Hiking is fun and great exercise, whether on a regular hiking trail or just out in the woods or wilderness on no trail at all. And doing that without shoes, boots, or any footwear at all is the most natural and environmentally friendly way possible to do it – that is, completely barefoot.
Human feet were designed to walk barefoot on natural terrain
Walking barefoot on natural terrain is what human feet were designed for, and they are still totally efficient and sufficient for that purpose. Though feet may have become soft and weak from a lifetime of shoe wearing, they are not nearly as vulnerable as many people may think, and, like any other part of the body, will become stronger and healthier when allowed to function as nature intended – unencumbered by tight restraints, and exposed to fresh air and sunlight.
Barefoot hiking has been a regular part of my life for many years
I personally have hiked barefoot for many years in several states and a couple of foreign countries. A few years ago I set up a barefoot hiking website and had hoped to get some people interested in hiking barefoot as a group in these beautiful mountains of western North Carolina where I live. I got lots of interest and inquiries, but apparently due to my rather remote location, I was never able to get enough people together for any regular barefoot hiking as a group.
Some of the barefoot hikes I’ve done have been with my shoe-wearing wife or a few family members or with friends who are barefooters that happened to be passing through my area.
Around 2012, a friend, who knew I hiked barefoot, invited me to join a local YMCA hiking group she was in for one of their regularly scheduled hikes. I accepted, and the group was so fascinated that I could easily hike barefoot on the same terrain and at the same speed as they did wearing hiking boots and shoes that they invited me to continue hiking with them in future hikes. I hiked with that group regularly about twice a month until they disbanded as a group about two years later.
If you’ve never hiked barefoot before, condition your feet before starting
If you already go barefoot a lot, your first barefoot hike should be pretty easy. If you never or hardly ever walk around with bare feet, I suggest getting a little practice on your own before starting out for a full barefoot hike.
Start by taking barefoot walks around your neighborhood or in places where the terrain is relatively smooth and free or rocks, twigs and other debris. It’s best that the soles of your feet get a chance to toughen up a little before tackling a regular hiking trail.
When you’re ready for your first barefoot hike, if you’re unsure of whether your feet are up to it, I suggest bringing some footwear with you, something easily slipped on or off – such as flip-flops or other very lightweight sandals.
That’s what I used to do when I started barefoot hiking about 18 years ago. I lived in California at the time, and would drive to a trail with my wife every week or so. Most of the trails there are kind of rocky, so I would hike barefoot for as far as my feet could take it, then I’d put on the flip-flops for the remainder – usually just a few miles. Each time we’d go, I was able to go a little longer on my bare soles before donning the flip-flops.
After a couple of months or so, I found that I really didn’t need the flip-flops at all – except for a few times when the trail was so hot due to the summer sun bearing down.
Hiking barefoot will add a wonderful new sensation to the hiking experience – your sense of touch
Feet are much stronger and tougher than most people think, and you may be surprised at how well you do and how much you really enjoy the new and interesting sensations you experience through the soles of your feet.
Even if you are an experienced shoe/boot-wearing hiker, your main sources of perception while hiking have only been sight and sound. You will now be adding a sense of touch to the experience, and a whole new world in nature will open up to you that you never knew existed.
Here are a few questions and answers about barefoot hiking
- Why would anyone want to hike without wearing any shoes or boots?
Lots of reasons.
Because it’s a good way to exercise the over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments in each foot and ankle that otherwise would lie partially dormant in a hot, constrictive hiking boot or shoe.
Because it gives the feet a chance to get fresh air and sunlight, both of which are needed to be healthy and free of infections.
Because it provides a way to actually feel the earth on which we live and which sustains us.
Because direct contact with the ground is the most respectful to the land on which we are walking, compared to the erosive environmental impact of slogging along in heavy boots or shoes.
But mainly because barefoot hiking is FUN and feels great!
- What should I bring with me when barefoot hiking?
A couple of essentials would include a hiking/walking stick and water to drink. Other items might depend on how long the hike is and other factors; but remember, a hike is not much fun if you’re burdened down with a lot of equipment.
You may want to bring food or a snack, sun block, bug spray, a light rain poncho, a camera, and a small first aid kit. Along with the standard first aid kit, I’d suggest including needle-nose tweezers and a small role of duct tape.
And, you need something to carry these items in, such as a small backpack. You should have nothing in your hands except the hiking/walking stick.
- Should I bring shoes with me in case my feet get too sore?
I would recommend doing that if you’re new at barefooting – as mentioned previously in this article. But I recommend something very minimal and that are easy to carry and slip on and off, such as flip-flops or your favorite type of sandals, not regular shoes and certainly not heavy boots.
Hiking barefoot is supposed to be fun, not painful. So if you’re new to this, “backup footwear” carried with you is always a good idea.
- What if I stub my toe?
This seems to be one of the biggest concerns that shoe wearers have when contemplating going barefoot outside for the first time. But for people who go barefoot regularly, it almost never happens.
Stubbed toes can occur when barefoot hiking if you don’t step properly. Where there are rocks or roots sticking up on a trail (as is the case with most mountain trails), as you walk, always lift the back foot off the ground at a slightly vertical angle for a few inches before bringing it forward for the next step. This is very important to remember, and will help avoid possible stubbed or scraped toes.
Note, this gait – lifting the back foot a little higher than usual – is needed only when there are rocks and roots sticking up throughout the trail that could easily be accidentally hit with one of your toes as you bring your back foot forward.
- What if I step on some broken glass somewhere while hiking?
First, on regular hiking trails, there’s very little chance of any broken glass lying around. So you’re not likely to be stepping on anything like that.
But even if you accidentally stepped barefoot on broken glass, unless it’s a sharp shard sticking straight up, like a broken bottle bottom — which you’d probably see anyway and be able to avoid — pieces of broken glass lying around on the ground or in the street have very little chance of actually cutting your bare foot as long as you don’t shuffle or slide your feet as you walk.
- Aren’t ticks much more likely to get on you if you’re barefoot?
Actually, being barefoot makes you less likely to have problems with ticks. The reason is that any ticks that may be around when hiking in the woods tend to hide in higher branches of bushes and trees and will drop down on a warm body as you walk by or brush against the branches.
The most likely place a tick will land is on your arm or shoulder or in your hair. Bare feet, or even bare legs, are not likely targets of ticks, but even if one were to land there, it would be very easy to notice and brush off, much more so than if you were wearing shoes and socks.
People are quite often advised to wear long pants and boots and tuck the pant legs into the socks so that no skin is visible for the ticks. Not good advice, in my opinion, since ticks, if they get there, would be difficult to notice, and they would quickly crawl under all that clothing and nest in the moist (from sweat) skin.
I’m not saying, of course, that bare feet or legs are immune to all insect bites. It’s just a fact of life, bugs are out there. A good bug spray may be the best prevention, such as Off! Skintastic insect repellent, which can be sprayed directly on the skin.
- I’ve heard that you can catch all kinds of stuff like hookworms if walking barefoot on the ground; is that true?
Not really. The fact is that there a much greater chance of catching or spreading some kind of infection or disease through bare hands than bare feet. Yet there seems to be little or no concern that hands need to be covered and protected. It’s really all a matter of perspective. Bare feet were designed to walk on the ground, and anyone with a normal immune system should have no concern about “catching” anything.
As to hookworms, if you live in the United States or any other developed country that has a modern sewage system, your chances of getting a hookworm infection from walking barefoot are practically zero. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), hookworm infection can be prevented by “not walk[ing] barefoot in areas where hookworm is common and where there may be fecal contamination of the soil…Fecal contamination occurs when people defecate outdoors or use human feces as fertilizer.”
Not only that, EVEN IF you encountered some area that had been used by some person or persons as their outdoor toilet, unless they themselves had been infected with hookworms, and unless they had left the infected feces there less than 3 or 4 weeks ago, there is no way you could get infected. You can read more details on hookworms and bare feet in this article I wrote, “Bare feet are unlikely to get a hookworm infection.”
- If I’m hiking barefoot, won’t other hikers who see me think I’m nuts?
In my experience, other hikers you meet on trails are very friendly and tolerant. Let’s face it, barefoot hiking is kind of unusual. But other hikers’ reactions will likely range from friendly surprise to admiration. I have never encountered a negative reaction from a fellow hiker.
- I have a question not covered above; how can I get the answer?
Just post a comment below this article, and you’ll get an answer.
Here are some tips on barefoot hiking, and going barefoot in general
First, here are some quick facts about going barefoot in general:
- Going barefoot is natural and very healthy. The human foot was designed to function perfectly without the need of “support” or other enhancements.
- There are NO health department rules, regulations, or other laws that require people to wear footwear anywhere, including restaurants.
- There are NO laws requiring shoes or other footwear to be worn while driving, anywhere. Driving barefoot is NOT illegal.
- Bare feet do not pose any more of a liability risk to business owners than ordinary footwear does, and in fact, statistically speaking, there is a much greater likelihood of a footwear related injury that results in a claim or lawsuit.
- Almost all foot ailments are caused or exacerbated by shoes, not prevented by shoes. These include such things as bunions, hammer toes, neuromas, corns, calluses, blisters, athlete’s foot, toenail fungus, plantar warts, and foot odor. You can see more details on foot ailments caused by shoes in my article, “90% of foot ailments are caused or made worse by shoes.”
- So, whether hiking or doing other things, being barefoot is safe, legal, kind to the earth, and FUN! For more detailed information on all aspects of going barefoot, the Society for Barefoot Living is an excellent source of information. The SBL also has a special page dedicated to barefoot hiking.
And here are some specific barefoot hiking tips:
- If the hiking surface is relatively smooth and flat, walk in a normal gait with a gentle initial heel contact (strike) with each step, followed immediately by a roll forward of your weight to the front part of your foot. Don’t allow your feet to kick, shuffle, or drag along the ground.
- If you encounter particularly rough terrain, such as sharp gravel, switch to stepping with the ball of the foot touching down first. I’m not talking about tiptoeing.
As you advance your foot for the next step, point the toes forward, and simply let the ball of your foot come down and make the initial contact with the ground, instead of the heel. Then let the back part (heel) come down.
The front part of the foot (ball) will absorb — kind of form itself over and around — any sharp objects. Or, if it’s too sharp for comfort, you will feel it first before your full weight is down, and therefore be able to adjust your foot position.
- Steep downhill slopes may also be better negotiated with an initial forefoot contact, similar to walking on rough terrain.
- Steep uphill slopes are generally better handled with a flatfooted step, both ball and heel making contact at the same time.
- Where there are rocks or roots sticking up on a trail (as is the case with most mountain trails), as you walk, always lift the back foot off the ground straight up for a few inches before bringing it forward for the next step. This will help avoid possible stubbed or scraped toes.
- As you walk, try to keep the knees as flexible as possible. They serve as great shock absorbers, which is especially helpful on rough or uneven surfaces. If you step on a rock that is a little sharper than you expected, merely letting the knee on that side flex a little more will greatly compensate for any temporary instability or discomfort you may feel. In addition, when going downhill, flexing the knees a little more deeply as you step will add to your stability.
- Always watch the path ahead of you and where you will be stepping a few yards ahead. I’m not talking about looking straight down as you step – that would destroy any hiking enjoyment. Just be aware of the path ahead and look for such things as roots, rocks, or holes.
Lots of other good resources for barefooting or barefoot hiking information are available
For more detailed information on all aspects of going barefoot, the Society for Barefoot Living is an excellent source of information.
Another excellent source of barefooting information is the book The Barefoot Book by Daniel Howell, PhD.
The book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall came out a few years ago and has completely changed the concept of what is the best running shoe, which turns out to be no shoes at all.
And of course, the classic and original book and reference guide for everything you would ever need to know about barefoot hiking, the book The Barefoot Hiker by Richard Frazine. It is also available for reading in its entirety on-line.
To find hiking trails in your area, just do an internet search for ‘hiking trails near me’
As an example of a good hiking trail website, in my local area, there is this one: HIKEWNC
Interesting to note on this website, in sub-section “Area information,” under “General Hiking Considerations,” in the “Footwear” section, this website endorses hiking barefoot as one of the choices hikers can make.