Having learned of my chance to test the Ascent Explore shoe I have to admit that the first thing I thought was that I’d never heard of the brand. In an effort to find out more, I went on to their website, which explains that, ‘Ascent works very closely with special interest groups along with Podiatry, Physiotherapy, Amputee & Diabetes associations to make sure our footwear yields therapeutic benefits or aids in the management or prevention of various foot ailments’. For an outdoor-gear-spoilt person like me, the first impression of their brand does not scream ‘adventure’.

The Explore Merlot I found was described as ‘female/senior’. Well, I fit at least in one of the categories, so off I went.

The shoe fitting at The Athletes Foot was quick and easy. First impressions were of a shoe that’s snug in the toe box compared to the more generous toe box of my Merrells. My feet are not particularly slim or wide, so while this was not a problem, it was definitely noticeable. If you sometimes have issues with shoes fitting too tight in the front, or if you have bunions, this is probably not the shoe for you. They are low cut and so don’t provide the security a mid or high cut hiking boot would provide.

On the other hand, the Ascent Explore has a nice, soft-touch inner lining, which was probably responsible for the fact that I experienced no blisters from the shoes at all, even after extensive use.

For the first two weeks I didn’t have a chance to take the shoes out on the trail, but wore them to work (where I stand and walk for a couple of hours a time), wore them to walk the dog and general everyday life. I really enjoyed them for those everyday activities. The sole is very well cushioned and I found that I had less strain in my Achilles tendon (which is currently recovering from an injury) than I usually had in my other shoes, particularly after several hours on my feet. What I noticed was that the shoes kept my feet pretty warm, which is great on those cold winter mornings in NSW, but with more activity my socks felt a bit damp when I took them off.

Last week I took off for a week to explore Kaputar National Park in NSW with the Ascent shoes as my main companion and a back up of some more traditional hiking boots for overnight walks. Given the unproven trail record of the brand in the outdoor world, I was nervous but committed to give them a solid run around.

It rained the first day and we went for a walk on a trail in the afternoon after the shower had just passed. The shoes felt great on the trail. Sections of the walk went over wet volcanic rock and then tracked them through mud.

Firstly, the shoes did OK on the rock. I was definitely treading more carefully than I usually would on wet rock in the Merrells which have Vibram soles (the rubber used in climbing shoes) or my Five Ten Water Tennies (given the name you will guess how they perform in wet conditions). The trail had wooden beams and steps, which I did slip on once (as you so often do on wet wood). Not sure if a different rubber material would have performed noticeably better though. They worked fine and my feet stayed dry except for the fact that my feet were pretty warm and hence got sweaty.

Over the week they performed well in the dry and I even chose the Ascents over my full hiking boot on a day traverse of Mount Yulludunida which is considered a low grade rock climb/scramble across the ridgeline. The rock was partly wet from the night’s rain before and I had a slip or two where the rock wasn’t as grippy but otherwise they were great. The heel cup was not quite as snug a fit as the rest of the shoe, but I had no blisters after 10 hours of use. The shoelaces that come with the shoe were too short for me to tie a double knot, but they only came undone twice at the end of the day (just when I thought maybe a double knot is not necessary with those shoes).

Given the low cut of the shoe, there’s no additional ankle support and on rough off trail terrain you might have to pay additional attention if you have weak or injured ankles. We also did a multi-pitch rock climb where I realised the shoes don’t have a loop on the heel which is usually quite useful to clip your shoes on a carabiner and the back of your harness. You can always hook it into the shoe lacing, but some people might prefer to have their loops.

The Ascent Explore is definitely in the same price range as similar outdoor day and approach shoes and a pair will set you back $190.

Overall I would conclude that my experience with the shoes definitely exceeded my initial expectations given the brands market placement and branding. They performed well on a daily basis, as well as on and off track. In wet conditions I will still grab my Vibram rubber soles, but for day walks and less extreme hikes these will be on my feet regularly as they are so comfortable to walk on.