Salewa Ultra Train Trail Runner - The Jack of all Trades

When hiking shoes meet trail running shoes.
August 20, 2023

A few months ago, I tried out some Salewa approach shoes, which you can check out here. In my review, I described the approach shoes as a climbing- and hiking- shoe love child. With that in mind,  my Ultra Trains add a questionable branch to the outdoor footwear family tree. This time, the hiking shoe had a fling with a running shoe, one thing led to another, and the Ultra Trains were born.

Salewa describe these as a shoe for “speed hiking adventures and mountain training”. I feel like “mountain training’ is a bit vague – so I’m going to tell you what I use these for, and why.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s have a look at the parts of this shoe. Firstly, the grippy sole. These guys sport a Michelin sole (the Outdoor Compound Extreme, to be precise). And it’s good. They’re not as good as my sticky approach shoes on wet or dusty rocks, a compromise for longevity, but are no worse than my current trail runners. The tread is pretty aggressive and will cope well with those muddy, slippery trails. I would rate them higher in mud than on slippery rock – but they won’t let you down on a rocky river crossing. After many mountain miles, they are showing almost no wear.

The laces on my version (the Ultra Train 2), is the Quick Lacing system – i.e. you don’t tie a bow, you  just pull the loop snug and slide the toggle tight. These unexpectedly became my go-to shoes when I broke my arm, as I couldn’t tie shoelaces one-handed! The quick-lacing also comes in handy when you’ve got multiple river crossings, wasting little time to get them off and on. Apparently the new models are switching back to laces, and I don’t see it as a dealbreaker either way. My Quick-laces are holding up well and hold tight without the toggle sliding. It’s perhaps a little harder to adjust the tightness along the length of the foot than with laces. As with the approach shoes, the laces are a bit long for my feet, but I tuck them away under the lacing at my toes – no biggie.

The uppers. This is where the Ultra Trains earn their keep in the mountains. These are made tough. The shoes have a reinforced rand (where the upper meets the sole of the shoe, and where I often get toes poking out of my trail runners). Apart from lasting longer, these also protect clumsy feet from some gentle rock kicking. So far they’re holding up very well, and I expect them to outlive my softer trail runners by a long shot when faced with brambles, long grass and rocky trails.

As for the general comfort and feel, these are a win. They feel sturdier and stiffer than trail runners – great for off trail hiking. However, they aren’t restrictive at all – and there’s plenty of room for your toes. They are also true to size – when I got these, I went a half size up from normal, which works really well with thicker socks for long hikes. Although, if I were to get another pair, I’d probably stick to my usual size. When I first got these, I thought they rode a little high on my ankle, and was expecting some wearing-in issues. But I’m pleased to report that they’ve given me zero issues or blisters. I also think these shoes just look pretty good as well.

So where does this shoe fit in? Now, some may argue that the hiking shoes had nothing to do with this running-hiking progeny, and that these are purebred trail runners. In fact, when I first got these shoes, that’s what I thought their target market was. And I wasn’t sold on them. If you haven’t read Born to Run and aren’t fussed about heel drops and stack heights, these aren’t a far cry from many of the big-name trail runners on the market (for the record, it’s an 8mm drop and 270g a shoe). Indeed, you could run miles in these. So why wouldn’t I? Alas, I am the low-drop, free-footed variety, who prefers light and minimalist. If I arrived at a venue to find I had left my running shoes behind, I wouldn’t have a problem donning these. They’re just a little bulky for my usual style. Don’t let this put you off though – they’re designed to be run in. Maybe you won’t get a sprint record in them, but you’ll certainly be grateful for them on mountain paths and muddy trails. They’ll last you a while too.

So, what do I use these for? In short, anything! Walking, hiking, scrambling. I’ve used them cycling, I’ve used them paragliding, I’ve used them to stroll around the block and mow the lawn. I even played a hockey match in them (where they performed amazingly) and took them with on a skiing trip where they were ideal between slope sessions to navigate icy walkways, hike up the slope for some bumboarding, and easily slip on and off between wedging feet into ski boots. These have to qualify as the most “jack of all trades” shoes I have ever owned. Now, we all know the saying “a jack of all trades is a master of none”. And this definitely has some relevance here. If you were fanatical about any of the aforementioned categories, they’re probably not THE best specialist shoe you can buy for any of them. If you Googled “best running shoe”, “best hockey shoe” or “best off trail shoe”, you’d be greeted with a host of specialist options that may well outdo the Ultra Trains on minor details.  Except perhaps for fast packing. I’d give these full marks for hiking fast and light, without setting out to necessarily run. Think Hike and Fly paragliding missions (e.g. X-berg), or a hike up to a Drakensberg climb or summit.

Importantly, most of us also know the last bit of that saying “a jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” And THAT’S where these beauties excel. Let’s say your budget is stretched, or you don’t like clutter, or you can’t justify hordes of specialist gear. These shoes are the answer. Unless you’re some alpine specialist or extreme gear junkie who compares rubber compounds and tread dimensions, they will meet your outdoor footwear needs 95% of the time. I tend to use these for every outdoor activity that isn’t running, to allow me to prolong the life of my flimsier trail runners (and my running shoe budget).

If I had to pick one shoe to take with me on an outdoorsy weekend that was going to involve a range of activities, this would be the one. Jack of all trades, king of versatility and a firm favourite in my shoe line-up.