The Art and Sole of Barefoot Hiking

A story by John M. Harder

I love to go hiking, or just walking through the woods, in all seasons. Many of us do. But during the last few years, I have been able to add a dimension to my hiking that is so simple, yet so fulfilling. It costs nothing and is easy to do and learn. What I have added to my walks is what I've taken away - the shoes. Barefoot hiking.

As a child, I loved playing outdoors, in the woods, among the trees, in and on the dirt and creeks. I loved running through the grass with my bare feet. It was so cool and soft. In those days, summers went on forever, days lingered into long sunsets, life was simpler, more fun, and carefree.

I would skip through the rain water run-off after a storm, splashing and frolicking. There was a spot where all the rainwater would come rushing down the hill, into a single drain, always overburdening it. I could stand there as water climbed up my legs, trying to push me down, flowing cold over my bare feet on a hot day.

As a child, being barefoot was not a conscious effort, it was a natural response to my carefree world. All of that had been forgotten though. The years had taken it away. Not only that, but it just isn't acceptable, as an adult, to do anything barefoot in public, unless you're at a beach or pool. Somehow, feet took on social meaning similar to the middle finger! They became offensive, rude, unacceptable, irresponsible, and improper.

 Then a few years ago I took a short walk in my bare feet. It wasn't much, just a stroll around a local nature preserve. Actually, it didn't just happen. I was looking for ways to make my life simpler. I was also looking for ways to get closer to the earth, since our culture is geared toward separating us from her.

My first walk was quick. The earth touching the tender soles of my feet was cold and damp. It was early spring and the snows from the long winter had finally given way to the icy rains of March. It was so cold that my feet began to hurt. But I kept on walking. I loved the feel of the moist ground and the slippery packed dirt. Eventually, I had to stop, since my feet began to turn numb. I rinsed my feet in a nearby stream and put my socks and shoes back on.

Even though my first experience was a little uncomfortable, I was hooked. It was as if I had found a lost secret to being outdoors. It was my first time barefoot, just for the sake of being barefoot, since I was a child. But at the time, my feet were much too soft and vulnerable to protect me from anything, including cold mud.

I resolved to try again as soon as the ground got warmer. I couldn't wait! When April came and the earth had warmed up just a bit more, I was out walking the woods barefoot again. And this time, it was pure joy and discovery. Every step gave me the sense of belonging, of being. I touched the earth and she touched me back. We communicated.

I love the feel of a cold stream flowing over my bare feet. How can I describe it? It is cleansing, a baptism of sorts. It is passive, yet powerful. I do nothing but stand; the water does nothing but flow. It plays around the tops of my feet, swirling around my ankles and through my toes. Cold, invigorating, healing. There I stand, water running swiftly over my feet, no boots or shoes to worry about drenching. I can just be. And when I am done, I can continue my walk. No need for drying, no cleaning or stopping to empty a shoe full of water or rinse a sock.

There is such simplicity mirrored in walking with nothing on my feet. There is humility and sanctity. It is a religious exercise. "How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news," the Bible says. To me this speaks of how blessed the instruments which carry the messengers, how sacred they are and how perfect it is that they should touch a mountain.

There is wisdom to be gained by trekking barefoot. It opens a direct channel between the earth with all her wisdom and us with our need for wisdom. All other legged animals in the world walk barefoot. We lose something precious when, for nearly our entire lives, we strap on shields which keep us off, and slightly above, the surface of our sustenance. We don't need that buffer as much as we utilize it.

 It is no wonder we have maladies such as athletes foot, bunions, corns, etc. No wonder feet are known for their odor. We encapsulate our them from morning until night in plastic, leather, rubber and/or canvas, along with an insulating sock or nylon. Day after day, month after month, year after year. If we did the same with our hands, think how much sensory input we'd miss! Or worse, think what they would begin to look and smell like!

I talk about the carefree simplicity of hiking barefoot, but it's not always that simple. One needs to be aware of one's surroundings. It helps to be familiar with the trail, and to keep an eye on the path ahead while enjoying the visual beauty all around. One hike I took in the Adirondack's resulted in a minor injury when I jumped off a rock on to a sharp root without looking first. There is a practical side to consider. Weather doesn't always permit it, trails are sometimes unfit, some people carelessly toss about hazardous litter, or maybe you're considering a hike in scorpion country!

Most of us are familiar with the satisfying feeling of removing our shoes at the end of the day. Imagine having that feeling all day long! If we only let our feet out. If we only let them breath. We wouldn't be cutting ourselves off from the transfer of energy from the mountain, or the grassy field, the shale riverbed, or the sand dune as we do when we put on high-tech, thick rubber and steel soled boots with acrylic socks. It is exactly the metaphor of our time. We separate and insulate ourselves from the earth, and in so doing, separate ourselves from pleasure. And, it's pleasure more sensuous and luxurious by far than the artificial pleasures we pursue. We look to invention for pleasure when it is right under our feet. At some point, we traded in our sense of wonder at the workings and the tactile gifts of the universe for a pair of shoes. We need to reconnect with the wonder, and barefoot hiking is a 'step' in the right direction.

An interesting consequence of my barefoot hiking is that I find myself enjoying walking around town, driving, and visiting my friends barefoot now. I just don't see the need for shoes as much anymore. Ironically, I only put shoes on to go inside! But society still judges it, and store owners still disapprove of it, even if there are no actual regulations or laws against it. And really, who wants to walk into a public restroom barefoot. It is a matter of balance then, not only in what I wear on my feet, but in all areas of my life.

 Special precautions are necessary, a time of adjustment needs to be made, but the resulting joy and freedom make it all worth while. I am convinced that the human foot is not poorly designed, inherently flawed or inadequate. We are not in need of the constant protection, support and technology of shoes. Our feet are, in and of themselves, sufficient to provide for our most modest mobility tasks. I have proven to myself that barefoot hiking is not only safe, but natural and beneficial as well.

Why hike barefoot? Because it is an exercise in reverence, vulnerability and respect in which we humbly admit our dependence on the earth for our very existence. It symbolizes our willingness to open up instead of shut down to the natural world around us. Maybe in this exercise, we will begin to realize our interconnectedness to the whole of life and to each other.

This article originally appeared in the Healing Options newspaper, Bennington, Vermont, April 1997.

Copyright 1997 John M. Harder. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the author's consent.