Every avid hiker has at one point wondered, "can you go hiking barefoot?". In short, the answer is yes. But there's much more to it than a simple yes or no answer.
There's something about hiking barefoot that just feels right. Maybe it's the sense of freedom and connection with nature, or maybe it's the fact that you can feel every pebble and blade of grass under your feet.
Whatever the reason, more and more people are hiking barefoot these days. But is hiking barefoot really a good idea? In this article, we'll take a look at the pros and cons of hiking barefoot and help you decide if it's right for you.
Benefits of hiking barefoot
To some, hiking barefoot sounds painful and downright dangerous. However, it goes without saying that there are some benefits to barefoot hiking. Some benefits of hiking barefoot include:
Increased Sensory Input
Hiking barefoot helps increase your sensory input. Sensory input is very useful when it comes to your brain helping you avoid danger. When you hike barefoot, you get a much greater sense of what's going on under your feet. This can be helpful for avoiding potential hazards, such as sharp rocks or roots. It can also make hiking more fun and interesting.
Having increased sensory input is also helpful for improving your environmental awareness and reflexes. With improved awareness and reflex response, you can get better at avoiding potential hazards on trails and even in your everyday life.
Improved Balance and Proprioception
Balance is one of the more difficult aspects for new barefoot hikers. For most of our lives, we've become conditioned to wearing shoes, which add protection and balance improvement. Once those shoes are removed, we are instantly more cautious of our footing. Even walking on flat pavement can feel a bit awkward at first. That's because shoes can dull the mechanoreceptors on your soles and foot muscles.
Mechanoreceptors help control your weight distribution, balance, and coordination. Wearing shoes for most of our lives can sort of "trick" our bodies into developing poor habits like heel-striking and distributing our weight to the edge of our feet. Unfortunately, this can lead to an unnatural gait.
Hiking barefoot requires you to use your muscles and joints in a different way than when wearing shoes. Without the added layer of protection and fortified balance, you're left to almost re-learn how to walk with the possible danger of injury. Learning to hike barefoot can lead to improved balance and proprioception (the ability to sense where your body is in space). Additionally, hiking barefoot can help improve your natural gait, too.
When you wear shoes, the muscles in your feet don't get much of a workout. But when you hike barefoot, those muscles have to work hard to keep you stable and navigate obstacles. This can help make your feet stronger and more resistant to injuries. Having stronger feet has its own set of benefits, like improved gait and better balance.
What's more, barefoot hiking toughens the skin on the bottom of your foot (plantar fascia). Developing a stronger plantar fascia can help reduce the risk of developing Plantar Fasciitis, the nemesis of seasoned hikers.
Toughening your feet through barefoot hiking can be tough. Though, if you plan on taking barefoot hikes, the challenge is worth it.
Improves Natural Gait
Hiking barefoot can also help improve your natural gait. When you walk or run in shoes, your heel hits the ground first (heel strike). But when hiking barefoot, your forefoot strikes the ground first, which is more natural and puts less stress on your joints.
As mentioned earlier, shoes deceive your body into an incorrect gait and can cause you to develop poor walking and hiking habits. Improving your natural gait is a great way to improve your balance and overall coordination.
Hiking barefoot also helps improve blood flow and circulation in the feet and lower legs. This can reduce swelling and pain, and help keep your feet healthy. If you've ever worn a pair of snug, new hiking boots, you've probably experienced some of these issues before.
Improved circulation in your legs is essential for an avid hiker. It's also great for your health in general. If you've ever experienced numbness or tingling in your feet on a hike, it could be a sign of poor circulation. There are several health risks that come with poor circulation, so you may want to try going barefoot for a bit.
At the very least, you'll experience a great circulatory benefit to hiking barefoot.
When you wear shoes, your feet strike the ground with a lot of force. This can lead to joint pain and other injuries over time. But when you hike barefoot, your feet land more softly, which reduces impact and helps prevent injuries. That's because your proprioception is improved. Having a better mental awareness that you are hiking barefoot helps you develop a studier, more natural way of walking on a hike.
Less impact also means you likely won't have to deal with much knee pain when hiking.
Cons of Hiking Barefoot
Of course, the benefits of hiking barefoot don't come cost-free. From injury risks to traction issues, there are some downsides to consider before you journey out on a barefoot hike.
Increased Risk of Injury
Without shoes to protect your feet, you're much more likely to get cuts, scrapes, and other injuries. This is especially true if you hike on rough or uneven terrain.
Because most trails are immersed in wilderness, there can be an assortment of dangers. Some of the injury risks of hiking barefoot include:
- Splinters: there's no easy way to say it; splinters suck. And, speaking from experience, nothing is worse than having a large splinter embedded directly into the bottom of your foot. Especially if you're already deep into a hike.
- Cuts: From vegetation to sharp rocks, getting cuts on your feet is no picnic. Not only does it take longer to heal due to everyday use, but it's also just downright annoying.
- Thorns: Much like splinters, thorns can be troublesome and painful. While stepping on a small thorn might be no big deal, stepping on a large thorn can lead to serious damage. Always keep your eyes on the trail.
- Plants: Harmless plants aren't really harmful to your barefoot hike. But hazardous plants like poison oak are. Some people who come into contact with poison oak will likely experience mild issues, but some can develop very serious problems. Always be aware of dangerous plants and try to avoid stepping on plants in general (it's not very nice).
- Insect bites/stings: Bee stings can be painful. What's worse is when they're directly on the bottom of your foot. Hiking barefoot can expose your feet to insects that aren't too welcoming. Be mindful of your footing and avoid any wildlife you come across.
Hiking barefoot can be dangerous on wet or icy surfaces, as your feet will have a hard time gaining traction. While hiking barefoot up a slope or a hill can help develop great muscle control, it can also be dangerous if the soil beneath starts to slide.
You see, having a pair of hiking shoes on is great for traversing sloped terrain, thanks to the grip on the sole. Without that grip, you're left to your natural devices. If you plan on hiking steep trails barefoot, always take it slow and be mindful of your balance.
As mentioned earlier, hiking barefoot can potentially lead to cuts. Bacteria and other germs can thrive in moist environments like hiking trails. If you hike barefoot, there's a greater risk of picking up an infection if you've suffered a cut. In some rare cases, you can pick up a bacterial infection without a cut on your foot. In any case, if you plan to traverse wet areas barefoot, always bring some cleaning wipes along. It's better to be safe and not sorry.
Blisters and Calluses
Naturally, hiking barefoot is going to put a lot of initial wear and tear on your feet. Without the protection of shoes, you're going to experience some friction. This isn't always a bad thing, though. While blisters are a nightmare to deal with, calluses can help strengthen the bottom of your feet and improve your skin's durability. This will lead to easier bare-foot hikes in the future.
How To Start Hiking Barefoot
Now that you've read through the pros and cons of hiking barefoot, what's the best way to get started? It's simple: start slow.
Begin by walking around your house or yard barefoot for short periods of time. Once you've got that down, try hiking on easy trails with plenty of soft surfaces. As your balance improves and your feet get stronger and more resistant to injury, you can gradually increase your terrain variation.
- Start indoors: most people wear socks around the house. Don't be afraid to take them off every now and then. It's a good way to put your mind at ease without the worry of stepping on something sharp. The only downside to this is the potential of wearing down or dirtying your carpet from the oil in your skin.
- Take it slow: don't walk barefoot at your normal pace when on outdoor surfaces. It's going to be a little awkward at first. Take it slow and get used to the feeling and weight distribution of your body. Learn to relax and develop a proper gait.
- Start on soft surfaces: aside from walking barefoot indoors, start off with soft surfaces like grass and soft soil. When you're ready to move up to the pavement, make sure it's smooth and clear of dangers like glass and rocks.
- Stop if you feel new pain: if you feel pinching nerves or sharp pains in your feet, stop and take a break. You've had the luxury of shoes for a long time and it's going to take a while to get used to going barefoot.
Should You Try Barefoot Hiking?
Now that we've learned that you can indeed go hiking barefoot, what's the bottom line? When it comes down to your decision, you should weigh out the pros and cons. Hiking barefoot can be a fun achievement and activity, but can also be nothing more than a vanity accomplishment for some.
Regardless of your decision, it's fun to give hiking barefoot a try at least once. Just be sure you're practicing on the proper terrain. There's nothing worse than an introduction to barefoot hiking on the sharpest, most uneven terrain around.