Barefoot Hiking

2014, May/June Adirondac Adirondoc

I’ll start with a mea culpa. I believe that I mentioned hiking without shoes in an article quite some time ago. My recollection is that I found the practice curious and possibly unsafe, and generally was not too positive. I’ve grown up. While there is still no evidence-based medical literature to guide us, and while I am in no position to endorse the practice, I have come to realize that the folks who practice this may be on to something.

My change of heart came during winter vacations over the past couple of years. Although my favorite “beach” remains Sand Lake in the Five Ponds Wilderness Area, I’ve been frequenting the ocean beaches of the Gulf. Not a fan of typical beach activity, like sunning, building sand castles, or reading trash novels, I started using beach time for running. After a couple of tepid tries, I became hooked. There is simply no better way to have a good run than barefoot on the beach.

First of all, the benefit of the softer impact of a bare foot on sand, compared to a running shoe on concrete, was very noticeable. The differing textures of beach, from soft and dry to smooth and firm, as well as ankle-deep water, provided for very different types of workouts. At first, the experience of running over broken shells was uncomfortable, but I gradually accommodated to this as well. Actually, the feel can be somewhat invigorating.

I have yet to translate this into barefoot running on roads, although many folks do so. Some very elite runners have competed successfully in bare feet: Abebe Bikila in the marathon and Zola Budd in the SK are perhaps the most famous examples. I have a surgical colleague (also a yoga instructor) who regularly trains barefooted, and has completed a couple of marathons in minimalist (“FiveFingers”) shoes. Fans of barefoot running swear that it is much easier on the joints; there is no evidence that injuries are increased by this practice. Although this style is not yet mainstream, barefoot runners rarely get much more than a passing glance these days. The running literature on the barefoot style is sparse and mixed, although few authorities are strongly opposed.

Still, it is quite a jump from jogging on sand to hiking into Panther Gorge. Conventional teaching has always stressed the importance of firm ankle support for safe backcountry travel. Can barefoot hiking possibly be safe or sane?

I increasingly believe that it can. For millennia, of course, our ancestors tromped over all sorts of terrain with little or nothing covering their feet. The evolutionary success of humans surely did not depend upon the development of shoes. There is excellent documentation of societies today in which shoes are not used. Of these, perhaps the most well-known are the Tarahumara of northwestern Mexico. These individuals live in rocky, mountainous country and run ungodly distances either barefooted or with thin homemade coverings over their soles. The human foot is designed to be flexible and adaptable, and probably can conform well to most types of terrain. The environmental impact of the bare foot on fragile Adirondack ground is surely better than that of heavy Vibram-soled boots.

For those not quite ready to shed foot covering completely, there are a host of “minimalist” hiking shoes available. Some “almost barefoot” hikers choose minimalist running footwear such as Vibram FiveFingers. Bottom line: barefoot travel is not for everyone, to be sure, but also not something inherently unsafe. I plan to give it a try on a carefully selected trail this summer, but will be sure to have some good socks and my Asolos in the daypack!

~Tom Welch, MD, is professor and chair of pediatrics at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and an active member of the Wilderness Medical Society. He is a licensed professional guide and a certifying instructor for the Wilderness Education Association, and has guided groups in the Adirondacks, Montana, and Alaska. More information is available at his website and blog:

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Topics: Foot