It seems that the term “minimal” has a wide definition in the footwear world these days. For me, it’s become just marketing buzz, and the word — along with phrases like “barefoot style” and “natural motion” — have ceased to have any meaning at all.
Case in point is the Scarpa Spark, a $115 shoe I really like but would classify far from “minimal” in its build. The company, on the other hand, calls it a “mountain minimalist trail-running shoe.”
The Spark is light at 9 to 10 ounces per shoe depending on size. But with stout construction, serious lugs, 6mm of drop from heel to toe, and a protective sole, the Spark is decidedly not minimal when compared to other shoes I’ve been running in this summer.
Regardless, as noted, I do like this shoe. It shines in places where I find hiking boots to be too much, but “barefoot-style” shoes too light. It also is a great shoe for people used to running in traditional shoes and don’t want to leap into the ultra-light “barefoot” realm.
I put the Spark to the test on a rugged Colorado 14er this week as well as on numerous trail runs. The shoe clawed at the ground for grip, giving me secure footing on even loose soil and rock. As a solid, light hiking shoe for the mountains, the Spark sings.
Compared to hiking boots, these shoes are nimble underfoot and pretty pleasant for long treks or when the tempo kicks up to a run. They also provide plenty of support for hiking with a heavy pack.
Yet as a running shoe they are not as fast or friendly, for me, as shoes like the New Balance Trail 10 or the Merrell Trail Glove. The Spark is more forgiving than those true minimal shoes, and it will not punish you for heel strikes and stubbed toes. But it is slower, and it is less “natural” because of the bigger drop and thicker sole.
They have big advantages in other areas. In my tests, I’ve used the Sparks to plow down some loose gravel and rock with long plunge steps on the descent — not something I would do with my other running shoes.
Zipping over scree and loose rock, the Spark performed admirably. It provides reasonable feedback and ground-feel although nowhere near the sensitivity of what I’d call a true minimal running shoe.
If you are looking for a light shoe that will protect your foot and provide some support, the Spark may be your answer. I love them for long hikes and hairy mountain terrain. For my day-to-day runs — and even long competitive trail events — I’m sticking with something more “minimal,” at least in my definition of the word.
—Sean McCoy is a contributing editor based in Denver. He ran the six-day GORE–TEX TransRockies race last month. See his gear report from that race here