The North Face Ultra Gore-Tex Surround Mid
$190, 2 lbs. (US men’s 9)
Sizes: men’s 7-14, women’s 5-11
The heat and humidity fell onto us like a wet blanket; I broke into a sweat just lacing up my boots for the dayhike of 3,740-foot Cerro Chato, a dormant volcano with close-up views of its larger and more-famous neighbor, Arenal Volcano, in Costa Rica’s tropical Northern Lowlands. And yet, I wanted waterproof-breathable boots for Costa Rican trails notorious for slick mud. The crazy-steep path up Cerro Chato would not only challenge us physically, it would challenge the breathability of The North Face Gore-Tex Surround Mid boots. It would also help me assess whether these very lightweight mid-cuts are the answer to chronically wet hikes in persistently hot, humid conditions—which you don’t have to go to Central America to find, as any hiker in the Eastern U.S. can confirm.
Although waterproof-breathable membranes have long been a big selling point for hiking footwear, avid hikers who have logged enough miles in waterproof boots understand the conundrum of them: The “breathable” half of that hyphenated adjective often seems to be defined very generously. Truth is, if you regularly hike in a humid, wet climate, where temperatures can vary widely from cool to steamy, waterproof footwear is a curse as often as it’s a blessing. If you live in a climate that’s dry, at least during the prime hiking season, you might logically question why you’d need waterproof footwear, even on multi-day backcountry hikes—especially given how quickly a pair of highly breathable, non-waterproof, low-cut shoes with synthetic or mesh uppers will dry out if they get wet. (See my “Pro Tips For Buying the Right Hiking Boots.”)
The North Face Ultra Gore-Tex Surround Mid boots address that conundrum. I wore them in some of the most extreme and challenging conditions for which they were designed: on both Cerro Chato and hiking along Costa Rica’s Rio Celeste, in humid weather with temps in the 70s and 80s. They passed the breathability test with flying colors: My feet got only slightly sweaty. And no moisture penetrated the boots even when I splashed through puddles, shallow streams, and mud—not even when I sprayed the boots with a garden hose at the Rio Celeste trailhead post-hike to wash off mud caked on them.
Surround is the most breathable Gore-Tex membrane, and TNF places mesh of different densities in the uppers for enhanced breathability where you need it, in the boot’s tongue and above the toes, while putting more-durable mesh in the sides. Plus, TNF’s FlashDry fabric in the collar helps release heat and moisture. But Surround is better suited to hikes where your feet are only exposed to incidental wet conditions like that, not sustained wet conditions. For trips where you expect rain, wet trails, including wet trailside vegetation constantly weeping onto your feet and legs—especially in cooler temperatures—you’re better off with backpacking boots with the standard Gore-Tex membrane (and perhaps low or high gaiters), which is much more reliably waterproof in severe conditions.
The boot’s comfortably close, medium-volume fit cradled my feet evenly, with a firm and supportive heel cup, preventing my heel and midfoot from slipping at all, even on steep descents, while giving my toes plenty of wiggle room without the boot freely boxy. Abundant flexibility allows for easy striding and hiking in them without any break-in time; I could hop nimbly over rocks and roots. The mid-cut height protects the ankle from bashing against rocks and provides support against a rolled ankle that you can’t get from comparably lightweight, low-cut shoes. The Ultra effectively offers advantages over low-cuts while cancelling out the usual edge that low-cuts have in lower weight and keeping feet cooler.
There’s one potential fit problem: The positioning of a metal lace hook directly above the seam stitching the tongue to the interior side wall could create a pressure point on some people’s feet (as a few people have commented on at TNF’s website). It did not bother me while hiking, even on the steep Cerro Chato trail; but I was also hiking at an easy pace with my family. Apparently, not all commenters at TNF’s website had the problem, either. I did reach out to The North Face asking about that, and got this response from the company’s footwear product coordinator: “Through our own fit testing program, we did not experience that issue or receive that feedback, so we think that problem is isolated to one or two individuals on the forum. Therefore, we do not have any plans to address the concern by making changes to the current model.”
Try the boots on, lace them up snugly, and walk around in them, including up and down, before buying (or make sure the retailer has a good return policy).
The dual-density midsole has a soft cushion to it, but very little rigidity or torsional support; I’d reserve these boots for dayhiking or ultralight backpacking, because carrying a heavy pack in boots with a light, soft midsole can leave all but the strongest feet sore. PU-coated leather overlays in high-abuse areas of the uppers—at the toes and along the sidewalls—lend greater durability than you find in many shoes and boots this light. The Vibram MegaGrip outsole combines smaller, shallower lugs with wider and slightly deeper lugs, a smoother surface under the toes for scrambling steep rock, and a slight edge under the heel to enhance downhill braking, for good, all-around traction in a variety of terrain. It delivered good traction when I scrambled up steep, wet, slick roots and muck on Cerro Chato.
For dayhikers and ultralight backpackers who regularly head out in warm, humid conditions on trails that are occasionally wet, The North Face Ultra Gore-Tex Surround Mid boots will keep your feet drier than most waterproof-breathable boots.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase The North Face Ultra Gore-Tex Surround Mid men’s boots at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, or the women’s boots at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
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NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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