Unlaced

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.

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