This fall I’ve been wearing little other than the Astral TR1 Merge, and for the sort of walking I like to do these days, they are far and away the best pair of shoes I’ve ever had.
While they don’t have a tremendous number of miles on them, almost all of those miles have been off trail. They went elk hunting in the Montana prairie badlands, did an alpine traverse on broken granite, went hiking, biking, and climbing in the Colorado Plateau, and have spent more time bushwacking and traversing limestones ridges close to home. All of those are more abusive on shoes than average, in their own way, and the shoes are holding up perfectly thus far.
Traction across mediums has been excellent. The lugs grip loose soil, either straight on or sidehill, while having enough surface area for good friction on bare rock. The rubber is soft enough, without wearing too fast. The midsole is thick and protective enough, without any hinge points, and without feeling unnatural or slow. They’re supportive enough, for me, for technical mountain biking using flat pedals, but I can tolerate far softer shoes in all areas than most. Significantly, the modest padding and added material in the heel and toebox have improved both hold and protection; I’ve not experienced any of the unpleasant talus bites I got often in the Brewers. The only real flaw is the open mesh used in the toungue, which extends down into the toebox just enough to become a magnet for cheatgrass seeds and a conduit for sand.
For me, they’ve been supportive enough to carry a 70 pound pack on a few occasions (deer pack out, as well as a family backpack load with a toddler on top). For me and my feet, support means enough padding and structure to insulate my feet from the terrain, even when I’m suddenly 50% again my own weight, while being pliable enough to not cause hot spots. Zero drop is a big part of the later, as is the lack of illusory things like ankle support. The Merges work for me because they’re a coherent package, the level of support, degree of structure, even the sole and rubber all working to serve one particular style of walking.
That style is a light footed one, based on balancing over terrain and using weaknesses and variations for purchase. Smearing across the loose wet sidehill, rather the kicking steps. Working the stable pieces of a talus slope, rather than digging through and into the loosest parts to make steps. This style is as much about strength and ability as it is about the type and style of trip. People who regularly take big packs into rough terrain are more often drawn to stiff boots due to pace, and indeed due to their line through a place. This isn’t to say that fast line, fluid pace shoes are not compatible with a big pack, simply that melding such shoes with a heavy pack requires more than simple strength. It requires a skillset, and that combination is due to how learning conventionally evolves has historically been uncommon.
That is changing, and as fluid line choice under expedition conditions works further toward the norm, I hope shoes like the Merge remain around as options.