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Happy Feet or "A Case for Sandals"                                         (April 2009, more pictures added November 2010)

Everyone Has an Opinion about Proper Footwear

Each summer when we spend a few weeks hiking in the Italian Dolomites my foot problems and solutions are brought to the forefront for me--by strangers. Amazingly, in these mountains many of our trail companions feel entitled or obliged to give me unsolicited advice and warnings about my feet and my footwear. After a number of bouts of self-righteous indignation I decided to view it instead as part of the entertainment value of hiking in Europe.

Two different styles of Chaco sport sandals in the Dolomites.

Having tissue problems like bunions and neuromas in both feet and a functional problem known as forefoot verus, makes any footwear that presses on my toes from the sides or the top painful. More about those issues later if you are interested, but the bottom line is that I can't wear shoes or boots without injuring my feet. As a result, for the last 20 years I've almost exclusively worn broadly-soled sandals instead of shoes.

I cyclotour in cycling sandals and I walk, hike, and do a little mountain running in my Vibram-soled sport sandals. In the Dolomites, I even do the Via Ferrata climbing routes in sandals. And when it snows when we are at home or abroad, I wear my sandals.

Oh, the horrible look on the faces of mostly German and Italian speaking hikers on the mountain trails who notice my footwear. As I've whizzed by some hikers while going up steep, loose rock grades, I've been told that I should be wearing boots.

I find it endlessly amusing that even when I am swifter and steadier on a difficult trail that my footwear is deemed as unacceptable.  I know the conventional wisdom but it seems that the evidence should speak for itself--at least generate a little curiosity. After countless hours of discussions between ourselves about the actual footwear issues, the myths, and the cultural differences in being so instructive with strangers, we've become clear that there are indeed many myths about feet and footwear.


The Myths

"You need boots for ankle support" was a firmly held belief of Bill's as in his youth he had many turned ankles. Amazingly, when he started running for exercise in his 30's, that myth was exploded.  Literally for a change of scenery, we started running on trails (in Forest Park for you Portlanders). In the past, he would have turned his ankles just walking on those trails but now he could run on them without injury. His problem had been ankle weakness and jogging had slowly corrected that weakness in his muscles and connective tissue.

His experience with running and a history of twisted ankles underscored the problem with wearing boots to support your ankles: if your ankles aren't challenged to be strong then the supporting tissue in them never gets strong. Wearing a cast on an ankle is an extreme example of the same principle: the rigid support of the cast allows bone to heal but in the process the leg muscles wither. The trick of course is like with any strengthening: to stress the tissues enough to make them stronger but not so much that it causes injury in the process.

We both still turn our ankles from time to time, whether hiking or walking on European sidewalks, but it doesn't matter--it's a non-event. We've both achieved the right balance of strength and flexibility so that our ankles can periodically move beyond their normal range of motion without being injured by the experience.

Ironically, after Bill bought a pair of sturdy boots for hiking in the Dolomites in 2006 he discovered that he was turning his ankles more than when he'd been hiking over the same terrain in sandals. The more supple soles of his sandals had given his foot the flexibility and sensitivity it needed to carefully select and secure footing in the rocks. The stiff-soled boots took away those fine-tuned options and left him with a relatively more 'clunking' foot placement. The rigid soles of his boots diminished the capacity of his footwear to conform to the terrain; on rocks it was like having each foot on a teeter-totter.

Bill discovered why rigid uppers and rigid soles so often go together--the rigidity of the boot soles had him tipping so much more that now he really did need firm ankle support. Ironically, with softer soles there was less need for rigid (or any) uppers. And despite the rigid uppers on his boots, he was still uncomfortably twisting his ankles inside them.

Tripping in his rigid boots became a new hazard--one that he didn't have with his sandals or later with his 'approach' shoes. The bulk and stiffness of his boots meant that he was more likely to catch a toe even when walking on smoother surfaces. The heavy, stiff boots were more fatiguing to wear and he was more likely to stumble at the end of a long day in his hefty boots than on the days that he wore sandals. We also discovered that the stiffness of his boot's soles and uppers meant that he couldn't walk as fast on flat ground as with more minimalist footwear, that I'd have to slow down for him.

"You need boots to protect your ankles from abrasion" is no doubt true in some situations, but not where we find ourselves hiking. The environmental protection realities of these times mean that the days of bush-whack-type hiking is long gone for most of us. "Stay on the Trails" is the new rule for sustainability. We haven't hiked wide and far, but certainly the trails we find ourselves on in the Dolomites aren't ankle scrappers, even when in loose rock. We walk on the tops of the rocks, not down in piles of rocks and getting scuffed up just isn't a problem.

Bill has tried sandals, boots, and most recently hiking shoes and by far has lost more skin to boots and shoes than sandals when hiking. The steep, steep slopes invariably cause some rubbing in his shoes or boots and on those hikes he almost always gets a blister or some abrasion. On the same hike, I'll return having worn my sandals with nary a scuff on my skin.

"You'll bang up your toes in sandals" was a myth we first heard when we started wearing cycling sandals for road riding. The shop keepers were sure that the sandals would be sudden death to our toes. My retort was always "Look at the toes of road biker's shoes" as invariably their shoes would show no scuff marks. I've never injured my toes in over 10 years of cycling in nothing but cycling sandals and maybe once every dozen or so hikes I'll let out an "ouch" when I poke my toe on something--about the same frequency as when walking on the sidewalks in Europe.

"It's bad for your bones" one German speaker declared in 2008 as he pointed to his lower shin when we passed on an Alps trail. We couldn't figure that one out especially since the spot he was pointing was where Bill would blister from his boots. Perhaps the man suffers from shin splints or something else unrelated to the bones.

"You shouldn't let your feet spread" was a common caution of shoe salesmen when we were children. Going barefoot in the summer or wearing sandals was then viewed as a sure way to ruin your feet. Shoes were thought to hold your feet in the way they were supposed to be but that belief should have gone out with the conviction that cigarette smoking was good for your health. Just take a look at babies feet; look at pictures or statues of Greeks and Romans--feet are supposed to 'spread' like a fan; the toes are supposed to be uncrowded.


A pair of well-preserved, high-fashion ancient Egyptian sandals.

Historical Perspective

Aside from my biases based on personal experiences, these have to be myths as highly protective footwear is a recent invention. Our species managed without shoes and boots for most of its existence and was able to run, jump, scramble up and down the mountains, and ford rivers without technical or any footwear for tens of thousands of years. Sherpa's of the Himalayas were noted for the protective, insulating calluses' on their feet and being barefoot above the snowline. Until into the 20th century, most of the world's population was barefoot all the time. 

Remnants in the West remain of sandals from the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans and in the East there are finds of similar, minimalist designs. Interestingly, in each culture high-fashion sandals denoting social status go back as far as the earliest functional footwear.

Pointy toes were all the rage with the Egyptian elite and in the Middle Ages pointed shoes became so extreme and dangerous to wear that laws were passed to contain the hazards. And as many of you know, the added comfort of having different shapes for the left and right foot was a relatively recent invention for Europeans. The propensity in status shoe design to make footwear into eye-catching contraptions seems to have been there from the beginning, with little attention to comfort or function.

For thousands of years the functional footwear was spare--just enough to protect the sole of the foot and not the toes or the ankles. Bark, grass, leaves, vines, or palms were the usual materials and open toed-designs were the standard for even the wide-ranging Roman solider. Moccasins in colder climates also didn't add rigidity, support, or much protection but instead were coverings to contain warmth, as in the Bronze Age Ice Man's (Ítzi) leather moccasins stuffed with straw.

These Roman, blown-glass flip-flops were funerary items.

A thirty-something mountain guide on one of our Dolomites Via Ferrata outings (who didn't wear boots) commented that his grandfather, who was a farmer, only wore shoes to church on Sunday and not to work in his mountain fields. He also commented that he would have permitted me to be in his climbing group wearing sandals, which was a breath of fresh air--we had bought boots specifically to appease the mountain guides.


The Wind, The Rain, The Snow, The Cold....

Yes, I wear my sandals through it all. Gore-Tex socks are the key to keeping my feet dry in any season in sandals. They are designed to be worn with socks inside shoes or boots and I slip mine inside my sandals. Wool socks; wool felt insoles; and rarely, single-use, chemical 'toe-warmers all help to keep my feet warm in the rain or snow. And every couple of years I need better grip in snow so I strap on traction devices designed to be worn with shoes or boots. I carry a pair of mini-crampons with me overseas and at home in the States I have those plus another style of traction device to choose from.

When I became a sandal wearer out of painful necessity, I discovered that in dry, cold weather my feet were actually warmer in sandals than in shoes, for 2 reasons. The first had to do with having sweaty feet. Shoes or boots would trap the moisture, accelerating the chill I felt on my feet. By wearing sandals my socks had a chance to dry out while still on my feet so my feet didn't get as cold. In addition, with sandals I could put on more layers of socks on my "Fred Flintstone" feet than I could comfortably stuff inside shoes, which also helped keep my feet warmer.

In addition to Gore-Tex socks, I also enjoy some wind socks. They are actually sold as waterproof cycling booties to be worn inside shoes, but they don't come close to being waterproof. They are however a welcome lightweight wind block for the colder days when 2 pairs of socks aren't enough.

The one hazard of wearing sandals that I do fret about is being bitten by a venomous snake. I'm a world-class worrier and that does bother me. In the Dolomites where we do the majority of our hiking it isn't a concern as the nature of the terrain makes snakes highly visible, so they aren't where we put our feet. It is on grassier paths that I feel most vulnerable. So, I keep my eyes open and calm myself with the results from my research that concludes that in the western world the highest risk of snake bites is among drunk young males taunting snakes.


Traveling: Keeping It Simple 

Being a sandal-only wearer has its advantages when it comes to packing a suitcase, or a pannier. Hiking boots, water sport shoes, beach walking, an evening out--whatever the occasion, I pull out the same pair of black sandals and a pair of black socks. Hardly the height of fashion, but it saves weight and bulk when packing to have one pair of 'shoes' to do it all. The only functional drawback is when the sandal straps get wet--they take hours to dry so I may have to wear my Gore socks to keep my fabric socks from getting soggy from the sandal straps.

I used to happily wear Tevas but was nudged into Chacos and there is no going back. The Chacos are heavy (almost 2 lbs for a pair) and expensive (close to $100) but they are more durable than the Tevas. I wear out a pair of Chacos in a year but I wear them hard. They have a bit of arch support and a touch of forefront arch support, both of which add to their all-day comfort.

I carry a pair of flip-flops for ease of use in overseas bathrooms that often have wet floors. I could get by with just my sandals but I like to let my feet completely decompress by wearing flip-flops as it keeps my bunions at bay. And for cycling, I wear Shimano cycling sandals with Frog cleats inserted in the soles. They are intended to be walking-around sandals but the concave shape of the sole is unhelpful for my neuromas--a nerve problem.

A Trick for Fitting Shoes

From time to time I dream about wearing shoes. It would be fun to have something cute on my feet again, it would be a treat to have some variety in my footwear, but it's just not an option for me. The good news is that wearing sandals makes it easy for me not to squish my feet, which is almost impossible not to do in shoes. Shoes aren't patterned after feet, though feet become shaped by shoes with some bad consequences.

A simple way to give yourself a reality-check about the fit of your shoes is to stand barefooted on a piece of paper and draw around your foot. Step away and cut-out this pattern of your foot. Now go to your closet and pull out the insoles of some of your shoes. If you are like most people, all of the insoles are significantly more narrow than your foot pattern.

This is a handy bit of validation if you've been tempted to pitch a pair of shoes because they hurt your feet but you just can't do it. Of course the uppers, the arch support, and the fit of the heel may be causing other problems, but having a foot-pattern is a good way to judge the width of shoes.

When Bill was buying a pair of 'approach shoes' in Spain for hiking in 2008, he used a variation on this trick. He, like most of us, found himself confused between the feeling of what was comfortable and of what was familiar. For most people, "familiar" is having your foot compressed. For him, a too-tight fit gave him the misleading signal that the shoe was holding his foot securely when in reality it was unhelpfully compressing it. Whipping out the insole of his finalist shoes and standing on them was second-best to comparing them with a paper pattern. Comparing the shape of his foot to that of the insole by standing on the insoles in the store helped him select a pair of shoes he was still happy with months later.


Challenging Beliefs

One of the opportunities created by radically changing our lifestyle and becoming cyclotourists without a schedule was to break away from old habits and challenge old beliefs. And indeed, we've radically changed our relationship to things like stress and anxiety once we realized that we were so habituated to them that we created them ourselves. However, other biases, like mine about footwear, have only been reinforced by having broader experiences in the world. Regardless of the outcome, it is a fascinating journey to be nudged into reexamining so many aspects of our lives that we took for granted in the past.


For  more details on bunions, neuromas, and forefoot verus, click on "What, How, & Why."  From there, go to "Wellness Issues" and look for the "Cycling Injuries." About half way through this file you'll find a discussion of  "Cycling & Feet". More recently, I've added "Hiking Barefoot" and "Minimalist Footwear", with "Minimalist Footwear II" in the works.


Other Favorite Footwear Photos From Our Travels


Ancient Egyptian flip-flops displayed in Vienna (about 450 bce).

Modern renditions of ancient Roman shoes at Wels, Austria.


"Hipposandalen" Roman horse crampons (Innsbruck, Austria).


Reproductions of ancient Celtic shoes (pre-Roman) at Mitterkirchen, Austria.


15th c German Gothic armor in Vienna: these toe extensions were solely

 for fashion & had to be removed for the wearer to walk.


Wooden Tyrolean shoe with rubber cleats from Austria.


A committed minimalist: fearless in her Chacos.


Our wardrobe of Vibram soled, increasingly minimalist shoes: Chaco sandals, Vibram

5 Fingers KSOs, & 4mm thick huaraches from www.invisibleshoe.com.



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