HomeWhat, How & WhyContact Us

Hiking Barefoot                         (2009)


Unlikely Beginnings

Planting the Seed

The notion of hiking in bare feet was planted in our minds in the spring of 2009 while I was searching for information about the feet of Nepalese Sherpa's. I was writing a piece about footwear, sandals in particular, and I longed for some specific facts about Sherpa's. That was a fruitless search but it did result in me reading excerpts from the book "Barefoot Hiker."

I was intrigued but quickly ruled out the concept of hiking barefoot as being too impractical, as too region-specific. The author spoke of the joys of walking in fallen leaves on forest trails in the eastern US. Images of forest trails in my home area of the Pacific Northwest of the US included cold, wet mud; slugs; snakes; slippery rocks; poison oak; mosquitoes; and thorny bushes. But my yoga background rendered me especially susceptible to his arguments about the benefits to the feet and I read several of the technical arguments to my husband, Bill. What I didn't know then was that Bill was piqued by the idea.

No worse for wear after their barefoot hiking debut.

The Time Was Right 

Months later when we were hiking in the Tyrolean Alps of Austria I made a very causal comment about the particular bit of trail before us as being a good place to hike barefoot. Quite out of character, Bill said "Let's try it." I was dumbfounded as he is generally much more cautious about trying new things than I am and has always been very protective of his feet.

No fool, I didn't wait for a second offer, and we simultaneously plopped down on the sod to remove our footwear: trekking shoes for him; Chaco sandals for me. Part of the fun was doing something scandalous as we were accustomed to being criticized in Europe for not wearing proper hiking boots and now we were barefoot. And even as children, we were both highly discouraged from going barefoot at home. So being a little naughty added to the anticipated delight.

But beyond the matter of breaking social taboos, the experience of feeling our barefeet on the earth was awesome. The occasional pointed rocks were terribly painful, but the dry dirt on the trail was silky-soft and the short-napped, high-elevation grasses were firm but pleasant in their own way.

We unexpectedly inspired this couple to shed their boots too.

We stopped at the junction with the more rocky trail we'd be taking next to re-shod our feet and snap a few photos. While pausing, the pleasure with our 10 minute barefoot hiking adventure was amplified by seeing another couple whom we had passed earlier arrive with their boots slung over their shoulders. The man explained in German and with gestures that they had seen what we were doing and decided to give it a try too. We were blown-away and incredibly pleased that our little walk on the wild side had inspired 2 other people to join in our playfulness. We chuckled the rest of the afternoon, in part because of what we had done and because we had been change-agents for others too.

No Turning Back

Our 10 minute maiden voyage with barefeet on the mountain trail hooked us. A whole new world of possibilities had opened before us and we wondered how and where we would include more barefoot hiking in our lives. After that first experience, we did increasingly longer stints of barefoot walking during our hikes while in that area of the Alps. The amount of time we spent shoeless was dictated more by the terrain and our need to sustain the pace than any unwillingness on the part of our feet. The next day's hike included about three-quarters of an hour of barefoot hiking and after that it jumped up to 2 hours with most subsequent all-day outings being limited to a 2 to 3 hour barefoot segment.

Still smiling after a first bit of barefoot hiking.


A rush of hazards flooded our brains as we took our first barefoot steps in the mountains:
        Bees--yes, I'd been stung by a bee on the sole of my foot when camping and wearing flip-flops
        Ants--just a month before a fire ant had left a 6" welt on my leg that lasted almost a week
        Splinters--who hasn't had splinters

Those were the first threats on the screen and then sharp rocks, broken glass, hookworm and other hazards took their places in the preformed slots in our brains that chanted "You shouldn't be doing this."

But just like in real estate, "location" is everything in barefoot hiking. We were prompted to take our first bared steps at the 8,700' level in the Alps where there were few insects of any kind and being well above tree line, there weren't many plants generating splinter material. Litter was limited to the rare cigarette butt and candy wrapper and we knew hookworm was confined to the tropics and subtropics.

Amazingly, in our first week of barefoot hiking we collectively accumulated over 16 hours of shoeless walking and had no first aid events: not a sliver to pull, no need for a Band-aid, nothing. That remained true even as we ventured shoeless into the lower elevations where insects and opportunities for splinters became more abundant. However some of the skin on the soles of our feet did get an odd roughness, sort of a superficial 'shredded' quality that didn't respond to a pumice stone. The skin didn't hurt or get worse, so we didn't worry about it.

Our injuries were limited to 'dings' or bruising events, either visible or invisible. After padding around in a bit of snow, I stepped into what was probably a patch of glacial quick-sand as the sand under my foot suddenly collapsed several inches and slammed the arch of my foot on to the sharp points of a rock. The tattoo from the painful bruising lasted about 3 weeks. Bill's biggest event was bruising at a ligament attachment point on the outside edge of one foot which was intermittently tender for days.


So many sensations to experience....

Sensory Delights

In our first minutes and days of barefoot hiking, we were mesmerized by the sensations flooding our brains. We were in awe. It was like taking someone to see the ocean or snow for the first time. We couldn't get enough of it.  

At first we reveled in whatever was literally in our path; then we went in search of new sensations. Our adventure on the second day, our first big barefoot outing, was in moor-like turf of close-cropped grasses and sod trails carved by the local sheep. Like on the first day, the powdery-dry dirt patches on the narrow track were delightfully soft and soothed our tentative feet. We quickly discovered that the scratchy quality of the short, dry grasses came from the intermingled lichens and not the grasses themselves.

And the lichens--there were so many to sample. The long, spiny white ones hidden in the grass were coarse and crunchy; the little black curly varieties were a stiff and rough; and the flat, stain-like green and black ones growing on the rocks were almost unnoticed by our feet. Some of the grasses were harsh; others were soft and soothing but on a downhill they could be treacherously slick even when dry. Soggy creek-side mosses were resilient sponges that kindly swathed our soles with water and wriggled in between our toes. There were various types of mud and sand to explore with our soles as well as snow to be rediscovered. Pausing would sometimes reward us with the awareness of a half dozen or more distinct sensations on a single foot. We were enchanted with the sensory experience.  

Snow! Rediscovering the world beneath our feet.

The variability in the temperature of things to walk in and on was a whole subject in itself. The almost black, wet glacial sand next to a patch of snow was surprisingly warm, as was the very shallow water at the edge of a glacial lake. The temperature gradients in the lake water were fun to experience, though not a surprise. Bill was fascinated by the coolness of quartz boulders compared with their adjacent darker rocks. And a weathered plank bridge was noticeably warmer when I crossed it for the second time an hour later than my first crossing.  

And then there were the rocks. Initially we avoided rocks as our first encounters were little sharp bits of gravel on the trail. We'd dodge around them in the dirt path as possible or leave the trail for the turf if they couldn't be avoided. Even the big flat rocks embedded in the sod could be surprisingly harsh. The rocks were all too prickly, all too painful. But rocks were everywhere in these glacial carved mountains and we wanted both to overcome them as obstacles and to be able to enjoy the range of textural experiences they promised. 

Rocks were everywhere at Obergurgl.

After we'd accumulated 20-30 minutes of barefoot hiking experience, our mind-bodies seem to more calmly receive the flood of sensations triggered by rocks. Gradually the number of rock-related sensations  that registered as pain decreased. And by the end of the first week, we were walking on any and all rocks. Sharp, shale-like fragments; rough quartz inclusions on mammoth boulders; prickly gravel and grit on the trails--we could walk on any of it for a while, though some combinations required more care than others to traverse.  It was only when encountering rock-strewn trails on steep descents that we felt a need for the protection of our soles from the repeated sharpness of the stones.

We were flabbergasted to finally understand that much of the sense of pain triggered by the rocks was miscuing or hyper-reactivity in our minds. It was our minds, not our feet, that were terrified. The pricks, the pokes, the harshness were rarely hazards or safety issues for our feet even though our minds were hysterical from the constant stream of sensory information. Clearly the sheltered life of living in shoes had distorted the wisdom of our minds and our minds needed to be re-educated about the real needs of our feet. Only when our brains could more accurately assess the perils presented to our feet would be be able to fully enjoy the broad range of sensations available.


Our Nemesis

The one rock-triggered sensation that didn't move out of the pain range and stayed stuck in a panic response was when a heel pad landed on something sharp. When that happened, the pain message ceased to be useful information and rapidly became a threat to our wellbeing.

We made it to the top, now we had to go back down.

We both suffered from a perilous over-reaction to such heel poking. The uncontrollable reflex in response to this pain was to lift-up the foot so quickly that we tended to lose our balance. Our weight would be unexpectedly thrown on to the other foot that would land on an uninspected surface with such force that we might again reflexively lift the second foot and throw it down again. It triggered the same unhappy dance of someone hopping on hot pavement and sometimes we arched backwards, risking a tumble down what might be a steep slope.

The only thing that saved us from falling in response to this hyper-reactivity of our heels was our walking sticks. When we jerked and stumbled in response to heel pain, we could transfer some of our body weight on to the stick and thereby reduce the force with which we were landing, out of control, on our feet.

Needless to say, we tried hard to avoid this heel pain. We shifted more weight onto the balls of our feet as we walked and looked especially closely for threats to our heels. Since it was impossible to avoid dinging the heels now and then, we hoped that they were getting enough inadvertent training time on the prickly surfaces that they would eventually reprogram to a less hysterical level.

Despite the dozens of times that we were helplessly flung around by the over reactions of our heels, neither of us ever had any visible sign of injury to them. There were no cuts, scratches or even bruises. I however could tell when walking barefoot indoors that I had some tender spots on my heels from the brief jabbing events.


Shifting Paradigms

There were multiple, immediate pleasures in our first minutes of barefoot hiking. The naughty-playfulness we sensed while removing our shoes and socks took us back to our childhoods. The array of sensory experiences once our shoes were off was especially beckoning because as adults it's hard to find novel sensations that can be indulged in for hours. And much more subtle was the sense of connecting with our ancestral past, of realizing that these problems and delights transmitted through our feet to our beings had been an ordinary part of most of the human experience for millennia and yet we had been shielded from them.

In addition to these emotional and sensory responses to our barefoot experience, our brains went wild with the flood of intellectual "ah-ha's" that were presenting themselves with a satisfying clarity. Nothing delights me more than when a handful of seemingly unrelated thoughts coalesce into a single, unified concept and that was what began happening within minutes taking to the turf with our naked feet.

The Pose Running Technique

My slowness in, and soreness from, steep descents when hiking in the Alps had had me looking for remedies on the internet during the late summer and it was a mountain running website that offered the cure I needed. The site authors strongly advocated using the "pose running technique" which has as its central theme abandoning heel striking and instead landing on the forefoot or mid-foot. I immediately began shifting away from heel striking when hiking in sandals and when I took them off and went barefoot, the advice was even more compelling.

Both Bill and I had immediately noticed the hideous pain when a heel came down on a harsh object vs hitting the same object with the ball of the foot. Clearly the padding and mobility of the forefoot was superior in conforming to less than optimal surfaces.  The forefoot was functionally much tougher and more resilient than the heel and we didn't need to be told to walk lightly on those delicate heels. Regardless of the grade or the direction of the slope, when barefoot our natural inclination was to protect the heel by shifting more body weight forward on our feet, just as is recommended in pose running.

This Basel gorilla's feet illustrated Bill's point.

These painful and prompt adaptive experiences had Bill reflecting on evolution. He noted that the opposing thumb and the talents of the human hand are central themes in making us unique but now he is impressed that it is really the human foot that has more significantly differentiated from the feet of primates. The human hand became more refined than our hairier cousins but the human foot diverged even more radically. We gave up the talents of having a thumb on our feet for the stability offered by arches.

"Lift Your Arches"

One of the fundamental instructions in the popular Iyengar school of yoga is "lift your arches" so as to add stability to the foot.  This instruction is in response to the fact that about half of the population pronates, which means we have flat feet and so the inside edge of our foot collapses inwards when we stand or walk. Only about a quarter of all people have a "normal" foot with a substantial but flexible arch, but that is the standard to which the rest of us are held. After years of yoga practice, my arches had become a bit more robust because of my conscious effort both in and out of classes to strengthen the muscles in my feet by lifting my arches. (Arch supports tend to make the arches weaker because the muscles don't have to work.)

My practice of yoga diminished when we became year-round cyclotourists 9 years ago and so too the strength of the muscles in my arches suffered from the lack of daily reminders. But, quite unexpectedly, after my 3rd consecutive day with some barefoot trail walking, my arches were saluting without prompting. I noticed myself standing indoors with those puppies ratcheting upwards on their own. I had to believe that the demands of trail walking and running without protective soles had triggered a defensive response in my feet to lift the arches. 

We weren't alone in being preoccupied by bare feet.

Perhaps it was the forefoot striking, as with the pose running technique, that demanded a more muscular response from the arch muscles. Or perhaps it was the protective tendency to contact the earth with the outside edge of the forefoot and then roll inwards to a more balanced use of the forefoot that extracted additional stabilization from the arches. Regardless of the triggering mechanism, it was stunning that after my 3rd barefoot adventure I had better arch lifting compliance than I had ever had by using my intention. 

It wasn't long and I was wondering if my need for orthotics as a distance runner would have been eliminated by the strengthening actions of barefoot hiking as the orthotics had been to correct my pronation. All of my other foot problems--bunions, neuromas, and forefoot verus--either improved or were less troublesome when I wore loose-fitting sandals rather than shoes. Now it was looking like my pronation had been unnecessarily perpetuated by wearing soles.

That Prickly Green Ball

One of the massage practitioners I rely on had a wicked little green therapy ball with spines on it. He would select just the right spot on the bottom of my foot to place one of those spines and then I'd step on it with all my weight for as long as I could stand it. "Breaking up fascia" is all I remember about why I was enduring the pain. I trusted his judgment and trusted I'd be better for it and complied. But I now suspect that if I'd been a barefoot hiker when I met him, I could have skipped the ball torture.

It struck me one day while hiking barefoot that the pains I felt in my feet probably weren't all because of harsh objects in the environment but were at least in part because of those lumps and bumps on the inside--those knots that the wicked little green ball was to dispatch. Splitting the responsibility for my occasional foot discomfort between what was inside my feet and what was on the outside gave me a more patience for enduring some of the initial sensations when barefoot hiking. It also held the promise of barefoot hiking being a way to eliminate some of those soft tissue troublemakers so that hiking without shoes would be increasingly easier and overall my feet would be healthier.

Not wearing shoes made it easier to be spontaneous.

Rapid Change

One of the most startling aspects of barefoot hiking was how quickly our feet adjusted to the stream of new sensations. We could feel ourselves becoming more comfortable and experiencing less pain by the minute. Our comfort level skyrocketed from one 5-minute interval to the next, so we knew what was changing wasn't in our feet. I couldn't be the skin getting tougher or those fascia knots couldn't be dissolving that fast, only our brains could adapt that quickly.   

Bill kept saying "It's because this is how the feet were designed to function that they are adapting so quickly." We started thinking of the pain as not coming from our feet but from our hysterical brains.

Initially every new sensation on our feet registered as a doomsday event in our brains. But fortunately that was only the superficial knowing of our brains and clearly somewhere deep down inside they knew this was exactly what our feet should be doing. We joked about our brains needing to dredge up old operating manuals from the achieves so that they could figure out how to respond more appropriately.

But regardless of how our brains were managing to adapt, our comfort practically improved by the minute. Gritty, gravely trails that were prickly and painful at the beginning of a barefoot session were quite doable at the end of a session. And amazingly, when we started out the next day, there was no backsliding, no relearning to be done--we started at the comfort and tolerance level that we ended with on the previous day.

In lightning speed, our feet were enjoying the new freedom of not being constrained by fortified platforms. Bill looked down to see his toes curling over the top edge of a slanted boulder he'd placed his foot upon. We both noticed the 'doming' that our forefeet were instinctively doing in response to sharp or irregular surfaces. Our feet quickly got into latching on to tilted rocks in an assortment of creative ways. Bill had suspected that traction with a barefoot should be excellent and we didn't find any deficiencies in their ability to stick to angled rocks or slopes.

Orthopedic No-Shoes

Our paradigm around shoes and boots began shifting 4 years ago when we started hiking in the Alps. We quickly saw that boots were more of a liability than an asset in our hiking venues of well-worn trails, no undergrowth, and few critters. We watched ourselves and others tip and clump around on steep, convoluted trails with stiff, bulky boots. We came to understand that  low-topped, light, and flexible footwear was a superior choice for being quick and sure-footed. And Bill discovered that the teeter-totter response of big, protective boots on narrow projections had him twisting his ankles more often than when in less restrictive sport sandals.

Suddenly we were more capable in rocks.

This already-shifting footwear paradigm tipped cataclysmically when we shed our protective soles altogether and went barefoot. Several years ago we had seen that the much lauded "ankle protection" afforded by boots made ankles weak because the ankles were effectively in a cast. Once barefoot, we could see that protective soles created a comparable disability for the entire foot. In both cases, the protection against the environment was an expensive tradeoff for the diminished strength and flexibility conditioning of the body.

Within minutes of removing our protective soles, our brains rapidly began recalibrating to the flood of new sensations. More slowly, over the hours and days, we could feel the soft tissues deep inside our feet and ankles adapting to the skyrocketing range of movement that was now possible.  Once barefoot on the trails, seemingly every muscle, tendon, ligament, joint, and sheath of fascia was being challenged, being stretched, and being tugged upon. Up, down, crossways, sideways--the constant gyrations of the many little bones in the feet were forcing all of the soft tissues to become contortionists.

One has more footing options when unshod because the space required to plant a naked foot is smaller than needed for a foot 'in a wrapper.' All of the possible foot placements had our feet moving in new angles and the dancing movement in our feet rippled upwards. Our ankles got dragged into changing what they were doing because they had to stretch and strengthen in new ways in response to the antics of the feet. Those sinewy connective tissues leading from my feet to the big calf muscles were stunned and almost felt ready to snap under the strain of the radically new workout. In just a few days of barefooting, the leg muscles above my knees were in a state of shock with all the tugging and twisting that was demanding stabilization of the vulnerable joints from new places.

Daily barefoot hiking for 10 days was like sending my feet and legs to boot camp. None of those tissues knew what had hit them but they clearly understood the need, the opportunity, to become stronger and more flexible. It was exciting to feel our feet were rediscovering their birthright of greater mobility and flexibility. We were mesmerized by imagining the transformation occurring in our feet and by knowing that changes were occurring on a very deep, very fundamental level. It just had to be good for us.

As we picked our way through difficult rocky patches one day, I thought about how many older people I knew that were unhappy with their feet and I certainly had my own challenges. In my 30's I either developed or became aware of 4 different painful 'issues' with my feet and had felt lucky to manage them as well as I had over the years. But not everyone is so lucky and such problems can snowball as one ages. We hoped that this adventure, that this radical experience with our feet, would spare us from some of the pains of aging. Perhaps having our feet reassembled with re-used materials in our late 50's with barefooting would be enough to give us a comforting 'reset' of our feet.

Fearlessly heading out to feel more fully.

Sensitive Feet

Barefoot hiking spawned a string of revelations for both of us but it went even farther for Bill. For Bill, such easy success with barefoot hiking forced him to rewrite part of the script that described who he was. For decades he had been a man with very sensitive feet and yet in a matter of minutes after tromping the trail in bare feet, he could see that his feet were just fine.

Childhood experiences including bad sunburns on the tops of his feet, a huge splinter a doctor had to whack out of his foot; and sprained ankles had conspired to define him as having vulnerable feet. For his entire adult life, he had bowed to their sensitivity and modified his actions in deference to them.

But instantly the relevancy of this history was in shreds. His feet were tough, they were talented, and they liked being free to romp. On our first 3 barefoot hiking days together, Bill always trailed far behind me as he cautiously calculated each foot placement with their needs in mind. On our 4th outing together, Day 6 of our first week, Bill flew up a long rock strewn slope ahead of me. After our second hour on mostly rocks, my mind and body had had enough but Bill was picking up speed. I pressed on because it was 'good for me;' Bill zoomed ahead because he and his feet were having fun.

The quick dispatching of Bill's 'sensitive feet' label underscored again just how much of our sense of our feet and the sensations in our feet were confined to our brains and how little of it had to do with our feet at all. As with so many other aspects of our lives, it's what our minds do with the information that is often more potent than the information itself.

All of these responses: the validation of the pose running technic, the spontaneous lifting of our arches, the high probability that some of our pain was from tissue aberrations inside our feet, the speed with which our minds and feet adapted,  and Bill's erroneous belief that he had sensitive feet all pointed to the same conclusion, which was that going barefoot was a healthy and appropriate thing to do. Plus it was fun, it felt good, and our feet were astoundingly unscathed by the experience.


Cross Training

My biggest disappointment with barefooting was discovering that my years of occasionally walking outdoors in flip-flops and going barefoot indoors did little to prepare my brain or my feet for the challenges of hiking barefoot. It seems that it is the challenges of all the rough and uneven surfaces and the flood of sensory input that is required to keep the feet at their peak capabilities. This realization furthered my belief that barefoot hiking was the right thing to do, that it was what our feet needed to be doing, for us to have optimal health.

Summiting shoeless & smiling.

Even though we were in raptures over our new experiences with our feet, I don't see us becoming fulltime barefooters. Instead, barefoot hiking is more likely to be an additional sport with which we cross-train, like rock climbing. It's a wonderful addition to our activities list as 'barefooting' makes us lighter and quicker on our feet when we put our shoes back on and undoubtedly contributes to the overall health and comfort of our feet by making them stronger and more flexible.

I imagine that each summer we'll look for great bare-footing venues as we enjoy several weeks of hiking in the mountains. I suspect we'll be quicker to take off our shoes during our lunch breaks on cyclotouring days--something we usually only do when it's very hot. And we'll be less reluctant to walk around barefoot during a picnic lunch when we need to fetch a forgotten item from the bikes.  To avoid parasitic and other  nasty diseases, we probably won't go barefoot in subtropical or tropical regions.

By necessity I only wear sandals, not shoes or boots, but barefoot hiking is sure to inform Bill when making future shoe purchases. He will likely be more insistent about having a flexible sole and will likely look for shoes with more 'road feel' than ever before.



As the weeks rolled by after our first barefooting experience, I continued to look for a light footwear solution that would challenge the strength and flexibility of my feet but give them some protection from the cold, the wet, and sharp or slimy things. My best hope was for using leather moccasins but online research indicated that they have poor durability on sharp surfaces and are slippery when wet. Finally, we found what we were looking for, Vibram's "Five Fingers" 'shoes' that have separate pockets for each toe.

We both tried on the Vibram product at a sports shop in Austria and immediately longed to have a pair. The very thin, very flexible Vibram soles and the independent action of the toes would give us just enough protection without compromising the foot flexibility we longed for. We would lose the more subtle sensations afforded by having our skin on the earth, but these slipper-like shoes would both be easy to slip off and to carry when the surfaces were less harsh. The European price was about double what we'd pay if we waited 'til we got home and we couldn't locate the style we wanted in Austria anyway. Patience was the prudent approach and we'll look forward to buying these light weight, flexible soled slippers when we return home. We anticipate that they will quickly become a favorite hiking shoe for both of us. You can take a look at them at www.vibramfivefingers.com.


HomeWhat, How & WhyContact Us