When Apple released the first iPhone, many worried it aimed to do too much. Combining a phone, camera, web browser, iPod, and more? The device couldn’t possibly nail every functionality. Of course, necessary sacrifices in certain departments would make it, at best, a compromise in quality in multiple areas or, at worst, a complete flop on all fronts. Alas, the iPhone prevailed in replacing and challenging many product mainstays in one fell swoop, year after year. I’d solidly place Astral’s new TR1 Merge amphibious hiking shoe in that same category. A lofty claim for a shoe, but bear with me.
Out of the box — I’ll admit — I was doubtful. Could the shoe nail the trail, work with the motion of the ocean, and keep your feet from becoming chopped liver on the river? First day out, these purple shoes made it rain compliments, especially among my high-top-lovin’ friends for whom Nike Dunks will never go out of style. Looks-wise, these shoes combine the utility of a light hiking boot with the layup and colors of your favorite Air Force Ones (but with great ventilation and draining). They’re light, super comfortable, cut well for a wide range of movement, whether you’re climbing or descending, sitting, squatting or wedged into a boat.
Because I remained dubious, I decided to bring the TR1 Merges on several field tests.
Test One: Merced River Whitewater Trip
On a two-day, one night trip along Yosemite’s Merced River in early April, the Merges began to exceed my expectations. Climbing around rocks, carrying heavy boats (read: solo canoe) on uneven rugged terrain, and dashing around the campsite, the Merges carried me through. On this trip I really began to notice that the shoe’s cushioning is more bouncy and flexible than your average hiker but more structured and robust than your average water/paddling shoe. I liked how that comfort translated to kneeling in my canoe, a position which in the past always makes me regret my footwear choice. In this boat, I appreciated the extra structure and cushioning. In the kayak, I worried about losing connection with the foot pegs/foam but the flexibility in the sole shone through and the ankle support was a plus in comfort due to the well-cut back for your achilles. Using them two days in a row, I was impressed with how quickly they dried out overnight.
Test Grade: A+
Test Two: Big Sur Kayaking Weekend
My dear friend and often co-instructor, Kelly Marie Henry and I followed up on an invitation to join Freya Hoffmeister in paddling a small section of her North American sea kayak circumnavigation. We picked maybe one of the best stretches of the California coast to join her: Big Sur. The Merges proved a great choice from the start of the trip which included a half mile carry to the beach where we put in (and later, a mile-long gear carry on another trail to avoid getting a worse fine than the one we received earlier for trespassing). I appreciated how the shoe kept my feet at just the right temperature both in the cold 56 degree water and in the mild 70 degree air.
I worried the extra cushioning and structure would get in the way when scrambling to get quickly in and out of the boat during the surf launches and landings, but to my surprise the transitions were seamless with the Merges.
The fit and warmth of my sock, dry-suit combo in the shoe felt great. The one downside I discovered on this trip was, despite being great-fitting high-tops, when sand ultimately gets into the shoe, it’s really hard to get out. But the Merges fared better in the sand department than Kelly’s Brewess’.
Test Grade: A-
Test Three: Swiftwater Rescue Training
The next test for the Merges was a two-day swiftwater rescue training on the South Fork of the American River with Sierra Rescue. On this test, I really worried about the shoe’s bulkier-than-your-average water shoe’s sole. But yet again, I was pleasantly surprised. The first day called for a lot of swimming in dynamic water, crossing slippery rocks in group river crossings, and quick scrambling along the riverside. Not once did the Merges’ sole slip on rocks, and the extra structure and padding turned out to be a plus on river crossings in helping me get secure footing on the riverbed without feeling pain from hitting my toes and ankles on hidden rocks.
On the second day, the Merges continued to defy expectations. I easily ran up and down riverside trails to get in the right position to set throw ropes. I was able to aggressively swim through whitewater to get to a foot entrapment patient. I even more nimbly than expected, climbed into a 5-person raft, pulled up a person into the raft, discharged them, flipped the raft upside down and then climbed and righted it in under 1 minute and 40 seconds. Not once did I get tripped up or slipped.
The only nice-to-have would be the option of a velcro laces cover/protector like Astral’s Hiyaks, but the Hiyak’s are firmly a water shoe while these are a multi-trick pony.
Test Grade: A
The Merge can really converge well several functions into one shoe. This spring, these remain my favorite shoe, period. I wear them almost everyday around the city, on the trail, and on the water. Their lightness, comfort and versatility make them the perfect amphibious hiking and expedition kayaking shoe. There is no compromise in one function over the other. You should splurge, and just get you the Merge.
Lacing: Really pull the tension on the lacing to get more length and a closer fit (the laces can seem too short without doing this)
Fit: These are true-to-size (I wear a size 9 and am usually an 8.5-9, these were perfect)
Drying: To dry them even faster: remove the insole and dry the insole and shoe separately (ideally in the sun and open air)