I am not a runner, but I do log dozens of miles every week on hiking trails and can’t think of a better weekend than one that involves a backpack full of camping gear. And I have a new favorite shoe for that: the Altra Lone Peak 4, which is more comfortable and has better grip than anything else I’ve tested.
“The way we heal every other part of the body is by returning it to its natural state, so why don’t we approach our feet in the same way?” asks Golden Harper, who along with high school buddy Brian Beckstead started Altra out of his Utah kitchen in 2009, baking existing running shoes in his toaster oven to play with their drop and shape.
Most running shoes have a higher heel than toe; the difference between those heights is a measurement known as drop. Most running shoes also have a narrow profile that can pinch your toes together. “From plantar fasciitis to bunions, this is what causes foot problems,” Harper says.
Altra’s approach is to design a shoe that supports your foot as if it was barefoot, just with more grip, more cushioning, and more protection. This results in shoes that work in a wide variety of conditions. The Lone Peak 4 isn’t a running shoe or a hiking shoe. Altra simply calls it a “trail shoe,” as it’s designed to support both runners and hikers.
The Lone Peak 4 is an update on Altra’s original all-around trail shoe formula. The zero-drop design is claimed to promote good posture and prevent a painful foot strike. The square foot box allows your toes to splay out wide, like they might while trying to grip a slippery rock. The 25 millimeters of midsole cushion is thicker than a typical trail running shoe, but it’s still thinner than true fat shoes. A full-length rock plate—a plastic liner—mitigates the impact of sharp objects as you move along technical terrain. Lastly, the deep lugs on the tread are designed to maximize grip. A decoupled portion made from harder rubber and located under the metatarsals is designed to dig into soft surfaces.
Altra’s unique attributes aside, shoes like these—lightweight, highly ventilated, with good off-road grip and no waterproof membrane—are a better option for hiking or backpacking in moderate weather conditions than traditional hiking boots. Removing weight from your feet is more effective at reducing overall exertion than taking it off your back. (A military study found that, exertion-wise, a pound on your feet is equivalent to five on your back.) Even though your feet will get wet, they dry so quickly without a membrane that, when paired with a merino sock, your feet will actually spend more time dry than they would in the “waterproof” alternative.
The Lone Peak 4 maximizes those benefits, at a weight of just 10.2 ounces, with water-draining mesh located along the footbed in the heel and toe, plus a perforated insole that allows the mechanical action of walking or running to pump moisture out of the shoe. Even after fording water up to my waist in cool, overcast conditions, the shoes were totally dry just two miles later. I wore them with Icebreaker’s superlative Hike Lite merino socks, which help facilitate drying time.
That water crossing was just the deepest of several Harper and I encountered on a 25-mile trek through Yellowstone National Park’s backcountry. That’s a short distance for him—Altra’s first prototype was proven on a 100-miler—but one we did with weight on our backs. That’s where the Altras first won me over.
I’ve been struggling with lower-back pain all summer, thanks to a move that derailed my workout schedule for much of the year and some old injuries that rear up when I don’t lift weights. An overnighter in an unusually heavy pack back in May left me sore for days. But this time, my back was pain-free on the trail and afterward. That’s partially due to the support the Altras provide and the good posture the zero-drop design promotes.
I also think the shoes helped fix foot pain faster than I’ve experienced in the past. On the first day, while fishing in a very minimal pair of water shoes, I stepped on a sharp tree branch hidden under the water. Later that night, I lay awake in my sleeping bag with throbbing pain in my right arch, convinced the next day on the trail would be torture. But just a few miles into the trail, that pain was totally gone. Maybe there’s something to Hansen’s theory of promoting healing by returning feet to their natural shape.
Traction from the Lone Peak 4 is also impressive. Whether it was loose dirt or slippery mud, the shoes provided sure footing and even helped me safely descend a treacherous waterfall that was slick with mud and algae. I only fell twice, and impressively, neither time was to my death.
I returned from the trip with a very dirty pair of new shoes that didn’t have a single mile on them before heading out on the trail. But I also returned with zero blisters, zero back pain, and a newfound appreciation for boxy footwear. Every day since, I’ve grabbed the Lone Peaks for my daily hike with the dogs, something that’s elicited groans of complaint from my fashion-conscious fiancee but has my feet feeling happier than ever.