It’s summer! Days are hot, but the trail is shady and cool. Long days meander slowly into evening. It is the season for hiking and what better way to experience nature than hiking barefoot?
If you’ve only hiked in big, bulky hiking boots, then I’ve got a treat for you. Lose the shoes and experience the trail with your toes. Doing so will completely transform your hiking experience. It’s as if you’ve only seen the forest in black-and-white, but soon it will flood your senses in full color! And don’t worry, it’s completely safe even for the novice if you take just a few common-sense precautions.
Barefoot hiking is one of those quintessential simple pleasures of life. Like all of the other ‘best things in life’ it is free, requires little preparation, and is like a reset button for your soul. For myself and many others, hiking barefoot is therapy. In an utterly unique way it reconnects you to Nature and Nature’s God. In addition to the emotional and psychological benefits of walking shoeless through nature, there are tangible physical benefits, too. Some studies suggest that hiking barefoot boosts the immune system by exposing you to non-pathological soil bacteria. Tannins in fallen leaves give your soles that leathery toughness so essential for comfortably walking barefoot.
Not only is hiking barefoot good for you, it is better for the environment than hiking shod. I can lead a troop of twenty barefoot hikers down a trail and do less damage to the path than a single rambler in ‘hiking boots’. The bare foot leaves almost no trace after passing through a trail, but hiking boots trample plant life and leave deep imprints in the dirt.
If you’d like to try your hand at barefoot hiking, here are some tips to ensure the experience is enjoyable.
· If one exists in your area, consider joining a barefoot hiking group. If no group exists near you, you might want to start one!
· Choose a trail that is smooth and mostly dirt or pine needles. Rocks and roots are fine for those with experience and tough feet but are usually uncomfortable for the tender-footed novice.
· Avoid (or be very careful) crossing streams and rivers. The mountain stream may, ironically, be the only place a shod hiker might remove their shoes, but it happens to be the most dangerous place to do so. Muddy waters hide real hazards like broken glass, shards of metal, and other dangerous litter. I have hiked hundreds of miles barefoot and the only quasi-serious injury I’ve received is from broken glass in a river. My motto: “Don’t Step Down Where You Can’t See The Ground.” Be careful in rivers!
· Trim your toenails. Keeping your toenails short will prevent you from snagging a nail on the trail.
· If you are allergic to poison ivy, you obviously want to avoid the plant. I am allergic to this stuff, but in my experience if I rinse my feet and legs soon after returning home from the trail, then I can avoid breaking out with hives.
· Wear shorts or capris. Keep your feet and ankles free.
· Watch your step and don’t drag your feet. Shuffling your feet on the ground is a good way to get cut or stub your toes.
· Take along some bandages and tweezers. Especially if you are new to barefoot hiking you should expect some cuts and bruises. Rest assured, most injuries can be avoided by simply paying attention, and the more experience you have hiking barefoot the less likely you are to get injured. I must confess, I usually don’t carry these items with me anymore unless I’m leading new barefoot hikers.
· Check for ticks upon your return. In my experience, you are far less likely to pick up ticks when your skin is exposed (bare feet and shorts) than when your skin is hidden away in shoes and long pants, but you still should check yourself.
· Keep hydrated. This has nothing to do with feet per se but is good hiking sense!
I hope you will give barefoot hiking a try. Believe me, it is transformational. J