The Joys of Barefoot Hiking

Take a hike--and leave your boots behind

| July-August 1999

It's an unlikely day for hiking, but this is an unlikely hike. It is early January, a damp 40 degrees; my body is wrapped in three layers, my hands stuffed in gloves, my head amply fleeced. And my feet? Bare, naked as the day I was born.

I am thinking of Tyvek. Not the industrial fabric, but Tyvek the man, the legend. If the rumors are true, Tyvek is the “trail name” of a mysterious character said to have walked the entire Appalachian Trail in bare feet last year. If this is true, then Mr. aka Tyvek put in some 2,160 shoeless miles, earning him the title Sole Man '98 in my book. Tyvek: durable, water-resistant, my trailhead hero.

But I should watch my mouth. Words like hero don't play well in barefooting circles, where simplicity is only natural and machismo is thin on the ground. “Barefooting doesn't have much of a conquistadorial element to it,” says Richard Frazine, the Connecticut-based author of The Barefoot Hiker , published in 1993. “In terms of getting in touch with nature, this is an intensive experience rather than an extensive one.”

Barefooting strikes some people as odd—a telling sign of our disconnection from the earth. We are almost always separated from the soil by at least half an inch of shoe. Bare feet, we've decided, are fine for the Third World, hippies, children who should know better, and the “barefoot and pregnant” on Jerry Springer. The rest of us keep our feet dead to the world.

His book is out of print, but Frazine, a 50-ish self-declared conservative, continues to help others take the path less traveled. Among them is Mike Berrow, who founded the East Bay Barefoot Hikers in San Francisco in 1995. Probably the most successful of the dozen or so such groups in North America, it now boasts a 40-person phone tree; 10 to 15 people show up for hikes once or twice a month. With its mild climate, liberal population, and ready trail access, San Francisco is a barefooting mecca. Still, baring your sole isn't steeped in “radical” tradition, Barrow argues; the angry young barefooter is rare.

“We're not masochists,” he chuckles. “We just like feeling the textures of the ground.”