Footwear is a highly personal item and, in my opinion, the single most important article of clothing a person must select and put to use. Sound familiar?. If so, that’s because it’s exactly what I said the last time I tried out a new pair of boots – and I still stand by that idea, but no one pair of boots is going to be ideal for every set of conditions. As the season, terrain or mission changes, so the demands you put on your dogs.
I have avoided looking at a dedicated hiking boot for myself, mainly because some of the boots I own do reasonably well hiking and the cost of good hikers seems like a lot to gamble if they don’t work out. I have stuck with just plain leather boots with decent soles, and while I am not averse to technologically advanced concepts, I am aware that many supposedly "technologically advanced concepts" are more of marketing than of functionality. While I have no reservations about cladding my feet in that particularly important contribution made by members of the bovidae family, that contribution should not include what comes out the south end of one. Like everything else, boots seem to be hyped with a lot of "new and improved" which just adds to my concerns about whether I would like them after spending the money.
Wolverine has been making no-BS boots for a century now. Their leather and tanning experience behind their footwear goes back even farther, so you know that someone didn’t just decide to build a shoe factory and start selling cool-looking shoes and boots. Wolverine has been one of the most recognizable names in quality footwear for as long as I can remember personally, so I know that what I can’t see when I look at them in the store will be no surprise later. Even though I trust the name, I am still not what could be considered a brand-loyal consumer. The name gets my attention but they still have to fit my requirements and my budget. Wolverine has not only gotten my attention, but has impressed me further with the Fulcrum ICS Off-Road Hiker. The Fulcrum is a real hiking boot of excellent quality and is priced out of proportion to what you get – in a good way.
The "Wolverine Fulcrum ICS Off-Road Hiker" is as impressive a title as it is a boot, but I will refer to them in the more familial or diminutive of "Fulcrum." Not to diminish the features mentioned in their name, but to save space for what these features are all about. I don’t know what I would have called them myself but my own propensity for being verbose might have stuck them with a name that wouldn’t even fit on the box.
The Fulcrum is a hiker. It is a six-inch boot offering stability and ankle protection, slips on, laces up and protects your feet while you walk. All of the obvious attributes are there and exceed the requirements for a basic boot. They excel in all the ways Wolverine usually does, such as in design, where the leather uppers are meticulously fit and sewn together to bend where they should, shed water and stand up to hard use. They are a cut above in quality materials like the Vibram® Mutant rubber outsole, waterproof full-grain leather upper, GORE-TEX® membrane, a polyurethane midsole, OrthoLite® performance insert and an organic inner lining. Most of those materials should sound familiar to most of us and indicate that someone was on their toes when they decided what goes into the Fulcrum, but there is one feature left which might lure technophiles and make the skeptics cringe. Trust me on this one – I can smell a gimmick a mile away and I am convinced that the "gel disc" in the heels of these boots, while they seemed weird at first, are truly a useful feature.
When the UPS driver handed me the box, which I was sure would be the Fulcrums, my first thought was "what have I gotten myself into?" As I mechanically made my greeting and exchanged quips about the weather, my mind was processing the sense of mass this box held. "Gads! They weigh a ton!" Most of the boots I have worn felt much lighter so I weighed the Fulcrums individually and found that each tipped my little postal scale at barely a pound and three quarters each. Not as bad as it first seemed, but still… So, I weighed the boots I wear most – a pair of unlined leather "Wellingtons" ("Ropers") and found that they were very close in weight. After I started wearing the Fulcrums, I forgot about what the scale told me. They feel much lighter than they are even though they are loaded with quality materials and are built solidly.
The Fulcrum fit well and I decided to at least wear them for a day in the shop before going on a short hike. A little pre-break-in might make the actual break-in less uncomfortable. I spent a day in the shop, on a concrete floor and never noticed them except for those times I found myself staring at the floor to locate whatever I just had dropped or to try to remember what I was doing before I dropped it. They were very comfortable from the start, but then, I was just shuffling about from bench to bench and not really walking.
As I started out on my first short hike with them, I considered whether I should try to figure out the ICS (Individual Comfort System) and play with the gel disc in the heel. I pulled out the inner sole and then the disc. It’s an odd-looking, squishy thing with what looks like gear teeth on the bottom. The "teeth" are graduated and fit mating recesses in the bottom of the heel. As I studied the disc, it appeared that by rotating the disc, I would be changing the amount of gel between my heel and the boot. The disc is marked "cushion" and "firm" one hundred eighty degrees apart and those are the two settings I decided t try – the two extremes. If this is not a gimmick, I should notice a difference and not permanently injure myself in the process. While no instructions came with the ICS, Wolverine has a short video on their site which is somewhat helpful.
The video does not explain how or why the disc works or how changing the settings might relate to the load you bear or the terrain you travel upon, but you can at least see how to make the adjustments. Because the settings are chosen based on the very subjective criteria of your own personal comfort, there is no chart and are no algorithms to scientifically zero in on the "right" setting for you personally under the conditions you use the Fulcrum. Oh, and no, there is no app’ for that – it’s all up to you. It’s sort of like making the personal choice to buy a cushier inner sole for the boots you have, but this one can be adjusted to be cushier or firmer in lieu of chucking the one that didn’t work and buying another one that is firmer or softer. It’s simply a matter of what "feels good" to you. No snake oil, no tricks – you decide what feels good to you and go with it.
The first hike was on a well-travelled trail at a river’s edge and the soil is compacted for the most part, but very mushy and wet in other places because of all the rain this year. There are hills, flat, grassy stretches and some gravel, but mud seemed to be a common element in every type of terrain. I carried only about twelve pounds in gear and water instead of a heavy pack so I picked the "firm" setting purely on intuition. The gel disc changes the angle you feel in the boot slightly and the flatter feel worked about like any other less technologically advance boot I have. I knew how it should feel on that hike and had an approximate rate of progress to expect.
In addition to the gel disc, the inner sole offers some cushion as well but there is enough cushion without being so soft that you waste energy and motion compressing and decompressing the inner sole and gel disc. The "firm" setting worked as well as any good boot I have used and will at least not detract from the other features of the boot. I could leave it at this setting and probably be fine.
The first hike was about five miles just in case the Fulcrums needed more breaking in and in case I had chosen the wrong gel disc setting for the conditions. Just having considered that at all made me wonder if making settings or adjustments on boots might not be a complication I would not want to have to deal with. Since the first setting I chose was comfortable and seemed fairly versatile, I figured I wouldn’t have to change it if I didn’t want to. After a number of hikes and having used them almost full-time for several weeks now, I don’t remember what they are set on but they are comfortable so I haven’t messed with it.
The next "hike" was down the road on blacktop just to try another setting but on a hard, flat and even surface. This is the hike I squeeze in when I can’t get all the way to the woods but need some air and exercise. I know the Fulcrum’s full name includes "Off-Road" but I frequently encounter at least some blacktop along the course of a hike. I rotated the discs one hundred eighty degrees to the "cushion" setting and headed down the road. I have "fast" boots and "slow" boots where this particular walk is concerned and the "slow" boots are flatter. It takes more effort to make that hike in them and I am slower in doing so. The "cushion" setting changed the pitch of my foot in the boot slightly and made them feel like my "faster" boots on that walk. The cushion felt very good on the hard surface and I was able to stretch out a bit and do an aggressive hike without jarring everything from my heels up.
Since the Fulcrum has turned out to be such a comfortable walking boot and have me intrigued enough about the ICS that I have been wearing them just about everywhere. I have tried the two extreme settings for everything from carpeted halls and concrete floors to rocky trails, gravel and soggy, swampy bottoms, flat, grassy meadows, plowed fields, woods full of spongy humus, leaf litter and entanglements of fallen twigs and branches and I have not treaded upon terrain for which I find the Fulcrum the least bit unsuitable. I have made several hikes in the woods and along margins in particular and the variety of what is underfoot at any given moment is considerable. The Fulcrums are comfortable regardless of where I walk, what I walk on or what setting I choose.
While the ICS gel disc is certainly a unique feature, the Fulcrum has other attributes which appeal to me. The leather uppers and GORE-TEX membrane is a plus. The removable OrthoLite® performance insert inner-soles are nice because they offer some extra arch support while being resilient and durable. I like them also because I can remove them if I stop for a sock change or when I take them off for the day. This lets extra air circulate through the boots. Another plus for the Fulcrum is the robust lacing eyes, which actually look more like miniature clevises anchored to the boot. They seem to hold the adjustments made to the laces, so snug ’em where you want ’em snug and leave some slack where you need it. So far, they have not allowed tension to even out while walking – a useful feature whether it was intentional or not.
All the other features are great but missing the mark on one in particular one would have been a deal breaker – the tread. The first thing I do when I shop for new boots is to turn them over and look at the bottoms. Because that’s where the price tag is? Well, yes, but I don’t even bother with that until I know what the tread looks like.
The rest of the boot can be ideal and the price almost too good to be true but if the tread isn’t right, you may as well keep your money and wear a pair of cozy old slippers outside. The Fulcrum’s Vibram® Mutant rubber outsole is the single best tread design I have ever used. I have been true to the classic Vibram® lug sole for decades and its iconic imprint makes a statement. Yeah, it looks cool, but it looks cool because it symbolizes something that works. I have had too many tread patterns that wouldn’t grab what they’re supposed to but would loaded up and wouldn’t clean out. Hey, they looked cool but they offered poor traction and clung to gobs of mud, pebbles and dog poop even when attacked with a garden hose a pointy stick and a scrub brush.
The Fulcrum’s Vibram® Mutant rubber outsole has provided excellent traction on rocks, in sand, loose soil, on slippery rocks on humus, in mud and particularly in the slimy clay surface-mud that lubricates a harder layer just below. The tread is aggressive, open and deep. I have not once had to stop and dig mud and debris from between the tread and when I get home, what little that has managed to cling to the soles cleaned off quickly and easily. I have made up new cuss words while cleaning lesser treads but this is one that was done right.
The contour of the Fulcrum’s sole complements the tread and while the width provides stability, it is not so exaggerated that you are constantly scuffing the sides of the sole against everything. The toe is not cantilevered, the heel impacts when your own heel naturally would, in fact, the sole seems to have been designed by someone who might have studied bipedal locomotion. My one regret with this sole is that it will eventually wear out, just like any other sole attached to any other boot that you like and wear, and wear and wear. I still prefer a welt which would allow me to have a favorite old pair of boots re-soled but it is possible that this feature would make it difficult, or impossible, to complement the dynamics of walking as the existing sole does. I can hope that the Wolverine Fulcrum does not fall prey to our lust for "new and different" and that I can get another pair once I have worn these out. It might be a while.
Back to the first thing I do when I am shopping for new boots. Turning these over and looking at the bottoms will reveal the tread I like so much, but it will also reveal something else I liked about the Fulcrum – the price. Retailing at about two hundred bucks puts them below some of the premium hikers but if you have enough sense to know how important a good pair of boots is, you have enough sense to shop around. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Wolverine Fulcrum ICS Off-Road Hiker can be had for considerably less. They are priced in the range of what I consider a "reasonably decent" unlined work boot. For an actual hiking boot, especially one that I like this much, it’s a bargain. Wolverine also has a thirty-day comfort guarantee so there’s little to lose. Even though the Fulcrum wears the Wolverine name, I did not expect a hiker in this price range to be much more than just OK. I am very impressed with these boots and very happy with them.
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