After reading through the offerings at this summer’s Outdoor Retailer show, I couldn’t help but chuckle about some of the comments which followed Bryon’s very thorough, and always anticipated, introduction to the trail shoe offerings to come in 2017. Many readers commented on how built up, heavy, and foam-laden these new trail shoes have become, and the pendulum certainly does seem to have swung to an extreme. Shoes weighing under 10 ounces almost seem to be a thing of the past for most brands, and sub-9 ounce shoes….. forget about it!
Now, the point here is not to denigrate any new trail shoes on the market, but rather to highlight a shoe that feels like a bit of a throwback to me. The SCARPA Atom ($119) feels, to me, like a shoe that could have come on the market in 2012 and been heralded as a favorite for the minimalists out there. It is lightweight and has great proprioception, a simple and unobtrusive upper, and a simple and durable Vibram outsole. This shoe is as simple and functional as they come, and thats why I feel it deserves a review and a nod to SCARPA’s straightforward design. So, lets imagine back to a simpler time…. A time before maximalism, trucker hats, beards (okay, just one beard), and fancy socks. To a time when most runners were looking for racing flats that they could wear on trails with just enough protection to elicit yelps when stepping on sharp rocks.
At 8.8 ounces, the Atom keeps things pretty simple throughout the upper. A breathable dual-density mesh is used throughout the upper with a narrow rand that is connected to a webbing of welded on thick overlays throughout the midfoot area of the shoe. This overlay material is different, and sturdier than a lot of the laminated overlays out there on newer trail shoes. What I’ve found with the laminated overlays is that they either come unglued during the life of the shoe or don’t provide much in terms of structural support. SCARPA uses a synthetic leather type of overlay which seems to be holding up nicely, and it holds the foot well on technical terrain. A rubberized toecap also provides minimal, yet effective, protection.
These overlays are aided by a simple yet well designed lacing system. The Atom has very thin oval shaped laces which stay tied as well as decreasing bulk and surface area for mud and debris to build up. A gusseted tongue also decreases sand and dirt from sneaking in around the foot. There is also a lace garage to tuck the laces into (a la Salomon), which makes me wonder why most other companies don’t pick up on this simple, yet brilliant, technology.
I find the fit to be accommodating with a well padded heel collar, a sinch-able midfoot, and a fairly wide forefoot. Some wearers may disagree with me due to the fact that the toe box is tapered, but the toe box width at the base of the metatarsals is actually fairly wide. The overall fit of the upper of the Atom also contributes to the overall flexibility of the shoe which feels lightweight and unrestrictive to the foot.
The feel of the Atom is semi-firm, with dual density midsole foam sitting somewhere between the firmness of the current Salomon S-Lab shoes and Nike’s Phylon foam used on the Terra Kiger. While the Atom doesn’t have a rock plate, there were only a handful of occasions where I felt like I was sacrificing my metatarsals to the gods of minimalism. Again, the flexibility of this shoe reigns supreme for those liking a lot of ground feel and the sensation of having your foot do the work for you. In fact, the combination of the firm midsole feel with this level of flexibility is a bit of an anomaly, and likely facilitated by the lack of a rock plate.
This simply lugged Vibram outsole is one of the absolute gems of this shoe. With chevron-shaped lugs facing both forward and backward, and with plenty of space between to shed mud, the Atom’s outsole is truly all terrain. The ride is comfortable on dirt roads and smooth singletrack, as well as technical sloppy conditions. The Vibram rubber grips rock equally well shows very little wear after 200 miles on my pair.
Its nice to see a niche company, especially one like SCARPA with such a long and storied history of making shoes for mountaineering and climbing, design such a simple shoe. While I will be the first to advocate that trail running shoes are getting better, I sometimes long for the simplicity of less built up shoes. The SCARPA Atom is quintessentially that; a simple and well built shoe with a great fit, adequate cushioning, and a well built outsole. The SCARPA Atom is a great shoe for trail running enjoyment on a multitude of surfaces up to 50k.
It took me awhile to get to this conclusion, and for many months this spring and summer I only wore the Atom for short runs and hiking. However, after having a variety of foot soreness issues that surprisingly weren’t solved by additional cushioning, I turned to the Atom as a means to getting back to focusing on my form and foot strike in general. The resulting progress has been that I’ve been able to focus more on correcting inequities in my gait more than I could had I been wearing a more built up shoe. While I’m no longer a champion for all out minimalism, I do think that less built up shoes have a place in every trail runners arsenal.
[Editor’s Note: If you’re affiliated (i.e., an employee, ambassador, etc.) with a shoe brand, please share your relation in each of your comments on this article. Thanks!]