the idea that “one pound on the foot equals five pounds on the back,” wearing traditional leather boots with beefy Vibram® lug outsoles means you’ll be slogging around an average of an extra 20 pounds. Add that to the existing weight of a loaded backpack, and you start to see the limitations of all that added so-called support.

What to Look For
Granted, there are situations—like climbing a steep glaciated mountain—where you wouldn’t want to be caught without sturdy boots. And, you definitely want something offering more than just minimal cushioning, though not so much you lose your kinetic proprioception—your “foot sense.” But for most backpacking, on trails, trail shoes and lighter boots will make for more agile, comfortable and swift hiking.

Besides boots with midcut (rather than ankle-high) uppers built from breathable synthetic material, another place to look to cut weight on a boot is waterproof options. Face it, even if you’re wearing boots or trail shoes built with integrated waterproof membranes, when you’re hiking all day in rain or crossing streams, your feet are still going to get wet.

No matter how well shoes or boots are “waterproofed,” when they’re subjected to enough water feet still get wet, and most footwear still takes a long time to dry. One option is to skip the waterproofing and instead coat your feet with a good hydrophilic grease. This will essentially waterproof your feet instead, reducing water absorption, reducing friction, and moisturizing your feet at the same time. Be sure to also wear breathable, fast-dry socks, and carry a few extra pairs of wool ones to warm your feet after a day of soggy hiking.

Unfortunately, these days it’s hard to find outdoor footwear that doesn’t come with some iteration of waterproofing (which is especially perplexing to desert or dry climate hikers and backpackers). Overall, outdoor footwear manufacturers tend to tilt their designs toward wetter climates (and dirt trails), mostly designers say, because that’s what people think they need and what they mostly buy. But that doesn’t mean footwear manufacturers have given up on reinventing this “wheel,” and, as we found, some of the new materials actually work better in some field situations.

Putting it to the Test
Tired of slogging around in traditional boots, but equally exasperated by poorly built so-called “ultralights,” we recently field tested two new boots that promise to challenge a lot of assumptions about what makes a boot light, cool and reliable. For the most part, we were extremely pleased with the outcome. And we’ve changed our mind about waterproofing, conceding that some of the newer waterproofing materials may be useless when it comes to stream submerges, but they don’t necessarily make a boot hotter or heavier anymore.

vasqueVasque Inhaler GTX (SRP $159.99).
We field tested this astoundingly light, mid-cut boot on multiple hikes in the Pacific Northwest and eventually two trips in the Grand Canyon, one a 5-dayer on the Tonto Trail. This mid-cut version is only available with GORE-TEX®, also known as GTX

These were as close to a dream backpacking boot as we could have designed in our mind—if only they offered a model without GTX.

Well, except when hiking mud-packed Pacific Northwest trails—where the Inhaler was as nimble, fast, light, stable, breathable, protective, and as incredibly comfortable as any boot you could have dreamt of—and also kept our feet absolutely dry.

Among several of the Inhaler’s knockout features, its “big bite” Vibram outsole performed as well as any beefy outsole on a heavy leather boot we’ve ever worn. Built with a combination of Vasque’s proprietary Vibram Pneumatic and Megagrip rubber, these outsoles grab and grip terrain like a turbo-powered tractor.

On dry, rocky trails where there’s nary a spec of mud to soften the step, the Inhaler’s outsoles provide outstanding grip and impact absorption. Its reinforced rubber toe rand also does a great job of deflecting rocks, but when descending steep unstable rocky trails or scrambling pour-offs, the going can get rough. It felt like there was too much flex in the forefoot and not enough support in the arch. Not only did the fit feel sloppy, but “foot sense” felt diminished. And we developed some toe blisters, despite having previously logged around 65 break-in miles on steep mud-packed trails, with no previous blistering. We’re not shoe designers, but it feels like this issue could easily be solved with a firmer shank. But then that does add weight, which is a consideration. So it might be best to let the question of where you tend to wear this footwear the most—mud trails or steep rock-strewn trails—guide you. They’re otherwise exceptionally comfortable.

We recently revisited the Canyon (and actually packed another pair of mid-cut boots to test while there) and optimistically tried adding an arch insert built from polyethylene plastic to the Inhaler. This type of insert is more flexible than harder plastic ones, yet offers similar support. The inserts added 10 ounces to the original weight of these boots (20 oz. for women’s size 8), pushing the total weight of to 30 oz. That’s still pretty darn light for backpacking boots. More importantly, it gave these boots a more solid feel and performance—and more diverse terrain utility.

Where the Inhaler truly excels, though, is its amazing light feel on the foot (even with its considerable rugged outsole) and its intriguing web of structural ventilation offering excellent airflow. The uppers are made from PU coated leather and abrasion-resistant 3D mesh. The integrated panels and air-permeable toe and heel counters allow air to easily circulate even in blazing desert heat. Combined with its an exceptionally breathable new generation of Gore-Tex, you can count on these boots to keep your feet dry in dew or soft downpours when you’re traipsing along fern strewn paths. Wear them with quick-dry socks when you know you’ll have streams to cross, or anywhere where it’s inevitable your feet will get soaked, and, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your footwear (and socks) will dry.

The Verdict: This is indeed a dream ultralight-backpacking boot for most trails. You’d be hard pressed to find a lighter, more nimble, more breathable, more supportive boot with this level of traction. The black olive/marsala color combo is an added plus. This is absolutely the most perfect color for a synthetic boot: it never looks dirty or, for that matter, clean.

lasportivaLaSportiva Synthesis Mid GTX (SRP $180)
This mid-cut, versatile hiker is another top contender for the ultimate ultralight backpacker’s boot. At 22 ounces a pair (based on a women’s size 8), it’s built with an extraordinary stabilizing system that tethers the midsoles to the uppers for an ultra secure comfortable fit. This is also what makes these boots perform beyond promise on a variety of trails—mud-packed to dusty hard-rock trails.

With fewer than 20 miles of break-in, our feet felt completely supported and protected, even on the hard edges of talus. Despite being built with a Gore-Tex (GTX) bootie, heat doesn’t build up in the shoe either (nor did we experience blister after more than 35 miles of steep, unstable, scree-terrain travel). The only minor flaw we found was during the break-in period. They’re not the easiest boots to get on the first couple of times, partly due to the inflexible newness of the uppers’ material and the design of the lacing system. But the issue quickly diminishes with continued wear, which transforms both material and lacing into a more yielding support system.

The uppers are constructed of nylon fabric woven into an extremely durable and breathable patterned mesh (a polymer elastomer, or PU, reinforced leather), featuring unique “nano-cell” structures that act like ventilators while also providing stability.

These boots will likely transform most waterproofing doubters into waterproofing optimists. Built with integrated seam-taped GTX booties, the boot’s waterproof system works by channeling sweat or water through the GTX membrane into an air permeable spacer under the footbed, and then ports it back up from there out through the nano-cell vents. The design allows moisture to evaporate and the foot to stay dry. It’s a solid, effective system.

We’re also convinced that La Sportiva’s solid shank and proprietary Vibram Impact Braking System™ are what make the Synthesis outperform others when it comes to comfort, stability and grip on steep rocky trails. The outsoles lugs are oriented in opposing slanted directions that helps grab at every angle, which increases braking power and decreases impact forces. The foot-cradling fit and all-around ecto-support mean feet don’t slip or slide around inside the boot, which not only means no blisters, but also positive “foot sense” at all times.

The Verdict: These are absolutely stellar ultra lightweight boots. They hug your feet without suffocating them, and they’re cool and breathable in hot climates. At this writing we’ve logged 140 miles in them, and they still show very little wear on the uppers or outsoles. The Synthesis Mid is not only a solid performer but comes with the promise of exceptional longevity.

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Jo Ostgarden

Jo Ostgarden is a freelance journalist who has traveled around the world by plane, train, thumb, bicycle and automobile. She bicycled across Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to British Columbia and throughout 14 countries abroad. Additionally, she's an enthusiastic longtime backpacker who calls the Grand Canyon her own personal energy spot. She's also expert on travel in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Ireland. She edited and re-wrote the final edition of Best Places Northwest Travel Guide, and has written about travel, health, nutrition and endurance sports gear for dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Bicycling Magazine.

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