Gear Review: Adidas Free Hiker

Gear Review:  Adidas Outdoor, Terrex Free Hiker ($200)

Full disclosure: These shoes were provided to me free of charge in exchange for performance feedback.  That rules.  However, these opinions remain my own and are honest.  Bigly.

Hiking somewhere far away?  The Free Hikers will take you there in style.

What are they?

The Terrex Free Hikers are a strong attempt by Adidas to tap into the growing thru-hiking market with a hybrid boot/trail runner.  It feels like traditional hiking boots are losing out to trail running shoes among the hiking community, especially for long-distance/thru-hiking.  I am an enthusiastic adopter of this trend and decided to give these a shot despite some features that I typically eschew.  And yes, getting them for free was a huge part of this decision.  I like Altra Lone Peaks a lot, and would not have deviated from them for anything other than free gear.

The high top is the obvious defining feature.  More eyelets to show off those dope laces.

The Free Hikers are like high top running shoes.  I suppose this gives the ankle support of a traditional boot, but the comfort and low-weight closer to a trail runner.  Adidas jargon refers to the Primeknit upper that “hugs the foot” and the Boost midsole with claimed improvements to durability and cushion over traditional EVA foam.  Rubber from the tire manufacturer Continental is supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread.  A pair weighs around 27 ounces.  There is a 10mm heel-toe drop.  The sizing when I got these was totally jacked up.  Maybe this has changed, but comparing even to other Adidas shoes, the sizing makes little sense.  I hiked comfortably in women’s size 9 when I typically hike in men’s size 9.  What?

My men’s size 9 Altra Lone Peaks were actually shorter than my women’s size 9 Adidas Free Hikers.  Doesn’t make much sense to me.

How’d they do?

I think that they did pretty darn good.  I decided to start the CDT in the Free Hikers, hoping to really grind them into the ground and see what they’re made of.  I had a pair of Altra Lone Peaks ready to ship if I totally hated them, but ended up completely wearing them out after covering more miles(909) than I ever have in a single pair of shoes.  I think that kind of says a lot on its own, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  These shoes just weren’t for me and I hiked the rest of the trail in Lone Peak’s, which cost me more money, but kept my feet happyhappier.

At the start of the trail, I was not used to the extra material around my ankle and even hiked with one shoe not fully laced up for comparison’s sake.  Either the shoes loosened up or I did, and was soon comfortable with them laced all the way. The relatively high heel-toe drop also felt strange at the beginning of the hike, but I never really got used to this quirk. My stride always felt impacted and unnatural, having hiked in zero-drop shoes for years prior.  The Boost midsole performed better by lasting longer than I skeptically expected, and the Continental tread was awesome.

Safely carrying open cans of food, just another benefit of high tops. #spicepic

The Primeknit upper did not live up to the sock-like fit claim made by Adidas.  It is a continuous woven tube of fabric with no separate tongue, and it definitely feels and looks a lot more like a sock than any other shoe that I’ve seen, but the fit was too loose to be a sock.  Even wearing a women’s size, typically narrower than men’s, my feet were swimming in space, far from feeling hugged.  I really think that Adidas has refining to do with this technology and that improved/more accurate sizing will help fix this issue too.  However, as someone who likes loose shoes, I actually embraced this aspect of the Free Hikers and it definitely wasn’t uncomfortable, just unremarkable.  The Primeknit upper also proved to be quite durable.  A small hole developed at the edge of the toe crease at mile 250, but did not propagate further.  Similar holes would appear on the other side and other shoe, but not until around mile 650 and none became so large that significant detritus entered.  Premature blow-out of the shoe upper is a common issue on thru-hikes and happens in a blink after the first whisper of a hole, so I was pleased to see these small holes stay small.

adidas holes
(left) The first hole appeared around mile 250.  (right) The same hole at around mile 900. Not catastrophic.

Break it Down

The good:

  • Great traction:  The Continental rubber is no joke. Between my experience with the Free Hikers on the CDT, two other pairs of shoes from the Adidas Terrex line, and many shoes with other rubber, I have no reservations in saying that I prefer Continental rubber to any other, Vibram included.  It’s not perfect, but grips well and lasts a long time.  I like it, though I have no actual evidence to back up this opinion.
  • Durable:  The tread lasted well for over 900 miles. The upper sprung a couple leaks, but avoided total blow-out.  The Boost midsole had more life at 900 miles than the Lone Peaks at 700.  The durability limit of this shoe, like most shoes, will only be approached by thru-hikers.
  • Stylish:  High tops are not typical in the thru-hiking world.  High tops with purple on them are even rarer.  It took me a while to get used to them, but it’s hip to be different.
  • Ankle support:  Not everyone needs or wants it, but the Free Hikers have it.  Not as much as a beefy boot, but more than a low top fo sho.
  • Laces:  You know bad laces when you get them. I kept these ones for the whole trail.
  • No break-in:  A benefit shared by all non-boots.
The Continental rubber just before I dumped the Free Hikers in the trash.  Over 900 miles, still plenty of tread, still plenty of grip.

The bad:

  • Heavy:  The extra material for the high top and fat heel adds up, and the Primeknit is a lot thicker than typical trail runner material.  A pair of Free Hikers(27oz) is almost 10 ounces heavier than Lone Peak (18oz).  Though they are still lighter than most traditional boots, I felt like I was wearing slippers when I changed shoes to Lone Peaks in Yellowstone.
  • Hot:  The Primeknit upper is on the thicker side of the spectrum and, therefore, does not breath as well as trail runners.  During the summer, I did not appreciate this feature.  Perhaps I would have during the cold conclusion.
  • Slow drying:  The aforementioned thick Primeknit upper took its sweet time drying out after getting soaked at river crossings or walking through wet brush.  My feet generally remained damp all day after getting wet and I was happy to switch to the faster-drying Lone Peaks.
  • High top:  This could be a good thing if you desire ankle support.  I do not.
  • Sizing:  It’s way off making online ordering a challenge to get right.  Maybe this has changed, maybe not.
  • Price:  is high ($200 new!)
  • Heel-toe drop:  10mm isn’t a crazy number at all.  I hiked the PCT with 10mm drop without complaint.  But now that I’m used to zero drop, the Free Hikers felt like high-heels.
Giant mushrooms love the damp.  Giant mushrooms would love the Free Hikers.

Would I recommend them?

Perhaps.  Choosing the proper footwear is so personal that I hesitate to recommend any shoe.  I would instead say that the Free Hiker is worth a look if ankle support is a necessity.  For folks who are used to hiking in boots, but want to go lighter and are maybe curious about the trail runner phenomenon, these are a decent way to test the waters.  I will also add that I believe they are best suited to cold weather, dry hiking.  For example, if I were hopping on a plane to Nepal tomorrow to bounce around the Himalaya, I would probably take a pair of Free Hikers.  While I think running shoes are outmatched by that terrain, I’ve felt like my boots are overkill on the well-worn paths between villages on the popular trekking routes.  Extra warmth and support versus running shoes at high altitude and on hard stone trails. Less unnecessary weight and waterproofing versus typical boots.  And probably better traction than either.

Looking good is thirsty work.  They say that style is something you’re born with…  #themostepicspicepic

Wrapping up, Adidas Free Hikers are good shoes.  Intrigued? Don’t listen to me.  Try them on, see what you think.  They are not my favorite shoes, but they might be yours.

That’s it, and that’s all.

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