Two shoe salesmen, the old anecdote goes, were scouting for business on a tropical island. The first sent back a message to the home office that went something like this: “No use, boss. Everyone goes barefoot here.” But the second fellow had a different perspective entirely: “Everyone is barefoot — sales potential unlimited!”
In early 21st-century America, a far different shoe-to-foot ratio holds true: Most people own several pairs of shoes, and there’s always a market for selling more. The footwear industry offers shoes for walking, running, dressing up, dressing down, even some for shuffling around the house until it’s time to put on another pair for going somewhere else. But, as the second salesman knew, opportunity isn’t as rare as the ability to recognize it. If we weren’t so fast to lace up, we might see it literally waiting at our feet.
Given the prevalence of shoe stores, footwear fashion and lucrative endorsements by well-heeled athletes, however, the idea that habitual reliance on shoes can actually detract from the pleasures and benefits of walking is enough to stop some people right in their tracks.
“We don’t have any product to sell, and that’s to our disadvantage,” said Richard Frazine, author of The Barefoot Hiker (Ten Speed Press, 1993.) “If we did, perhaps the slogan would be ‘Join us, save the $150, and skip the blisters.’”
Frazine led barefoot hikes on Connecticut’s Mattatuck Trail in the 1980s and ’90s and has been hiking sans shoes since 1970. “Forest trails,” he writes, “are actually much easier on the feet than paved streets, and generally safer than public beaches.”
Organized barefoot hiking groups are active in several states, including California, and at least one shoeless hiking group regularly takes to the trails in the United Kingdom.
Many agree with Frazine’s observation that “going barefoot allows the hiker a deeper, more respectful, and much more rewarding relationship with nature” — but sole-to-earth hiking can be beneficial for more quantifiable reasons, too.
Dr. Irene Davis, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Delaware, conducted controlled experiments measuring impact shock in barefoot and shod runners. She found that, because barefoot runners naturally adopt a fore-foot strike as opposed to the rear-foot strike pattern favored by shod runners, shock to the lower extremities is significantly less in barefoot runners. The shock also decreased in shod runners who adopted a forefoot landing style.
Free from the constraints of shoes, Davis found, musculature in the arches benefits. “When you’re barefoot and you don’t have any support under the arch, especially when you are hiking on uneven terrain, your feet have to work really hard to stabilize you. If you don’t have something underneath supporting it, the foot muscles are going to have to work harder. So I really think that hiking and even just walking barefoot helps to strengthen the muscles of the arch.” In some ways, she says, “We’ve just taught our feet to be lazy.”
That’s something first-time barefoot hikers often discover the next day, especially if they’re used to wearing shoes for most of their walking. Barefoot hiking not only provides exercise for the arches, it also works muscles in the lower extremities in ways that shoes can inhibit. Someone who regularly hikes five miles in boots with no appreciable soreness, for example, might have sore legs or feet the day after hiking two miles barefoot, not unlike the morning-after aches and pains someone would experience early on in a weightlifting program.Barefoot in the East Bay Hills
In the San Francisco area, Mike Berrow has led three- to five-hour hikes several times a year since the mid-1990s. He’s seen only a few people out of hundreds don shoes after starting barefoot.
“It’s like anything new: You have to take the plunge at some point,” Berrow said. “The plunge, in this case, is not really that much of a risk at all. Give it 10 minutes, and you’re likely to get to the point where what the brain might have started out interpreting as a potential for alarm is experienced as something with a potential for pleasure.”
The East Bay group has hiked in 16 different regional parks, with some of the favorites being Oakland’s Redwood Park, Castle Rock Park in Walnut Creek, and Antioch’s Black Diamond Mines.
There are other exercises and activities that can serve a similar purpose. In some parts of Asia, cobblestone pathways are used by unshod walkers to develop and maintain strong feet. They reap the benefits associated with reflexology, defined by Taber’s Medical Dictionary as “a system of massage in which the feet, and sometimes the hands, are massaged for the purpose of attempt ing to favorably influence the other body functions.” In Europe, some “barefoot parks” — pathways with a variety of natural surfaces such as sand, grass, and mulch — have lockers for storing shoes and fountains for washing the feet, according to the Reflexology Research Web site.
Go Healthy, Go Unshod
Shoes have their place, but for optimal foot health, that place shouldn’t always be on the feet.
“Barefoot populations have stronger, healthier, more mobile feet than those that wear shoes. That’s been well-established,” said Dr. Lynn Staheli, referring to various studies comparing feet in shod and unshod cultures. Staheli is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and served as director of orthopedics at Children’s Hospital in Seattle for 15 years. He now spends most of his time working for Global-HELP, an organization that provides low-cost health publications to developing countries. His research on children’s lower extremities revealed that many conditions, such as flexible flat feet and bowlegs, are normal and often resolve without treatment — findings that led to a marked decline in recommendations for corrective shoes.
“All the data shows that barefootedness is good for the feet,” Staheli said. “It’s healthier than going in shoes.” But, he adds, shoes can be useful on hard, flat surfaces, for protection over dangerous ground and for custom or appearances.
Dr. Davis said that for people with pre-existing foot problems, such as collapsed arches, there is definitely a caveat to barefoot hiking, or just going barefoot much at all. Diabetics, for example, are almost always warned against walking without shoes or slippers. Frazine notes that all hikers, shoeless or shod, should keep their tetanus shots up to date — a booster every 10 years or so is the general guideline. Hikers should also know the specifics of particular trails and geographic regions. In the Bay Area, that means avoiding skin contact with trailside poison oak. Though it’s not likely they’ll be needed, barefoot hikers ought to pack a pair of tweezers, just in case.
For most people, barefoot hiking can provide enjoyable sensory feedback, a more direct experience of nature, and a form of exercise that just isn’t possible with even the most expensive shoes. But for those who prefer shoes or need to wear them for medical reasons, it’s important to choose wisely.
“People who select shoes for hiking ought to select them on the basis of what would best simulate going barefoot. They should be lightweight, flexible and allow the foot some mobility and the ability to breathe,” Staheli advised.
That’s good advice for shoe-shopping. Barefoot hikers, on the other hand, are already sold on the real thing — and the price is always right.
Darren Richardson is a writer and copy editor who has joined dozens of outings with the East Bay Barefoot Hikers since the mid-1990s. He is certified in the Original Ingham Method of Reflexology.