The great outdoors is my happy place. Here in SoCal, mountainous trails are in abundant supply. I spend as much of my free time as possible exploring these undeveloped areas, which are often steep and rocky.
I spend much of my outdoor time hiking, but I also sometimes enjoy picking up the pace for a trail run. I like the challenge of navigating rough terrain at faster speeds.
Over the years, I have also participated in trail races to add a bit more challenge (I don’t come close to winning, but something is exhilarating about speeding across a trail with a pack of runners).
I tested these shoes across the type of mountainous terrain depicted in the images you’ll find in this writeup.
It was a mixture of hiking and running for miles (I would say I hiked more than I ran in these, though, given the steepness of some of the trails).
The Merrell Nova appeared to have the right balance of lightweight performance, grip, and cushioning.
It gets the job done well so that I could make it to the mountaintop in record time!
What should you look for in a hiking shoe?
As a frequent hiker, there are some particular features that I look for in a hiking shoe to ensure that my feet will feel supported and that I can minimize the chance of injuries.
1) A lugged outsole.
The outsole is what makes or breaks a hiking boot or shoe in terms of its utility on the trail. Just about any type of athletic shoe outsole will work for walking on paved areas, but a whole new set of considerations comes into play when you trek onto loose, uneven terrain.
The importance of proper footwear increases all the more when dealing with areas where you may encounter steep inclines or declines. A lugged outsole with raised bumps will help you feel sure-footed and minimize the risk of slipping and falling.
As someone who has hiked for a long time and in a variety of footwear, I can tell you that my worst injuries have always occurred when wearing shoes without enough traction.
2) A firm but flexible midsole.
A good hiking shoe will include a midsole that bends and flexes with your feet but also offers enough rigidity in the midfoot area to prevent unwanted twisting of the foot during the gait cycle.
I look for torsional rigidity at the arch area of the shoe, which I test by trying to twist the shoe with my hands. If the arch area remains unbent during the twisting, then I know that the shoe has adequate support.
Also, I like solid cushioning in my hiking shoes, either EVA or some other kind of foam.
3) A removable insole
Most higher-quality hiking shoes include a stock insole that can be removed from the shoe. As a flat-footed person, I need to replace stock insoles with a more supportive aftermarket model.
Even if you are not flat-footed, the shoe’s insole is the first thing to wear out in many cases, and the shoes will last longer if it can be easily replaced with a cushioned model.
4) A durable, protective upper.
It’s easy to scrape a foot when hiking on rocky terrain. The shoes upper should be made of a rugged material (synthetic or leather, or often some combination of the two) that will offer good protection from the elements.
You should try on the shoes carefully to make sure that the shoe does not rub your foot uncomfortably in any area. Rubbing can cause blisters or hot-spots.
5) A rigid heel cup
This feature is very important for preventing blisters. The heel of the shoe should be hard and firm and should hug your rearfoot closely.
Too much slippage in the heel leads to painful blisters. Also, an unstructured heel cup can make your foot wobble in the shoe, which is also a recipe for blisters and foot pain.
The way I test this when buying a pair of hiking shoes is to push on the heel with my finger. If the heel collapses under the pressure, I do not buy the shoes.
6) Toe bumper.
Stubbing your toe on a rock is very painful. Most hiking shoes and boots include a rubber bumper at the front of the shoe to protect your toes from rocks.
7) A sufficiently roomy toebox.
If the hiking shoe or boot makes your toes feel squeezed, you’ve found the wrong pair. Look for a style that gives your toes ample room to spread out.
Cramped toes lead to injuries, so let those piggies spread out in the shoe as much as possible. For some people, a wider-width shoe may be necessary to make sure you have enough room.
What should you look for in a trail running shoe?
There are specific features that I look for in a trail running shoe that differ from a hiking shoe. However, many of the features are also similar.
1) Back to the lugged outsole.
Traction is the utmost importance when moving quickly over a trail, to prevent slips and falls.
The lugging found on a trail running shoe is similar to that of a hiking shoe, allowing the foot to grab the ground. This is why I never trail run in regular road running shoes!
2) Back to the toe bumper.
Stubbed toes are also a big risk when running across undeveloped terrain. A good trail running shoe protects the toe with a rubber bumper up front.
3) Back to the removable insole.
Trail running is a high-impact activity. For those of us who need extra support, the ability to use an aftermarket insole is an advantage for preventing painful conditions like plantar fasciitis.
Even if you have never experienced any foot issues, the insoles of a running shoe typically wear out long before any other part of the shoe. They should be replaced at some point to optimize shoe performance.
Therefore, I won’t ever buy a trail running shoe that includes a glued-in insole. The insole that comes with your shoes should be easy to detach from the rest of the shoe and slide out.
4) Lightweight construction.
This is where a trail runner differs from a hiking shoe. Hiking shoes are sometimes heavy, like trucks for your feet.
While this is fine for hiking, given the protection that they provide, a hiking shoe would weigh a runner down too much. Trail running shoes are much lighter in weight than hiking shoes to avoid hindering the runner’s gait.
5) A snug fit.
Personal preference here, but I prefer a foot-hugging fit in a trail runner. That prevents blisters from unwanted in-shoe foot motion.
One way to achieve this is to buy shoes with extra lace holes around the shoe’s collar (the part that comes up closest to your ankles). This way, the foot is locked into the shoe and isn’t sliding around.
This is especially critical if you will be traversing hilly terrain, running on inclines and declines. A rigid heel cup is also vital for securing the foot in place and preventing unwanted motion inside the shoe.
Hiking boots are often made of leather or synthetic materials that do not breathe as well as a performance mesh. This again, is for foot protection.
Running is (arguably) a higher-intensity activity than hiking, and the feet can really heat up during a trail run. A breathable shoe is, therefore, a must for comfort.
7) A firm but (more) flexible midsole.
Hiking boots are often very stiff in the midsole for extra protection and support. A good trail runner will be built on a midsole that is stiffer than that of a regular running shoe but still allows the foot to flex and bend properly during the running gait cycle.
It’s a careful balance getting the right ratio of flexibility-to-firmness, and different people will like different models for this reason. I tend to prefer a little more flexibility when running, so I keep this in mind when shopping for a trail runner.
8) A lower-profile approach (optional).
Overall, my favorite trail runners are the ones that are lean and mean. Cushioning is great to protect the foot, but I find that it’s also important to feel connected to the ground beneath your feet when trail running.
Everyone’s cushioning-to-shoe-profile balance is different, but I find that too much bulky cushioning detracts from my sure-footedness when trail running.
Now that you know what I look for in my trail runners and hikers, it’s time to see how the Merrell Nova measures up in both departments (hint: pretty well).
The Merrell Nova is a rugged-looking trail runner with a lace-up closure.
Its design is similar to that of brands such as Altra or Topo, with a lower heel-to-toe drop than many traditional running shoes and a roomy toe box.
I like the various colorways offered in this model, and chose the black/olive/lime green just based on preference. The outsole is heavily lugged and is made with Vibram for durability.
Overall, the Merrell Moab Adventure Luna Lace looks and feels ready for adventure.
The Merrell Nova fits just right. I am a size 9.5 in most athletic shoes (and on a Brannock device), and these shoes seem completely true-to-size.
I appreciate the added feature of an extra lace hole at the collar of the shoe, which really locks the heel into place.
I didn’t feel like my heel was loose in the shoe, which is a critical factor in blister prevention.
My feet stayed locked in place on steep declines, which can be an issue in some models that don’t have the extra lace hole at the collar. I also appreciate the wider toe box, which allows for natural toe splay.
Overall, the fit on this shoe is a 10/10.
The Merrell Nova is a lightweight shoe, which makes it perfect for rock-hopping, faster hiking, bouldering, or trail running. At no point did I feel weighed down by the shoes during any activity.
I found that I was able to summit a mountain faster than usual in this model, running partway and hiking the rest. There are a few shoes that would allow me to do this.
The upper is made of a durable yet breathable textile with overlays for structural support. I appreciate the way that the upper wraps around my feet and to snugly hold them in place.
I have seen reviews online complaining about a lack of durability in the upper for this model. Still, given my experience, I would have to assume that those were merely defective items rather than the whole product line.
The shoe includes a durable toe bumper for protection as well. I can attest that, without the bumper, I would have probably experienced a toe stub on at least one of my hikes or runs.
The heel cup on the Merrell Nova is rigid yet padded to keep my feet free from unwanted motion inside the shoe.
It includes a few reflective strips for visibility in low-light conditions. The padding inside the heel is soft and comfortable, keeping the heels blister-free.
The midsole of the Merrell Nova is comprised of a thick layer of foam with heel and forefoot cushioning pods.
The stack height (the difference between heel and toe height) is the only 8mm, which isn’t much. This allows for a solid connection with the ground when in motion and adds to the overall feeling of stability.
I found the cushioning to be more than adequate to protect my feet from the trails and attenuate shock from running or hiking.
The shoe comes with a soft and nicely contoured stock insole that is easily removable. The stock insole is soft and provides a little cushion.
It appears to be designed around a neutral or medium arch. I replaced the stock insole with my doctor-prescribed orthotics with no issue. The stock insole may be fine for some people until it wears out.
The outsole is where the Merrell Nova really shines.
The sole includes Vibram material for durability and a rock plate for protection. The triangular lugs are very helpful in preventing slips and skids on rough terrain.
My experience was very positive with this feature, which protected me from injury more than a few times when scrambling over some sharp rocks. I felt very confident running and hiking in these shoes on everything from loose dirt to the rocky ground.
Pros & cons
As a hiker
The Merrell Nova is a solid day-hiker which will work for faster-tempo hikes. Its best qualities include:
- An outsole that provides excellent traction even when used on very rough undeveloped terrain in mountainous areas. The addition of Vibram ensures durability, giving the shoe a longer lifespan than some models which do not include this material. The outsole is also designed to protect the toe area from stubbing;
- A supportive upper made from a breathable textile material with synthetic overlays;
- A rigid heel cup that holds the foot in place within the shoe and includes a heel bumper for extra protection and traction;
- A lightweight design;
- A cushioned midsole that provides solid and dependable underfoot support;
- A low-profile sole with a heel-to-toe offset of 8mm for added stability;
- An excellent fit in medium width with an extra-roomy toe box;
- Solid value.
The one drawback of the Merrell Nova as a hiker is a lack of arch support. I added an aftermarket insole for extra support; thus, I had no problem.
If you plan to be on your feet in the Merrell Nova for more than a few hours of hiking, I highly recommend replacing the stock insole with an aftermarket model that holds up your arches.
As a trail runner
The Merrell Nova is designed as a trail runner, and it works well for this purpose. The features that make it so great for hiking also weigh in its favor as a trail runner.
I appreciated the lightweight design, overall flexibility, cushioning pods in the heel and forefoot, and excellent traction that this model provides.
This shoe will really only be suitable for a neutral runner, however, given the lack of any sort of firm arch support. To me, this matters even more in a running shoe than in a hiker given the additional force of pounding the ground during a run.
Therefore, I give this shoe an 8.5/10 as a trail runner. Still very good, but some firmer material under the arch area would make it excellent.
The Merrell Nova is overall a great trail runner, and day-hiker for those looking to move faster on the trail than a traditional hiking shoe or boot will allow.
It is thoughtfully designed with features that do a great job of protecting the foot over any kind of terrain.
I found myself able to summit mountains and run trails more quickly than my usual in these shoes, and without foot fatigue.
This shoe should have a broad range of appeal since it can be used by entry-level hikers/trail runners as well as those of us with more experience. I give the Merrell Nova a solid recommendation and a 90/100 overall.
Good to know
- The Nova is a Merrell trail running shoe. The external pad of this off-road companion is made up of a rubber compound that has aggressive gripping lugs. The claw-like structure of this section aims to maintain balance and confident movements over the unpredictable outdoor terrains. A compression molded ethylene vinyl acetate unit serves as the primary source of cushioning.
- A textile that is resistant to tears and abrasion is used for the upper unit of the Merrell Nova. Printed and stitched-on overlays buttress this fabric, maintaining its structure and heightening its durability. Fabric eyelets link the façade to a ghillie lacing system, allowing for a traditional fit adjustment method to modify the in-shoe hug.
Standard measurements were used in the making of the Merrell Nova. The consumer’s regular sizing choices work well with this product. When it comes to width, the only available variant is D – Medium. Those with low and medium foot dimensions and volumes are the ones who are welcome to test this product.
The semi-curved shape of the lasting board and the form-welcoming upper unit work together to accommodate the natural curve and structure of the human foot.
Men’s foot measurements were used as the blueprint for the creations of the Nova.
The outsole unit of the Merrell Nova is composed of the Vibram® TC5+, a compound that is highly resistant to wear-and-tear. This layer acts as a shield between the midsole and the ground. It also doles out traction through its sticky characteristic.
Full clamping capacity is afforded by the multiple gripping lugs that pockmark the surface of the external pad. These protruding shapes and arrow-like erections fundamentally act like claws that sink into the ground and solidify the position of the foot.
The opposite-facing configuration of the lugs allows the runner to quickly and confidently traverse slanting topography, thus easing the process of climbing or descending tricky paths.
A compression molded ethylene vinyl acetate (CMEVA) foam comprises the primary cushioning unit of the Merrell Nova. This feature runs the entire length of the shoe, providing full-bodied support to the whole foot. Its reactiveness that welcomes the bending capacity of the foot while its shock-attenuating and energy-transferring abilities permit an invigorated step.
Extra cushioning pods are placed in the heel and forefoot section. These trappings heighten the impact alleviating ability of the midsole, particularly when it comes to the striking phase of the gait cycle. Both heel and forefoot are able to benefit from this inclusion.
An insole made from EVA is placed right above the CMEVA platform. This add-on provides a bit more oomph to the underfoot experience. It can be removed or replaced with a new one if the runner chooses to do so.
The TrailProtect™ is a sheet that is sandwiched between the midsole and outsole. The job of this piece is to protect the foot against jagged trail debris and potentially injurious surfaces. It doesn’t hinder the flexibility of the platform because it is thin.
The Nova’s midsole doesn’t have stability mechanisms, thereby making it a neutral running footwear.
The external part of the Merrell Nova’s upper unit is made up of a textile that is highly resistant to abrasion. The purpose of this outer façade is to resist cuts and tears that may be caused by trail debris and other elements. It still has micro-pores which permit environmental air into the interior chamber.
A mesh lining serves as the interior sleeve. It was installed seamlessly to avert any hot spots and chafing as the walls of the shoe-chamber embrace the outline of the foot. Moreover, this lining has a breathable construction which permits air to flow through it and maintain ventilation.
The lightly padded tongue and collar are tasked with buttressing the Achilles tendon, the ankles and the bridge of the foot. These parts of the upper are also meant to prevent in-shoe wobbling and unintentional shoe removals.
Printed overlays bolster the sides and the toe box of this trail runner. These synthetic prints heighten the abrasion resistance, as well as the snugness of the cover system.
The Hyperlock™ technology is comprised of stitched-on overlays that encompass the heel part of the façade. These accoutrements connect directly to the lacing system through eyelets. Looping the shoelaces through the apertures and adjusting them causes the heel coverage to follow suit, thereby heightening the perception of customized in-shoe security.
Discrete fabric eyelets serve as the lace-loops of the Merrell Nova’s ghillie lacing system. Round shoelaces form a lattice across the instep, bringing a fit-adjustment method that can modify the tightness or looseness of the cover system. The detached nature of the lacing tabs averts pinching or the crinkling of the tongue unit, a trait that, in turn, staves off blisters.
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