If you’ve seen people hiking completely barefoot or while wearing minimalist footwear, you may have questions about this interesting and increasingly trendy activity. This article will cover all the essential information about barefoot hiking so that you can decide if this activity is a good fit for you. We’ll go over the benefits, downsides, and potential risks of barefoot hiking and provide some information about using barefoot shoes. We’ll also offer some helpful tips about getting started with barefoot hiking.
Pros of Barefoot Hiking
There are many benefits of barefoot hiking. From reducing foot pain and strengthening your muscles to connecting more deeply with nature, here are some of the top benefits of hiking barefoot.
Strengthening the foot muscles
Did you know that each foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 tendons, ligaments, and muscles? Many of these muscles and tissues get weaker from wearing restrictive, supportive shoes with a lot of cushioning. When you remove the support and cushion, the muscles have to work harder. As a result, wearing a minimalist shoe or hiking completely barefoot requires the muscles to work harder and strengthens them over time. Building strength and resilience in the feet also reduces your risk of injury.
More natural movement and gait
Shoes, especially bulky hiking boots, alter our natural gait and biomechanics. Hiking barefoot allows the body to move more naturally, thereby reducing stress on the joints and improving posture.
Improved coordination and awareness
We have as many as 200,000 nerve endings in each foot, and these receptors relay all sorts of important information to our brains. Footwear, especially boots with a thicker sole, dulls the sensations we feel when hiking and can negatively impact balance and coordination. Hiking barefoot allows for increased sensitivity and better awareness of your body and the terrain, resulting in better weight distribution, maneuverability, and coordination.
Reduced foot and joint pain
Most shoes, especially those with a narrow toe box, prevent the toes from spreading when we walk. This can lead to joint misalignment and chronic foot pain over time. Conventional hiking footwear also tends to encourage heel striking when we walk, which has a high impact and can be stressful on the joints. As a result, hikers with foot pain and conditions like plantar fasciitis (inflammation of soft tissue on the sole of the foot near the heel) and bunions often find that hiking barefoot helps reduce pain.
Reduced risk of blisters and hot spots
Blisters are one of the most common issues hikers face on the trail. By hiking barefoot, you won’t have to worry about getting blisters or hot spots from ill-fitting footwear or excessive moisture inside your hiking boots. While blisters from friction against the ground are possible while hiking barefoot, this is much less common than getting blisters from footwear.
Enhanced experience of the outdoors
From beautiful wilderness views to the smell of spring flowers, hiking awakens many of our senses. Hiking without shoes adds a tactile element since you can clearly feel the earth’s surface under your feet. Whether it’s moss-covered rocks or packed dirt, you’ll get to experience the trail in a new way and will have improved sensory feedback from the ground. As a result, hiking barefoot allows you to connect more deeply with nature and experience your surroundings on another level.
Rejuvenating and grounding effect
Some say that walking barefoot on the earth’s surface realigns your electrical energy and has a therapeutic effect on your body and mind. While there is little scientific research into this phenomenon, some smaller studies suggest walking barefoot can reduce pain and inflammation and boost your mood. People have also reported improvements in stress levels, anxiety, sleep disorders, chronic fatigue, and cardiovascular disease.
Less environmental impact
Bare feet cause less trail erosion than hiking with boots or trail running shoes. In this way, barefoot hiking results in a lower environmental footprint than conventional hiking.
Bare feet dry quicker
Wet feet, socks, and shoes are an unpleasant problem hikers have to deal with on rainy days and in wet climates. Hiking barefoot can help with this problem since bare feet dry significantly faster than trail running shoes and hiking boots.
Cons of Barefoot Hiking
As with nearly all activities, barefoot hiking has several downsides you should be aware of. Here are the major disadvantages of hiking barefoot.
Need to pay more attention to your feet
When hiking barefoot, you need to be more mindful of the terrain. You’ll have to watch more carefully for potential hazards and obstacles than when you’re wearing hiking boots or trail running shoes. This results in more time spent looking at your feet and less time taking in the scenery.
Takes time to adjust
Since most people are used to wearing shoes indoors and out, their feet have become weak and overly sensitive. You may find that barefoot hiking feels very intense, uncomfortable, and even painful at first. You’ll also likely experience muscle soreness and fatigue in your feet and lower legs.
Be patient and give yourself time to adjust while your feet start to get tougher and your muscles get stronger. As your feet get used to the new sensations and demands being placed on them, you’ll likely find barefoot hiking more enjoyable over time.
Can’t move as quickly
Since barefoot hiking requires hikers to pay more attention to the trail, it also means they tend to move slower than hikers wearing shoes. While slowing down can help you experience the hike more fully and feel less focused on the summit or goal, it also has several drawbacks. If you’re in a hurry or want to move quickly on the trail, hiking barefoot will put you at a disadvantage.
Harder to hike with a group
Unless your friends are also on board with the barefoot movement, you may find it challenging to hit the trails with your usual hiking buddies at first. You will likely struggle to hike the same distance you normally would, and your speed will probably be slower than the rest of the group. You can look for a community of barefoot hikers in your area or hike alone while you get used to walking without shoes. You can also see if your friends or partner are willing to take it a little slower so that you can join them on a hike.
Increased attention and questions from others
Since most people wear shoes while hiking, you should prepare to get some unusual looks and stares from others. Whether strangers, friends, or acquaintances, you’ll also likely get a lot of questions about why you decided to ditch your shoes. Some people may just be genuinely curious, while others may disagree with your decision and vocalize this.
Calluses and grimy feet
Some barefoot hikers end up developing rough spots and calluses on the soles of their feet from the constant friction. Other people find that the varied terrain naturally smooths and exfoliates their skin. Since thick calluses can cause cracking, you may need to develop a new foot care routine to keep your feet in good shape.
Typically, a good exfoliant and moisturizer will keep your skin strong, resilient, and healthy. You’ll also likely need to spend more time scrubbing your feet when you get home. Dirt and grime can get wedged into skin cracks and under the toenails while hiking barefoot.
Dangers and Risks to Consider
Although barefoot hiking has many benefits, ditching your footwear comes with dangers and risks that you’ll need to factor into your decision. Below are potential hazards associated with barefoot hiking.
Cuts, scrapes, stubbed toes, and other injuries
A misstep on the trail can have greater consequences when you’re not wearing protective footwear. If you stub your toe on a rock, for example, it can lead to a sprain or broken bone. Your feet may also get cut or scraped by sharp rocks, fallen branches, tree roots, and other natural objects on the trail.
Splinters and other foreign objects
Walking barefoot increases your risk of getting a splinter or having another foreign object stuck in your foot. Keep an eye out for thorns, broken glass, and other sharp objects, and consider putting shoes on to navigate that section of the trail.
Additionally, make sure you have supplies in your first aid kit to remove splinters and other objects from your foot. At a minimum, you should have tweezers, a safety pin or needle, a lighter, rubbing alcohol, gauze pads, and basic first aid supplies to disinfect and cover the wound.
Stings and bites from insects and animals
From bee stings to snake bites, ditching your shoes exposes your feet to some additional dangers from animals on the trail. If you’re in an area with scorpions, venomous snakes, or ticks, you should think twice before hiking without shoes.
Since hiking barefoot requires you to concentrate more on the trail and look down at your feet, you also may be less aware of what’s happening around you. This can put you at greater risk of an unwanted run-in with an animal. Take a look at our Wildlife Safety article to learn how to deal with animal encounters while hiking.
While plants may not seem like they pose much of a threat, certain species can be a nuisance and make hiking barefoot very uncomfortable. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, for example, can cause an itchy blistering rash that lasts up to three weeks. Other hazardous plants include stinging nettles and spiky plants, including thistles, cacti, and thorn bushes.
Parasites, bacterial and fungal infections
Hiking barefoot increases your risk of certain parasites as well as bacterial and fungal infections. Tetanus bacteria is one of the most severe risks since the infection can lead to serious complications and death. Puncture wounds, especially those contaminated with dirt or fecal bacteria, have a higher risk of tetanus transmission. To reduce your risk, stay up to date on your vaccinations and follow good wound care if you get any kind of cut, scrape, or break in the skin.
Walking barefoot on contaminated soil can lead to a hookworm parasite infection. Hookworm is rare in the United States, but areas around the world with warm, moist climates and poor sanitation management tend to have the highest risk. If you’re in an area that matches that description, it may be best to avoid hiking completely barefoot.
Increased susceptibility to cold
Cold conditions are not ideal for barefoot hiking since skipping shoes in the cold can increase your risk of conditions like hypothermia and frostbite. If it’s cold, icy, or snowy in the area where you’re hiking, it’s best to wear shoes and socks to stay warm.
Using Barefoot Shoes
If the benefits of barefoot hiking appeal to you but you are wary of hiking without any protection for your feet, barefoot-style trail running shoes could be a perfect addition to your gear closet. These minimalist shoes can be worn with or without socks and provide many of the same advantages of hiking barefoot without as many risks.
For some, wearing a minimalist or barefoot shoe may be as far as they want to go on their barefoot hiking journey. For others, barefoot hiking shoes are a great way to transition from hiking with traditional footwear to hiking completely barefoot.
What are barefoot shoes?
Barefoot shoes, also called minimalist shoes, are the closest you can get to being barefoot while still wearing shoes. The shoes are designed to facilitate natural movement of the feet and legs and avoid restricting the body. Here are the main characteristics of barefoot shoes.
Zero or low drop
Minimalist shoes usually have a low drop measuring between 0 and 4 millimeters. This means there is little difference in the height of the shoe at the heel and the height of the shoe at the toe. Typically, a lower drop encourages a midfoot strike and requires the Achilles tendon to work more, while a higher drop promotes a heel strike. True barefoot shoes will have zero drop.
Wide toe box
Conventional footwear often features a narrow toe box that does not resemble the natural shape of the foot. Barefoot shoes, on the other hand, have a wide toe box that allows the toes to spread out naturally and improves balance and stability.
No cushioning or support
Barefoot shoes do not have any cushioning or arch support that interferes with the natural movements and muscle engagements in your feet and legs. This characteristic allows the intrinsic foot muscles to engage more and get stronger with time.
Flexible and lightweight
The entire shoe – both the sole and the upper material – should be lightweight and flexible. These features contribute to the “barely there” feeling and restrict the foot’s natural movement as little as possible.
Barefoot shoes have thin soles for maximum sensory feedback from the ground. This quality is essential for improved balance and coordination while hiking.
Should barefoot shoes be worn with or without socks?
Barefoot shoes can be worn with or without socks. The choice is mostly a matter of personal preference and the temperatures you’ll be hiking in, but it also depends on the design of your shoe. Some barefoot shoes are shaped like a glove for the foot and separate the toes. These do not work with conventional socks, but there are specialized toe socks available. Other shoes, like the Ventury ZERO Barefoot Trail Running Shoes, allow the toes to rest together, more like a conventional shoe. This style will work with any kind of sock, but the best socks are lightweight, fast-drying, and form-fitting.
Socks can help prevent blisters and control odors, but they do have a small impact on the sensory feedback you get from the ground. If you decide to wear socks with your barefoot shoes, make sure to choose a high-quality product like Silverlight socks.
Tips for Getting Started with Barefoot Hiking
Now that you know more about barefoot hiking, here are some basic tips for getting started with this exciting activity.
- Start slow and give your feet time to adjust. If you’re not used to being barefoot, it’s best to start with 10-15 minutes of barefoot walking at a time and build up slowly from there.
- Choose a familiar place for your hikes until you feel stronger and more confident. Your backyard, a local park or playground, a beach, or a short hiking trail that you hike on often are great places to start. Try to find varied surfaces so that your feet get used to the different sensations.
- Keep a pair of lightweight trail running shoes or barefoot shoes in your backpack in case you encounter hazards on the trail, such as broken glass or another dangerous obstacle. You can also put your shoes back on if your feet get too tired or sore.
- Consider wearing barefoot shoes first before hiking completely barefoot. This will allow you to train your muscles and get used to the barefoot feeling before exposing your feet to additional risks and dangers associated with not wearing shoes.
- Avoid shuffling your feet close to the ground and try to step straight down. This reduces the risk of cuts, scrapes, and stubbed toes.
- Remain aware of your surroundings, and don’t forget that you’re not wearing shoes.
- Keep the risks and dangers listed above in mind and evaluate whether a particular place is suitable for barefoot hiking before venturing into those areas.
Walking barefoot is more consistent with our evolution as humans and offers a wide range of benefits for the body and mind. If you start slow and remain patient as your feet adapt to the new challenges and sensations, barefoot hiking can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
However, barefoot hiking is not the right choice for everyone and can be dangerous in certain places. In environments with hazards like venomous snakes, cacti, poison ivy, and parasites, barefoot hiking is not a wise choice. Use common sense and avoid hiking without shoes if you’re in an environment where the risks outweigh the benefits.