Life hack

How to start barefoot hiking

And if they’re not used to walking on certain textures and surfaces, they will soon adapt with just a bit if practice.

And forget not that the Earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.

Kahlil Gibran

But Barefoot Hiking?! . . . Sure!

Nothing feels more natural than hiking through nature barefoot.

The toes and soles of our feet have the same sensory capacity as our hands and are meant to sense the surfaces they tread. The many textures and sensations offered by the earth, grass, moss, gravel, mud and other natural surfaces provide a sensory delight for bare feet. Many could not see hiking any other way!

HIKING BAREFOOT causes virtually no trail erosion as a bare foot makes much less of an imprint than a booted foot–offering an environmentally sound choice for hiking.

Videos of barefoot hikers and climbers in action:

    – Climbing barefoot to the top of Mount Elbert (+14,000 feet), Colorado’s highest mountain (2016)
  • “Extreme” Barefoot Hiking – A blissful barefoot hiker hiking Camelback mountain in Arizona while juggling sticks (2014)
  • Happy Barefoot Family – Hiking in Brisbane National Park in Australia (2011)
  • Barefoot Ted McDonald and Barefoot Larry – Climbing Mt. Whitney (2007)
  • Tom Perry– Climbing in rugged mountain terrain (2007)

Above: Video of a barefoot walk and hike at Godolphin House in West Cornwall, England with Dr. Steven Bloor, the barefoot podiatrist (2013)

Blogs and Articles on Barefoot Hiking

How To Start Barefoot Hiking, a brief introduction, WikiHow – (Article and video) Provides helpful step by step advice for one’s first barefoot hike (updated, April 2020).

Barefoot in the park: the joy of walking over rocks and roots, by Ailsa Ross, article in The Guardian. Ross, from Canada, describes her transition to barefoot hiking to better experience her outdoor environment, helping her recognize and appreciate the smaller details underfoot, along with the larger vistas surrounding her (April, 2020)

Barefoot Hiker takes on Wedge – by Joel Barde, in Pique Newsmagazine – The story of Tommy Gaudet, a barefoot hiker from Whistler, BC, who finds that he can hike quicker and better without footwear (Sept., 2019)

Barefoot Hiking Tips & Benefits – All You Need To Know! – by Luna Anderson, in Hiker Track. A comprehensive article on what you need to know (2018)

Barefooting the Great North Walk, One Man’s Journey from Sydney to Newcastle – (Blog account) the personal account of Australian barefoot hiker Jeff Pages (2016)

Barefoot Hiking – by Darren Richardson, article in the Appalachian Voice, (August, 2006)

Barefoot Hiking – by John Harder. An introduction to barefoot hiking, including a list of benefits and considerations for those new to the idea (original date unknown. Periodically updated).

The Art and Sole of Barefoot Hiking,” John Harder’s inspiring article (originally written for Healing Options newspaper, Vermont) in which he relates his transition to barefoot hiking and the benefits he gained (April, 1997)

“General Hiking Considerations,” HikeWNC – An example of a general hiking website that endorses hiking barefoot as a reasonable choice in various environmental circumstances.

Barefoot Hikers Chapters:

If you hike barefoot, or would like to, and would like to head-up your own Barefoot Hikers chapter, please contact us for information and about adding a link to your site on this page.

Interested in trying a barefoot hike? Here’s a Beginner’s Guide.

The Barefoot Hiker

A Book About Bare Feet
by Richard K. Frazine
1993, Ten-Speed Press, ISBN: 0-89815-525-8

Barefoot running has collected quite the following of late—but have you considered going on a barefoot hike anytime soon? While barefoot hiking certainly isn’t for everyone, it can be an experience better than hiking with footwear. Nature lovers will adore the feeling of freedom and closeness to the earth. Fitness lovers will benefit from the added agility, reflex and movement.

If you’re on the proverbial fence, here are some things you can consider before taking off those shoes and hopping down to the ground.

It’s More Eco-Friendly

When you hike with no shoes, you (literally) barely leave a footprint, especially if the ground is soft. Compare a group of hikers in big, sturdy boots or even lighter trail runners. The damage to the trail is far greater in this case than if a group of lightly treading barefooters were traipsing through.?

Better Traction and Cling

Contrary to beliefs that have been around since the inventions of shoes, you’re actually better off barefoot when the trail is slippery, a little muddy or when you’re negotiating uneven terrain like rocks and boulders. Your feet are simply more flexible, clingier and more tactile than your shoes.

It May Be Better for Your Joints

Without shoes, you’re naturally producing a gentler gait and movement than you are with cumbersome hiking boots or even trail shoes.

Anyone Can Try It

Because you can choose the pace and difficulty of the hike you want to do, unless you have some serious injury or condition preventing you from hiking at all, there’s no reason you can’t at least give hiking barefoot a try.

It’s a Sensory Experience

Barefoot hiking is truly a way to feel the earth below you. The sensations from every part of the earth’s surface—leaves, rocks, soil—will leave you with a more full and dynamic hiking experience.

One morning late last summer, I took my then-2-year-old to the nearby playground to run off some of his boundless energy. When we got there, he kept pointing to his heel and saying “Owie!” Upon inspection, he had a cut on his heel and his shoe kept rubbing the raw area with every step. I was generally a “we wear shoes when not in our house or yard” kind of parent, but since we were already there, I removed his shoes and off he went. As I watched, my normally clumsy toddler was gracefully ascending ladders and hurrying up the ramps and steps with ease. He was giggling like a maniac and tried things he normally wouldn’t.

What could have changed in the 24 hours since we had been there last? That’s when it hit me: he wasn’t wearing shoes. He usually slipped around with his shoes on since the equipment was still damp from morning dew. Without his shoes, he was able to grip better and “feel” where he was. After that day, I allowed (and encouraged) my son to go barefoot more often, and I did the same. That also got me wondering: Are there other benefits to going barefoot? And how can you do it safely?

The Benefits of Letting Kids (and Adults) go Barefoot

1. It aides in proper foot development: If a child’s feet are constantly confined (especially in poorly-constructed shoes), they are unable to develop properly. This can cause permanent changes in the structure of the foot and alter the natural gait (or how we walk). As a result, it can create health issues like knee, hip and back problems in extreme cases.
2. It helps strengthen the feet, ankles and lower legs: Greater strength leads to greater agility and less injury. While shoes are great at offering extra stability, this actually interferes with the natural development of ankle and foot stability.
3. It helps a child develop body awareness (also called proprioception): Since our feet carry hundreds of thousands of nerve endings, they are very sensitive. Therefore, being barefoot actually makes us safer and more aware of our surroundings. For example, when my son wears shoes, he can’t feel the differences in ground covering as well. Since he likes to run, this can be an issue as he runs the same on grass or on concrete; but running fast on concrete almost always ends in a fall and some badly scraped knees for him. In contrast, when he runs barefoot, he naturally slows down when the surface turns hard (such as concrete or gravel). This helps prevent a bad fall and injury. In addition, being barefoot allows a child to grip, pivot, balance, etc., since they can feel the shift in the ground below them.

4. Going barefoot can have a “grounding” effect on the body: Though it may sound like a myth, studies have shown that direct contact with the negatively charged earth can balance out the positive charges that build up in our bodies over time. The rubber soles of our shoes prevent this balancing, and the positive charges can continue to increase, which can lead to a myriad of health problems. Emerging research is suggesting that “grounding” or “earthing” may be beneficial in lowering stress, decreasing chronic pain, increasing energy, speeding up healing, etc.
5. It’s fun and delightful for the senses: This is likely the most important point on this list to our little ones, but this can be especially beneficial to young children who are just starting to experience the world around them. Feeling the difference between wet grass, squishy mud, cool sand and rough gravel can teach them about differing textures. It can also be an enlightening experience for their parents, who may not have felt these differing sensations in a long while due to continual shoe-wearing!

How to go Barefoot Safely

The most common question I get when others see my son and me playing or hiking barefoot is, “Isn’t that dangerous? What if there is glass or nails or (fill in the blank with other dangerous objects) on the ground?” Surprisingly, playing and hiking barefoot is quite safe and enjoyable, especially after some practice. My son has gotten more injuries tripping over his clunky hiking boots than when he’s barefoot. Here are a few tips for going barefoot safely to ease both the discomfort of your feet and your mind:

1. Start slow: Little kids tend to adapt quickly to being barefoot, but adults who have worn shoes extensively for most of their life will need to “train” their feet to go barefoot. I made the mistake of starting my “barefoot habit” by going on a one-mile hike barefoot. Since my feet, ankles and calf muscles weren’t used to it, they all ended up very sore and the soles of my feet were screaming at me! I realized that jumping right in without practice was probably not the best choice. To start slow, you can try running around your yard or walking to the mailbox without shoes. You can also allow your kids to kick off their shoes when playing at the playground or running around outside. Over time, the soles of the feet will start to toughen and you can go barefoot for longer periods of time on more variable terrain.
2. Choose familiar places: Whether it be a playground you visit frequently or a favorite trail you hike often, choosing a familiar area that you know has safe terrain can help put your mind at ease. By “safe terrain,” I am referring to areas that are generally free from glass and other “unnatural” materials. For example, there are a few trails we enjoy walking, but due to their proximity to a concert hall, I won’t allow my little dude to go barefoot due to the debris that is frequently left over from concert-goers. However, we frequently walk to and play at the neighborhood playground in our bare feet.
3. Have a backup plan: I feel like, as parents, our lives are constantly filled with backup plans. And backup plans for our backup plans. Barefoot hiking and playing is no different. I always bring shoes for both my little dude and myself when we go barefoot. That way if the ground is hot or there’s glass or dangerous debris, we don’t have to end our fun.

When shoes are necessary: what to look for

While being barefoot is wonderful and has various benefits, sometimes shoes are a necessity, whether due to outside temperature or an unsuitable environment. The keys to a good pair of shoes for kids (and adults too) are flexibility, breathability and natural shape. Shoes that are too structured and rigid can inhibit natural foot growth. Check out this article for more information on what to look for in shoes for young children. It is important to note that children’s feet are constantly growing and even changing shape. It’s a good idea to get sized for both foot length and width (since many children actually have wide feet). Even as adults, our feet can change (anyone else go up a size after pregnancy?), so we should also get sized. In addition, walking around in shoes before buying them and not settling for a “mostly comfortable” pair is important since everyone’s feet (and every shoe) are different.

What are your thoughts on letting your kids (and yourself) go barefoot? Let us know in the comments below!

EIGHT HUNDRED METRES off the valley floor, blades of rock jut out from the mountainside. A cold wind whips across the ridge, but the ground itself is warm in the evening sunlight. Two dozen Dall sheep gaze down at us as we pick our way across vertically-bedded shale, favouring the soft patches of alpine grass, heather and arctic lupine that line the way. My girlfriend Jessica and I are halfway up Caribou Mountain, a 1,900-metre peak about an hour south of Whitehorse. Neither of us is wearing shoes.

Our climb is an experiment of sorts, a sojourn into the world of barefoot hiking. In Canada and abroad, a subset of hikers has done away with footwear, choosing instead to hit the trails unshod. While the idea sounded painful to me at first — perhaps even dangerous — the more I looked into it, the more I wanted to give it a try.

“We’re made to have a lot of feedback from the ground,” says Richard Frazine, author of an informal guidebook called The Barefoot Hiker. Feet are one of the more sensitive parts of the human body, yet we keep them stuffed inside jackets of leather, canvas and rubber, robbing them of tactile input. By ditching shoes, Frazine says, we reclaim a lost sense.

When I trained for this hike, walking sections of my route home from work barefoot, it didn’t take long for Frazine’s point to sink in. At first, grass tickled and almost everything else hurt; the only real plus was that I could cut right through Ottawa’s Rideau River to shave 10 minutes off the commute. As my feet toughened, though, I started to appreciate the different textures underfoot: concrete sidewalks, asphalt roads and even some gravel walkways, which reminded me a bit of crunching on potato chips.

On Caribou Mountain, Frazine’s point is driven home. The trail up shifts from cool, dark soil in aspen groves, laden with hints of the previous day’s rain, to dry ridges, where warm dust envelops our feet as we step between rounded stones and the occasional rose bush. More than just experiencing a new texture, it’s like I have a stethoscope on each stretch of ground that I cover. I’ve done a lot of hiking, but it’s an entirely new experience.

And apparently, I’m doing myself a favour. A growing stack of scientific literature suggests that modern shoes are behind many foot troubles, from athlete’s foot and corns to joint problems and flat arches, to name just a few. One recent study compared modern feet to those of ancient, unshod humans, finding that before we took to shoes, our feet were much healthier.

It makes sense. We’ve had millions of years to evolve since early humans began walking upright. Given the chance, shouldn’t our feet be able to fend for themselves? This thinking has led to a resurgence of faith in the foot, with companies such as Vibram going so far as to release glovelike shoes to simulate barefoot walking.

Wolf Starchild, who runs a guided trekking company in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario is a firm believer in bare feet. Interested in hiking with various clubs, Starchild got sick of hearing people protest that he’d get hurt and they’d have to carry him out. “I really wanted to prove them wrong,” says Starchild.

So in the summer of 2009, he walked the entire length of Ontario’s Bruce Trail in his bare feet. He was fine. “How many people,” asks Starchid, “can say they walked 850 kilometres in a summer without getting a blister?”

But for Jess and I, pressing farther up the ridge, the shale is starting to hurt. While Starchild, who has done some barefoot mountaineering in British Columbia, might not have any difficulty with the terrain, it’s clear that us tenderfoots have wandered out of our league. We stop for a minute to take in the view — the dunes of the Carcross desert spilling over boreal forest in the valley below; the long, blue arms of Bennett Lake stretching away into the peaks of the Coast Mountains — and then start hobbling downward.

A couple of hours later, back at the car, I gaze up at the ridge and then proudly down at my feet. “That,” I say to Jess, “with these.”

Before we head home, however, I put on socks and shoes. My feet revel in the softness, as though they’re hitting a luxurious bed after a hard day. I take a few steps without worrying about where they’re landing. Then I break into a run, down into a ditch, up the far side and onto an outcrop of jagged rock exposed by the road cut. I launch myself out over the scree below and touch down without incident. For all their shortcomings, shoes suddenly don’t seem so bad.

A barefoot hiking timeline

Barefoot ancestors

Exactly when and why humans began walking upright is still up for debate. The “when” may simply be a matter of making the right discovery: Australopithecus skeletons show that we were on our feet about four million years ago and a scattering of bone fragments found in Kenya’s Tugen Hills suggest that we might have started walking a full two million years before that. The “why” — whether to cross open land, free up hands for tool use or even to balance on thin tree branches to get to the farthest fruit — is still anyone’s guess.

The invention of shoes

The earliest evidence of footwear dates back some 40,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic era. Ancient skeletons found in Tianyuan Cave, China, show thinned foot bones, a characteristic of feet that regularly wore supportive shoes. But the fad may have been slow to catch on. Footprints and skeletons from other sites suggest that humans were predominantly barefoot for at least another 10 or 15 thousand years.

Old soles

The oldest known footwear comes from Oregon, where a collection of intricately woven sandals was found at several Paleoamerican sites. The sandals, crafted from strips of sage bark, date back as far as 10,000 years. Other oldies include an 8,000-year-old woven grass sandal found in Missouri, and the world’s oldest leather shoes, a 5,500-year-old pair of lace-ups preserved under sheep dung in an Armenian cave.

Gods, pharaohs and Greeks

Early civilizations flourished in warm climates, so while footwear was present, it wasn’t essential. Ancient Egyptian art portrays many barefooters: gods, pharaohs and slaves alike. In Greece, around the 5th century BCE, the story was much the same. Powerful armies went largely unshod, as they recruited from populations of barefooted farmers.

The rise of the shoe

Snow, sewage and social expectations likely all led to the rise of the shoe. By the Middle Ages, going unshod was a sign of either extreme poverty or religious piety. Religion was the motivation for at least one notable barefoot hike in 1099, when desperate Crusaders took of their shoes and walked laps around Jerusalem, hoping the city’s walls would fall as Jericho’s had in the Old Testament.

Barefoot back in vogue

The 1960s counter-culture movement brought bare feet back into the public consciousness, and an echo of the trend — recreational barefoot hiking — has more recently started to catch on. Barefoot hikers are making tracks on Canadian trails and several clubs have popped up across the United States. But the real story is in Europe, where dozens of barefoot parks have opened over the past two decades, inviting hikers to tread manicured trails complete with stations where different textures can be explored by hikers’ feet.

When I walk around with bare tootsies, I’m in the safety of my own back yard.

I’m not worried about trail hazards such as:

  • dodging slippery mud puddles
  • scrambling over rough rocky terrain
  • smashing giant banana slugs with my bare toes

Yet there are people who wax poetic about barefoot hiking.

So I’ve done a bit of sleuthing about hiking without footwear.

And I’m ready to share it, if you’re ready to discover why folks do this type of hiking.

Ready, set. let’s go barefootin’!

Nostalgic memories of being
foot loose kids

First off, there is the nostalgia angle.

Remember running around barefooted as a kid?

My feet always toughened up during the first few weeks of summer, and I didn’t think twice about walking on rocky lake bottoms, squishing through mud, picking things up with my dexterous toes, or running down the driveway chasing a ball – all without shoes!

So it makes sense to me to “get back to basics” on some level.

Except for one thing:

I’m still very risk averse as a hiker.

I don’t take chances with my feet during hikes, because there’s no way I’m going to get out of the back country unless I pay for a very expensive helicopter ride in the event of a foot injury.

Love your mother (Earth)

Next reason for hiking boot avoidance?

Sensory deprivation and its consequences.

By that I mean that we encase our feet in socks and shoes for most of our waking adult life.

And we expect the same for our children.

But hiking barefoot literally connects you with the Earth.

  • Why pay for a foot massage when Mother Earth can give you a free one?

And if a banana slug can navigate trail hazards without footwear, so can you.

Defy authority!

And what about defiance?

I use that word in a good way, as in “test the limits”.

  • Throw all rules to the winds and get out on that trail barefooted!
  • Who says I can’t hike in bare feet?? Watch me!

And don’t you just love the sideways glances you get from other hikers when they see your toes?

This motivation could also be wrapped up in re-living your “foot loose and fancy free” days (see above), which might have included a bit of defiance.

More info about barefoot hiking

To get a more well rounded picture of typical barefoot hiking motivations, try these links:

What about you?

If you’re a barefoot hiker yourself, please drop me a line and share your thoughts about what motivates you to get on the trail with nothing on your feet.

And I’ll try not to stare when I meet you on the trail.

Ready to give up your barefoot ways and consider the best hiking boots for your feet?