Maximal Miles in Minimal Footwear: My AT Thru-Hike in Barefoot Shoes
Over 2,190 miles of coiled roots, sharp rocks, loose gravel, thick mud, slick leaves, snow past my knees, sheets of ice, wobbly wooden boards, river fords, and seemingly never-ending climbs and descents.
I covered each and every one of those miles in barefoot shoes.
Before I get into the why’s, what’s, and how’s, I want to say that this post is all based on my own body and my own hike. It’s also worth noting that I’ve been living in these kind of shoes for years, so thru-hiking in them was an easy decision. I’m happy to share my experiences, but I am by no means a medical professional, and this post shouldn’t be taken as a recommendation. Any of the objective information I share have resources linked to actual professionals.
I saw people hiking the Appalachian Trail and even summiting Katahdin in boots, trail runners, Crocs, five-finger shoes, sandals, and even straight-up barefoot. It’s all about what footwear works best for you.
Why I Hiked in Barefoot Shoes
The foot has 26 bones (over 25% of the bones in the body), which come together to create 33 joints, and are controlled by over 100 muscles. The idea is that wearing more minimal shoes allows every one of these bones, joints, and muscles to move the way they were designed, as well as allowing the nerves that run through them to function more efficiently as sensors. The terrain on trail is constantly changing in angle, texture, and slickness, and requires different movements through each step. The goal of barefoot shoes is to give your feet a more accurate gauge in feeling out these variables, and accounting for them.
I wanted shoes that highlighted my foot’s design, not altered it.
I chose barefoot shoes for a lot of the same reasons people switch to Altras; I just took my reasoning a little further. Barefoot shoes are wider and shaped like actual feet. They’re also made with no cushioning or support of any kind. They offer nothing more than a few millimeters of rubber and mesh to keep your feet from getting cut and to give your feet the freedom to move the way they were designed to. Feet are the foundation of all movement, and I wanted the strongest foundation possible to take me to Katahdin.
A lot of hikers make the switch to Altras for their zero drop platform and their patented FootShape™ design. Essentially, they don’t have a positive heel (why make the mountain you’re descending that much steeper?), and the wider toe box means there’s actually room for your toes to expand as they get stronger throughout your hike. You’ve seen what thru-hiking does to your calves, so just imagine what it does to your feet. Covering crazy miles, over huge mountains, with anywhere from six to 60 pounds on your back, your feet are going to go super-saiyan.
The Expected Benefit of Thru-Hiking in Barefoot Shoes
There are studies that indicate wearing barefoot shoes leads to less musculoskeletal injuries in runners. One even reported fewer cases of plantar fasciitis, which is a condition that I heard thru-hikers talking about almost daily. Also, people who routinely wear barefoot shoes while running often find that they switch to forefoot striking rather than rearfoot striking, which has been linked to experiencing less repetitive stress injuries.
There’s a lot of pain in thru-hiking. Even the more manageable problems like blisters can get so bad that you need to get off trail for a few days. On top of that, it’s rare to go a few days on trail without hearing about someone’s achilles tendonitis, shin splints, iliotibial band syndrome, bursitis in the knees/hips, or stress fractures. Not to mention that sustaining injuries like these on trail can often lead to even more injuries as your body tries to compensate for any discomfort or dysfunction you’re experiencing each day. With injury being one of the most common reasons people end their thru-hike, this was my primary motivator in sticking with barefoot shoes.
All of this information still rings true with my experiences, although things didn’t go quite like I expected.
I never had to deal with any of the conditions listed above during my thru-hike. I never even got a blister. But after barely a week on trail, my dream of thru-hiking almost ended.
The thought of escaping another subfreezing night enticed us to push a 17-mile day into Hiawassee, GA. Our previous best was ten miles, and even that had taken a toll on our bodies so early into our hike. I pushed my body too hard, too quickly, and when just the right steep, muddy switchback came along, I was down and out. Well, I should’ve been out, but there was still the two-mile limp into town. With my leg quickly swelling to almost double its size, we hitched into Hiawassee with hopes of a doctor, instead of that warm bed.
If you haven’t already, read Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis. One of the first things that he relays the importance of is taking things slow in the beginning of your hike. I didn’t take this advice, and it’s a decision that I paid for in its consequences.
The next day, a doctor told me that I had torn my lateral meniscus in the fall. “I’m not going to tell you to get of trail because I can tell that’s not really an option for you.” She instructed me to keep weight off it until the swelling went down, and to continue on the trail as slowly as possible, if at all.
After a week in a cheap hotel room, practically living in an Epsom salt-filled bathtub, eating copious amounts of antiinflammatories, and enduring the emotional roller coaster that comes with getting injured on trail, I was back in the woods. Still in barefoot shoes, but also with a fancy new knee brace, and about a one-mile-per-hour pace.
The progress felt slow but steady. Midway through Virginia, I had moved up from a knee brace to a small knee band. By Harpers Ferry, I had ditched the knee band all together. In Maryland I ditched my trekking poles after noticing a reoccurring glute/hip pain from the way they altered my gait. By Pennsylvania I was having a blast putting hand over foot over the rock scrambles, and full-on running on the flat sections of trail. After being unable to simply walk to the grocery store to resupply just months before, it was one of the most phenomenal outcomes I could’ve hoped for. That injury was the biggest obstacle to face during my hike, and being able to overcome it was a constant source of encouragement as we continued north.
Would I have gotten hurt, or still have been able to heal if I was wearing different shoes?
I don’t know.
But I do know that being conscientious of every step that I took on trail benefited me as a whole. I’m not saying that my injury healed so well just because I was wearing barefoot shoes, but they were definitely an important tool in listening to my body as it was healing, and in setting a healthy pace to prevent another injury.
With minimal shoes and no poles, each step demanded my full attention. No matter how slick, rocky, or root ridden the ground was, I had to be aware of exactly what my feet were doing. What part of my foot was making contact with the ground while moving through each step. Feeling the weight shift between my feet, knees, and hips. It was amazing. It took a lot of mental energy at first, but eventually it felt like I had developed a new sense. It felt primal and effortless to jump from rock to rock, to balance along each knife edge, to run through the woods, and to feel my body already making corrections to catch myself the instant I’d start to lose my balance.
Your feet are going to hurt no matter what, but there’s something to be said about feeling every rock and root the Appalachian Trail has to offer without some sort of cushion in between.
The hiker hobble seems unavoidable with what we put our bodies through on a daily basis during a thru-hike, and no shoe (or lack thereof) can take away all of that pain. Like everything else on trail, I learned to embrace the suck and appreciated the fact that I was getting to experience the trail in a way that was fulfilling to me. I did save the pair of barefoot shoes with the most cushioning for when the rocks started to get relentless in Pennsylvania. That definitely helped my feet transition to the jagged miles ahead (the rocks don’t end in Pennsylvania, folks).
What I Wore on My Hike
Springer Mountain, GA, to Hot Springs, NC
Definitely the cheapest barefoot shoe and the most minimal shoe that I tried in terms of cushioning, and these were my least favorite pair that I wore.
They had holes wearing through the sides in less than 50 miles (I later learned that’s common for this shoe, no matter what trail you’re on). They were also one of the narrowest barefoot shoes that I wore, which was a daily annoyance. My big toe was making a break for freedom by mile 150, and I found myself hiking into Hot Springs, VA, wearing a cast of duct tape to keep the shoe together. On top of that, Merrell’s minimalist shoes are usually shaped to bring the outside edges of your foot and toes upward, instead of letting them make contact with the ground.
Hot Springs, NC, to Port Clinton, PA
These ended up being my favorite shoes on trail. No cushioning beyond the flexible rubber sole, a wide toe box, amazing grip, and definitely the most durable pair of shoes that I wore.
They made it just under 1,000 miles, and I loved every step in them. The primary reason for not stretching them even farther was that the gripping had started to wear on the balls of each foot (where my feet usually strike with each step and where I place all of my weight while on steep declines/inclines). Parts of the outer mesh were scraped away from the rocks over time, but the reinforced sections of the mesh kept the shoes perfectly wearable up until the day I got them replaced. Also, the drawstring style laces would have been immensely valuable if I had had these on all of the mornings I spent trying to tie frozen solid standard laces with numb hands.
Port Clinton, PA, to Gorham, NH
These were pretty good shoes. They lasted significantly longer than the first pair of Merrells, and I got them at a time when the rocks in PA were really starting to rev up. I was appreciative of any additional millimeter of support I could get between my feet and the new terrain they were adapting to.
That being said, they still didn’t feel like they gave my feet full functionality. Like my first pair of Merrells, they were way too narrow for my toes/midfoot, and curved upward along the edges of the shoe. I was happy I tried these, but was definitely ready to get back to shoes that let my feet move more like feet.
Gorham, NH, to Mount Katahdin, ME
Disclaimer: I ended up becoming an affiliate for Xero after my hike. I did purchase them myself, though, and this review is how I genuinely felt about these shoes.
These ended up being my second favorite pair, after the Vivos. The fact that they’re cheaper than Vivobarefoot and have a 5,000-mile guarantee on some of their soles is what tends to appeal to thru-hikers. They had very flexible soles, a wide toe box, and held up better than I expected them to through the Whites onward.
Although the soles were still in great shape by the time I finished, my primary issue with this shoe is with the side band that they use to link the sole of the shoe to the laces. One of mine ended up snapping after getting snagged on a rock while I was scrambling down from Katahdin, and it completely changed how the shoe felt. I realize now that the straps on the TerraFlex act like more of a seat belt for your foot in the shoe rather than just having the extra aesthetic. For the last few miles down, I could feel my foot sliding around more loosely in the shoe, and it really messed with my gait on some of the trickier parts in our descent. I’m really happy that it didn’t happen earlier in our hike, or else I would’ve had to get another pair.
No matter what shoes you wear on your hike, you’re likely going to have an adjustment period. Going from spending a majority of the time sitting down, to climbing mountains all day, every day, with a heavy load on your back is already so jarring to the body. Completely changing your footwear on top of that can actually be dangerous. This is one reason why you hear about people injuring themselves on trail after regularly hiking in a certain shoe for a long period of time, but then deciding to start a thru-hike in their first pair of zero drop Altras. In the same way it’s important to transition slowly into zero drop, it’s incredibly important to transition slowly into barefoot shoes.
If you’re interested in trying more minimal footwear on or off trail, this book by biomechanist Katy Bowman is one of the best places to start. If you’re more into listening than reading, The Foot Collective (a group of physical therapists dedicated to functional feet) recently started a podcast with a ton of helpful information.
No matter what shoes take you to that final summit, enjoy each step, and happy hiking y’all.
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