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Heading back after hiking barefoot to the Austrian summit.

Minimalist Footwear II: Our Quest for Huaraches   (2010)



Barefooting is our goal, but it looks like it's not achievable in this lifetime. It feels like we started too late for our feet to make all of the needed changes to be fulltime barefooters and neither our lifestyle nor preferred climates make barefooting easy. But we are absolutely sold on the health benefits to our feet and legs of shedding our shoes and keep pushing to get as close to achieving that goal as possible. 

Fifteen hours of barefoot hiking in 2009 and over 100 hours of hiking and climbing in Vibram 5 Fingers, plus some barefooting, in the summer of 2010 whetted our appetites for more. The next step would be taking a spin in home made Vibram huaraches from www.invisibleshoe.com. We stumbled upon the site when roaming the internet in search of more 'intermediate solutions' and these minimalist shoes intended for running lived-up to the slogan of being the closest thing to barefooting as you can get.


Delayed Gratification vs Logistical Issues

We discovered the Invisible Shoe website in late August and made a few feeble attempts to buy the needed materials in Austria without success. Luckily we discovered that the huarache company's owner, Steven Sashen, would mail his kits, or custom made shoes, overseas for little more than the domestic shipping cost. All we had to do was make reservations at a business class hotel that would receive and hold the package for us without any fuss and gamble that we and the package arrived on time.  Vienna was in our sights and since we'd always had good experiences with the Austrian Post, we set our plan in motion in early September for a late September delivery.


Assembling The Tools

Our anticipation was high and we began preparing for our new minimalist shoes weeks in advance. Were we at home, there would be little to do, but we were on bikes in Europe. Lidl, my favorite discount overseas grocery store, had oversized shears heaped in a bin one day for the rock bottom price of 2 ($2.70) and I grabbed a pair. Heavy and a liability to carry for weeks in my waterproof pannier (a puncture risk) I none the less was thrilled to truncate hunting for suitable shears as there was no way our tiny pair of folding scissors would cut through the Vibram material.  Paste board from a pasta box and tracing-paper-like cooking paper leftovers at our apartment in Mayrhofen would suffice for making our sole patterns.

A leather punch, or the services of a leather craftsman, was the final obstacle to making our huaraches. We had hoped to buy a leather punch at a 'big box' home improvement center on the way into Vienna but none presented itself on our sequestered river bike route. "Plan B" was to carry our freshly cut Vibram soles with us in Vienna and look both for a hardware store and a shoe repair shop. We'd either buy the tool or the service, which ever we found first.

Supplies to transform our huarache kits into minimalist shoes.

Amazingly, our first business day out on the streets of Vienna we found a punch at a tiny hardware store for about 20% less that the punch I'd priced at a mega store weeks before. I'd decided I carry the 2 shears for weeks but arbitrarily drew the line at doubling the extra weight by buying the punch early. (After being used, the shears would be left behind as a token gift to hotel housekeeping and the more expensive "Made in Austria" punch would fly home with us.)

Cycling on part of Austria's river routes was so easy that we arrived in Vienna 5 days in advance of our hotel reservations. Those reservations were made later in September than we preferred because that was when the highly volatile hotel prices dropped, so we knew we wouldn't be checking in early. In hopes that the Post had already delivered the package to our hotel, we made a 3 hour detour through Vienna to it. The longer-than-expected detour took a chunk out of our day but it paid off:  our package was waiting for us a the front desk.  The much maligned US Postal Service had transported the oversized envelope to Austria in 5 days for $20--we'd allowed 2 weeks--plus our week's stay to receive it. We headed on to Bratislava, Slovakia and a Roman historic site between Bratislava and Vienna to fill the time until our room in Vienna was available.


Production Line

Given that we are both prone to being excessively analytical, we sweated bullets over the few details involved in making our shoes. The irreversible decisions were cutting the Vibram Cherry from the tracing of our of feet and deciding precisely where to punch the 3 holes per sole.

We watched the YouTube videos over and over again when our connection was marginally fast enough; read and reread the written instructions available on the website; debated our separate interpretations of the 2 set of directions; and laughed at the ludicrousness of our seriousness, but hey, that's the way we do things. Besides, we had $65 in materials and shipping costs riding on the decisions and no opportunity for a redo for over 2 months if we blew it. And no one wanted feel like the class dummy upon realizing they'd cut 2 left shoes. Fortunately we both had experience cutting and sewing the garments, so we knew precisely how easy such mistakes were to make.

Our production process occurred as we traveled. Initial foot tracings were made weeks in advance at our tourist apartment in Mayrhofen, Austria. Fine tuning of the patterns and the actual cutting were done in our Bratislava hotel bathroom. The much anticipated hole punching, melting of the cord ends, and the first outings with our finished products all transpired in Vienna.  


Drawing the cutting line on the Vibram cherry.                   The best light for cutting was in the bathroom.


A brief moment of confusion on the cutting room floor.        Using the leather hole punch minutes after buying it.


Safely melting the cord ends in the hotel garage (by our bikes).


Bill's huaraches outside Vienna's Natural History Museum.


Field Testing

To date, we've only been able to test our huaraches on city streets and haven't been able to take them hiking. We are cautiously optimistic about them at this point but clearly see that they aren't for the uninitiated. After a half-dozen wearings, we are both still fiddling with the straps trying to make them completely comfortable. I was able to make my left foot smile after the second major lacing attempt but my right foot toe webbing area is still annoyed with the strap some of the time. Once I get the cords tugged into place, I can comfortably walk for hours at a normal walking speed. Bill however is only comfortable at slower than normal walking speeds. We both still have a ways to go to have completely happy feet in our huaraches.

Like barefooting or wearing Vibram 5 Fingers, "easy-does-it" is an essential strategy. When wearing the huaraches I can sense the advantages I gained from my approximately 150 hours of hiking in the last 12 months wearing either my Vibram 5 Fingers or going barefoot. The feet and leg muscles must make major changes in both strength and flexibility when one stops wearing shoes, plus one's gait must shift from heel striking  to mid- or forefoot striking and those adjustments take time. I feel that much of that 'remodeling' work has been completed in my feet and legs and that my feet are now primarily adapting to the specific challenges of the huaraches. More to follow when we get a chance to hike but for now, biking is our focus.  

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