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Trail Running Shoes • April 9, 2018

The North Face RKT and BTN Shorts Performance Review

Matt: It’s been a minute kids, but I’m back and fresh off running my first spring trail race, the Georgia Death Race. Nothing like taking on a 70+ mile race with ~20k of climbing fresh off marathon season to warm up for your summer ultra season, eh? Anyways, I had a decent window of weather before the race to try out some new shoes, and first on my list was The North Face’s new Flight RKT, which stands for Rob Krar Trail. The north face has an iffy history with trail running shoes, to say the least. I’ve tried on or run in almost all of their models from the last 3 years, and found success in very few of them; and, even then, success would be defined as “these shoes were actually designed with a human foot in mind, and maybe even by someone who’s run before.” 

Erin: I put a lot of miles on the Ultra Cardiac, despite the crazy pointy toe box, and found it to have good traction if a somewhat ho-hum ride. I also spent a goodly amount of time in their “DBo” shoe, the Endurus TR, and while it felt supremely comfortable to walk in, the upper didn’t hold the foot well enough to give a sense of confidence on downhills, despite numerous overlays and the endorsement of an elite athlete. You get what I’m saying: the bar was set pretty low for the Flight RKT.

North face RKT

The Good

Matthew: The RKT feels really great out of the box. The step in comfort is really solid, it fits true to size for me. The stack height of 27mm in the heel and 19mm in the forefoot means there’s enough cushioning for a variety of distances, and I have to say that TNF’s dual-density FastFoam really does it’s job: even just walking around, the cushioning nails the sweet spot of being soft, but not mushy, while still putting some spring in my step. 

The seamless, engineered mesh upper is really airy and holds the foot well via a TPU-welded cage. Overall, this is the best fitting shoe from The North Face I’ve tried on yet, and the non-pointy toe box nicely accommodates my slightly wide forefoot, but my heel still remains firmly in place. The upper also drains very well, and I imagine will be a delight in the warmer months.

The biggest compliment I could give the RKT is that if I closed my eyes or didn’t read their marketing BS, I’d swear this was a road shoe, especially given that it weighs in at a svelte 8.3 oz in a men’s 9. This makes sense, as you can definitely rock a road shoe for lots of the trails out west, including the Western States course, where Krar often used a road shoe. In fact, if memory serves me correct, Krar often raced in the Nike Lunar Racer, and the RKT feels like a more securely-fitting version of the Lunar Racer to me, but with better rubber outsole coverage.

Given that the outsole is basically just pods of rubber, as opposed to actual defined lugs, the RKT works really well on roads and non-technical trails alike. I used it on short intervals on the pavement, medium length fartleks on trails, and even a long run that was a mix of both. In all cases I found it to perform really solidly, and the midsole retained its responsive yet cushioned feeling from beginning to end. This is apparently the aim of the designers, who created a bathtub-esque midsole construction like Hoka has been doing, using a more responsive topsole that’s surrounded by a more cushioned midsole. This purportedly helps prevent the midsole from feeling like it’s bottoming out in later miles, and so far it’s working well. Because the outsole rubber is grouped into pods, the RKT flexes pretty well in a variety of directions. 

So far the outsole and upper are holding up really well, and given that I think this isn’t a shoe I’d use for technical trails–more on that below–I see getting a lot of miles out of it.

Erin: The North Face Flight RKT is a shoe that I have continually referred to as the FKT; I may, in fact, accidentally call it the FKT during this very review, but I’ll try my best not to. RKT stands for Rob Krar Trail, I assume, since the shoe was co-designed by the man himself, a man who, according to TNF, “single-handedly changed the face of trail running.” There’s a beard-related joke in here somewhere that I’m too lazy to make. Anyhow, for those of you unfamiliar with Rob Krar, check out his profile on UltraSignup and you’ll see that it’d be hard to argue with that statement.

The Flight RKT looks a heck of a lot more like a road shoe than a trail shoe, and we’ll get into the look of the shoe in the following section of this review, but it makes some sense in that it was designed as a fast shoe; something you’d wear if you’re Rob Krar and you’re, you know, winning races. Straight out of the box it feels like nothing, weighing in at 7.2 ounces for a women’s 8. The upper is a breathable engineered mesh that is almost transparent and feels airy. There are some TPU-welded overlays in the midfoot to provide some support to the upper.

The most intriguing thing about the Flight RKT, for me, are the perforations in both the footbed (OrthoLite) and the topsole. When I saw them, I initially assumed they were meant for drainage, and maybe they are, but they don’t extend all the way through, so I’m not entirely clear. Maybe they’re just to aid in ventilation. I purposely ran through some cold AF streams to test them out. After exiting the water, the shoes squished pretty loudly for about a half mile, but I did feel that they drained pretty well, and I didn’t experience any bagging out of the upper when the shoes got wet, which has been an issue in the past (looking at you, Timps).

North Face Rkt

The Bad

Matthew: Honestly, how hard is it to design a tongue these days. We have so many examples of how not to do it right, that there’s really no excuse for what we’ve been given with the RKT’s tongue. Can we please just decided to gusset all tongues from now on? It makes the shoe that much more comfortable to run in and has the added benefit of preventing crap from working it’s way into your shoe from the sides of the tongue while you’re out on the trails. The specific issue with the RKT’s tongue, besides the lack of gusseting, is that because it’s so thin they had to attach small strips on either side, I’m assuming to alleviate lace pressure. What this means is that it folds over itself, and you have to spend extra time holding it down flat as you lace to make sure it’s not leaving gaps between the shoe and the tongue on each side. If they weren’t going to gusset the tongue, at least they could have made it a bit wider so people with a fuller volume foot (it’s not fat, it’s big boned!) could get the tongue to lie flat more easily. As it stands, I have to spend an annoying amount of time getting the shoe on, which makes me apprehensive about using it in a race scenario, where extra minutes matter. 

The outsole, while durable, is garbage on wet surfaces. I mean absolute, total shite. They’re claiming it’s sticky rubber, but on slightly wet dirt–not even that muddy–I felt like a new-born horse trying to walk for the first time. Because the lugs are so closely spaced and there’s such little depth to them, the RKT’s have less bite than my 90+ grandpa trying to eat a T-bone without his dentures. And while we’re talking about the outsole, does it seem to anyone else like the lugs are just tons of little tiny Hoka run bird logos? How’s this one get past the marketing department? Was the technical designer just about to quit so he could design the next round of Cliftons or something? 

And since I’m being shallow, what in the great hell is going on with the upper? From what I’ve read, the upper is an actual picture that Rob took of clouds while running around Flagstaff or something like that. In terms of his design skills, I’ll just leave it at this: Rob’s a really good runner. This cloudy upper looks like they’ve taken the time to make the shoe pre-dirty for you. TNF generally does a good job with colors, so I’m surprised that for this shoe they went with the “Aging Hippy Tye-Dye Grey” option. The overall design just looks somewhat lame, given that TNF finally designed a lightweight yet cushioned shoe that might actually work for a variety of runners.

Erin: I wanted to love these shoes, and I tried to. I wore them for both short and long runs, on softer, pine-needle covered trails, on rocky technical trails, on winding single-track, and on fire roads. But they’re just ok for me. I’ve read other reviews of these, as I always do, because I’m curious about what other people think, and every other reviewer found these to be fast and responsive. They’re certainly light, but I didn’t feel fast in them, and the dual density FastFoam midsole did not feel responsive to me. I think this is not necessarily an issue with the shoe, considering the strength of other reviews, but due to my own preferences. I prefer a trail shoe that’s somewhere in the 0-4 mm drop range, and the Flight RKT has an 8 mm drop. These shoes are also just too cushioned for me; I like to be able to feel the trail and in these, I feel removed from it.

There’s this thing that’s happening with running shoes now, where I guess in the name of shedding weight, the tongue is being reduced to a thin flap of nothing. The Flight RKT’s tongue is made of thin mesh, with a small amount of suede reinforcement at the edges. It isn’t gusseted, so every time I try to put them on, the tongue folds under itself. It’s annoying.

The Flight RKT is also, um…not a great-looking shoe. Currently, both the men’s and women’s versions come in “Flagstaff storm print”, and this is, according to TNF/Rob Krar, a “southwest inspired design”. If by “southwest inspired” they mean “retiree chic”, maybe. Again, most people seem to disagree with me on this point, and I don’t find Altras to be unattractive, so check them out for yourself.

Flight RKT

The North Face Flight RKT Conclusion

Matthew: The real issue with the RKT, and this maybe has more to do with how it’s being marketed than anything else, is that it’s not really a shoe I’d take on anything even moderately technical. Between the almost nonexistent lugs, the rubber that slides on wet rock and dirt, the finicky tongue, and the almost entirely missing toe bumper, I can’t see doing much in this except buffed out Cali-carpet style trails, road runs, or some fire roads. Again, there’s a place for that, but I think they need to be more explicit about that with the marketing of this shoe because unless you’re Krar, I don’t see it working well in even slightly challenging weather or terrain. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying running in them, and I’d be happy to throw them into road workouts, long runs, or even some park trail runs every now and then; however, as I usually run on fairly technical terrain, I can’t imagine it’s gonna get a ton more mileage as I ramp up for my early summer races. Now, if TNF wants to fly me out to run the 50-mile championships in Marin, well, that’s another story.

Erin: If you are running a fast trail race, one with smooth trails and perhaps even some road sections in there, and you like a cushioned shoe, you’ll probably love the Flight RKT. I think these have the most utility for situations where you’re running both road and trail in the same run. If you’re running something technical or slick, I’d probably avoid these and go with something with more traction. I sorta feel like I should wear these for my R2R2R attempt next month, but I’m not going for the FKT so I’ll probably stick with my trusty Superior 3.5s. If you’ve tried these and like them, drop a comment and let me know! I’m interested in hearing what you think. And if you want a pair for yourself, you can get them for $150.

Shop The North Face Flight RKT

Bonus The North Face Gear Review

By Thomas

If you are looking for a 2 in 1 short with pockets and storage, this will be your jam. The Better Than Naked short has more pockets on it than any clothing item I have ever seen. It is insane. Let’s count them out. 1. zippered back pocket. 2. seven mesh pockets along the waist. 3. a pocket on each leg of the compression short liner. That is 10 pockets! The lightweight FlashDry material has a nice feel and TNF claims to have upped the odor-fighting qualities. The 7″ inseam is waaaaaaaay too long for my tastes. The compression can stay at 7″ move the outer short up three or four inches, please.

The BTN shirt is super silky. The cut of the shirt is pretty basic, so not too much to say about it other than it is lightweight and very breathable. The collar of the shirt did not fit well on me, it might work better for a runner with traps.

Women’s Flight Better Than Naked™ Short and Tank

By Meaghan

The shorts fit well. The length is just right. I am not comfortable showing off too much but don’t want to look like I am wearing basketball shorts either. The BTN short is light airy and not too tight or too short. You don’t get all the pocket’s Thomas’ shorts had. There is one zippered pocket on the back.

The BTN tank’s material is comfortable and silky like Thomas said. The cut fits nicely, but nothing stands out, it is your basic tank.

Shop The North Face

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