Most people know that the human body is an extremely complex machine. However, not too many people know that the foot-ankle assembly, as simple as it may look, has thirty-three joints, twenty-six bones, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments. To make things more complex, add the skin of the sole with all the nerve endings and touch receptors that allow us to feel and respond to pain, itch, tickle, cold, hot, smooth, rough, pressure, vibration as we run, walk and jump. Well, it seems that human foot is quite complex too. Actually, the bones in a pair of feet account for a quarter of the 206 bones in the human body. Then, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the soles of the feet are very important for balance (only the inner ear is more important for balance than the sole). The sole with all its mechanoreceptors allows you to fully experience your environment, including the terrain (rough, smooth, sand, dirt, rocks, rushing water), the temperature (hot, warm, cool, cold), and the vegetation coverage (grass, logs, and other plants). That’s one of the reasons why some people prefer to hike barefoot. No doubt, hiking barefoot is different than hiking shod and there are many reasons for this. But what are some of the most important pros, cons, and dangers of barefoot hiking?
Pros of barefoot hiking
Increased balance and coordination
The first and most important thing shoes do is to protect your feet. However, they also dull the mechanoreceptors on your soles and feet muscles. These receptors guide your balance, weight distribution, and coordination. Moreover, shoes also cause unnatural walking gait and deceive you into developing bad habits such as:
- Extensive loading on one edge of the foot
- High-impact heel strike
The weight and cushioning of shoes numbs your feet, cause imbalance, and increase the strain on your ankles, knees, and hips. As a result of this, although the cushioning feels good, it also increases the chance of getting an injury. Barefoot hiking makes your body more responsive to the ground, absorbs impact very efficiently, and increases your balance.
Modern hiking shoes provide good support and protection, which make your feet weak. Moreover, the soles of your shoes insulate you from your walking surface and allow you to jump down whenever you want to, sending shock waves all the way up to your body. This damages your knees, hips, joints, and back over time. Barefoot walking forces you to slow down and step carefully. You just have to watch where you step to avoid potentially harmful object like sharp rocks. You also step naturally reducing the stress on each of the three lower extremity joints and avoiding high-impact heel striking (both are typical for people wearing shoes). The latter wastes energy and turns your leg into a shock producer instead of a shock absorber, which is a prescription for injuries.
Better body awareness
We’ve already mentioned that the soles of your shoes dull the receptors on your soles and feet muscles and insulate you from your walking surface. They block your natural sensitivity, which often leads to injuries. Barefooters, by contrast, pick up specific information about their environment from their feet and gain natural sensory feedback. Skin contact with the surface provides information about the temperature, texture, and structure of the terrain in order to provide protection from the varied forces of walking. Though the foot is less sensitive to touch or temperature than your palms or fingertips, it’s more responsive to pressure because it’s designed to handle safe, fast movement on naturally-formed animal trails.
Elevated heels and increased material under the medial arch provide good support and protection of the foot but also increase the stress on each of the three lower extremity joints and distort the body’s posture. Why is this happening? Elevated heels force more of the body weight onto the metatarsal heads stressing them this way. The result is shortened Achilles tendon and distorted posture.
Potential decrease in plantar fasciitis and foot-related pain
The narrow toe box and medial arch supports of modern shoes lead to misalignment of your toes, which leads to varied angles at push-off (it’s very important to hit the correct angle at push-offs). Moreover, your toes cannot spread as they do when barefoot, so the muscles of your feet don’t get the relaxation they need on a regular basis. In addition, shoe-wearing lowers the flexibility of the fore-foot teaching the feet to be lazy. Plantar fasciitis (an inflammation of the fascia) is a common condition due to stress on the heel and attached tissue. It often affects active people who routinely hike long trails. It’s also common among those aged between 40 and 60, runners, people who regularly spend many hours walking or standing on hard surfaces (construction workers, teachers), and obese people. Fortunately, barefoot walking strengthens the muscles in your feet and decreases the chance of plantar fasciitis.
Hiking barefoot has some benefit in muscle strengthening. Feet and legs gradually become stronger and more flexible, which is their natural state. The problem with wearing shoes is that they support your feet and as a result, the muscles in your feet get weaker (this happens with any part of your body when you support it). Unless you have some foot deformity, your foot doesn’t need to be supported by shoes. Remember that when muscles don’t have to work, they get weaker and more susceptible to injury.
Wet feet dry much more quickly than wet shoes
Wet feet dry much faster than any wet trail-running shoes, waterproof footwear or backpacking boots. What’s more, you needn’t waste time taking off and putting on shoes at stream and river crossings. Wet shoes are not only uncomfortable, but they also smell bad and cause your feet to become waterlogged and wrinkly. Prolonged exposure to moisture damages your skin causing cracks, blisters, and other skin related problems. These can be really painful and may restrict your mobility.
Cons of barefoot hiking
Generally, someone who’s hiking barefoot is slower than a shod person. Most people (especially those with less experience in barefoot hiking) always look at the ground to make sure that they won’t land on anything sharp or spiky that can inflict puncture wounds. Focusing on every single step is not only time-consuming but can also be very stressful and even exhausting for some inexperienced hikers. Certainly, barefoot hiking is slower and requires more attention, which can be annoying.
Another drawback is that your feet may become callused. Calluses form as a result of applying frequent pressure or friction to your feet. They form as a sort of protection from this pressure. However, this protection comes at a price because calluses can be large and painful (duct tape your feet to prevent splitting or cracking of the callus). High levels of activity such as running, dancing, and hiking contribute to developing plantar calluses. Apparently hiking barefoot causes constant friction, which increases the chance of developing calluses. Always try to maintain healthy feet to reduce the likelihood of developing calluses.
You attract too much attention
Keep in mind that hiking barefoot attracts the attention of others and whether want it or not, you’d better be prepared for this. Well, most barefoot hikers aren’t flattered by all the attention the others are giving them. Most of the time, unshod hikers arouse a lot of curiosity among shod hikers but sometimes this curiosity turns into unwanted attention or rarely into a cultural backlash.
Walking barefoot over level surfaces or while ascending is rarely a problem, however, steep downhills (especially those wet grassy paths, scree slopes, and gravel paths) can be a problem because they require extra energy and focus. Using trekking poles or anything else that won’t slide might help to stabilize you. Just be careful and go really slowly on steep descents.
Missing out on views
Spending too much time looking down rather than at the scenery around you can be one of the biggest drawbacks of barefoot hiking. Sometimes, you’re missing out on views because you’re scanning the ground for things that might hurt your feet. This often happens when you don’t know a place very well. So, you’ll have to stop often to take in the views.
You must never forget you are going barefoot
Walking barefoot can be fun but you should always devote a part of your attention to your bare soles to make sure that you don’t step on something dangerous. Shod hikers can be far harder on their body, which can be either good or bad as it allows them to walk faster but can also make them less careful where they put their feet (this can lead to injuries). Barefooters should never forget that there are all sorts of things waiting to injure them.
It takes time to adapt
In the beginning, your feet will be very sensitive to everything. Your feet will need some time to adjust to navigating your environment barefoot. The more often you hike barefoot over new terrain, the tougher your feet will get and the easier the gravel and rocks will be. In general, your feet will get stronger and hurt less over time as they will build the skills and adaptations that are necessary.
Dangers of hiking barefoot
Splinters of glass, thorns, nails, and metal filings pose a threat to your soles. The best way to avoid punctures or at least to limit the depth of objects sticking into your bare feet is to exert less pressure when walking. If an object embeds in your foot, it’ll move deeper and deeper into the skin with each step you make. So, make sure to remove the splinter as soon as you feel it. Use either a safety pin or a pair of tweezers (most multi-tools have tweezers).
Broken toenails, burned soles, cut feet, and stubbed toes are among the most widespread injuries that happen to barefooters. Sharp rocks, broken sticks, pieces of glass and metal can all be dangerous when hiking barefoot. Barefoot hiking places walkers at risk for foot and ankle injuries that can end their hike in an instant.
Beware of dangerous wild animals that may sting or bite. A sting or bite in your foot by scorpions, snakes, ants, spiders, and chiggers, isn’t fun and can ruin your barefoot hiking trip. One solution is to constantly watch the trail and where you step. Unfortunately, this can put you at even greater risk in areas with large animals such as bears, mountain lions, wolves, moose, and wild boars. Too many experienced and inexperienced hikers being too careful with visually choosing a spot for each step remain unaware of their surroundings making them an easy target for animal attacks.
Avoiding some plants such as nettle, thistle, poison ivy, and poison oak should be a priority for barefoot hikers on the trail. These plants can inflict painful wounds such as lacerations, punctures, and other open wounds. For example, spiky plants lacerate your skin and can leave splinters below the skin, while the contact with the oily resin in poison ivy, oak, and sumac can produce a rash.
Tetanus and parasitical infections
The risk of tetanus and parasitical infections is greater for those who walk barefoot. Beware of rusty nails, splinters, and any other objects that can cause puncture wounds to your soles. Such punctures (and even animal scratches) under your skin can provide a breeding ground for the tetanus bacteria. Tetanus (also called lockjaw) is a very dangerous infection that causes death in about 50% of those affected by it. Everyone who spends time outdoors should receive vaccination boosters with tetanus vaccine every 10 years to maintain the antibody levels in his or her blood.
Barefoot hiking is an interesting activity that provides a different and worthwhile experience. Walking barefoot comes with various pros and cons. Your feet are far more capable than most people think but they need time to adapt to the new sensations of barefoot hiking.
Certainly, it’s foolish not to wear shoes in certain conditions as they protect your feet from injury and disfigurement. You just need to find the right balance between hiking barefoot and hiking with shoes. Be smart, know the dangers and how to avoid them, and take advantage of the benefits of barefoot hiking.
Infographic: Barefoot Hiking Pros & Cons