First Look: HOKA ONE ONE Sky Arkali

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You might be familiar with French footwear brand HOKA ONE ONE from their running range. In a nutshell, they’ve always been about lightweight, massively-cushioned sole units that look odd, but give a fantastic, marshmallow soft ride on or off road.

They have produced hiking mids in the past, but they’ve mostly been high-top versions of their ultra-cushioned running shoes. This spring however, the brand has launched three new hiking models including this Sky Arkali, the most radical of the three, which it says mixes running shoe innovation, climbing shoe technology and hiking boot engineering. What that’s intended to boil down to is a blend of lightness and comfort, underfoot grip and toughness.

So what’s it like?

If you’re used to the brand’s running shoes, the Arkali’s a bit of a surprise. The distinctive looks aren’t unexpected – HOKA has always done brash – but at just over 900 grammes per pair, the Arkali isn’t running shoe light, though it’s not exactly heavy either.

There’s noticeably more structure and stiffness to the sole unit than with a running shoe like, say, the Mafate Speed 2 and our guess is that the foam is denser. We say ‘foam’, but the sole unit actually uses a mix with an EVA top midsole, a springy dual-density midsole – softer foam in the heel, harder in the forefoot – and something called Rangi foam for the bottom cushioning.

The outsole is toothy Vibram Megagrip rubber with high traction lugs for added grip. A good call, we’ve always found Megagrip to give excellent grip without high wear rates.

Up top there’s a lightweight MATRYX fabric upper which incorporates Kevlar  strands for added toughness and incorporates a sort of sock-fit elasticated tongue area. There are rubber toe and heel caps for added protection and finally, a Velcro-fastened adjustable heel retaining strap that runs around the back of the foot along with a front ankle strap.

First Fit Impressions

HOKAs have always felt quite bulky, even if they’re generally pretty light and while the Arkali has a more solid feel underfoot than any previous HOKA ONE ONE shoe I’ve used, they still have that characteristically elevated and bulky feel to them. That makes sense when you look at the specs. According to HOKA there’s still 29mm of cushion at the heel end and 24mm in the forefoot – not quite on the level of a Mafate Speed 2, 33 and 29mm respectively – but still quite chunky.

Subjectively though, the Arkali foam feels appreciable more dense, which makes sense. There’s no lack of cushioning on hard surfaces, it just feels firmer. That should make the shoe more supportive used with a pack and maybe give a little more ground feel than softer HOKAs which can feel a little floated and detached. They don’t feel particularly neat and nimble and it’ll be interesting to see how they cope with technical scrambling, but for all-round walking use it all feels quite feasible.

Fit is pretty good. There’s plenty of room in the forefoot, without it being swimmy and the Velcro adjustment straps at heel and ankle level snug things up nicely. The elasticated, seam-free, sock-like stretchy upper / tongue gives a nice close fit too.  The shoe walks with a distinctive toe-off, rolling action, but so far my heel has stayed reliably in place. The cuff fits closely enough to shrug off gravel ingress too in a stretchy, neoprene sort of style.

Initial Verdict

The other two shoes in the new spring hiking line-up – the Kaha and the Toa – look closer in concept to more traditional HOKA ONE ONE shoes. The Kaha is super cushioned and has an eVent waterproof liner, while the Toa is focussed on lightness and cushioning. In contrast, the Arkali is intended as a slightly tougher alternative. Think of it as HOKA meets a more conventional walking boot. So far I’d say they’re firmer underfoot, though still cushioned, and more direct in feel.

They’re still a little bulky – check out the width of the heel for example – but fit is good, sock-close, and reasonably adaptable. Hands up, they’re different enough both from previous HOKAs I’ve used and more traditional lightweight walking footwear that I’m still trying to get a good grip on how they work.

Should be interesting finding out though, an interesting mix of ample, but firm cushioning and unexpected toughness. Watch this space.

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