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Merrell Mountain Gloves: A Trail Shoe Hack

Posted by on Dec 12, 2011 | 17 Comments

I like to run in mountains.  Under normal conditions, Merrell’s Trail Gloves perform brilliantly.  However, when running fast, in the dark, or over hidden terrain, the lack of a true hard rock plate can result in some seriously bruised soles.

I’ve tried a few other shoe, but everything else either offers less protection or WAY too much protection.  The best of the bunch is New Balance’s new MT110.  The fit isn’t spectacular on my foot, the lacing isn’t as good as the Trail Glove, and the slightly thicker sole limits proprioception.  It’s an adequate solution, but I’d prefer something that wouldn’t require so many tradeoffs.   Instead of waiting around for the perfect mountain shoe, I decided to build my own by hacking a pair of Trail Gloves.

Would my modded Trail Gloves, which I’m dubbing “Mountain Gloves”, outperform the MT110s?

The Mod

I needed something to add to provide protection without dramatically affecting weight or traction.  Adding something outside the outsole was impractical.  The only real solution was an insole-type insert.  I decided to make something that covered the entire sole as arch and heel bruising can be a problem when you can’t see the terrain.  I needed something hard, moderately flexible, thin, and light.  After digging around our trailer, I found some potential materials- a thin plastic-ish cutting board and a Rubbermaid storage container lid.

Experiment #1: The Cutting Board

Construction started with tracing the sole on the board.  Since the insole would extend the entire length of the shoe, I just traced the entire outsole then drew another line about 5mm in from the original.  The arch extends inward quite far as I need minimal protection in that specific location.

Since I couldn’t cut the cutting board, I used a soldering iron to “melt out” the shapes.  This worked well as it was both accurate and fast.


Once I cut out the shapes, I rounded the edges with some course sandpaper.  I loosened the laces of the shoes and slid the insoles in.  The shape of the insole holds it in place so there’s no need to affix it inside the shoe.

The initial testing revealed two issues:

1. The thickness of the plate made the toe box a little too snug.  Toes can still splay, but swelling could be an issue in long ultras.

2. The thickness of the plate moves the heel collar down on my ankle.  This may cause the shoe to come off if torqued to the side.

Despite these two issues, the plate works exactly as planned.  The hard material protects the foot while still maintaining decent flexibility and proprioception at a minimal weight cost.  The surface of the plate (hard plastic) wasn’t as comfortable as the normal foot bed, but it was still adequate.

The first test was going well… until I felt a rock in my left shoe.  I took the shoe off and gave it a good shake.  To my surprise, a hunk of the cutting board fell out.  Apparently it is impervious to knives, but also brittle.  The plate had cracked in two places and a hunk had fallen off.

On to option 2.

Experiment #2:  The Rubbermaid Top

I used the same basic method to build these plates.  The material isn’t as thick, but more flexible.  Protection isn’t quite as good, but the thin material eliminates most of the fit issues experienced with the cutting board.  It also allows for better proprioception.  I think I may have found a winning material.

To make the inserts more comfortable, I wrapped the top in cloth medical tape.  In theory, this will help prevent the foot from sliding on the slippery plastic and should add to the comfort level.

In practice, it was only marginally better than bare plastic and developed a small hole after one test run up and down a mountain.  This tape is definitely not an option.  Athletic tape may be more durable.

As far as performance, these felt better than the cutting board insoles.  The added flexibility was nice.  The reduced protection was noticeable, but sufficient to prevent pain from stepping on very sharp rocks.  These insoles allowed me to bomb down the mountain without any discomfort. The slightly lower thickness gave my feet a little more room within the shoe, and the added proprioception gave me more control.

The Big Question

Okay, so the inserts provide the needed protection the stock Trail Gloves lack… but are the ‘Mountain Gloves” better than the MT110s?

Yes and no.

The modded Trail Gloves maintained most of the great fit, but moving up one size may provide even more comfort.  The lacing of the TG kept my foot in place much better than the MT110.  The stickier sole provided better traction on bare rock faces.  The overall thickness of the Mountain Glove is thinner than the MT110, which provided better proprioception.

The New Balance does have some advantages.  The foot bed of the MT110s was more comfortable.  The fabric-over-EVA insole was more comfortable than my medical tape-over-plastic insole.  The lugs of the MT110 gave me better traction in mud and dirt.

Ultimately, my decision on which shoe to use will be determined by the terrain and conditions.  I’ll continue to use unmodded Trail Gloves for 90% of my trail running.  When excessively sharp rocks and/or visibility become an issue, I’ll opt for the added protection of one of these shoes.  The MGs would be better on rocky terrain with lots of climbs and descents.  The MT110s would be better in dirt and mud on a flatter course.

My Mountain Gloves would be infinitely better if the rock plate were incorporated into the midsole and covered with one or two millimeters of EVA.  They could also use a slightly more aggressive tread pattern, though that would hurt their performance on solid rock.  It would be a tradeoff I’d accept.  The thinner sole, zero-dropped heel, and Omni-Fit lacing system are definite advantages.



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  1. Jules
    December 14, 2011

    Why not stitch together a layered solution?

    Thing (sub-1/8″) HDPE could form a base layer, to which all else is added.

    Cordura nylon could wrap the HDPE.

    Segments of thicker HDPE could compose a more encompassing rockplate; or, a non-sewable material could be used, and be stitched around (floating between layers) rather then through. The materials that are used in backpack framesheets come to mind.

    Such an idea would have the topmost layer something friendly to the feet, and the bottommost rubberized to reduce slipping against the inside of the shoe.

  2. Tom
    December 13, 2011

    Hey, Jason, I created the same “rock plates” from Rubbermaid container tops for my Trail Gloves last fall. I carry them in my hydration pack when I venture out onto new mountain trails, and slide them into my shoes when the going gets rough. Not exactly ideal, but they’ve worked out OK when I needed them 🙂

  3. Rich
    December 13, 2011

    Have you tried the Neo Trails? They seem to be what you’re looking for with the built in rock plate and aggressive outsole but without too much added bulk.

  4. John
    December 12, 2011

    Try thin moleskin. Cut to fit, place under a heavy object for 24 hours. Should be a bit more durable than med tape.

  5. David
    December 12, 2011

    Man, I’m starting to think if you really want to run barefoot style then gnarly trails just aren’t the place. Save that stuff for hiking, solo or with friends. We sort of assume BFS running means any where and every where, but maybe that’s not really legit? Now if you really want the necessary protection to run the rugged trails, there are zero drop options out there…but it won’t be a VFF style experience.

  6. Mo
    December 12, 2011

    Viper might also look into these. Pricey, but these have been around for years, and I have known several folks who wore them years before VFFs even came about, and are still wearing the original pair (built to last, custom built for your feet) Perhaps worth the investment if you have a long, cold winter?

  7. Aaron
    December 12, 2011

    I’ve been planning on doing this with my X-talon 190s, using insoles made out of 8-9oz leather. The fit of my Trail Gloves will probably only allow half that weight.

  8. Aaron
    December 12, 2011

    Interesting hack.

    I have a set flexible cutting mats similar to what Viper suggested, and I think they would work pretty well as rock plates. They are about 1mm thick and would cut easy with kitchen shears. I doubt you would have to size up to wear them in your MGs. You would probably still want to wrap them, as they will be slippery. Because they are light and flex in all directions, you could easily carry them and slip them into the shoes when needed.

    Do you know of anybody who has tried to stretch the length of the TGs? I’ve had mine for several months and have come to realize I bought them 1/2 size too small, which makes them uncomfortable to run in, especially on hard surfaces. I’d love to stretch the length a bit if possible, but I don’t really know how.

  9. David Sutherland
    December 12, 2011

    How about putting the inserts under the thin insole on an EVO or Neo? I might have to try that actually – I have had instep bruises wearing the trail gloves in rocky conditions.

    I am holding out hope that the MT110 fits me, though my flippers tend to be squished in NB size 14s, and I doubt that they will come bigger than that.

    • Jason
      December 12, 2011

      I have tried something similar before, but the fit of the Evo and Neo isn’t conducive to mountain running. They allow the foot to move too much inside the shoe, which beats up the toes going down.

      As far as NB sizing, I don’t know what size they’ll go up to. Shoot them an email. At the very least, they’ll know there’s a demand.

  10. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    December 12, 2011

    Aren’t you at the point with Merrell where you can just ask the shoe lab to make you a pair of custom running shoes a la Killian Jornet with Salomon. Get working on that Robillard!

    • Jason
      December 12, 2011

      From what I understand, it’s a bit of a process (i.e.- I’m too impatient.) 😉

  11. Viper
    December 12, 2011

    Nice hack. In my house, we have even thinner cutting mats that may work better at a rock plate. Not these, but similar:

    Also, have you found a minimal winter boot? I’d love to find a zero-drop hiking boot for Ohio winters. Cheers!

    • Jason
      December 12, 2011

      Hmmm… I might have to try that cutting board. Thanks for the tip!

      I don’t really test hiking boots… the ankle support annoys the hell out of me. If I’m outdoors in snow, I’m usually running. I think there are a few on the market, though. Otherwise, I know of a few people that hacked the heel off their hiking boots as a zero-drop solution. Aesthetically it’s not pretty, but serves the purpose.

    • Mo
      December 12, 2011

      Hey, Viper- check out these boots… Might be just the thing, though their tread looks kinda slick.

    • Tim
      December 13, 2011

      Another variation may be to combine the thin, flexible cutting mat with a different top surface. Some leather or cloth glued on would make it less slippery. Yet another option is just a chunk of rawhide to provide the footbed surface and protector in one piece. Or, combine different types of laminated material in different areas of the footbed for different needs of that particular spot, stiffer across the bottom and maybe a little more flexible under the arch.