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.

Windom
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 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 are 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:
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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56 comments

  1. What they are is a great risk of faciitis plantaris, which will ruin your backpacking plans for years if not the rest of your life.

    • Belle, your comment is not supported by data. It is scare tactics There was a lot of plantar fasciitis before the zero drop shoes came into the market. It is more of a training and conditioning problem. Transitioning to a any new shoe or exercise needs to be done gradually. Back in my competitive running days (a couple of decades ago), most of us had plantar problems at one time or another and often in our 10-12mm drop shoes.. Mine was from poor warm up. You do make a point that it is important to take some time to make a good and safe transition.

      • Thank you for a calm, civil answer!

      • I also got Achilles tendinopathy and plantar fascitis after transitioning to zero drop shoes.

        I don’t blame the shoes at all, actually, it takes a while to transition.

        It did screw with my walking and running for a couple of years though.

    • You see virtually no plantar fasciitis in indigenous peoples that go barefoot or wear very minimalist foot wear and it’s safe to assume that this didn’t plague the generations prior to 1970’s running shoes. Zero drop shoes will strengthen the feet while heels and chronically wear orthotics weaken the muscles of the foot, making you dependent on these crutches. Going zero drop can fix pain that you thought was due to a problem in the knees or hips or lower back. My only complaint about these shoes is that they don’t have a wide toe box, which is another fatal flaw of modern footwear. Again, corns and scrunched toes are not normal or healthy, yet we’ve all come to think of these afflictions as normal.

    • Personally I use to struggle with plantar when I wore traditional hiking shoes. I even wore special inserts to help with it. Since discovering Altra’s a few years ago I have not had any plantar issues. I also was able to eliminate my special inserts and just use the ones that come with the shoes. Another benefit is they seem to have eliminated most of my knee problems.

      I totally agree with the break in advice. I followed the manufacturers recommendations and had no problems making the transition. After hundreds of trail miles I am sold on the benefits of zero drop.

    • In my experience a zero drop shoe actually strengthens the muscles in your foot and your foot learns to support itself with a healthy and stronger arch. I have lived in these kinds of shoes for trail running and hiking and multi day hikes for almost 13 years. My father in his 80s had severe plantar fasciitis and I eased him into a pair of Merrell running shoes by starting slowly and for short runs. He has much improved since. I think key is to trust your own body and the way it functions, but transition slowly. Especially women who may also wear high heels need to take it very slowly. But what’s reward when the body relaxes into its natural hair,all the way up the spine and even shoulders and neck. The pelvis tilts differently, hips and lower back are not compensating any more…I have so much more free motion and never get sore. I did a 24 mile and 6,500 ft elevation gain hike last summer ( that’s a lot for me), and didn’t even have sore muscles or joints the next days. For me the zero drop is the only way to go now. My recommendation is to transition very slowly and start with short distances, make it your every day footwear, pay attention to any strain on the achilles tendons. I initially switched too fast and did feel it in my achilles. I dare you to give it a try.

  2. “…fast gaining traction in the US”

    ?

  3. The Lone Peak on the list S/B 4.5.

    What’s the effect of wearing Superfeet or some other third-party insoles? I had a tough time getting used to the zero drop then I tried Superfeet Carbon insoles and never looked back.

    • Good insoles like the Superfeet carbon have two effects: they lock your heel in place and give you much needed arch support that is usually lacking in trail running shoes. Given the variability between people, posture, and anatomy, the time it takes to get used to zero drop shoes, it’s hard to say why they worked in any general way. Consider it friendly magic and give thanks that it worked.

  4. Thank you for your insights. I am looking at Altra, Hoka One One, and Salomen trail running shoes before making my next shoe investment. My current Salomens leave my knees and hips sore after a long hike and I wonder if shifting some of the stress to my calves and ankles might help. BTW, where is that particular USGS marker located?

    • Hard to say. I find the best muscle to strengthen is the butt (glutes) – seriously – especially if you spend a lot of time sitting.

      • Thanks for the tip. I sit for long hours for work and will definitely try working the hindquarters more.

    • Bill in Roswell GA

      Bill, give Topo shoes a try. They are wide toe box without being sloppy laterally. Topo shoes are low drop or zero drop and for me have held up much better than Altras. Bonus that REI carries Topo, Altra and Salomon. I also wear some Salomon Odyssey trail shoes. I like the fit but the Altra Timp and Topo Terraventure have more cushioning, yet are stable. I find the Hoka comfy, but too much foam squirm to feel the trail.

      • Bill, thanks for the advice. I’ll give them a long look at REI.

      • Thank you! The Altra Lone Peak 4 & 4.5 and their Superior 4.0 (not to mention the Escalante road shoes) are so ridiculously sloppy/unstable that i don’t take them seriously as trail shoes. I’ve considered the Timp but have read that the tractions is awful, like in the Superiors, so i’ve stayed away. Considering Topo now.

  5. Despite what another commenter said about Plantar Fasciitis, I have had Plantar Fasciitis for years. In fact my fascia is actual torn right now. But Zero Drop trail shoes have been a god-send for me. I bought a pair of Altra Lone Peak 4.5’s in September (2020) put 523 miles on them and now I have another 100 miles on a brand new pair of the same shoes. Nothing has ever felt better that I’ve worn. I even have another brand new pair in the closet, on standby, for when this new pair wears out. FWIW, I’m retired and a daily hiker who averages around 130 miles a month. One thing Zero Drop Shoes tend to do is pull down on the calf, stretching it, which is exactly the sort of rehab activity my podiatrist recommends for Plantar Fasciitis.

    • Agreed. The calf stretches a lot more when the heel is lower proportionally to the rest of the foot. I definitely feel it the most when going up steep terrain. I had plantar fasciitis a few years ago and worried about going to Altras, but I’m now 1000 miles and three pairs deep (2 trail runners and 1 road shoe) with absolutely no plantar pain whatsoever. A guy in the Grand Canyon this summer felt like it was his duty to openly scoff at my Lone Peak 4’s based on his experience with them. I had thoughts about his clunky Merrell’s, but I decided to keep them to myself. Everyone’s feet are different.

  6. I’ve used various models of Altra Lone Peaks for years, and love how light and agile they are. I also find the wide toe box protects my toes from getting jammed and bruised on long downhills and improves my balance by allowing my toes to spread out. I add Superfeet Trailblazer insoles for a little added stability for my heels, support for arches and protection from stone bruises. I do NOT, however, find that the zero drop makes any difference at all, one way or another. I know people who swear by zero drop shoes, but I detect no effect. Maggie is right that they are not durable, and they also provide poor lateral stability for moving off-trail in rough terrain. They excel, however, for moving fast and light on trail in temperate weather.

  7. Proceed with much caution. Zero-drops are NOT like walking barefoot; the mechanics of a bare foot are far different than one contained by a shoe. The zero-drop idea comes around periodically— it is nothing new. Eventually lower leg maladies, especially achilles problems, cause most to return to shoes with at least a moderate lift.

    • Hi Chris, I am now wondering if my Altras are the culprit for my Achilles tendon (its swollen and tender on one side about the size of a nickel). I have stopped my trail running and am doing some rehab in hopes of a recovery. I need a wide toe box for my metatarsal and just found out about Topos and my new Topos should arrive today. Hopefully, after a few more weeks the wide toe box and the increased heel drop in the Topos are what I need to get back to full activity:)

      • If you’re not into the Topos, you may like Saucony models (if you haven’t tried them.) I’ve tried the MadRiver Tr by them and it’s pretty good. Excellent traction, pretty dang wide, customizable and a 4mm drop. Some pretty attractive colorways, too. In fact, i think most of the Saucony trail runners have a 4mm drop.

  8. I highly recommend the Inov-8 TerraUltra 270. I’ve been trail running with Inov-8 zero to 4mm drop models for more than ten years and in my opinion they keep improving on an already good thing with each new generation. The only issue I have with the TerraUltra is the lugs aren’t quite aggressive enough for best grip when trails get sloppy (for mud Inov-8 has a number of great fell running shoes), but as a general purpose high-mileage trail shoe with a generous toe box, they are the best. The graphene outsoles also last well over 400 miles on the rocky trails I traverse.

    • That’s good feedback. I used to wear Inov-8 Terroc 330’s before they changed the shoe. Loved them.

      • I bought several pair of the old model Terroc 330 on closeout. I love them. I wear them every day, play basketball in them and I’ve put hundreds of trail miles on them. However, I’m going to try the La Sportiva Ultra Raptors on my next section hike because they seem to have better toe kick protection and I mangled my big toenail on my last section hike in the Terrocs.

    • I have a pair. I’m disappointed that they’re so narrow, though they are well made.

  9. I started using zero drop shoes as a way to address chronic back pain I was experiencing with traditional hiking boots and shoes. Within a month or two my lower calves were much stronger and my back was pain free. I have owned many pairs of Altra Superiors and Lone Peaks and have hiked all over the world with them. I also use zero drop sneakers for walking. Needless to say I am a dedicated convert.

  10. Most people I traveled with when hiking the AT last year had never even heard of Nike triailrunners, but EVERYONEcommenteed and wanted to know more about mine. Nike has only been producing trail runners for a couple of years, but the 2nd and 3rd gen Pegasus trail runner they are producing blows everything else completely out of the water. Their top models are expensive at $160 but they are made withGore-Tex plus if you are a student or teacher you get 20% off. And their customer service is the best. whether you buy their shoes directly from them or a retailer that sells Nikes they will cover your shoes based on their guarantee. I love my Pegasus trail that I used in the white mountains on the AT so much that . I shelled out and bought a pair of the Nike Pegasus Gore Tex trail runners. I can’t wait to start breaking them in next month.if you want the best…you have to pay for the best.

  11. We thru hiked the Appalachian trail in 2019 . Started in Alta temps and switched to lone peaks. 500 miles in I we both started have really bad foot issues. We both switched to Hoka one speed goats. They save our hike. Sorry altra never again.

  12. It will be interesting to see whether Inov-8’s graphene-enhanced soles actually prove over the long haul to be more durable enough to justify the cost, or mostly just a marketing gimmick. A few years ago, graphene was widely hyped as a wonder-material which would revolutionize many applications, and has so far largely been a disappointment. Maybe shoe soles, on the other hand, will turn out to be a valuable use. I’d love to see a review from someone who has used them over hundreds of miles of rough terrain, rather than relying on the manufacturer’s claims.

  13. Every foot strike on a White Mountain trail is a crapshoot.. The terrain is a variable that always needs to be adjusted too.. I myself prefer an old fashioned boot with a sturdy midsole shank.. I do my best to place the ball of my foot just past whatever pivot point is the next rock on the trail and use that as the launching point for my next step.. I’m in no hurry and all I found out by trying lightweight hiking shoes is that I was buying new ones twice a year..

  14. Altra Superior are my go to shoes for hiking, trail running, backpacking. I can honestly say selling my heavy Meindl leather boots and moving to zero drop trail shoes was one of the best gear choices I ever made.
    Changed the whole way I think about footwear and its effect on your body and your movement. Now into Xero sandals, Altra trail runners and dipping a toe into barefoot.

  15. My MERRILL MOAB shoes are “close enough” to zero drop shoes that I’ll stick with them.

    Howsomever I may buy a pair of zero drop shoes later just to give them a fair trial.

    • My Moabs are great too but they are quite a bit heavier than the Altras.

      From the reports I read from thru hikers Altra uppers wear even quicker than the soles and some are trying other makes in search of more durability.

      However I’m accumulating a collection of old tread-weary Moabs in the bottom of the closet (it’s hard to throw them away when they still look so good), so it may be time to try some disposable Altras.

  16. The marketing people probably came up with “zero-drop.” Although ambiguous, I’m sure they though it was more action-oriented than “flat-footed.” : )

  17. I bought two pairs of Altra Zero Drop shoes, one for road and one for trails. I am not certain how one “eases” into zero-drop, but I developed moderate-plus tendinitis that stretching and warming-up never helped. They are now collecting dust in my closet.

  18. There’s no greater frustration than being unable to hike or run due to injury problems. Most of mine were caused by pushing too hard too fast. It’s taken me a year to get over a self-induced MCL injury but I’m now back doing 20km walks in Salomon hikers and 7km runs in zero drop Altra Timp runners. I urge all those currently suffering to play the long game.

  19. Nice article. Been using zero drop shoes for twenty years for hiking and running (and I also hike true barefoot). I’ve tried a lot of different brands in that time and have seen styles come and go. My favorite thus far are Lem’s. Nice wide toebox, durable materials, flat arch; they dry out fast. A lot of zero drop brands aren’t made to last long– Xeros are a nice design but tend to fall apart fast in my experience. I haven’t tried Altras because I’ve seen seeing a lot of instances of sole parts delaminating, and the sole stack is a little too thick for me. Merrill used to put out a few good models but also botched a few– haven’t tried any recent models. Have tried Vibram Five- fingers but not being able to use my regular hiking socks with them is a drag and the shoes get stinky fast without socks. They also dry too slowly. I also hike in zero drop bedrock sandals because unlike other sport sandal brands they have no arch support. I also wanted to mention that I have somewhat flat feet and a bad knee–hiking zero drop and barefoot has been excellent for both in my experience. Ten years ago the doctors wanted to operate– still no operation and I haven’t slowed down. They also kept trying to throw arch inserts at me, which I’ve found to hurtful not helpful. Wearing shoes with heels, or arched inserts, is incredibly painful for me. if a shoe comes with an arched insert I toss it out and replace it with a flat insert. in winter it’s harder to find a wide toebox shoe without a heel or arch. Northface Snowsquall has worked pretty well for me because neither arch or heel is very pronounced and the toe box is wide. To give you some perspective on the differences between my feet, which are wide and flat, and actual standard shoe size, I ordered a pair of custom Russel Moccassins (ancient shoe company out if Wisconsin) — you measure your feet a hundred different ways and they spit out a tailored shoe in about 6 months. Inside is a tag with a number indicating closest approximation to standard size: 8.5 (L) and 9.0 (R) for me. When I buy standard size I need an 11.0 to accommodate my width.

  20. Was this article sponsored or written by Altra? Seems like it. I wonder if the author realizes none of the shoes listed are made to be hiking shoes? They are running shoes. Of all the Altra’s I’ve tried, I wouldn’t dare take them on very technical trails, especially with a heavy load on my back. There just isn’t enough support. And, I can feel the extra stress on my achilles.

  21. Altra is my work shoe of choice. I need the wide toe box more than the zero drop. These were the first pair of shoes I wore for 40 hours walking on concrete with no discomfort; this is with the stock insole. I wish Altra would make a safety boot. Altra saved my feet and my knee got better on its own.

    Note my made in USA New Balance with super feet were killing me after about four hours, always in the pinkie toe hitting the side of the upper.

  22. A major benefit to low drop and low stack-height shoes that you didn’t mention in this article, is increased ankle stability.

    Consider hiking in a pair of womens’ high heels. You would be much more prone to an ankle sprain, because of the increased leverage about your ankle joint. Heel drop on shoes creates lateral instability. That’s why you see a lot of marketing for “stability features” on shoes. The stability features are only there to counter the instability they create in the first place with that extra leverage due to raising your foot off the ground.

    This is probably the major benefit of low and zero -drop shoes., and I’m surprised it isn’t emphasized more.

    Anyway, a great honorable mention would be Lem’s boots. I have been hiking in them for years and I love em.

  23. Just got the lone peak 5 . My feet and toes never felt better . I have a wide foot also have planter , heal spurs and hammer toe . I use orthotics . Just wondering is it ok to switch back and forth to regular shoes ? I have to wear work boots at work with steel toe guards . I asked my podiatrist and he never heard of zero drop shoes .

  24. the original Altra shoes were amazing when the company first came out with their line of zero drop.
    i have noticed now Altra shoes are no longer minimal but rather ugly and huge cushion in sole.
    does anyone know why the reason the company become another Nike?

    • They hired salespeople. Commissions corrupt!

    • I was at REI over the weekend and I did while there are product updates to the line I didn’t notice the stack height (amount of cushion in the sole) as being substantially different from past models. Unless you’re comparing the v1 to v5 – which I wouldn’t have the reference of. They do seem to have a few new models though that could be driving some of your observation.

      You want to talk about huge cushion? Look at the Hoka’s!! I’m 6’6″ and feel like if I wore those I could dunk without jumping.

      As a consumer it CAN be frustrating to land on a make/model that works for you only to have the mfg. update it to a condition that causes you to look elsewhere. But that’s not really different than anything else in life.

  25. anyone try the ALTRA Men’s Grafton? if so, is it worth 140$?
    what would be an alternative zero drop shoes?
    thanks

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