Barefoot hikers give their boots the boot

| May / June 2006

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.