Hoka One One TenNine Hike
Weight: 17.8 ounces
Heel to toe drop: 4 mm
We were less than half a mile away from the summit of Wright Peak, the first of three of the Adirondacks' famed 46ers that we planned to climb that day, when we recognized that the safest way forward was to turn back. Thirty feet before that moment, I stood perched on a rock, an island in the river of ice that the trail had become, searching for the next safe step.
Another hiker confidently clinked by on his way down from one of the nearby but still unseeable summits. He looked at my feet, and I looked at his, which were strapped into the same crampons I've walked across glaciers in. "You might be able to make it," he said. "But I'd turn back if I were you."
It's impossible to know if all the other hikers we passed that day also stared at mine and my partner's feet because they lacked traction devices or because we were wearing Hoka One One's strange new hiking boot, the TenNine Hike. I don't blame them either way, though I will say we had hiked a similar trail, ice-free, only a week before. But that was in Vermont, and if New York's Adirondacks have proven anything to me during a season's worth of weekend trips, it's that they are a range apart.
The boots, however, can't make such a feeble excuse. They're weird, even for Hoka, whose big, marshmallowy shoe soles still draw pointer fingers and "whoas" years after achieving mainstream status and setting the pace for a running trend favoring high-cushion footwear. The TenNine Hike stands out in part because it's a stark blue injected with Starburst pink and orange, but mostly because its sole's heel oozes far out beyond the typical anatomical limit.
To guess the query behind the stares of the hikers we crossed paths with, what the hell is going on with this hiking boot? My ambiguous answer: a lot, and not too much.
There are three points to that big heel: cushion, stability and grip.
The roots of the TenNine Hike's oblong heel lie in the original TenNine, a trail running shoe that Hoka released last spring. Its heel is large enough to require a disclaimer warning runners not to wear it on stairs or while driving, though its proposition was benign: to increase stability and grip on uneven terrain and manage impact. Hoka brought a reduced version of the design to a road running shoe called the Clifton Edge shortly after. With both, the general idea is that when the rubber meets the road (or trail), your foot doesn't feel it.
I can't say the issues I had with grip hiking in the Adirondacks were the fault of the TenNine Hike; the conditions and hundreds of miles of previous trail experience with Vibram Megagrip outsoles would beg to differ. Besides, where I could find purchase on thawed ground, I had it.
More impressive was how the boot's heel affected our long and reluctant descent. Turning away from not one unreached summit but three drew out our downward retreat. It became memorable because it wasn't a necessity, the only way left to walk after reaching the top, but a hard choice. Nevertheless, the boots did a lot of passive work fighting that notion; Hoka rates the TenNine's cushion as "plush," and I agree. So do my knees, which are used to taking on the three-foot downward lunges that characterize so many of the East Coast's scrambly hikes in trail running shoes with far less padding to absorb the granite shock.
My one beef with the Hubble heel — yes, it has a name — is that when the trail became especially steep, requiring precise steps and the occasional heel wedge, the boot wasn't always easy to disengage. My partner's gripe was that it seemed to flick mud up like a fenderless bike wheel.
The TenNine Hike is big, but it's still lightweight.
Hikers have their sayings — my favorite refers to how much water weighs: "A pint's a pound the world around!" — but "the bigger the boot, the heavier the boot" is not one of them. It's not necessarily a bad assumption to make, but the TenNine Hike would defy it. Its largeness is self-evident (again, thanks to that heel), but it weighs in at 17.8 ounces.
For comparison, our top pick for a full-sized hiking boot, Tecnica's Forge, is 20.9 ounces and our favorite hiking shoes range from 10.6 to 19.3 ounces. Unless I'm backpacking, I typically hit the trail in hiking or trail running shoes, the reason being that they're lighter, but what's sacrificed for agility is support and cushioning.
The TenNine Hike doesn't just provide those; it maximizes them. Hoka can do so mainly thanks to a rubber compound present in the outsole that cuts weight but maintains durability, plus a recent innovation from Vibram called Litebase that reduces the weight of the tread by 30 percent without losing out on grip and, again, that ever-important durability.
Yeah, they look pretty whacky.
It's undeniable; no other hiking boot looks like the TenNine. It led one hiker in the Adirondacks to wonder out loud if they were a cross between a hiking boot and a trail running shoe. They aren't, though I did run roughly one downhill mile in them on an ice-free trail in Vermont during a recent spike in temperatures just for fun. On that hike, another hiker said they reminded her of Hermes' immortal flying sandals. I took it as a compliment.
For now, the TenNine Hike is only available in the color described above, but hikers should expect that to change. Hoka's other burly boot, the Kaha, comes in six, some bright, some monotone. For what it's worth, I like its unexpected appearance, which includes unique little details like a transparent heel support; it was a potent conversation starter that made walking in the woods more communal during a time in which solitude is all too palpable.
The same guy who brags about his cool rock climbing pants can hardly argue that looks don't matter in outdoor gear. The TenNine Hike's are certainly more apparent than any of the minor disadvantages of walking in them. Put them aside, though, and what you get in the oddity that Hoka One One created is a rare degree of extreme cushioning without the typical weight penalty that makes long days on the trail memorable in photographs and stories instead of aching joints.