5 Questions I Get Asked About Barefoot Hiking
In a realm where people have very personal opinions about what makes for the right hiking shoe – tall boots, trail runners, minimalist shoes – hiking barefoot never crosses most people’s minds. Leaving shoes at the trail head to wander into the forest on mixed terrain sounds crazy to most people, and it’s rare that someone sees me on the trail without stopping to talk to me, or comment as they pass by. The conversations I have around my decision to ditch my shoes range from people being genuinely curious, to those who are convinced I must have somehow wandered out of the asylum and into the woods. Here’s a list of the five questions I get asked the most on trail.
1. Why do you hike barefoot?
Because I can! Just kidding, it’s actually more complicated than that. I started barefoot hiking a few years ago after seeing someone else bag a high peak in the Adirondacks without anything on his feet. I had already been in love with minimalist footwear, but was intrigued by how gracefully he moved up the trail and over the terrain below his uninhibited toes. I was too shy to ask him how he got started, but I brought the idea back down the mountain with me and couldn’t shake it.
Along with that, and maybe more importantly, I had just been through a year that was personally trying – my marriage had ended and I suddenly found myself in a new chapter of my life that I wasn’t expecting. I felt like I had suddenly been pulled from my roots and was struggling to find my new place in the world. I was thinking about the things that make a person feel grounded, and remembered the barefoot hiker from the mountain top. I mean, what better way to feel a connection to the ground than to embrace its rocks and mud and connect to the earth in the most physical way possible.
A week later and I had read more literature on living a barefoot life. I walked up and down the driveway without shoes, getting used to gravel and uneven ground. And then I hit the trail. The first time up a mountain, my feet hummed and buzzed with new sensations, and I returned to my car sore. But, I had experienced a connection to the universe in a way that was deeply satisfying. The next morning, my feet felt like they had been used in the way they were intended – like they had come home. After that, I started hiking without shoes all the time – losing myself in the primal relationship between human and planet. I go to the woods to find the void, and figure out my place in the universe, and barefoot hiking helps me achieve that.
2. But, Heather, don’t you wear shoes sometimes?
Yes. There are a few scenarios where barefoot hiking doesn’t make sense. Whenever I hit the trail, I have either a pair of flip flops, or more often, my Merrell Pace Gloves in my pack. For as much ground as I trek without shoes, I would never go on a hike without having a pair on me for when they are needed.
Areas of high impact human partying are one space where I have shoes ready to go. You know the places I’m talking about – where a group of people have hoofed it just far enough in the woods to hide their partying, and have left without packing out beer bottles and garbage. Broken glass litters these spots, and the last thing anyone wants to do is find themselves stranded in a field of sharp shards without something to put on. That kind of debris often occurs around outbuildings and ruins too, and so if I spot an area where it looks like I’m going to get cut, I throw my shoes on until I’ve cleared the danger. No one wants metal or glass splinters, barefoot hiker or not.
Another situation that I have thrown shoes on is during the first weeks of spring, when the snow pack is gone, but the trail is covered in loose leaf litter from the season before. Most of the time, leaves are great to walk on, but I have found sections of trail that are both rocky, and piled in leaves. If I don’t know what I’m stepping into, I try to find an alternate strategy, or toss the shoes on. It took putting my foot down on what I thought was ground and was really an 8 inch drop into rock crevice to decide that leaf cover needed to be considered.
Lastly, if there is snow or ice, I am wearing shoes. And socks. So many people ask if I hike barefoot in the winter that it doesn’t surprise me anymore. I am much more uncomfortable hiking in the winter with boots and microspikes, or crampons on. After getting of the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, the first words out of my mouth were “I need you to get these fucking shoes off me. Now.” as I was desperately trying to claw the knots of my laces undone so I could hike up the mountain to base camp in bare feet.
3. Aren’t you going to hurt your feet?
Maybe. But no more often than anyone else who uses their feet to walk. Here’s the thing about barefoot hiking: yes, you watch your step, especially when you are first getting started. No one wants to land hard on a sharp rock or European water chestnut and feel that pain. When you first hit the trail without shoes, you are hyper aware of each step – eying the path and looking for the flattest, safest spot to land your newly freed feet.
As I got more accustomed to walking on paths and in the woods without shoes, I began to become more adept to scanning the path in front of me and knowing how to walk on it in away that caused minimal impact to my feet. It seems like simple advice, but it boils down to “watch your step”.
Basically, it’s the same awareness that keeps shoe-wearing folks from stepping off a cliff, or into quicksand. Think about it. We walk thousands of steps each day, and rarely do we find ourselves injured by the end of the journey.
That isn’t to say that things don’t happen. The most common injury to a bare foot on a trail is a friction injury. That occurs when you don’t land your foot flat on the ground, but rather scrape it against the ground as you step down. That is a motion that is very common when wearing shoes, because a flat landing is less important. There is a natural adjustment to your stride and gait when you lose the heavy shoes between you and the ground. Just like I learned to watch my step, I learned how to walk in such a way to minimize friction, scrapes, and scratches.
The worst injury I have had on my feet was a bruise on the ball of my foot from landing a step wrong while descending a mountain. I was tired and wanted to get back to my car, and just like falls happen more often at the end of a hike, my footing got sloppy. Immediately after setting my foot on the rock, I knew it was going to bruise. I made it to the car without much incident, but the next morning, there was a purple spot and a little knot where a rock tried to take me out. It heeled about as fast as a paper cut. And without as much pain.
4. Are your feet rough and calloused from not wearing shoes?
Everyone is shocked when I answer this with a resounding “no”. My feet have gotten stronger as I have hiked barefoot, and I can feel that when I am scrambling up rocks or motoring down a sharp incline. Like my feet, my calves and legs have adjusted to the difference in my stride and gotten stronger and more capable in the process.
Mixed terrain is a better exfoliater than any pumice stone you might find at CVS, and it’s cheaper too. I have more callouses on my hands from playing guitar and opening water bottles than I do from wandering miles through the woods without the perceived comfort of a pair of shoes. They also get a good scrub when I am off the trail, which keeps them, and me, clean and happy.
In a modern world, it is easy to forget that our feet are meant to be walked on. They are meant to guide us and explore the earth below them, and they can handle a beating. Just like our hands are accustomed to manipulating the world around us, feet are ready to be walked on. Trust me. You may need to get them used to the dirt and rocks we’ve been trained to protect them from, but they will appreciate the freedom and strength that comes with going barefoot.
5. But seriously, are you lost? Who took your shoes?
I am not lost! I have a map right here! One of the more fun aspects of being barefoot on the trail is the funny things that people say to me. I get scolded to “put my shoes on!” by well meaning hikers, worried that I’ve lost my shoes AND my mind. I’ve had men four times my size stop and comment on how they couldn’t do what I was doing, and I’ve kids stare longingly at my feet while glancing at their parents. I love each and every time someone asks me “how did you get here?” with that look like maybe I’m just a cleverly disguised extraterrestrial being who happened to miss the memo on humans’ love of footwear.
My daughter, who is turning into a mountain lover in her own right, often turns to me and exclaims, “wow! I can’t believe you’re really the barefoot hiker!”, even though I think she’s seen me in shoes less than she sees me barefoot. It’s a great conversation starter, and I like to think that I might inspire someone one day to kick of their Nikes and get back to the basics – the cool planet playground that we are lucky to get to explore.
And if you still think barefoot hiking is crazy after reading this, I will leave you with a final thought: mud. Trust me, mud is just as much fun as an adult as you remember it being when you were a kid. Go on, try it if you don’t believe me.
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