Altra Escalante

Jonathan Ellsworth reviews the Altra Escalante for Blister
Altra Escalante

Altra Escalante

Drop: 0 mm

Stated Features:

  • Stated Weight: 8.2 oz. / 232 g
  • Insole: 6 mm Contour Footbed
  • Platform: Natural Foot Positioning: FootShape™ Toe Box, Cushioned Zero Drop™
  • Stack Height: 25 mm
  • Midsole: Altra EGO™ with InnerFlex™
  • Outsole: FootPod
  • Upper: Engineered Knit
  • Other Features: Altra EGOTM Midsole Compound; Engineered Knit Upper; Sock-like Upper Fit; Metatarsal Mapping, Performance Last for Fast Training and Racing

MSRP: $130 USD

Size Tested: 10.5

Blister’s Measured Weight (size 10.5):

  • Shoes + Laces: 222 & 224 g
  • Insoles: 30 & 29 g
  • Total Weight: 252 & 253 g

Test Location: Northern New Mexico

Test Duration: ~500 miles

Reviewer: 5’10”, ~175 lbs. (my running background and preferences)

Intro

Altra has a whole lot to say about their Escalante, and some of their claims might seem a bit contradictory.

For example, they say that the shoe is best for “road running” and “short distance racing,” but also “casual wear.” They say it was designed with both “performance and fashion in mind,” and call it the “perfect athleisure shoe” that’s “ready to go from coffee shop to race course and back.”

On the more “serious” / dedicated side of things, Altra calls the Escalante an “Altra Ego™-equipped runner built with a sleek aesthetic, thanks to the sock-like fit and flexible construction of the engineered knit upper. Built on Altra’s PFS performance last with a responsive Altra Ego™ midsole and decoupled heel, the Escalante is designed for a fast ride with energetic rebound and minimal ground contact.”

So, which is it? Is the Escalante a really great short-distance racer, yet also a great “athleisure” shoe? Do you really get both? And is this a shoe that people who are first and foremost looking for an excellent running shoe should really consider, or should they look for a more dedicated road runner?

Given that I have been running in the same pair of Escalantes for almost a year now and have put about 500 miles in them, I think I’m in a pretty good position to locate the Escalante among other running shoes, and help you decide whether it’s a shoe that might work for you.

Zero Drop

Like all Altra shoes, the Escalante has no drop from the heel to the toe of the shoe. And this is one of the most important factors about the Escalante for people to consider.

I generally prefer shoes with low heel-to-toe drops, so I got along well with the Escalante’s platform. However, if you are coming from shoes with a more traditional 8-12 mm drop and are used to a heel-first foot strike, we’d recommend trying some shoes with slightly lower drops before fully committing to a zero-drop shoe. And we would definitely recommend taking a look at Altra’s transition plan if you’re new to zero-drop shoes.

As Blister reviewer, Luke Koppa, wrote in his review of the Altra Timp, “Making the recommended changes to my running form and training routine definitely helped ease the transition period, and as someone who used to work in a shop that sold zero-drop shoes (and consequently dealt with many unhappy, sore / injured customers), I am very familiar with the potential injuries associated with people who switch from traditional to zero-drop shoes without adjusting their running form or mileage.”

So don’t be dumb. Or impatient. If you are new to zero drop, take your time, and allow your body to adapt.

Fit

The fit of the Escalante is wide. And the upper is so stretchy, it makes the shoe feel even wider. This is intentional, as the Escalante is built with Altra’s “FootShape Toebox” which is designed to let your toes splay out and, allegedly, allow for more natural shock absorption.

(It also makes the shoe incredibly comfortable — as in, like your favorite pair of comfy flip flops or slippers.)

Compared to another popular “all-activities” / “all-day” shoe, the Hoka Hupana, in the same size the Hupana feels much more snug in terms of width across the whole shoe, but particularly through the instep area. I recently put the Hupana back on after having run exclusively in the Escalante for several months, and the difference in fit / width between the two shoes is pretty startling. I pretty quickly adjusted to the Hupana, but I simply wasn’t used to feeling any sort of lateral support / restriction after running exclusively in the Escalante.

So those who want more lateral support and prefer a tighter, more secure fit, you might consider the Hupana. While those who want their running shoe (or walk-around shoe) to be completely unrestrictive ought to check out the Escalante.

And for running on roads & smooth trails, I love the Escalante’s stretchy, non-restrictive upper and wide toe box.

Lateral Support

First and foremost, the Escalante truly is a shoe that should only be used on even surfaces, whether those even surfaces are cement, pavement, hard-packed dirt, the running track, treadmill, etc. This is not a trail shoe, and I would not recommend it even for occasional use on rocky, rooty, off-camber trails. There is pretty much no lateral support / stability in this shoe — which, in my book, is by no means a criticism. For running on even surfaces, I personally am not looking to run in a more built up, stiffer shoe.

Jonathan Ellsworth reviews the Altra Escalante for Blister
An example of one of my go-to running routes.

Stiffness

You’ve all seen it: more minimalist / barefoot style shoes can easily be folded up into a little ball in your hand. That’s not true of the Escalante, which is actually pretty longitudinally stiff through the middle of the shoe, then bends up easily at both the heel and toe box areas. If you use more force you can ball the shoe up, but the Escalante is more similar to the Hoka Hupana in terms of stiffness than it is to the other minimalist shoes that I’ll mention in this review. (That said, the Hupana is still stiffer than the Escalante all-around.)

Jonathan Ellsworth reviews the Altra Escalante for Blister
Altra Escalante

“Engineered Knit” Upper

I love the engineered knit upper of the Escalante. For a dedicated road / smooth-surface running shoe, the Escalante’s upper is my current all-time favorite. Its super stretchy material conforms to the foot, yet allows the foot to flex freely. It is thin, light, breathable, and I have found it to be supremely comfortable. (I never thought I’d say it, but after a day of jamming my feet into very tight ski boots, I will now often opt for the Escalante rather than my customary apres ski footwear: OluKai flip flops.)

Again, if you are spending a lot of time running on steep downhills or off-camber trails, I suspect you might prefer a less-stretchy / more solid and supportive knit upper, like that of the Hoka Hupana, or a non-knit upper like the old Merrell Mixmaster 2 (which was a favorite trail shoe of mine). The Escalante’s upper is going to stretch more than it supports, and I think you can count on your foot sliding quite a bit from side to side.

Midsole / Cushioning

In terms of cushioning, Altra classifies their shoes as being either Light, Moderate, High, or Max.

They classify the Escalante “Moderate,” while also calling its cushioning, “plush” and “luxurious.” So if you are still associating “zero-drop” shoes with “barefoot” shoes and / or shoes with very firm, very minimalist cushioning, think again.

Compared to very firm zero-drop shoes like Vibram FiveFingers; Merrell Bare Access 2, etc, VivoBarefoot Stealth / Stealth II; Skora Phase and Core; or Xero Prio, the Escalante feels worlds different. Altra describes the feel of their “Altra EGO” midsole as “plush,” and I think that’s a fair term to use. “Squishy” or “spongey” are the other terms I would use.

Jonathan Ellsworth reviews the Altra Escalante for Blister
Jonathan Ellsworth in the Altra Escalante.

Given just how much I find myself sinking / squishing down into the cushioning of the Escalante, I am not inclined to call it very responsive or “spring-like.”

By the way, the word “responsive” is used in pretty much every running-shoe review out there, yet this term is used in wildly contradictory, idiotic, and basically incoherent ways. We’ll be saying more about this soon in an upcoming 101 piece, but for now, let’s think of the cushioning of a shoe as being on a spectrum: on one far end, you have a thick sponge that absorbs impacts and dissipates energy, but returns none. On the other end of the spectrum, you have a spring, that probably absorbs some impact but, that also returns energy and provides a spring-like / springy return of energy. If we accept this spectrum (at least for now), I’d say that the Escalante feels far more like a plush sponge than a spring. (While the more minimalist / “barefoot” options are neither much of a sponge nor a spring, they are just firm, and the Hoka Hupana feels more spring-like than the Escalante.) In short, I’d describe the Escalante as more “soft” than “responsive.”

And this gets to one other important note about the cushioning of the Escalante. If you’ll permit me to talk for a minute in terms of suspension, the Escalante feels a bit like a plush bike fork that does absorb a good bit of impact … but that also blows through its travel / its suspension in a way that allows you to get to — and feel — the ground. The Hoka Hupana, for example, offers a similar initial level of “squish” as the Escalante, but then it firms up — the Hupana never feels like you are blowing through its travel per se. And in this way, it feels more “progressive” — more like a spring that returns energy as you begin to unweight your foot after impacting the ground.

Having run in the Escalante for about a year now, I still find this to be the most interesting and curious aspect of the shoe. And while I have happily run in the shoe for hundreds of miles, I think that, for me personally, I would be extremely interested in a version of the Escalante that basically split the difference between extremely firm zero-drop shoes (like some of the ones I’ve named above) and the current Escalante. I.e., keep the exact upper of the Escalante, but reduce some of its plushness, let it firm up quicker. (And, it seems that Altra might actually be making a shoe along these lines. More in this below.)

Anyway, I think it’s pretty rare to talk about shoes being both “plush” and offering decent “ground feel,” but that’s how I would describe the Escalante. And I’ll be interested to hear if fellow Escalante wearers agree with this assessment.

Cushioning, Part 1: How Firm or Soft?

So the Escalante is a 0mm-drop shoe with what I would describe as having pretty “squishy” cushioning. It comes with a 6 mm insole, and its stated stack height is 25 mm.

Of course, what feels “squishy” to me might feel “responsive” (or even too firm) to you — which is one of the reasons why running shoe reviews are pretty tricky.

So the more minimalist shoes listed in the prior section from Merrell, Skora, Xero, and Vivo Barefoot all offer much firmer rides than the Escalante, while a shoe like the Hoka Hupana offers even more cushioning and less ground feel than the Escalante.

There are a zillion factors that go into how much cushioning is going to feel like too much or too little for you, and frankly, that might even change a bit depending on the day.

Jonathan Ellsworth reviews the Altra Escalante for Blister
Jonathan Ellsworth in the Altra Escalante, northern New Mexico.

As for me, I have quite happily now put nearly 500 miles in the same pair of Escalantes, and while I think I’d prefer a firmer ride, these have been the shoes I keep consistently reaching for over the past year.

Granted, you can modify the “squish” factor a bit by removing that 6 mm Contour Footbed, and I do so on occasion, just to switch things up a bit. But a big part of the squish / soft cushioning of this shoe seems to come from its midsole, not merely the removable insole, so don’t expect to simply ditch the insole, then get the same firm feel of a Xero or Skora.

Cushioning, Part 2: How Forgiving vs. How Punishing? (Pros and Cons)

Compared to firmer zero-drop shoes with much lower stack heights, the heel of the Escalante is far, far more cushioned. And you’ll have to decide if this is a benefit or a hindrance. The “benefit” — and depending on who you are, you may call this a massive benefit — is that the heel of the Escalante is cushioned enough that, if your form does break down, this shoe won’t beat you up.

But one man’s heaven is another man’s hell, and those coming from more of a minimalist / barefoot point of view might be quick to call this “benefit” of the Escalante a downside of the shoe — that it is too forgiving of bad technique, and a shoe that allows you or even encourages you to run with sloppy form, well, that is a technology that comes at a cost.

Jonathan Ellsworth reviews the Altra Escalante for Blister
Jonathan Ellsworth in the Altra Escalante.

Ultimately, I see the merits of each side of the debate, and I think this is where each of us needs to get clear on what sort of aid or assistance we are looking for a running shoe to provide.

Comparisons: Weights, Cushioning, and Other Altra Shoes

At ~253 g in a size 10.5, the Escalante with “Moderate” cushioning is a pretty light shoe with a stack height of 25 mm.

In Altra’s own lineup, the Escalante comes in heavier than their Vanish-R, which is their “true racing flat” with a stated weight of 111 g, 14 mm stack height, and “Light” cushioning.

The Altra Solstice is a neutral-road shoe with a stated weight of 196 g, 23 mm stack height, and “Light” cushioning.

Finally, Altra makes a “Light”-cushioned version of the Escalante, called the Boston Escalante Racer (stated weight: 193 g, 22 mm stack height).

(Given my background and preferences, I’m pretty intrigued by all of these “Light” cushioned shoes, and hope to get in some of them soon to compare to the “Moderate” Escalante.)

The Escalante weighs less than the “High” cushioned Altra Torin 3.5 Knit (~258 g / 28 mm stack) and a bit more than the “High” cushioned Duo (~224 g, stack height: 30 mm).

Final note for this section: when comparing these shoes’ specs, it’s important to keep in mind that stack height isn’t the only factor that affects a shoe’s cushioning and feel. For example, the Altra Timp has a 29 mm stack height, but it doesn’t feel nearly as springy or cushioned as the Hoka Speedgoat 2, which has a stack height of 27.5 mm. So while stack height is useful when it comes to getting a general idea of where a shoe fits into a spectrum, the actual material of the midsole plays a large role in how the shoe feels while running, and is something that’s much more difficult to assess without actually running in the shoe.

Traction

The Escalante’s soles grip. On my first run, the shoes felt almost sticky. But again, just because the shoes come with good traction doesn’t mean that I encourage anyone to use these as a trail shoe. And I will say that after my first 100 miles or so, that super-grippy feel was gone (I think a very subtle but sufficient amount of the tread wore off), and I simply don’t think about the traction of this shoe one way or another. Thumbs up.

Durability

After about 500 miles, here’s how the shoe is holding up:

Upper: Perfect condition. I wouldn’t expect that this thin, stretchy, supple knit upper is going to hold up well if you are using it as a trail shoe, or walking or running through tall grasses / weeds where the upper might get snagged. But I’ve got 500 miles in mine on smooth surfaces, and the uppers are in perfect shape.

Midsole: All in all, I’d say the midsole is holding up quite well. It’s possible that the shoe has firmed up / compressed a little, but (1) if it has, that’s a change that I personally wouldn’t mind, and (2) if it has, any change is certainly subtle. So I’d have to give pretty high marks here for durability.

Outsole: This is certainly where the shoe is showing the most wear, but I’d say that the level of wear after 500 miles is still totally acceptable. The biggest wear is happening right at the ball of my foot, in the center of the shoe — where I’d most expect to see wear on a zero-drop road shoe where I’m striking with my forefoot / midfoot rather than my heel.

I’m not someone who feels the need to buy new shoes at the first sign of wear, especially since these shoes are still performing and feeling like they did when they were new. Your mileage may vary, but I can and will continue to run in this same pair of Escalantes.

Bottom Line

The Escalante is a great-looking, super comfortable running shoe that is a compelling option for those who prefer zero-drop shoes, but who are still looking for a significant amount of cushioning. Those coming from very firm zero drop shoes may find the Escalante to be too / overly cushioned, but that might still prove to be of interest if you want a more plush / forgiving shoe to use for longer runs or to give your feet a bit of a break.

On the other hand, runners coming from heavily-cushioned and / or higher-drop shoes will find the Escalante to be one of the easier zero-drop shoes to transition into if you are interested in moving away from shoes with very thick, (and, arguably, “cumbersome”) heels. The Escalante will subtly encourage you to be a less-heavy heel striker, but it won’t punish you like firmer zero-drop shoes will should you revert back to a heavier heel-striking style on your run.

5 thoughts on “Altra Escalante

  1. Great review. I never see Altra in running stores in Europe. I’ve been running in Merrell bare access 4’s, which are no longer being produced or available online in my size and totally stuck for new runners with zero drop and low cushioning. Might give Altra a go! I thought the bare access 4’s were basically the perfect shoe though. Disappointed in Merrell continuously changing their line-up.

  2. you might try some Topo running shoes. Same fit as Altras in toebox, tighter in heel, the ones i have are less cushioned than the Altras I own, but i do not own every Altra or every Topo so cannot generalize. But if you like Altra, you will like Topo.

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