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Hiking in Zero-Drop Shoes: What You Need to Know10 min read

If you’re looking for a hiking shoe that gives your foot more of a natural feel, you might want to consider zero drop running shoes. Many hikers have been converting from boots over to zero-drop trail runners!

A zero-drop trail shoe has no difference in height between the heel and toe, this allows your foot to sit level with the ground similar to being barefoot. This can be beneficial if you frequently encounter knee pain or are looking for extra stability on difficult terrain.

What makes a zero drop trail runner good for thru-hiking? In this blog post, we’ll discuss the benefits of hiking in zero-drop shoes, as well as what you need to know before making the change to your shoe selection!

Image of someone with a backpack wearing zero drop shoes to hike on the grass

What Makes Zero Drop Shoes Good For Hikers?

The zero-drop shoe is designed to be more natural, similar to walking barefoot, by keeping your foot at the same positioning without the heel being moved higher than the toes. This is why they have taken over from the more conventional hiking boot.

Let’s look at more of the benefits of choosing a good pair of zero-drop trail running shoes and why hikers over the last decade have been converting more and more to less bulky and more nimble minimalist hiking shoes.

Shoe Weight

For most hikers, a traditional hiking boot is a relic of an older time, tied to 70-pound backpacks and the need to help have rigid support for carrying massive weight over a distance, today’s backpacking is incredibly lightweight versus the old hiking gear.

A pair of even minimalist hiking boots will weigh pounds and be rigid whereas a zero drop shoe will frequently be less than a pound sometimes for both added together, all this means less exhaustion on your legs from needing to lift the shoe allowing faster, more adaptive movements on the trail.

More Stable Platform Helps Balance

When you have a shoe with no change from heel to toe this helps you naturally balance using your toes and foot to help keep you upright. The more flexible and flat the hiking shoe, the better your proprioception(2) will be (the ability to sense movement in your limbs.)

This can help prevent injuries as you grow older and also as you become more experienced on the trail by allowing your body to automatically adjust its positioning without thinking about it too much!

More Natural Walk

Face it, humans weren’t born with shoes on their feet we are meant to walk about on our feet without our heels being higher than our toes which means evolutionary design chose a more flat foot over all the weight-bearing on our toe area.

Moving to a more barefoot shoe choice, like zero drops, will help you have a more natural gait and also help reduce stress on your hips and knees while allowing your Achilles tendon as well as calf muscles to assist in movement, both of which are less used in motion when shoes have a raised heel.

Can Help with Knee Problems

Hikers frequently have knee pain when hiking downhill from the strain of longer descents frequently done multiple times daily, the higher the drop of the shoe the more strain is aimed directly at the knee. 

Zero drops help move or adjust this point and allow the entire leg to contribute from the toes to the hips instead of mainly on the knee area which will lead to less focused pain, like “trekkers knee”(1) and the hiker hobble.

If you move to a zero drop shoe you can start to help out your knees and start recruiting more muscles from your legs to do the proper job in supporting your movements and help them become stronger!

Enlarged Toe Box

Most zero-drop styled shoes will come with an enlarged toe box which allows your foot to grow and lay flat with toes being able to move and adjust, one thing many thru-hikers may not know before they start hiking is your feet tend to grow with consistent walking.

An enlarged toe box helps give this room to move, and breathe, and if they should grow a bit, the room to expand without being crunched with too little space. This is why most people will size up a half or even full size in their choice of trail runners like the Altra series or Hoka series.

Tips to Make the Switch

These shoes may sound like wonder all fixes for issues that may be ailing you but there is some work that should be done before buying a new pair and just heading out onto the trail.

Instead, you need to take some time to let your body readjust to the massive change, putting in some solid miles with the shoes alone around town is a good way to help your legs adjust while your legs and stride adjust.

Breaking Your Foot In – Adapt Over Slowly

If you haven’t been using zero drop shoes then you more than likely have less developed tendons like the Achilles, along with lower calf muscle due to the overall lack of use.

This is normal and more due to the higher the heel the more work was done by the knee and thighs, but this does mean it takes time to have new muscles react and respond.

If you don’t take it slow it can lead to foot pain including plantar fasciitis, so the more time you can spend to adjust to the more natural shoe choice the better you will perform on the trail over the long term.

Put in Miles on Walks Near Home First

You won’t want to start with long treks away from home when you are changing shoes as these muscles may have not been worked very hard for a long time which leads to exhaustion much faster.

Large and fatigued tendons and recovering muscles aren’t something you want to experience while on the trail as you need to give them proper downtime which can be a problem out on a trail away from help and support.

Staying close to home while building these muscles will lead to a more enjoyable longer hike after you have them properly strengthened and over time your muscles will recover faster and faster with less exhaustion in between making hiking more fun.

Changes Your Stride

Those moving from a shoe with a drop will find that their stride changes and becomes different than it was before in the other shoes and this is a good thing as it means the entire lower body is more involved and moving towards a more natural stride.

This may take some adjustment if you have spent decades in tennis shoes and not much time in your own bare feet, it is well worth it though and will make you more effective if you allow the process to work itself out.

Some Common Issues With Zero Drop Shoes

As with most changes, there are also some issues or drawbacks people experience with a change in footwear, especially when they switch over to more barefoot shoes with flexible soles as it can frequently be exhausting and worse if you push it too hard and too fast.

More Pressure on Lower Leg Muscles and Tendons

When you move to these shoes you will have to build up underutilized muscles and tendons which can lead to pressure and possible injuries if done fast and without the time to adapt.

The most common issues are related to calf and Achilles injuries as the body hasn’t used them so they are weaker than the other muscles and tendons in the leg and foot, for most people the adjustment on these can take three to six months which is a long time.

If you are looking to hike earlier than three months out you probably shouldn’t begin looking to swap shoes until you are done with the planned hike where you can give your body the time it needs and desires.

Not Supportive on Steep Hills

When you have higher heels it actually helps support you on those long descents, when you move over to a zero-drop shoe you lose this support you may not even notice you have from your current shoes.

This can lead to exhausting your legs and feet much sooner as all the little tendons and muscles will have to manage the balancing act for you. This leads to shorter distances hiking on a given day when there is a lot of ups and downs like the Appalachian Trail has.

Little Arch Support

If you don’t work to strengthen the muscles in your foot before they will be unable to assist and help keep your foot functioning as expected, this can lead to the foot collapsing which then can cascade into a foot, knee, and hip issue over time as the foot tires.

Finding Zero Drop Hiking Boots

While most will focus on zero drop shoes like trail runners there are also some pretty good options for a zero drop hiking boot that many may know even exist, though they are much more limited in the style they can be a good option for those who want a boot but want to move to a zero drop for better control.

As you can see from the above you can choose to go with a boot but still gain the benefits that a zero drop shoe can provide, you just have to be willing to look around a bit more.

Final Thoughts on Zero Drop Shoes and Thru-Hiking

If you’re looking for a hiking shoe with zero drop, it’s worth taking the time to explore your options. While trail runners are the most popular option, there are also hiking zero-drop boots available that offer very similar benefits.

Be sure to take into account how long it will take you to adapt to the new shoes before choosing to embark on a long hike with new shoes and makes sure your body has had proper time to adjust prior to leaving.

Just because what you bought is a “popular shoe” doesn’t make it the right option for you and if you have other issues like wide feet, flat feet, or another more common issue you need to get a shoe that works with your issue so as not to cause more problems.

Most choose a minimalist shoe due to the comfort along with being constructed with breathable materials allowing them to dry faster when wet, keep in mind that your feet will end up wet on a thru-hike and drying is an important need normally not thought about until too late.

If you want to explore all the best gear I find online for thru-hiking please come over and check out my gear guides, they are the top way to find your next upgrade!

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