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

“Jamie, pull that up.”

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.

FootShape™ by Altra.

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.

The Reality

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.

Any Complaints?

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

Merrell Vapor Glove 

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.

Vivobarefoot Primus FG 

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.

Merrell Trail Glove 4

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.

Notice how narrow the new Merrells are.

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.

Xero Shoes TerraFlex

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.

TDLR:

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 15

  • Kenneth Pararo : Dec 20th

    Foot for thought! I’ve recently been having some arch pain in my Salomons so this definitely gives me something to consider when it comes time to retire them. Great JRE reference also.

    Reply
    • Kelsy Filler : Dec 21st

      Man, I can’t tell you how many miles were spent listening to JRE during my hike! Going back and listening to that David Goggins episode is what pushed me to do my first 26 mile day in VA, hahaha. XD I’d get super excited every time he’d mention trail running in his Vibrams or Vivos and would end up picking up to a jog too, lol.

      Sorry to hear about that arch pain! If you’re thinking of switching up your footwear to help, that book I mention in the post has a thorough list of common conditions in the arches/ toes/ heels, what causes them, and what can be done to alleviate them. If the book doesn’t appeal to you though, just google Katy Bowman. She’s the author of the book and has a TON of free info out there through posts, podcasts, and videos.

      Reply
      • Kenneth Pararo : Dec 23rd

        Thanks! Coincidentally, I listened to both David Goggins episodes yesterday and felt very empowered after doing so. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that my arch heals without intervention; things seem to be moving that way, but, I’ll definitely return to the resources you outlined if things don’t seem to improve.

        Reply
    • Eric Thompson : Dec 22nd

      Great article, the light weight shoe craze is great but bad footware is part of the reason Kris Fowler is dead. There’s going light and there’s kepping it real.

      Reply
  • Clark : Dec 21st

    Like the article. I run in these minimalist shoes and I land with a forefoot strike, but when I walk I am a heel striker. When you walk do you land with a heel strike or fore/mid foot strike?

    Reply
    • Kelsy Filler : Dec 21st

      Thanks Clark! I’m in the same boat. I forefoot strike when I run, and heel strike when I walk. But I would also forefoot strike a majority of the day while I was hiking.
      On an incline/descent? Forefoot strike. Stepping on a slick surface? Forefoot strike. Jumping from rock to rock? Forefoot strike. The only time I would heel strike on trail was when the ground was flat, dry, and solid. That rarely ever happened, but my heel strike still became lighter during the hike too.

      Reply
    • Allen : Dec 21st

      I tried to do minimalist shoes for backpacking and always get pain after about ten miles. And I can’t abide forefoot striking for walking. But they are so comfortable for the first none miles. I found that I’m a very slight underpronator. People with neutral pronation or underpronators like me need shoes without support, and that’s probably why I like minimalist shoes so much. Ultra runners prefer heavily-cushioned shoes such as the Altras and Hoka One Ones, so I switched to cushy, non-supportive shoes and that’s the sweet spot for me. I use ASICS Gel-Venture 6 and spend all of $45 a pair!

      Reply
      • Kelsy Filler : Dec 21st

        I’m glad that you’ve found shoes that work for you! Slight supination (or underpronation) is actually part of the reason that I wear barefoot shoes. Mine’s caused by a slight torque in my femur though. More cushion definitely lessens the impact for some ultra runners, but there are still some ultra runners like Majo Srink and Bennie Roux who run in barefoot shoes and show that cushioning isn’t a necessity for everyone.

        Reply
  • Bruce Hall : Dec 21st

    Kelsey,
    I have been wearing Altras for day hiking (5-8 miles) on some fairly rough terrain (Southwest) and love them. I am planning an AT thru-hike NOBO in 2020. I have assumed I would need traditional boots in the early miles hiking in snow. It seems from the post that you probably did. I am concerned about my feet being too cold to function or even frostbite. Can you give more detail about wearing minimalist footwear in the cold/snow?
    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Kelsy Filler : Dec 21st

      Thanks for reaching out Bruce! We had snow every week for the first 8 weeks of our thru. By the time we were leaving the NOC, everyone was hiking through snowdrifts past to our knees with miles of ice sheets underneath. There were people who we’re hiking in boots, trail runners, and even Vibrams. With all honesty, it didn’t seem like any of our footwear could keep our feet warm. Just as many people were experiencing numbness and even frostbite in boots as with the other shoes. The main thing that seemed to help everyone was wearing vapor barriers around our feet. Think grocery bags, then socks, then shoes. The vapor barriers kept our feet from wetting out and losing even more heat, and the blood circulation/contained perspiration from hiking were our biggest sources of warmth. Anytime we would go a mile or two without feeling our feet we would stop to massage some blood back into them before we’d continue to prevent permanent damage. Winter hiking is a beast of it’s own, and I definitely recommend learning everything you can before setting out from Springer!

      Best of luck to you on your thru, no matter the shoes you choose!

      Reply
  • Victoria : Dec 21st

    Just curious what your pack weight was, and do you think pack weight should be considered when choosing a barefoot shoe?

    Reply
    • Kelsy Filler : Dec 21st

      Hey Victoria! My base weight was always hovering around 9 pounds, and with a full resupply/water I still never exceeded 25 pounds. (My full gear list can be found here: https://thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/post-gear-list-life-36l/ )

      It all comes down to the kinds of impact you’re putting on your body. Higher pack weight, higher impact. Lower pack weight, lower impact.

      It’s true that more cushioning in your shoes can create a lower the impact on your joints, so it can negate some of the pressure from a heavier pack. But it’s also true that having structurally stronger feet and a conscientious gait can lower the impact on your joints.

      I don’t think that having a higher pack weight should necessarily detour someone from wearing more minimal footwear during their hike, but having a heavier pack weight would definitely mean that you have to be more careful when making the switch to barefoot shoes.

      Reply
  • Pony : Dec 21st

    I was impressed when I saw two guys hike the entire AT in ’16 wearing Xero *sandals*, not shoes. This fall, just to see, I hiked the 77-mile Foothills Trail in SC/NC and 85 miles of the Pinhoti Trail in AL wearing (mostly) Xero sandals, mostly with socks. I was surprised how much I liked it. Definitely eliminates any “shoe-ish” problems like blisters, though I could definitely feel the impact on the bottoms of my feet after 20+ miles. Still, a possibility for the future.

    Reply
  • Dylan Thompson : Dec 25th

    Just to add, I thru-hiked the AT with Trail Gloves (two pair) and I loved them! Out of curiosity, are your feet on the wider side of the spectrum? I have pretty average feet and I felt no restriction in my Trail Gloves. Tried on my buddies’ Altras and felt no difference between the two, in terms of foot restriction. Great article, I definitely want to look at all the other shoes in the article.

    Reply

What Do You Think?