Are Zero Drop Shoes Good for Hiking and Backpacking?

by Nomad | Last Updated:  July 16, 2020
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“Zero Drop” shoes are footwear that the heel of the shoe is the same height as the ball of the foot. Your foot’s natural position is to have your heel level with the ball of your foot, as a human foot naturally level. The term “zero drop” itself was initially used by Altra Shoes to give this style it’s name for the market. Are Zero Drop shoes good for hiking?

Simply put, yes, zero-drop shoes are incredible for hiking. They are so good for hiking because they help you strengthen your lower calf muscles while you walk. These muscles in the lower calf help improve your ability to balance and your natural stability. Additionally, there is even reason to believe they help reduce knee pain, which is an incredibly common issue among people who long-distance hike.

Like any new shoe, however, there is an adjustment period that takes place before you can comfortably and reliably make the switch to zero drop shoes. To ensure your safety, you should get used to the new position of your feet before you take them to the trails, as your body needs to adapt to the new method of long-distance walking.

Depending on how strong your muscles already are, you may feel confident taking them out to the trails after only a couple of days getting used to it. However, it would help if you planned for anywhere between one week to three weeks so that you can confidently hit the trails. 

Additionally, before you purchase your first pair of zero drop shoes, you need to do your research. Just like running shoes and tennis shoes, not all of the zero drop shoes were made to withstand a hike. Before you buy a pair, look for durable and breathable materials that have a strong grip for your hiking.

What Are Zero Drop Shoes?

As stated above, zero-drop shoes are a type of footwear made to keep the heel and ball of your foot level with each other like they are naturally. Unlike most shoes that generally have the heel sit above the level of the toe and create a difference of height between the heel and the ball of the foot, zero-drop shoes do not have this “drop.”

Some shoes keep this difference as high as one inch, but zero drop shoes eliminate this difference.

Naturally, our feet do not have a raised heel. As they are naturally, our feet are perfectly designed to help share the burden of gravity throughout the complicated system of bones, ligaments, muscles, and tendons.

However, the bones and tendons in the feet being injured or damaged can happen easily and quickly if you’re not careful. If there is just one fault in the foot, no matter how minor, the entire foot could feel the injury’s repercussions. 

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Studies have shown that the traditional running shoe may have altered the way we run for the worse. Traditional running shoes encourage us to strike the ground with our heel first, roll onto the ball of our feet, and repeat it; this motion can be compared to “springing.”

By contrast, barefoot runners tend to run on their tiptoes instead. This form of running, though it may slow down our run’s speed, may be for the better to do that.

Running heel first, even with the best running shoes on the market, makes the force of the collision between heel and ground much harsher. Over time, this increased impact could start to damage your foot.

Running injuries are so prevalent today, and some studies show that this could be related to the way we altered how we run for the use of traditional running shoes. 

Our feet were not made with raised heels; this is a new and unnatural way of running could be hindering what your foot was perfectly made to do. 

The philosophy behind the zero drop shoes is to help runners be able to return to a more natural and comfortable form of running. These shoes were initially even recommended for injured runners, but now it seems as though they may be just as good for preventing injuries as supporting injured runners.

What is the Shoe’s Drop, and Which is the Difference?

“Drop” refers to the height of the shoe’s heel, minus the height of the shoe’s toe. When there is no difference between these the level the heel and toe sit at, this is called a “zero drop” shoe.

If there is some difference, even if it’s only a couple of millimeters, it would be considered a shoe with some drop. Even if this is only measured in millimeters, even this tiny difference could affect your foot after running and hitting the ground over and over. 

Having a shoe with a drop is supposed to help reduce stress on the Achilles and calves. Artificially keeping your foot in the position with the heel raised can keep some stress off certain parts of your leg and body.

Though, the amount of drop in a shoe shouldn’t be the deciding factor in purchasing a shoe. Two sides with the same drop can feel entirely different if they’re not cushioned for the job they’re meant to perform.

As discussed above, zero drop is the shoe that does not raise the heel above the toe and allows your foot to be completely flat. Zero drop shoes promote sorter strides and a more efficient method of running as it mimics being barefoot.

They allow your foot to operate naturally and help you prevent over striding as you don’t have any artificial support. Though, it is important to note that these shoes are the hardest to transition into as they’re so scarce in the market, and most shoes are sold with some drop.

A low drop shoe is similar to a zero drop shoe, but with a heel slightly elevated by 1-4mm above the ball of the foot. They operate similarly to zero drop shoes but offer a bit more structure.

If you know that you run with a midfoot strike, these shows allow you to run in a natural stride and offer a bit more cushioning than zero drops.

Medium drop shoes have a heel that is raised about 5-8mm. As the name suggests, these shoes sit in the middle of the spectrum and allow runners who strike with their heel first to run more naturally. Medium drop shoes alleviate stress from the Achilles and calves, more than the others listed.

Finally, high drop shoes are shoes with a drop of over 9mm and are more highly considered for the stability of the shoe. If your strides have inefficiencies, the shoes with higher drops can help you correct your stride while mitigating the damage caused while running. Like medium drop shoes, these are best suited for people who strike the ground with their heel and support individuals with tighter calves. 

Choosing a shoe that offers your foot the right support does take some level of trial and error. Understanding how you run most comfortably helps you better understand what kind of shoes are best suited for you, whether you strike first with the ball of your foot or heel.

Low drop shoes may be better for hikers who like the added control over their stride and the more natural support and strength the shoe offers. Additionally, transitioning to low drop shoes may help prevent any running injuries that could occur while out on the trail or out hiking. 

Final Thoughts on Are Zero Drop Shoes Good for Hiking and Backpacking

Choosing to use a zero drop shoe like the Altra Series of shoes can help you over the longer course of a thru hike. Some people though feel they need the ankle support of a larger boot and there are still options from companies like Lem who make zero drop boots that are lightweight also.

I used to wear only boots as I had more experience in hiking boots than shoes and I was a tough sell. But since I have switched to my Altra Lone Peak 4’s I have realized I absolutely love the super light and almost weightless feel on my feet that they provide.

Nice to meet you, my trail name is Nomad the founder of Nomad Hiker and I love being outdoors and exploring nature! I now want to help spread that love through information back out to everyone to help them feel the same excitement with the world that I feel while in the back country. My current goals are to thru hike all the trails in the greater Texas region and to show everyone it is easily achievable at any age!