In early 21st-century America, most people own several pairs of shoes, and there's always a market for selling more. The footwear industry offers shoes for walking, running, dressing up, dressing down, even for shuffling around the house until it's time to put on another pair of shoes for going somewhere else. Given this, the idea that habitual reliance on shoes can actually detract from the pleasures and benefits of walking is enough to stop some people right in their tracks.
'We don't have any product to sell, and that's to our disadvantage,' says Richard Frazine, author of The Barefoot Hiker (Ten Speed Press, 1993). 'If we did, perhaps the slogan would be 'Join us, save the $150, and skip the blisters.''
Frazine has done his wilderness hiking sans shoes since 1970. In his book, he observes that 'forest trails are actually much easier on bare feet than paved streets, and generally safer than public beaches.'
Barefoot hiking groups are active in several states (see www.barefooters.org/hikers) and other countries. Many of these shoeless trekkers agree with Frazine's observation that 'going barefoot allows the hiker a deeper, more respectful, and much more rewarding relationship with nature' -- but sole-to-earth hiking can be beneficial for more quantifiable reasons, too.
Irene Davis, professor of physical therapy at the University of Delaware, found in experiments that because barefoot runners naturally adopt a forefoot strike as opposed to the rearfoot strike pattern favored by shod runners, shock to the lower extremities is significantly less in barefoot runners. Free from the constraints of shoes, Davis says, muscles in the arches benefit. 'We've just taught our feet to be lazy,' she says.
That's something first-time barefoot hikers often discover the next day, especially if they're used to wearing shoes for most of their walking. Barefoot hiking also works muscles in the lower extremities in ways that shoes can inhibit.
Mike Berrow leads three-to-four-hour barefoot hikes several times a year in regional parks in northern and central California with his group, the East Bay Barefoot Hikers. He's seen only a few people out of hundreds don shoes after starting barefoot. 'It's like anything new: You have to take the plunge at some point,' he says.
In Asia, cobblestone pathways are used by unshod walkers to develop and maintain strong feet and reap the benefits associated with reflexology, a system of hand and foot massage. And in Europe, some 'barefoot parks' -- which have pathways with a variety of natural surfaces such as sand, grass, and mulch -- have lockers for storing shoes and fountains for washing the feet.
'Barefoot populations have stronger, healthier, more mobile feet than those that wear shoes,' says Lynn Staheli, professor emeritus at the University of Washington who was director of orthopedics at Children's Hospital in Seattle for 15 years. His research on children's lower extremities revealed that many conditions, such as flexible flat feet and bowlegs, are normal and often resolve without treatment -- findings that led to a marked decline in recommendations for corrective shoes.
'All the data show that barefootedness is good for the feet,' Staheli says. 'It's healthier than going in shoes.' But, he adds, shoes can be useful on hard, flat surfaces, for protection over dangerous ground, and for custom or appearances. And Davis warns that people with foot problems, such as collapsed arches, probably ought to be cautious about barefoot hiking.
Frazine notes that all hikers, shoeless or shod, should keep their tetanus shots up to date. He also advises hikers to be attuned to the specifics of particular trails and geographic regions. And barefoot hikers ought to pack a pair of tweezers, just in case.
For most people, barefoot hiking can provide enjoyable sensory feedback, a more direct experience of nature, and a form of exercise that just isn't possible with even the most expensive shoes.
Darren Richardson, a writer and editor, has made dozens of barefoot outings since the mid-1990s. From Whole Life Times (March 2006). Subscriptions: $34/yr. (12 issues) from 21225 Pacific Coast Hwy., Suite B, Malibu, CA 90265. The Barefoot Hiker is out of print but can be viewed at http://hometown.aol.com/bhthom/hikertxt.htm.