When my contact at Vivo asked me what shoe I wanted to try for my next review, I told her that I’d been looking for something that would handle the trails during a New England winter. Last year I was forced to the roads for all my training runs because taking my Bikilas to the icy trails was like running on ceramic floors with two bars of soap strapped to my feet (so are the standard Neos, by the way…I found that out the hard way this afternoon). She shipped me this pair of Neo Trails.
Not exactly my normal choice of colors, but hey, they were free. No arguing with that. And they actually looked kind of rugged and outdoorsy like I would picture a traditional trail shoe looking, so I tried the suckers on. They fit exactly like my Neos (no surprise there), with their wide toe box and soft, slipper-like last. The only big differences between the Neo and the Neo Trail are the lock-lacing system and the 5mm lugs. Of course they’re a little heavier (and also a bit stiffer, although not as stiff to me as the Merrell Pace Gloves), but I’m sure I was more grateful for the aggressive, grippy sole than I was mournful of a lighter shoe.
The Neo Trail, like all of Vivo’s great minimalist running shoe lineup, is made from 100% vegan materials and constructed soundly, as always. Although I chose to wear socks in mine (it is winter, after all), there is a nice soft inner lining so you could go without them. Also it comes with the usual removable insole, but I left mine in for the bit of extra padding I might need for the rocky trails ahead.
It seems almost serendipitous that I got these shoes when I did, because only a few days before I had, on a whim, signed up for a 50k trail race in May. That means for the next four months I’ll have to put a lot more trail time into my long runs. I had two rather life-changing long runs with these shoes, and I will have to say that they gave me everything I needed to feel confident about that trail race.
Running in snow and ice is one of my biggest fears, especially because I have accident-prone ankles. But my last run in these, in particular, settled all my fears about it. It was eight miles through brand new trails for me. It was 1/3 ice, 1/3 snow and 1/3 bare earth (rocks and sand). Two miles in, knee-deep lake water had crept up onto the path. All of this gave me a fantastic obstacle course to test out the Neo Trails.
Rocks and sand were no problem for this shoe, of course. It was built for that sort of thing. I glided over the trail bed, hardly feeling the sharp rocks beneath the puncture-proof sole. The lugs did their job of digging into the earth and forming a nice barrier between it and my foot. And because the sole is so pliable, the shoe didn’t roll over every time I landed funny on a rock, and take my ankle with it – it simply curved around the uneven ground, letting my foot remain strong and my body balanced naturally. This feature, intended or not, may be the best thing about this shoe for me.
The Neo Trail’s grip on snow was faultless. A shoe like this almost begs for hard-packed trail snow. I felt strong and confident running those miles of snow, some icy, some of it crunchy with old footsteps. The hydrophobic mesh and microfiber uppers stayed dryer than many shoes, and relatively warm. Well, that is until I dunked them into 40-degree water. Twice.
But after a brief period of frigid, squishy enjoyment, they stayed kinda wet but they warmed more than I thought they would and kept me from getting frostbite. Bravo on that front – I had failed to choose my wool Injinji’s that day, and was just wearing regular socks. I do suspect though, that the materials in this shoe might be way too hot for summer trail runs. I hate having hot feet. I hope Vivo will come out with a version of these that have a more breathable upper for hot days.
Even the ice was nice. This shoe didn’t let me fall on my ass! Not even once. There was a footfall here and there that indeed brought on a brief slide, but I mean…we were talking about sheer ice here, hard as a hockey rink and bumpy as hell, with absolutely nothing to grip. In my other running shoes, I might have given up and resorted to scooting past those bad parts on my bum. The Neo Trails did a job above and beyond what I expected out of them on the ice. Superb.
But for all its ruggedness, I am fascinated by the fact that the Neo Trail still feels like a minimalist shoe. Although I didn’t feel any of the usual sharp rock bites (gotta love those, ouch!), I still felt the ground. The soft, flexible sole is really the key here, I think. It lets you feel the texture of whatever is underfoot. I could distinctly feel the difference between the various textures of the trail I was on, and of the road (where I briefly tried them). It’s something that not every minimalist shoe company gets right. The only downside to this softness is that I could also feel the lugs of the shoes under the balls of my feet, particularly on harder surfaces like ice and pavement (although I’m not sure why anyone would use them on pavement). It is a drawback to the demand for a trail shoe that is also minimalist. But its a drawback I can take and still call these a truly fantastic trail running shoe, minimalist or not.
The VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trail is an excellent all-around trail running shoe. It is rugged and protective while remaining exceptionally light and pliable for its genre. Its heavy lugged sole is aggressive enough to provide grip during all trail situations, while still providing an acceptable level of ground-perception that a minimalist runner needs to remain strong…and upright. The Neo Trail will easily become my favorite trail shoe (despite mine’s decidedly masculine color) and will most likely come with me to the 50k in May, if it’s not too hot out.