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Altra Vanish XC Review: Fast Off-Road Racer

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A new spikeless cross-country shoe from Altra hits the trifecta of performance, comfort, and speed. But its race-ready design means the niche shoe isn’t for everyone on the trail.

No matter your running style or the terrain underfoot, minimalist shoes can be harsh. I have run many thousands of miles, and for more than a decade, in models ranging from Vibram FiveFingers to obscure fell-runners not available outside the U.K.

Altra Vanish XC shoe mesh upper
Mesh holes so large you can see right through

This month, my minimalist test shoe comes from Altra. The Vanish XC is an affordable, streamlined shoe that lacks the harshness I initially expected. This is because of the smart design, detailed below.

Altra Vanish XC Review

But first, you must know that this shoe is unique. It’s unlike anything I’ve laced up: There are no eyelets to thread.

Instead, look at the uber-mesh upper Altra employs. A wearer simply pokes the lace ends anywhere through the meshy expanse, crisscrossing from the toes up in any configuration. The mesh holes are that big.

It’s a neat demonstration of the shoe’s breathability. It’s also smart design, reducing materials and production time, which I assume helps keep costs down.

The shoe is fairly affordable at $80. For that, you get a zero-drop shoe built for cross-country racers. But it can do double duty for trail runners (with some caveats; see below) for anyone who, like me, loves the minimalist look and feel for training and even daily use.

Altra Vanish XC shoe
Lace ’em up through any mesh hole, no eyelets needed

New Take on Cross-Country Running Shoe

The Vanish XC came to market this summer with a pitch from the brand of being the “lightest, fastest off-road racer possible.” That’s a big claim, and I’m certainly not the one to test that top-speed promise. However, in the Vanish XC shoes, I pegged off sub-6:30 miles on good days and tried to give it my all.

Speed comes from the shoe’s minimalist build. They’re half the weight of many trail runners in my closet, with a men’s sample size pegged at 5.5 ounces per shoe.

There’s little structure to the shoe. The open-mesh upper drapes on the foot with a wide toe box, but it’s a closer fit than most Altra models. The choose-your-lace-configuration feature helps to dial in a custom fit. I found them comfortable, streamlined, and never tight. For me, they also run true to size for my foot.

Altra Vanish XC shoe spikeless cross-country shoe sole
An effective, minimal tread

Underneath the airy upper is a midsole and then a grid of rubber “spikes.” It’s a light splay, with the punched-out rubber and plus-sign-shape tread giving ample traction for trails and cross-country courses with dirt, grass, and gravel.

For sure, the shoe is runnable when it’s sloppy outside. But it doesn’t have enough grip for serious mud. For off-trail running and anything extreme, you’re better off upgrading to a beefier shoe with toothy tread.

Minimalist Shoe Built for Speed

Noted above, like most minimalist shoes, the XCs have a zero-drop build. That means the shoe is “flat” with no difference in height from heel to toe.

They are close to the ground, with a stack height of 15 mm. The midsole offers a foam Altra calls MAX-LT, touted as a “responsive midsole compound with an incredible cushion-to-weight ratio.”

I found that true. The shoes have just enough cushion to dampen strides on rough terrain and even short stretches of road, though not too much to slow you down.

Mesh on top, a bit of midsole foam, and minimal tread below, the Vanish XC shoes are among the lightest trail-ready shoes

Stiffness is medium on the shoe. At first blush, bending the shoe in my hand, I expected more suppleness. However, these shoes take cues from their racing-flat forebears and offer a stable platform for the foot to push off with each stride.

This semi-firm nature makes them less useable on tricky trails, as the shoes can’t “meld” to all-terrain.

Side-to-side flex is almost absent — this Altra sole lacks the torsional flexibility seen in many minimalist shoes. That means tasks like side-hilling, or simply gripping the ground where it’s uneven, are less efficient.

All that said, as noted earlier, these shoes are not made for off-trail excursions. Look to Altra’s soon-to-release KingMT 2, for example, for more adventurous venues.

In the end, I found the Vanish XC shoes to be fast, lightweight, and lean. Altra built them for racers on the cross-country course. Any use beyond that is up to you.

For me, that means training runs on trails, hill repeats, and even sprints on the road. I like the featherweight feel and the thin midsole with minimal tread underneath.

Buy the Altra Vanish XC if you’re a minimalist adherent or a racer looking to gain an edge.

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