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Trail Running Shoes • February 21, 2020

Merrell MTL Skyfire Performance Review

merrell sky fire feature

What You Need To Know

  • Weighs 9 oz./242g for a US M9.0
  • Quantum Grip outsole with 5 mm lugs handles rough terrain with ease
  • At only $100, it’s a nice budget option for a trail shoe
  • Urban lumberjacks– leave your pomade in the dopp kit

TAYLOR: I love the mountains. I’m one of the blessed few who get to experience them every day, and even then I can’t get my fill. When I’m not out in the high country putting in long days, I’m plotting my next routes along rocky ridges, up to alpine lakes, and over treacherous peaks. If you log these kinds of miles, you know that the gear you use will make or break the experience.

Two principles guide my choices when it comes to gear: 1) High quality, and 2) Simplicity. Though Merrell has long been at the top of that game with its hiking boots, when it comes to trail running they’ve been a bit… quiet. Like a proposal on a first date, Merrell came out of nowhere (at least on my radar) with a beautifully simple shoe that’s meant for the mountains. And I’m saying, “YES! YES! YES!”

The best way I can describe the Skyfire is to think of it as something you’ve never experienced but also as something you swear feels familiar. (As if that makes any sense.) When I tried to compare this shoe to other pairs I’ve worn, I ended up with an origin story looking something like this: A Nike Terra Kiger and a Salomon Speedcross met at the TRE afterparty. After getting hot and heavy amidst a blur of React foam and Contagrip® outsole, they tied laces and ended up with a precious pair of new kicks. This little shoe eventually started hanging out with a “rugged crowd” and took on the attitude of a Topo Athletic MTN Racer

Boom. Enter the Merrell MTL Skyfire. (I’m now taking offers for the rights to the screenplay.)

Half-baked movie plots aside, the Skyfire is ready to rip with the best of them in its first edition, and I’m happy to be along for the ride.

MATT: I’ll be honest: When the new Merrell MTL shoe line was introduced to me, I wasn’t even aware that the brand was in the trail running game. I pictured hiking boots and footwear best suited for a lumberyard or a snow day (you know––for those urban lumberjack types). To say I was initially skeptical of the quality would be an understatement.

After taking the shoes on a few trail runs, my doubts were quickly replaced by a belief that Merrell has entered trail running looking to be a serious contender (but without the trendy neckbeard or the pomade). 

As someone who’s a product of the 90s, I’ve been a huge fan of the retro neon-inspired colorways released in the past year, including the Nike Pegasus Trail and the Nike Terra Kiger. The name of the Skyfire colorway does a lot to set the tone for its appearance: “Exuberance.” With violet, turquoise, and orange in the mix, this shoe is a head-turner for sure.

merrell sky fire upper review

The Good

TAYLOR: The Skyfire is a no-nonsense shoe that’s meant for rugged terrain– and that’s exactly where it feels best. Shoes like this get me giddy for springtime when the above-treeline terrain becomes accessible by something other than skis. 

At first glance, the upper in the hot “Exuberance” colorway is pretty hard to miss. It’s a simple, breathable mesh and TPU combo that has an old school vibe, but it feels great and the performance is up to par. It doesn’t necessarily wrap the foot, but somehow my foot felt perfectly fitted inside. For me, security is one of those non-negotiables when it comes to a good mountain/technical terrain shoe. With the Skyfire, the inner booty and molded TPU heel counter provide a really nice overall fit, sparing you from having to “bolt” or tie yourself into the shoe.

Underneath it has a tried and true trail shoe setup that just works. An EVA midsole with a 6 mm offset (23.5 mm heel to 17.5 mm toe) gives a solid base for responsive running and protection. The thin rock plate coupled with an extra dose of EVA foam in the removable insole work together nicely to give a lot of underfoot protection. For those readers who prefer more minimalist offerings, never fear– the low stack supplies the shoe with a healthy dose of ground feel. Though the ride was on the firmer side with an almost aggressive element, it was also fairly smooth once I got going.

Merrell’s Quantum Grip outsole boasts “mountain-grade performance” and I’d have to agree with that claim. The 5 mm lugs give it a pretty standard amount of bite over the usual mix of dirt, mud, and snow, but it really stands out with its incredible grip over rock. Scrambling is necessary on some of my runs, and the Quantum Grip outsole easily handled everything I threw its way. There are few outsoles that have surprised me, and I’m pleased to report that Quantum Grip makes the shortlist.

But the feeling of the shoe isn’t the only thing that makes me giddy––the price does too! As a teacher with a wife, a toddler, and a baby on the way, my eyes rarely (never) get higher than mid-shelf at the grocery store. The same goes for shoes. At $100 the Skyfire is an absolute steal that will toe the line with your $150-180 shoes any day. Just because budget might be a compromise for some, who’s to say performance has to be?

Shop Merrell MTL Skyfire

merrell sky fire outsole

The Bad

TAYLOR: Having slid into the ultra game in the last few years, I’ve become conditioned to seek out cushion for those longer days. You’re not going to find a lot with the Skyfire. Though it has a good deal of underfoot protection, the ride is on the firm side and that all-day cushioning just isn’t there. Will I wear this shoe for some long outings in the high country? Probably. (But that’s because of its other performance qualities.) That said, should you take this out for longer stints, I can’t promise that your legs will feel fresh and ready to make a next-day return. My feet were starting to feel the lack of cushion after about 12 or so miles over hard terrain.

If you’re looking for similar quality in a long-distance package, check out the Merrell MTL Long Sky. Where the Skyfire is like a camp stool (light, fast, and simple), the Long Sky is more like a recliner––cushion for days.

My other concern with the Skyfire was its all-weather resilience. It has a very breathable open-mesh/TPU upper which kept my feet from getting sweaty, but that also meant it didn’t do me any favors keeping moisture out. Once saturated, the upper lost some of its shine. By no means a deal-breaker, but it’s still worth noting. 

MATT: While I love how the Exuberance colorway complements the shoe’s design, I can’t say the same for some of the other subtler options. We’ve all learned by now not to judge a book by its cover. However, were this shoe not available in its flashy retro digs, I’m not sure I could get past the bland looks to give it a fair shot.

Moving beyond appearances, the shoe’s stellar performance on rocky and technical trail sections comes at a cost: When transitioning to long stretches of fire roads and dirt or gravel paths, the midsole felt rigid and unforgiving. Capable, but like using a machete for a steak knife, it’s overkill.

With a 50K and 50-miler planned again this year, I wouldn’t want to see my feet the day after putting these shoes through that much moving time. There just simply isn’t enough cushioning to keep your feet and legs fresh in an ultra application.

Shop Merrell MTL Skyfire

merrell sky fire heel

Merrell MTL Skyfire Conclusion

TAYLOR: Like many others, I know Merrell for their high-quality hiking footwear, but for whatever reason, I’ve never even considered checking out their running line. The MTL Skyfire has me doing a hard double-take– rest assured I won’t sleep on Merrell in the future. It’s almost everything I want in a quality shoe meant for technical terrain: It has a lightweight simple design, it has great underfoot protection, and it inspires confidence with a secure fit. While it doesn’t have some of the extra cushion that would feel nice for those sunup to sundown days, you might still consider taking the Skyfire along for the adventure. It’ll deliver.

MATT: If you can’t tell by now, Taylor and I love the Merrell MTL Skyfire in the supplied Exuberance colorway. Where bright colors highlight other shoes’ flaws worse than a cheap spray tan, the violet, turquoise, and orange complement the Skyfire’s timeless design quite nicely. Though the outsole has loads of grip and pretty decent underfoot protection, a firm midsole means I’ll limit their use to distances 15k and under. They’re not an ultra-worthy shoe, but they’re one I wouldn’t hesitate to pull out when doing some harder, shorter training, on some of the more technical trails in the area.

You can pick up the at Merrell MTL Skyfire by using the shop link below.

Shop Merrell MTL Skyfire

Have something to say? Leave a Comment

  1. Brian Vinci says:

    How would you assess the Skyfire would do for hiking versus running? I’m on the east coast where the terrain is often wet, muddy and rocky (Appalachians). Finding a shoe that has rigidity, grip and water drainage is a challenge.

    1. Robbe Reddinger says:

      We’re also on the east coast, so we feel you. This would work well. You should also check out some of inov-8’s offerings. The Mudclaw may be up your alley.

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