From the multi-terrain 574 that inspired runners to swap the track for the trail, to the Rainier boot that conquered Mount Everest in 1984, New Balance have always maintained a sure foot on any surface. Several decades deep in the outdoors game, the brand’s next product evolution is primed to arrive. The twin stars of the innovation show are Fresh Foam X and MegaGrip, both of which make their debut on the Hierro v5 hiker and 850AT. The latter is a nu-retro update of the no-logo 850 designed by Stephanie Howard in 1996. Splattered with mud motifs and bold colour combos, the beefy vibes exemplify the future of the New Balance All Terrain campaign. Buckle up as we head for the hills!
Ascending the Trail of New Balance All Terrain
Date: November 01 2019
By: Minh Vuong
Sponsored: New Balance
The Fresh Foam X and Vibram MegaGrip combination appears on both the new Hierro v5 and 850AT, two new designs that share a distinctive NB kinship. The Hierro v5 represents the latest technical integrations, perfecting the holy trinity of lightweight construction, cushy ride, and legit durability. The model clearly pays tribute to its outdoors forefathers, with high-vis mesh, flecked laces, and safety pull-tabs adding a teched-out vibe, while TPU overlays protect the toes and exude rugged power. The thematic gravel textures are a graphic invitation to tackle the rocky road rather than smooth surfaces.
Designed by Stephanie Howard in 1996, the 850 was a classic all-rounder design. Howard’s template heralded a new era at New Balance by letting its pure design credentials speak louder than the lack of an ‘N’ logo. More than 20 years later, the 850AT update reiterates the adage of ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’. Leaving the upper more or less untouched from the original, the distinctive webbed lace loops allude to the 850’s trail potential, while the flying logo on the heel reaffirms its deliberately askew location. Saturated neon ripstop and brown panelling are other period-correct nods to its 90s upbringing.
Having maintained a close alliance with Vibram over the years, the highly evolved sole units remain omnipresent across the entire New Balance trail range. The latest Vibram upgrade is the appropriately named ‘MegaGrip’ compound, which enables the tread pattern to sit nice and low at street-legal height, but still ridged enough for off-road runs.
On the cushioning front, as EVA became ENCAP and C-CAP gave way to ABZORB, Fresh Foam entered the lexicon in 2014, before maturing into Fresh Foam X. The latest entry in New Balance’s perpetual quest for lightweight construction and max comfort, Fresh Foam X looms as a significant upgrade.
While the Hierro v5 and 850AT represent the latest peak of New Balance’s off-road ascent, the Boston company's track to trail transition started over 40 years ago. In 1979, designers retrofitted Nora-Tuff outsoles to the marathon-winning 320 runner, becoming the Trail 355. The updated design’s knobbly tread pattern may not seem like a ground-breaking moment but, in retrospect, the 355 should be considered the prototype of every lightweight NB trail runner that followed. It was soon succeeded by the Trail 455.
A handful of years later – in an ambitious case of ‘go big or go home’ – the peak of New Balance’s off-road exploits arrived during a skyscraping ascent. With the assistance of his lightweight ‘Rainier’ New Balance boots, mountaineer Lou Whittaker led the first American expedition to successfully climb the north face of Mt Everest in 1984. An audacious alternative to the ‘leadweight’ climbing boots ubiquitous at that time, the Rainier was a streamlined design built for speed. The key was the lightweight construction and pliable sole unit that enabled climbers to move quickly – saving energy and preventing fatigue. Sitting underneath the chestnut leather and CORDURA panelling was a classic Vibram sole unit. The Italian company’s proprietary pyramid tread pattern would appear on many more New Balance models over the years.
'Each quarter pound of boot is burning calories as you pick up your foot, so if you can go to 21,000 feet with a lightweight shoe, it’s just an incredible change. That was my whole idea for the Rainier boots in getting them to be lightweight, but to have good traction and the best sole you could ever get.' Lou Whittaker
For the weekend specialist tackling both climes and climbs less extreme than Everest and K2, the Rainier was accompanied by hybrid hikers such as the Allagash and Cascade. The provocative print advertising campaign pulled no punches at the time, proclaiming ‘an unfair comparison’ with overweight competitors that were three times heavier and guaranteed a ‘trail of tears’ for their owners. Tried-and-true hardware like D-rings and speed hooks were grafted onto the grey nubuck and brown leather uppers of the MH616, MH710, and MH810 models. New Balance’s outdoors aesthetic was starting to take shape, though the best was definitely yet to come.
Trading in the Treadmill
By the mid 1980s, the fitness boom had expanded well beyond the gymnasium. The dull hum of treadmills was substituted for crunching gravel as joggers sought out challenging surfaces and fresh air. New Balance accommodated their needs with the multi-terrain 5 series, building on the Rainier blueprint by combining the best of the 575 and 576 in a basic new model known as the 574. Like the Trail 355 that preceded it the decade before, the 574 would go down in history as a landmark moment at NB.
Thirty years later, the 574 remains the highest-selling New Balance of all time, and a mainstay on Tokyo feet, but serious footwear aficionados have always preferred its tech-laden younger sibling: the MT580. Equipped with a monster Rollbar anti-pronation device, the chunky model is best remembered for SMU editions designed by mita sneakers and Real MadHECTIC, both of which kept the MT580 more in tune with Harajuku than Mount Fuji.
Staying in Japan for a minute, the half-runner, half-hiker 710 high-top remained an in-the-know JP collaborative partner of choice well into the 2000s, where it looked right at home in Rastafarian colours and polka-dots among other freakish make-ups.
Across the pond in England, the mountainous Lake District is home to both the New Balance factory in Flimby and generations of keen uphill ‘fell’ runners. Another Cumbrian native, Rowland Dixon – the first general manager of the NB factory – is credited as a key figure in restoring the local footwear manufacturing industry in 1982. The cleated Trail & Fell runner came soon after, and proudly wore a ‘Made in England’ tongue label. The remote region’s commercial turnaround continued into the new millennium with the ultra-light RX Terrain, a cult favourite among NB fans.
Back in America, the chunky 801 smashed sales targets with over 1.5 million pairs sold across 1998 and 1999. With C-CAP cushioning and ABZORB midsoles, the rugged rambler was such a sales success back in the day it was brought back in 2018 just in time for its 20th birthday – and to cash in on the chunky shoe revival. Another highlight from the late 90s was an outdoors co-sign on the feet of NBA star Stephon Marbury via his SLAM Magazine cover in 1999.
Surviving the Y2K scare gave New Balance the confidence to take daring leaps with their off-road offerings. In 2003, the hefty 695 was classed as a multi-genre amphibious sneaker with a distinctive buckle closure system. Further refinements to the category arrived in the 2010s as NB added ‘Trail’, ‘KOM’ and ‘Summit’ monikers to all four corners of their cushioning spectrum. 2016 foreshadowed the trail comeback with a GORE-TEX update to the Rainier Remastered, and the Trailbuster Re-Engineered introduced alongside its OG forefather.
More than 40 years after first heading off the beaten track, New Balance haven’t slipped up or slowed down. The Trail 355 broke new ground, the Rainier overcame Mt Everest, and the 801 ate gravel for breakfast. Today, the contemporary Hierro v5 and nu-retro 850AT are grabbing the outdoors baton from their trailblazing predecessors to venture back out into the great outdoors. Happy trails!