Minimal hiking shoes are the ideal footwear for folks who don’t need modern footwear's bells and whistles, like super thick midsoles and high-tech chassis support.
If you want to simplify your footwear selection, you have come to the right place. Keep reading to learn about minimalist hiking shoes and what to look for when selecting a new pair to wear on your hiking adventures.
What are minimalist hiking shoes?
Conventional hiking shoes and boots come with a lot of cushioning in the midsole. This creates a scenario where the heel is lifted higher than the toes.
Example of a traditional hiking shoe: 36 mm (heel stack) and 25.5 mm (forefoot)
On the other side of the spectrum, zero-drop or “barefoot” shoes come with little to no padding, just the outsole, and insole.
Example of a minimalist hiking shoe
Minimalist hiking shoes are located in between the two extremes. They have less cushioning than conventional hiking, so the heel-to-toe drop is smaller.
However, minimalist hiking shoes have a larger heel-to-toe drop than zero-drop shoes. Let us provide some more details to highlight the differences more clearly.
Style of Hiking Shoe
Traditional High Drop
9 to 12 millimeters
Minimalist Mid Drop
5 to 8 millimeters
Minimalist Low Drop
1 to 4 millimeters
Barefoot Zero Drop
According to the table, minimalist hiking shoes have a heel-to-toe drop that can range from 1 to 8 millimeters. With anything more or less, you enter the traditional and barefoot categories, respectively.
Benefits of minimalist hiking shoes
Due to the simple design, most notably the lack of a prominent midsole, minimalist hiking shoes are incredibly lightweight. The shoes we review in this article range from 7 ounces to 12.3 ounces.
The Chaco Ramble Puff is the lightest, and the Vivobarefoot Magna FG is the heaviest (which is still very lightweight when compared to boots).
Better ground feel and sensitivity
Due to the thinner midsole and less cushioning, minimalist hiking shoes are well known for being very sensitive and enhancing the ground feel. In other words, with minimalist hiking shoes, you have a better connection to the terrain beneath your feet.
Greater sensitivity improves your proprioception, also known as kinesthesia. Proprioception is your body's ability to perceive complex sensations related to movement and function. The sensations your body receives come from sensory receptors in your muscle, skin, and joints.
The Lems Primal 2 is the most sensitive minimalist hiking shoe. You will be able to feel every texture under your feet. Better yet, the Primal 2 outsole is well-known for being remarkably sticky and durable.
Encourage a low-impact gait
The less pronounced, almost nonexistent heel-to-toe drop in minimalist hiking shoes naturally encourages you to land more softly on your midfoot and forefoot rather than your heel.
Heel striking, or landing heel first when you walk or run, is perfectly natural. Minimalist hiking shoes will not stop you from heel-striking. But because of the decreased cushioning, your steps will be less forgiving. Therefore you will want to naturally pay more attention to how your feet land.
What to look for when buying minimalist hiking shoes
A minimal heel drop
To review, heel drop refers to the height differential between the heel and toe of the shoe. Larger heel-to-toe drops mean the shoe has a more elevated heel that drops off in the toe. A larger heel drop promotes heel striking.
The heel-to-toe drop in most minimalist hiking shoes is between 1 and 8 millimeters. In this case, a smaller heel-to-toe drop promotes landing on the balls of your feet instead.
A short stack height
Stack height refers to the amount of shoe material found between your foot and the ground. In other words, the stack height comes from the material used in the outsole and midsole together. A larger stack height reflects more cushioning, while a smaller one reflects less cushioning.
As you can imagine, minimalist hiking shoes have a low stack height. The lack of robust cushioning contributes to their ground feel and encourages your body to adjust when walking or running.
An all-terrain lug profile
Lug profiles come in various patterns. The shape of the lugs, along with the size of the lugs, are designed for specific terrain and types of shoes. Typically, hiking shoes have larger lugs, resulting in a thicker outsole. This helps them deal with variable hiking terrain.
On the other hand, running shoes and sneakers have much smaller lugs designed primarily with concrete and other smooth surfaces in mind.
The lug profile for minimalist hiking shoes will be somewhere in between. In most cases, they will not have a prominent and aggressive lug profile and thick outsole like hiking boots. Instead, they will have a thinner outsole with lugs designed for hiking.
Shoes that support your ankles
It is common to think that hiking shoes without a high-cuff collar lack ankle support. However, a shoe's stability comes from more than just the collar. Stability can also come from how the midsole and outsole are constructed.
In addition, with minimalist hiking shoes, your feet are much closer to the ground, and less elevated from heel to toe. For some, this may create an even more stable sensation. Think about it this way, when was the last time you rolled an ankle barefoot? More often than not, you roll your ankle wearing shoes with a large stack height and heel-to-toe drop.
Ample room for toe splay
Toe splay is a term that refers to the action of your toes spreading out as your feet come in contact with the ground. Toe splaying is a natural function and helps provide more stability. And if you were barefoot, toe splay would help give more traction.
To prioritize toe splay, you need to consider a minimalist hiking shoe with a wide toe box. Some, not all, minimalist hiking shoes come with wide-toe boxes. From our research, the best wide-toe box came with the Zero Shoes Squa X Sport.
Sizing to keep your feet comfy
Every minimalist hiking shoe is different. And brands are notorious for having inconsistent sizing. For example, a size 11 in one brand may fit you perfectly, but in another brand, it may be too big.
However, regardless of the brand, most minimalist footwear experts recommend sizing up at least ½ size than you are used to. The extra wiggle room will be advantageous for toe splay and preventing crushed toes.
Drawbacks to minimalist hiking shoes
Ironically, many of the advantages some people love about minimalist hiking shoes are also what some people consider drawbacks. Therefore, most people either love or hate minimalist hiking shoes. It depends on who you talk to, and with most things, it’s all a matter of perspective.
- Not durable enough. The lightweight materials in the construction of minimalist hiking shoes can have durability issues. If you are particularly rough on your shoes, you may find that you go through minimalist hiking shoes quickly.
- Not waterproof. Most minimalist hiking shoes are not considered waterproof. So for individuals who frequently hike in wet climates and enjoy the minimalist style, not having a waterproof membrane is disappointing.
- Too sensitive. The lack of cushioning in the midsole and thin outsole increases sensitivity and ground feel, which exposes your feet to hard surfaces and sharp objects.
- Long transition period. Minimal heel-to-toe drop makes the natural tendency to heel strike uncomfortable and forces you to adjust your gait over a long period.
Transitioning to minimalist hiking shoes
For most of us, minimalist hiking shoes are not our go-to footwear. It is much more common to wear conventional shoes with normal midsoles that provide cushioning and position our heels above our toes.
Over the years, our feet have become accustomed to how they perform in normal shoes. Therefore, switching to minimalist hiking shoes can feel like an uncomfortable change. That’s why it’s important to transition to minimalist shoes over time. We recommend committing to a four to six-week transition period before committing full-time to minimalist shoes.
- Start with a pair of minimalist hiking shoes with a heel-to-toe drop on the higher end of the spectrum. Somewhere between five and eight millimeters. If you like how they feel, you can try something more minimal.
- When you are starting, where your minimalist hiking shoes for short periods around the house. Then, switch back to the shoes you are accustomed to wearing more often.
- Start with short hikes on easy trails. You can even wear them to walk the dog.
- Focus on your running mechanics. For example, focus on striking the ground with your midfoot first, not your heel. As you do so, try to make your landings feel gentle. A good way to do that is to try and make your landing quiet. Lastly, avoid overstriding. Instead, use short strides and quick cadence. Doing so will prevent heel striking.
- Over time, gradually increase the intensity of your activity and the duration you wear your new shoes. A good rule of thumb is the 10% rule– increasing your weekly mileage by no more than 10% per week.
- As you transition, it will be normal to feel soreness in your feet, ankles, and calves. To relieve soreness, try out some calf and arch stretches and massages.
- Listen to your body. Remember that if you begin to experience pain at any point, stop what you are doing and reconsider the intensity or duration of your activity.
Potential risks associated with minimalist hiking shoes
The primary reason why transitioning to minimalist hiking shoes is important is that a methodical transition process can prevent injury.
Whenever you walk or run, the arch of your foot collapses. In other words, it rolls inward. The collapsing of your arches is called pronation, and it's normal. Pronation is your body’s natural way of absorbing and distributing shock when your feet hit the ground.
Conventional hiking shoes with a midsole and thicker outsole support the pronation process, and even more, shock is absorbed into the shoe. However, with minimalist hiking shoes, your feet are unsupported during pronation, and the shock of your feet coming into contact with the ground is much more intense.
If you do not give your feet time to adjust slowly to the lack of cushioning and the greater shock during pronation, you can expose yourself to certain risks.
- Bunions and hammer toes
- Pain in your heel (from heel striking), also known as plantar fasciitis
- Achilles tendonitis
- Pain and inflammation in the arch of your foot
- Stress fractures in the small bones of your feet
- Medial tibial stress syndrome, which presents as pain and tenderness on the inside of your shin bone, also known as shin splints
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the main advantages of minimalist hiking shoes?
The primary advantage of wearing minimalist hiking shoes is that they allow your feet to function in a more natural position. In other words, your feet rely less on shoe technology and instead rely solely on how your feet evolved to function before humans started wearing shoes with cushioning.
Through that process, minimalist hiking shoes can help build natural strength in the ligaments, muscles, tendons, and joints of your legs, ankles, and feet. For some individuals, minimalist shoe designs also help improve running and walking posture, which can reduce injuries over time.
Are hiking sandals minimalist hiking shoes?
Depending on the simplicity of the design and construction of sandals, they may or may not are considered minimalist. Most sandals will come with cushioning in the midsole and therefore provide stack height and heel-to-toe drop. However, whether or not the sandal’s specs fit within the minimalist category will depend on the model.
Are minimalist hiking shoes waterproof?
More often than not, minimalist hiking shoes are not waterproof. Instead, they are water resistant, meaning that the materials used in the shoe's construction resist small amounts of water or moisture but will not completely seal it out. For example, the upper of the Vivobarefoot Magna FG is constructed with leather, a naturally water-resistant material.
Are minimalist hiking shoes better than conventional hiking shoes?
Unfortunately, we do not have the answer to that question. Whether or not a shoe is better or worse than another depends completely on the specific person, their preferences, how the shoe fits, and how their body performs. With that being said, however, many individuals love minimalist hiking shoes.
Can I wear minimalist hiking shoes without transitioning slowly?
Technically, the answer to this question is yes. However, we do not recommend it. Switching to minimalist hiking shoes full-time without giving your body time to adapt can lead to injuries such as plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, Achilles tendonitis, and metatarsal inflammation.