Zero drop shoes are designed to give you a more natural walking experience by keeping the balls of your feet level with your heel. Standing in a pair of these mimics standing on the ground barefoot, but with a sole to provide protection against the terrain.
Zero drop shoes are good for hiking as long as you make sure you are fully accustomed to wearing this style of shoe before heading out on the trails. More and more people are turning to zero drop shoes to increase their comfort levels, just take the time to transition and condition your feet.
Transitioning to zero drop shoes
Most hiking boots and trail running shoes come with a raised heel. The traditional science behind this dictates that a raised heel promotes a rocking motion that propels the wearer forward more efficiently. It takes a great deal of strain off the Achilles tendon and lower leg muscles as your feet roll from heel to ball.
However, this action – although efficient in forward propulsion – actually weakens your Achilles tendon and lower calf muscles due to a lack of use. When people start wearing zero drops for the first time, suddenly the tendons and muscles that haven’t been used to their fullest extent are required once more.
This is why that breaking in period is absolutely essential. Just wearing a pair of these shoes will naturally kick your neglected tendons and muscles into action, which can result in sore lower legs. This is not something to be worried about.
When you go to the gym and workout for the first time, your muscles will be screaming for days afterwards. Yet, the next time you workout the same muscle groups, the recovery time will decrease each and every time you do it. The body is a wonderfully adaptive machine, and it is no different for your lower legs and with zero drop shoes.
For me, I would much rather have my fatigued-and-recovering legs at home propped up on the couch, than having to hit the trail once more on a multi-day hike.
One of the most common complaints on the trail is the infamous “trekkers knee”. This is the repetitive strain caused, normally, by descending long distances for a prolonged period of time.
As discussed already, the higher drop shoes – that have higher-set heels – will propel you forward and increase strain on your knees. Zero drop shoes combat this by forcing your lower-leg muscles into action.
If you are an avid hiker that is occasionally put off by knee pain, or if you are sporting an old knee injury that never quite healed the way it should have, then you really ought to consider a change to zero drop shoes.
An additional benefit is the gradual increase in stability associated with the strengthening of those lower leg muscles. If the little muscles around your ankles are naturally stronger than before, then there will be far less need to use your aching knee to stabilize yourself.
Going from high drop to zero drop
It is not recommended. If you are used to wearing high drop shoes, then putting on a pair of zero drops is just going to feel weird. It would be better if you transitioned to a pair of mid drop shoes to see if that has a positive impact on your hiking experience.
I have known hikers that transitioned into zero drop shoes perfectly well, and could barely believe they had wasted all those years wearing higher-set heels. This is not going to be the case for everyone.
If you fail to transition properly to zero drop shoes it can lead to foot pain. Many people have reported the onset of plantar fasciitis, a heel injury caused by inflamed tissue. However, if you transition slowly and allow your body to naturally adjust, the extra strength built into your tendons and muscles can actually reduce incidences of foot pain in the longer term.
If you are already suffering from pain associated with plantar fasciitis, then it would not be recommended to make the switch to zero drop shoes at that time.
Are hiking boots really necessary?
The main benefit of hiking boots is the unparalleled ankle support that they provide. There will be times when you come across incredibly tricky sections of trail, such as knee-deep mud with unknown terrain underneath. I have crossed dangerous scree fields that I would not have even attempted in anything other than my high-cut leather backcountry boots.
But the reality of the situation is that these hikes are few and far between, and you tend to know what you are getting yourself in to by doing the appropriate trail research beforehand. Those same aforementioned leather hiking boots are heavy, lumbersome things and they take their toll on the legs when you have been dragging them around all day.
They are complete overkill for the majority of the trails that I attempt, and I often look enviously at lightweight hikers with their lightweight hiking shoes as they seem to skip almost effortlessly across the terrain.
So no, for the vast majority of the hiking trails out there, hiking boots are not necessary. For some long-distance backcountry expeditions I have been on, you wouldn’t even attempt it without them.
If you want to go down the lightweight path from a pair of hiking boots, perhaps transition to a pair of hiking shoes first.
That being said, if you feel you are ready and you have your heart set on a pair of zero drop shoes for hiking, then I say go for it! And with that in mind…
Popular zero drop shoes for hiking…
The term zero drop was first used by the men behind Altra Shoes, who now make an array of zero-drop hiking and trail running shoes. It is for this reason they appear at the top of this list, but there are some worthy contenders. I consider all the chosen shoes to provide sufficient grip and sturdiness for all but the toughest trail conditions.
And as with all things, everyone has different sizes and shapes of feet, so your selection of shoe will really come down to what feels fantastic on your feet.
Altra Lone Peak 4.0: One of the best-selling trail runners on the market today, this shoe from Altra ticks all the right boxes. It has 25mm of cushioning, which is just enough to protect you from sharp rocks and jagged terrain while still being able to get a feel for the trail underneath. It has sufficient grip to keep you upright in slippery conditions. They are breathable and drain water efficiently, while the relatively low price tag make them an attractive purchase.
Altra Lone Peak 4 Mid RSM: If you are not quite ready to abandon your hiking boots, but want to test the world of zero drop, then Altra have the answer in the form of this mid hiking shoe. They are comfortable straight out of the box and provide good ankle support, but several buyers have noted that they lack the traction of their higher-heeled competitors.
Merrell Trail Glove 4: Featuring a highly-breathable mesh lining and packing all the grip of a Vibram TC5+ Outsole, this trail running shoe could be a great ultra-lightweight addition to your hiking inventory.
Xero Shoes Terraflex: Coming in somewhere between a trailing running and a hiking shoe, this exceptionally well-rated shoe from Xero could be exactly what you are looking for. It looks like a low-cut hiking shoe, but performs well when you need to up the speed. It could be the grippiest of the shoes in its class, while Xero back their sole to last for up to 5000 miles worth of rugged trail.
Altra Timp 1.5: There is a bit of a theme developing here and that is: Altra make good zero drop trail shoes. The Timp 1.5 is for those that feel more comfortable with a bit of extra cushioning. The aggressive wide-based grip gives outstanding traction on slippery terrain, and naturally provides ample room for your toes to move.
Zero drop shoes are great for hiking because they strengthen the muscles in your lower calf which improves your natural balance and stability. Studies have also shown that they can reduce pain in the knees, which is one of the most common issues associated with long-distance hiking.
There is, however, a transitional period that you must adhere to before taking your new zero drop shoes out on the trail with you. Your body must adapt to a new style of walking. The time involved will depend on the person and how strong your muscles already are, but somewhere between one to three weeks seems to be about right.
Not all zero drop shoes are ideal for hiking, so look out for a pair with excellent grip and breathable materials.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.