Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Mini-Mil Saga Continues...

TR102 pair #2 after approximately 900 miles

It's been a while since I've posted, and as my goal is to start writing more on this blog, I thought what better way to start than to offer an update on the saga of the Mini-Mil!

Since my last entry, I have been through 2 more pairs of Mini-Mil TR102's. The first pair (shown above) was purchased for use during my backcountry ranger job in the summer of 2015. For reference, I went with the same size as my last pair (Men's 11.5 Wide). I managed to hike and scramble approximately 900 miles on them before the right toe started to punch through, and despite this I was quite happy with the overall durability of these $140 ninja boots.

'bout time to retire these guys

I only had to re-glue the outsole back to the boot once on this pair, which is twice less than the previous pair. Even though this is still relatively unacceptable, I just put up with it and move on. One blaring modification I made was the removal of the upper cuff. This cuts the weight down about 1.5 oz per pair, and as I already only lace the boots to the 5th grommet, the upper cuff was just extra material. This mod certainly detracts from their appearance, as they now pretty much look like boots found in a dumpster, but in my opinion this just adds to the mystery surrounding these highly underrated and mostly undiscovered terrain machines. I will also note that I chose not to remove the plastic heel cup as documented in my previous post since my feet have no qualms with this insert in the first place.

Nothing scientific about this mod, just grab some sharp kitchen shears and pay attention to the seams.

So how did this second pair perform? Pretty much exactly like the first. The ground feel, low profile stealth factor, and overall experience logging miles on and off trail with these beauties remains completely mind-blowing. It just changes everything, from your gait to your attitude. I would almost compare it to transitioning from a gas guzzling SUV to an electric hybrid: you get way more miles per gallon. Sure you can't stomp your way down the trail. Instead you finesse it, and in the process your feet feel like they somehow regenerate. Once you get back to the trail head, taking the boots off is really an afterthought, as they are largely just an extension of your feet. Fully incorporating these boots into your daily life leads to a dramatic increase in intrinsic foot strength as foot pain diminishes. Amazing!

After about 900 miles, the tread in the heel area is mostly bald. Still quite impressive overall.

On to pair #3. For my 2016 ranger gig I transitioned into a different role focusing on technical climbing and search and rescue. Because of this I spent way more time on skis, steep snow, and 5th class rock. This limited the amount I could use the TR102's...I may be passionate about them, but I also have a very clear understanding of their limitations, and refuse to use strap-on crampons with these, especially on the clock. I will say that I used them on some 5.5 terrain during one of my patrols, and their performance paled in comparison to your standard sticky approach shoe, much less a full blown climbing shoe. They'll do in a pinch, and/or if you are hyper focused on their (in)ability to grip steep rock/slab, but definitely not even my second or third choice for this type of terrain.

Pair #3 after about 300 miles of use. Many of these miles were spent scrambling in 2nd-3rd class talus.

With pair #3, I chose to go up a size to Men's 12 Regular. The interesting thing about these boots is how they consistently shrink with age. Granted I have not been very diligent about treating the leather with Nikwax or leather conditioner, but nonetheless this has been my experience. After 900 miles in pair #2, my toes were brushing the front with every step so I upsized on this pair. Another change I made was with the footbeds. In the past I was using a Bontex board to take up volume, but I found this stiff layer would consistently slide backward in the boot, creeping up the heel and causing discomfort. So I switched to just using a second footbed pulled from an Altra Superior running shoe. The final sandwich was Altra stone guard on bottom, Altra footbed in the middle, and Mini-Mil stock footbed on top. This took up enough volume in the forefoot to give me a better fit, but still too sloppy for anything beyond trail hiking in my opinion.

Pair #3 soles after about 300 miles...holding up well.

I'll use this as a segue into what may be my future ninja boot: the new Vivobarefoot Tracker FG. I remember trying on the original Tracker when it was first released, and being appalled by the fit and finish. I had to go up to a Euro 46 (12.5 US) to get the width I needed in the toe box, but this meant the length was just too long. Toebox height was also an issue, so you ended up with this horrendous clown shoe that squished your toes in volume, and was way too long. On top of this, the leather was about the cheapest I had seen in such an expensive boot, and the massive tread lugs appeared destined to be ripped off on mile 2.

Fast forward 2 years and Vivobarefoot has made some exciting changes. First, they (mostly) fixed the toebox issue, as I can fit nicely into a Euro 45 with just the right width and volume, and the length seems about right (maybe even a little long). The tread lugs have been shortened for this particular model, as the FG stands for Firm Ground, and this design makes way more sense for packed trails and scrambling. Note there is a SG (Soft Ground) model with huge tread lugs that I just laugh at. I guess if you love to hike in treacherously wet, muddy, loose terrain, at speed, the SG might be for you.

A virgin pair of the Vivobarefoot Tracker FG
What gets me the most excited about the Tracker FG compared to the Mini-Mil is the fit in the forefoot. By adding a second generic footbed to layer with the stock one, I can get a nice, snug, secure fit surrounding the entire toe box. Forefoot sloppiness remains my biggest complaint with the Mini-Mil, and the Vivo's seem to be on another level in terms of security.

The Tracker FG sole reminds me of my original Evo Lite running shoes. I'd love to see a "climbing zone" implemented under the big toe, but otherwise it looks promising.

There is one more contender in my quest for the ultimate minimal climbing boot, but I'll wait to post until it's in my possession, as it's coming from Europe. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment!