The benefits and joys of going barefoot do not have to be compromised just because the seasons change and the weather starts getting colder.
Barefooting in colder temperatures is quite possible, but challenging
Going barefoot in the cold weather of winter can sometimes be a challenge. One way it’s a challenge is when someone has worn shoes for many years, their feet have gotten used to always being enclosed in a warm covering. So even in relatively mild temperatures, their feet without shoes will probably feel “cold” to them, even inside their home.
The other way it’s a challenge is, even if feet have been acclimatized to handle colder temperatures with relative comfort, extremely low temperatures, such as freezing or sub-freezing, can potentially do physical damage to the feet and toes.
The first situation is simply a matter of allowing your feet to get used to colder temperatures gradually. This is often a matter of determination, that is, if you really want to toughen up your feet so you can be comfortable going barefoot in colder temperatures, you just have to do it as often as you can, especially early in the season before it gets very cold outside. Feet are amazingly adaptable. For example, just because the floor in your home feels cold doesn’t mean you need to put on shoes or socks. Your feet will easily get acclimatized fairly soon to conditions colder than you may be used to if given the chance.
When is it actually too cold for bare feet?
So, when is cold weather extreme enough to be a serious risk to bare feet? The short answer is: when it can quickly damage the feet, usually as a result of frostbite.
With some very rare exceptions that have been reported, human feet were not designed for and cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing (32°F, 0°C). So anyone who must be out in such temperatures will risk serious damage to their bare feet after a period of time.
How much time? No way to answer that, as there are so many factors involved, including of course how low the temperature actually is. There is really no absolute temperature threshold beyond which someone should never be barefoot. It all depends on so many other factors – ground temperature vs. air temperature, wind chill, wet vs. dry, snow on the ground or not, ice on the ground or not, just to name a few that affect how our feet can handle the cold and for how long.
Body extremities will automatically adjust to tolerate colder temperatures
There is also a very interesting phenomenon I’ve observed in myself when outside barefoot in cold weather. What I’ve noticed is that when I first go out into close to freezing temperatures, after an initial “shock,” it does feel really, really cold for a few minutes – seemingly unbearable. But the longer I stay out, my feet seem to make some kind of adjustment to it, and then it doesn’t feel so cold any more. That, for me, is when the feeling in my feet is the most exhilarating. I’m sure that adjustment is partly the numbing effect, but I was thinking there’s probably more to it than that. When I look down at my toes, they will look very pink. Looking pink is a good thing in cold weather. It means the capillaries have expanded to pump in more blood. If the pink goes away and the toes start looking white, that’s not a good thing. It’s the first sign of frostbite setting in.
The Wikipedia article on “Vasodilation” explains how blood vessels will naturally expand (dilate) under certain conditions (thus, the pink toes), and includes the following:
Cold-induced vasodilation (CIVD) occurs after cold exposure, possibly to reduce the risk of injury. It can take place in several locations in the human body but is observed most often in the extremities. The fingers are especially common because they are exposed most often.
When the fingers are exposed to cold, vasoconstriction occurs first to reduce heat loss, resulting in strong cooling of the fingers. Approximately five to ten minutes after the start of the cold exposure of the hand, the blood vessels in the finger tips will suddenly vasodilate. This is probably caused by a sudden decrease in the release of neurotransmitters from the sympathetic nerves to the muscular coat of the arteriovenous anastomoses due to local cold. The CIVD increases blood flow and subsequently the temperature of the fingers…
So, in frigid cold weather, if you give your feet a chance for CIVD to take place, they are going to feel warmer.
Daily activities are also a factor in how much cold weather barefooting you can do
Also, your need for shoes or boots in cold weather depends a lot on what your normal daily activities are – that is, how much time you actually must be outside, and to a certain extent, how much coldness you are personally comfortable with. It’s no different from a decision to wear a coat or not. If it’s winter and cold outside, but you’re inside where it’s warm, there’s no point in wearing a coat. If you’re in a warm place – like a home, a vehicle, or a store, there’s no point in wearing shoes inside of those places even if it’s freezing outside.
For me personally, I manage to remain barefoot all winter, even when the temperatures outside are sub-freezing, which is much of the time here in the high mountain elevations where I live, and we have quite a bit of snow. If I leave the house to take care of chores near the house, I usually am able to do it barefoot, but don’t stay out very long – all depending on the temperature and the snow level, if any. If I leave the house to go shopping or to a doctor appointment or something, I still remain barefoot. That’s because I go from a warm house to a warm car, then to a warm store or other business, then back to the warm car. A few minutes walking across a parking lot barefoot in freezing weather is usually no big deal.
Always be prepared for emergency situations when barefoot in cold weather
In the unusual circumstance of my having to actually walk a long distance in deep snow, in those cases I will put on my rubber boots with wool socks for whatever amount of time I have to be out in it. And I always carry the boots and socks in my car or truck in the winter, in case of an emergency situation where I had to get out and walk a long way in the snow and/or sub-freezing temperatures. That has happened, but it’s very rare.
I would never take any chances of being outside barefoot in sub-freezing temperatures without either a warm house very close by, a warm vehicle very close by, or warm boots and socks very close by. I did get minor frostbite in several toes a few years back; it wasn’t pleasant and took a long, long time for my toes to heal. So I know the dangers, but also know where my limitations are and at what point I need to get my feet warm.
Of course I’m not suggesting that anyone do as I do, but just kind of giving you some guidelines you can think about, and then decide for yourself. I’ve been doing this a long time, including through a lot of very cold and snowy winters.
Here are some other tips for barefooting in cold temperatures
Some other guidelines you might consider, based on my own experiences:
Be aware of what the air temperature is or is expected to be before you go out for any length of time barefoot. You should be OK in temperatures above 32°F (0°C). When it reaches that temperature or below, there is a good possibility of frostbite. But that still depends on lots of other factors, such as the ground temperature (may be very different from the air temperature), wind chill, wetness, etc. Even well below those temperatures, you could be out barefoot – but only for limited amounts of time. When your toes start getting numb, that’s a warning sign that possible frostbite is approaching. When they change from a healthy looking pink color to white, that’s when you need to get them warmed up, immediately.
If temperatures are or you expect them to be below freezing, but expect to only be outside of your home, your car, or a store for only a few minutes, you should be able to remain barefoot the whole time. But NEVER go anywhere in a car or other vehicle expecting your feet to always remain warm and therefore have no need for footwear. An emergency breakdown in sub-freezing temperatures or being stranded in a snowstorm is no place not to have something warm to cover your feet.