I really enjoyed doing some trail running and hiking in the TrekSport, Bikila and Trail Glove during the first part of this year - even trails that I have been on for a decade were a new experience in 'barefoot' footwear. But lately I have been looking for a different compromise - something with a bit more protection, even if it means that it is slightly heavier. Two of the models that I have been trying are the Inov-8 f-lite 195 and f-lite 230.
NOTE: The pictures with this review shoe the f-lite 230 in Blue – but we decided to carry the f-lite 230 in black at the Summit Hut.
Fit: These shoes are slightly narrow in the front of the shoe - but a very soft/forgiving upper means that - depending on the shape of your foot - they should accommodate a D width foot like mine (wider and you may have problems). The TPU overlays that connect with the laces do a decent job of holding your foot in place during technical and downhill trail sections, especially considering how lightweight the shoes are.
Mesh Upper: The mesh upper is quite breathable and dries quickly. The openness of the material does mean that it is quite easy for thorns, cactus needles and other plants to come thru the material, on a recent run on miles of overgrown trail I found myself stopping several times to clear off/out my shoes – but overall the breathability of the upper may be worth it. I have not tested these long enough to report about the durability - but so far (about 2 months) I have not had any problems.
Outsole: The outsole design has fairly flat lugs of sticky rubber. The rubber seems sticker than many other trail running shoes I have tried - but it does not feel as sticky as the rubber on approach shoes such as the Five.Ten Guide Tennie. There are situations where a deeper, more aggressive, lug pattern can help with grip - but I found that for both on and off trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains the lug pattern/depth worked well.
The fit, upper and outsole are very similar between the 195 and 230. The most important differences between these two shoes are the amount of cushion and forefoot to heel differential. Inov-8 uses a 0 to 4 'arrow' system to describe the cushioning and protection in their footwear - a higher number means more cushioning and protection.
f-lite 195: The 195 is a 1 arrow shoe - minimal cushioning/protection and a 3mm differential between the heel and forefoot. These shoes have a feel that is just one step above 'barefoot' footwear like the Vibram FiveFingers. Footwear as minimal as the 195 is certainly not for everyone, especially on rugged trails! But if you are looking for something one step 'more' than Vibram FiveFingers or Merrell Trail Glove this may be a great option.
f-lite 230: Blindfolded there is a good chance that you would have trouble telling the weight difference between the 230 and 195 (Inov-8's names refer to the weight, in grams, of the shoe) - but the 230 is a 2 arrow shoe (6mm differential and slightly more cushioning) and the difference is immediately evident on the trail. The 230 feels noticeably firmer and more protective than the 195s and, while still very light, provides a different class of protection and support on the trail.
I like both of these shoes - the 195s for their minimalism, the 230s for the combination of weight and protection. I think I am likely to use the 230s more this fall, for long day hikes I am in love with the compromise between weight, support and protection that they offer!