I could regurgitate all the benefits of barefoot shoes that you can find in hundreds of locations around the web but there’s little information about hiking and backpacking in barefoot shoes. Barefoot shoe wearers are a small group and therefore those that backpack in that group would be a very tiny group. I will include a couple of links to other like-minded individuals at the bottom of this article.
What are Barefoot Shoes
As I mentioned in my Cypher Glove review, I have been wearing barefoot shoes for just about two years and that includes when backpacking and hiking. To be considered a barefoot shoe the shoe must have a very minimal sole to allow your foot to feel the surface below, a wide toe box to allow your toes to splay out naturally as you walk, and a “zero drop” so that the heel is at the same height as the ball of the foot. Oh, and obviously minimal support. The main point is to provide some degree of protection while allowing the foot to move freely as if it was not shod.
My Concerns and Trail Experience
The first and biggest question I had when considering wearing barefoot shoes while backpacking was comfort and foot fatigue. With the thinner soles everything that is stepped on is transferred to the foot with little buffer. Trails are full of rocks, roots, stones, sticks, and other natural debris that could lead to a very sore foot. The Appalachian Trail section hike was my longest to date in barefoot shoes and probably the roughest conditions. Three of the days the trail was covered in acorns. Picture Wile E. Coyote covering the road in Acme marbles to catch the road runner, that was trail. There were also many sections covered with small rocks, which incidentally are harder to walk on the acorns. Acorns after all are uniform in size. I would be lying if I said my feet did not get sore but the truth is they were no more sore than when I used to wear heavy boots or more traditional trail runners.
I have been nursing a bone spur for about 9 months. Given this and the fact that barefoot shoes require increased activation of foot muscles I was concerned with foot fatigue. If you read the trip report you will know that I pulled out about 60 miles short of my 90 mile goal. The feet held up fine during this trip with no more issues than a typical day at home. With that said, I must have been favoring the left side slightly as the ankle became very sore by day 4. Despite this problem I would not hesitate to wear barefoot shoes on an extended trip in the future. My belief is that the pain was a direct result of hiking on an injured foot and not the shoes I was wearing.
One thing I did notice while hiking barefoot shoes is my gait naturally changed with the terrain. I naturally found myself landing on the balls of my feet when descending hills. I do not recall this being true with traditional shoes. This is significant because it reduces impact on your knees and back. Imagine jumping and landing with your full weight on the heel . Where is all that force going? Directly up your rigid leg bones to your knees, hips and finally your back. Now imagine landing on the balls of your foot first. Your feet will absorb much of the shock rather than having it transferred directly up the body.
What I’m wearing
The current shoes I wear for backpacking are Vivobarefoot Breatho Trail running shoes. I believe these are out of production now but if you can find a pair they are great hiking shoes. The upper is made from lightweight material and dries quickly. This was my deciding factor when choosing these shoes and I’m not disappointed. The lugs on the bottom of the shoe are deep but soft. I’ve hiked in the rain and snow in these shoes and find they have great traction. I’m not intending to write a review of these shoes but felt it provides some background to the above comments.
Let’s talk about the foot injury. You can tell by the post you’re reading and this one that I’m a fan of barefoot shoes. I’m going to be honest here, my foot injury occurred while wearing barefoot shoes but in my opinion it was not the fault of the shoes. A couple of things came together. First trying to run with my daughter and not adjusting my gait started a mild case of Plantar Fasciitis. I then added an additional heel injury by jumping while sprinting and landing directly on my heel. I then ignored the pain for about eight months allowing the bone spur to develop. I blame the entire issue on myself for not adjusting my running, not strengthening my feet and ankles prior to running, and ignoring what the body was telling me. Everything I read said I needed to transition to barefoot shoes but I thought I was better than that and am paying the price now.
In closing, I will not hesitate to backpack on any trip wearing barefoot shoes, or in the winter, barefoot boots. Fifty seven miles in four and a half days prove to me that this is a viable option. The comfort and proper back alignment are too much to give up. The tiredness and sore feet are no worse than tradition trail running shoes.
Barefoot Jake hikes the Olympic Mountains in Vibram Five Fingers.
The Tougas family just finished through hiking the Appalachian Trail in barefoot and minimalist shoes.
Here is a good two part article by Barefoot Jake on Brain Green’s backpacking blog.
Photo Credit: David Pettersson “Acorns”