I haul myself out of my packraft and onto the rocky shore, wet from the tops of my farmer johns down to the GoLite shoes on my feet. Grasping my paddle with one tired arm, I reach down with the other and grab the pack, strapped to the bow of my packraft, and pull both it and the raft out of the water and onto the rocks. Looking down the river at the souse hole I narrowly avoided (by arresting myself on the shore), I wonder if I’m up to rafting Bear Trap Canyon, which is running at 4000 cfs. Time for some portage.
Mounting the pack and packraft onto my back, I join the other Backpacking Light instructors moving downriver over wet stones and up steep banks. As I move along, I’m impressed by how well my soaked shoes grip the rocks and dirt – I feel very stable on my feet and am able to move securely down to the next put-in site.
Brief History of GoLite Footwear
A couple of months earlier, I called GoLite Footwear and asked to test the two lightest models from their latest line of shoes. GoLite Footwear, whose name is licensed from GoLite, LLC in Colorado, was founded by Doug Clark, who had worked at Timberland as the chief innovation officer. While there, he and his team developed a line of shoes that were designed to stabilize the foot during off-pavement travel by combining a hard footbed with an outsole consisting of soft lugs made to absorb the uneven surfaces of the ground. They called this "Soft Against the Ground" technology. In 2008, Clark bought the rights to GoLite Footwear from Timberland and formed New England Footwear, which now manufactures GoLite Footwear shoes.
2007 Sun Dragon upper
In 2007, GoLite Footwear introduced its first line of shoes. The lightest in the lineup, at 10.9 ounces, was the Sun Dragon.
2007 Sun Dragon sole
Its Trail Speed outsole consisted of fourteen widely spaced lugs in a symmetrical pattern. Initial reviews of the shoes were very positive: Carol Cooker said, “My favorite shoe for backpacking is the GoLite Sun Dragon. When I wear Sun Dragons, my feet don’t get that hamburger feel after a long day of hiking up and down uneven, rocky trails.” Andrew Skurka used them exclusively on his Great Western Loop hike and said, “These shoes are really great, truly revolutionary. For a backpacker, it means less pointy stuff to give you foot bruises, better traction on snow, and better traction on dirt and rocks.” After a backpacking trip to the Olympic Coast, Doug Johnson said, “While I was skeptical at first, this system has won me over. The shoe conforms to trail irregularities when running and hiking, keeping the foot level and providing better shock absorption. The large lugs also provided excellent traction in mud and sand – a difference that was obvious.” Everyone also seemed very pleased with the shoes’ large toe box design.
Then things began to fall apart – literally. Due to a problem in the manufacturing process, the fabric on the vamp of the shoe began deteriorating after about sixty miles of use.
Courtesy of Carol Crooker
The company corrected the manufacturing problem, and the 2008 shoes showed increased durability. However, with both the 2007 and 2008 models, users found that the soles of the shoes wore down more quickly than other brands.
Courtesy of Carol Crooker
The Sun Dragon on the left has three months of wear, compared to the new sole on the right.
2009 GoLite Footwear Competition
After great anticipation, my shoes from the 2009 line finally arrived in the mail. The lightest shoe in this year’s product line is called the Competition, or Comp for short. A men’s size 9.5 US weighs 12.96 ounces per shoe (367 grams) by my scale.
2009 GoLite Footwear Competition
The Comp features what GoLite Footwear calls a TPU Cage, which is the web of thermoplastic glued to the shoe’s mesh upper. It is designed to offer protection and stability to the upper shoe.
GoLite Footwear Competition’s loose mesh
The mesh upper, dubbed the NeoForm Seamless Upper, is a seamless loose mesh. The shoe also has GoLite Footwear’s Debris Shield, which is the thermoplastic and leather toe cap that protects the front of the shoe. The back portion of the shoe is protected by a sewn-in leather strip.
Interlock Lacing System on Comp
One of the more interesting features on the shoe is the Interlock Lacing System, a piece of material that is sewn into the inner sole, wraps around the side of the foot inside the shoe, goes through eyelets, over the top of the tongue, and finally through the shoe laces. It is designed to keep the foot from sliding forward and hitting the front of the shoe.
GoLite Footwear Comp sole
GoLite Footwear has changed the design of its uniquely lugged sole. It seems that people either really liked the idea of the big lugs or found them too aggressive looking and wouldn’t buy them. Responding to this feedback, GoLite Footwear has replaced the symmetrical lugged sole with what it calls Trailclaws and Paw Pads. The Trailclaws are lower profile lugs around the outside of the sole and the Paw Pads are smaller tread on the center of the sole.
GoLite Footwear Comp Trailclaws and Paw Pads
By making these changes, the company hopes to maintain the Soft Against the Ground effect while providing a more versatile shoe that will work well on hard-packed trails.
As mentioned earlier, their Soft Against the Ground technology is designed to keep the foot stable and cushioned on rough and uneven surfaces. They achieve this through a rigid last with a rigid polyurethane layer under that, which protects the bottom of the foot. Between the rigid polyurethane layer and the rubber outsole is a very soft polyurethane layer that absorbs the irregularities of uneven terrain.
GoLite Footwear Fire
The second lightest shoe in the 2009 lineup is called the Fire. It weighs 13.04 ounces per shoe (369 grams) by my scale for a men’s size 9.5 US.
GoLite Footwear Fire sole
The Fire’s insole, midsole, and outsole are identical to the Comps’.
GoLite Footwear Fire upper
The difference between the two shoes is in the upper half: the Fire is designed to be more rugged and durable than the Comp. The Cage is made of EVA and is thicker and more protective of the shoe’s seamless mesh upper. The mesh is tighter and has a higher thread count than the Comps’.
GoLite Footwear Fire toe
GoLite Footwear Fire heel
Instead of leather, the debris shield and the hill are covered with a rubberized fabric.
GoLite Footwear Fire Interlocking Lacing System
Another interesting difference between the two shoes is the Fire’s Interlock Lacing System: instead of one strip of material linked to the laces, the Fire has two. More on this later.
I wanted to compare the two models side-by-side, so for my first trips I wore a Comp on one foot and a Fire on the other. I switched the feet the shoes were on so the soles of each pair would wear evenly. I used the shoes for snowshoeing, backpacking, trail running, packrafting, bushwhacking, and even for some short races on asphalt. I took pictures of the wear on each model as the testing progressed.
Of course, the first thing I did when the shoes arrived was put them on. They were both very comfortable with no pressure points and with plenty of room in the toe box. The laces ran smoothly through each eyelet and were easy to cinch up. My heel tended to slip up and down a little as I walked, so I laced up the second eyelet at the top of the tongue, adding enough tension to secure my heel nicely.
GoLite Footwear adjustable footbed system
The second thing I did was take out the manufacture’s footbeds and put in a pair of Superfeet. In doing so, I discovered a virtually unadvertised GoLite Footwear feature. Their footbeds have a system where, by adding or removing attachments to the footbed, one can adjust the fit of the shoe from wide to medium to narrow. At first I thought this was a completely wasted idea, seeing as I never use the footbeds that come with the shoe. In this criticism, however, I was wholly unjustified.
As my sock needs went from heavy winter socks to thin running socks, I was able to add or remove these footbed attachments under my Superfeet so that my shoes always felt like they were the perfect width. This made the shoes far more versatile than any other trail running shoes I had owned before. I usually need a wide pair for winter trips and a narrow pair for warmer trips. Now I had two shoes in one.
It was then time to take the shoes outdoors. My first outings were snowshoe trips in the mountains of southern Oregon. The snow in the Cascades is either completely frozen or sopping wet. On these trips, the shoes performed like any others I had used snowshoeing: soaked during the day and frozen solid at night. But, as described above, the shoes were wide enough that I could wear my trekking socks and Gore-Tex oversocks in them without losing the blood flow to my feet. Between the two models, I found that the Comps, with the more open mesh, were a little colder and less protected from the snow than the Fires.
Backpacking and Trail Running
I began backpacking and trail running early in the season, which meant a mix of muddy ground and snow mounds. The shoes’ grip was phenomenal. While my trip partners were sliding around on the slippery terrain, my shoes were staying put pretty well. It felt like the lugs around the edge of the sole were grabbing the ground and keeping my feet where I had placed them.
I found that I turned my ankles less than I normally do. That is one of the intended features of the Soft Against the Ground concept. The shoe sole compresses on uneven ground and minimizes the impact of the feet and legs. Of course, this can only provide stability to a certain extent – when I moved on side hills or over rocks or in a washed-out trail, I still turned an ankle from time to time.
The shoes provided plenty of cushion against the ground overall, but not in a way that was noticeably superior to other trail runners I’ve used. After hiking in them for several days, the bottoms of my feet were sore (especially my heels), which is similar to my experience with other shoes. Perhaps my feet were less sore then they would have been in other shoes, but not so much that I could perceive a measurable difference.
The shoes fit me well. Using the variable width footbeds, my foot didn’t slip around, nor were they too tight, and by snugging down the laces, my heel stayed in place. I did, however, run into a problem with the Fires: before running or backpacking, I would tighten down the laces to secure my foot in the shoes. After a few miles, my fifth metatarsal (the bone just down the foot from the pinky toe) would hurt to the point that it became debilitating. Afterwards, I inspected the sides of my feet and found them swollen in the area of the fifth metatarsal.
The problem came from the Interlocking Lacing System (the straps inside the shoe that wrap around the foot and connect to the laces). Cinching down the laces put too much pressure on that part of my foot. I didn’t experience that with the Comps and concluded that the second strip of material in the Fire was the cause. I removed the laces from the front loops, in effect making them like the Comps. This eliminated the problem.
Wear on sole after backpacking and trail running
I took the shoes packrafting; the Comp on one foot and the Fire on the other. As I stated at the beginning of the article, I was impressed with how well the shoes gripped the wet rocks along the shore. They were no match for the slippery, moss-covered rocks in the river, but I think the only solution to that problem would be crampons. The shoes transitioned well from the wet river to the dirty side hills. Both shoes drained equally well and stayed equally wet. The leather on the front and back of the Comps got pretty dirty, but this was an aesthetic, not functional, issue.
At the end of this instructor training rafting and packing trip, I noted something very interesting about the soles of the shoes: the soft polyurethane part of the sole, that was not covered by rubber, puffed out and lost its definition.
Wear on the sole after packrafting
It didn’t affect the feel of the cushioning, but it did have an impact on the sole’s durability.
Wilderness Trekking Course
I chose to take the Comps on the 2009 Wilderness Trekking I course to see if the mesh and leather on the lighter shoe could stand up to a lot of abuse. I took the one shoe that had been packrafting and one that had not. We hiked from early in the morning to late in the evening every day, most of this off trail on aggressive terrain. The results were fascinating.
Wear on upper after wilderness trekking course
Wear on toe after wilderness trekking course
Wear on heel after wilderness trekking course
As you can see from the pictures above, the upper part of the shoe held up very well. I wore ankle gaiters and, apart from dirt, there was not much difference between the protected and unprotected upper. Although the mesh had relatively large holes, particles did not get in my shoes. The surprise was on the underside of the shoe.
Wear on sole after wilderness trekking course
Wear on sole after wilderness trekking course
The sole of the shoe that I had taken backpacking and running, but not packrafting, had obvious wear and tear compared to before the trip and one of the lugs had come unglued.
Wear on the sole after packrafting and wilderness trekking course
The sole of the shoe that had been on the rafting trip, however, lost all of the rubber on the lugs and a significant portion on the heel. Clearly, the extended time being wet had a substantial impact on the adhesive material between the polyurethane and rubber.
GoLite Footwear has developed a unique underfoot suspension system that largely accomplishes their intentions. The shoes are comfortable and the uppers are durable. I would like to give them a Recommended rating; however, because of the lack of resiliency on the soles of the shoes, I can only rate them Below Average for the suggested retail price. If GoLite Footwear can fix this durability issue, these will be great shoes. I would definitely wear them again, but with the understanding that they will only last me one season.
|Competition – Upper: Ballistic Mesh and TPU Cage; Outsole/Midsole: Rubber, TPU and PU|
Fire – Upper: Mesh and EVA Cage; Outsole/Midsole: Rubber, TPU and PU
|Competition – Anatomically Contoured|
Fire – Anatomically Contoured
|Competition – Mens 9.5 with medium width footbed|
Fire – Mens 9.5 with medium width footbed
|Competition – 12.96 oz (367 g)|
Fire – 13.04 oz (369 g)
|Competition – Skyway and Rifle Green|
Fire – Navy and Black
|Competition – $120|
Fire – $130