What are Zero-Drop Hiking Shoes

What are Zero-drop hiking shoes

Zero-drop shoes have become popular with hikers and backpackers over the past few years, thanks in part to Altra, a brand known both for their wide toe box and zero-drop style. Before Altra, many hikers had never considered the drop of their shoes before. The “drop” in a shoe refers to the difference in height between the heel of a shoe and the toe, also called “heel-to-toe drop.” Most shoes have a higher heel than toe or forefoot, and the drop is listed in the model specifications.

For reference,

  • A zero-drop shoe has 0 millimeters of difference between the heel and toe.
  • A low-drop shoe has 1-4 millimeters.
  • Most standard trail runners have a heel-to-toe drop between 7-10 millimeters.

A “zero-drop” shoe has no difference between the heel to toe, allowing the hikers’ foot to sit level to the ground. The idea is that it allows for a more natural footstrike, mimicking the motion of barefoot steps while still having ample protection and cushion from the ground. Be aware that a zero-drop shoe doesn’t have to be minimalist. This style can have a maximum cushion, moderate, or minimalist.

Stack Height

You might also see another number listed in shoe specs, such as “stack height”. Stack height is the height of the material between your foot and the ground. For example, the highly cushioned HOKA One One Speedgoat has a heel-to-toe stack height of 32 mm/28 mm, with a drop of 4 mm. While it isn’t a zero-drop shoe, it has a low enough drop to provide some of the same benefits with a lot more cushioning, whereas a more minimalist shoe will have 15 mm or less stack height.

Remember that we aren’t podiatrists or physical therapists. If you are concerned about an injury or physical strain from switching shoes, we recommend talking to a professional. If you have been hiking in a standard-drop shoe and want to try one with zero-drop, take your time switching so your body has time to adjust to the difference.

RSM stands for Rain, Mud, and Snow.
The “RSM” in many Altra models stands for Rain, Mud, and Snow.

Zero-Drop Shoes Benefits

Proponents of zero and low-drop shoes say that the style can provide a more stable platform for each footstrike, and help with balance. It’s also said that a zero-drop shoe helps runners and hikers have a more natural, efficient stride and that a zero-drop shoe can help emulate barefoot running. Since our forefoot and heels don’t have a difference in elevation when we stand barefoot, the idea is that your shoe should mimic this natural stance as much as possible.

Who are Zero-Drop Shoes Good For?

Think about how you walk or run. Zero-drop shoes can be good for people who walk with a mid-to-forefoot strike—which some say is the most natural way to walk. If you have knee problems, a lower-drop or zero-drop shoe might be good for you too. Level shoes can help move the impact of each step from knees to your lower legs, but be aware that putting more pressure on the lower leg could potentially add too much strain to your calves and Achilles.

It’s also important to consider the stack height and cushion of the shoe. People with flat feet might be less comfortable with more minimalist zero-drop shoes since this style provides less arch support than a moderate-drop shoe. A person with flat feet also tends to overpronate, which means the arch of the foot is “collapsed” for longer during each stride.

Switching to Zero-Drop Shoes

Anyone looking to change the model and style of their hiking shoe should do so incrementally. Trying a new style or model of shoe right before a backpacking trip can lead to foot pain, muscle strain, and potential injury. If you’ve been wearing a standard drop shoe, your stride will likely change if you switch to a zero-drop shoe. For this reason, it’s important to ease the transition to a different style.

Since each stride will be affected, you might not feel the difference at first, but compounding miles and days can lead to injury. You can also slowly transition from a regular-drop shoe to a zero-drop by having each successive pair of shoes have less drop than the one before. No matter what, be sure to hike plenty of miles in a new model or style of shoe before setting off on an extended backcountry trip.

Altra Trail Runners have a large toe box that allows your toes to splay out for a more natural stride.

Are There any Downsides to Zero-Drop Shoes?

Like we mentioned above, a zero-drop shoe takes the pressure off your knees, but that pressure has to go somewhere. A zero-drop shoe will put more pressure (and potentially more strain) on the tendons and muscles in your lower leg. Switching to zero-drop shoes without easing into the new model can put you at risk for calf and Achilles injury. Additionally, since you don’t have the “lift” from the toe to heel, a zero-drop shoe isn’t as supportive on steep or extended hills, and hikers might find their legs getting more tired as the miles add up.

Recommended Zero-Drop Hiking Shoes

Outside of Altra, there aren’t a lot of zero-drop trail runners available today that provide the level of traction, toe, and foot protection you’ll want for hardcore hiking and backpacking. While it true that people trail run in zero-drop barefoot-style running shoes, you’ll want to be tread slowly if making a transition to such a minimalist zero-drop shoe that has a low stack height and minimal cushioning.

Here are a few more-protective zero shoes that we can recommend trying and like for hiking and backpacking.

1. Altra Lone Peak 2.5

Altra Lone peak

The Altra Lone Peak is one of the most popular shoes for thru-hikers, backpackers, and day hikers. This shoe falls right in the middle of the Altra lineup as far as cushion goes, with a 25 mm stack height and a flexible upper. I’ve worn the past three model iterations of the Lone Peak and they’re my go-to. The wide toe box allows my toes to splay and prevents black toenails and blisters. Durability can be an issue however and you may only get a few hundred miles out of these.

Check for the latest price at:
Altra Running | Amazon

2. Altra Timp 2

Altra Timp
The Altra Timp 2 is another popular shoe from Altra, one of the originators of the current zero-drop trend. This shoe has the same wide toe box as the Lone Peak, but a narrower heel cup and “performance” feel. I’ve worn both the Timp and the Lone Peak and my feet feel more secure in the Timp. This shoe doesn’t have a rock plate but does have a 29mm stack height for a medium-high cushion.

Check for the latest price at:
Altra Running | Amazon

3. Inov-8 Terraultra 270

Inov-8 Terraultra
The Inov-8 Terraultra has graphene-enhanced outsoles with incredible grip, and they’ve built their midsole specifically to have enhanced energy return. The use of graphene in trail runner manufacture promises to significantly improve outsole durability, so they’ll last longer. Inov-8 makes highly engineered shoes that widely popular with UK hill runners and they are fast gaining traction in the US. The Terraultra is one of their zero-drop models, but they have a wide variety of models and styles. I haven’t tried these but they’ve been getting rave reviews from the trail running community and look like they’d be good for hiking too.

Check for the latest price at:
Inov-8 | Zappos

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About the author

Maggie Slepian is originally from the northeast and is currently based in Bozeman, Montana. Maggie has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, is *almost* done with the New Hampshire 48 4,000-footers, has developed backpacking routes in the Utah high desert, and spent the past five years testing gear and working professionally in the outdoor industry. Maggie spends as much time outdoors as possible, whether it’s backpacking, peak bagging, bikepacking, mountain biking, climbing, skiing, or kayaking. She is currently a full-time freelance writer and editor, and is always busy planning the next backcountry adventure. Get in touch at maggieslepian.com.

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