What is barefoot hiking?
Barefoot hiking can literally mean hiking with bare feet. Why would someone want to do this?
Well, barefoot hiking is one of the best ways to connect with nature and achieve "grounding" that studies have shown can be beneficial in lowering pain and stress while increasing healing and energy levels. As our modern way of life has meant that most of us spend the majority of our time indoors, activities like this that allow us to get closer to nature have become increasingly popular.
However, if you've ever tried to walk barefoot in nature, you know it isn't always a pleasant experience. Whether it is sharp rocks, hot surfaces, glass, or other hazardous material on the growth, your feed usually needs protection.
For this reason, companies have developed "barefoot" hiking shoes that get you as close to a true barefoot experience as possible. Often also called "minimalist" hiking shoes, this style of footwear has a few distinctive characteristics:
Zero drop: Minimalist hiking boots or hiking boots are designed to keep your foot level, just like it would be on the ground. A standard hiking boot will have an elevated heel that alters the dynamics of your stride. A "zero drop" hiking boot will keep your heel the same level off the ground as your toes to promote a natural walking form.
Ground feel: Barefoot hiking shoes also have a much thinner sole than traditional hiking boots. The reason is to allow your feet to have a more natural feel on the surfaces you're walking.
Natural movement: Minimalist footwear features highly flexible soles and a roomy toe box so that your toes and feet can bend and flex as they would if you had bare feet.
The barefoot design also gives you a lightweight shoe since they don't include nearly as much sole material as standard hiking boots.
One of our favorite companies is Xero Shoes, dedicated to creating true barefoot hiking boots, shoes, and sandals. (You can check out their products here.)
Benefits of Barefoot Hiking
Barefoot hiking can encourage proper foot development. Traditional shoes are incredibly confined and hinder natural flexibility and movement for your feet. Hiking barefoot or in minimalist footwear will allow proper development of your feet, which will strengthen your feet and legs and raise proprioception/body awareness in your day-to-day life.
Other benefits can include:
- Increased Muscle Strength: We all know that muscles get stronger through use. A barefoot hiking shoe gives you a wide toe box and thin sole to encourage you to actually use the muscles in your foot. A study found this makes a difference; your feet will get stronger
- Increased Body Awareness: In normal hiking boots, you really don't feel the ground at all, and you lose sensitivity to what's going on with your feet. But our feet have tons of nerve endings and are designed to engage with the world. Barefoot hiking boots give you contact with the ground and restore sensitivity in your feet to their environment.
- Better Posture: Zero drop minimalist hiking boots allow you to stand in a more natural way, which encourages proper posture.
Potential for Decreased Foot Related Injuries: You know that with any part of your body if it is moving more naturally, it is less likely to experience injury
Everything you need to know about Barefoot Shoes
Minimalist hiking shoes come in the same range of styles that normal hiking shoes do. There are three main categories:
Barefoot hiking sandals: These are great for light hiking or wet terrain. They will tend to have a thicker sole than other barefoot sandals, though it will still be thin enough for the flexibility and ground feel characteristic of a barefoot shoe. Some hiking sandals will even include a protective toe cap to enhance safety on the trail.
Barefoot hiking shoes: A minimalist hiking shoe will have the features of a barefoot shoe but be a bit more rugged for rough terrain and the wear and tear of a trail. Some will feature a Vibram outsole for enhanced traction. They can have leather uppers like traditional hiking shoes or sport a warm-weather, breathable mesh upper. The best minimalist hiking shoes will give you that perfect balance of natural movement and foot protection.
Barefoot Hiking Boots: Minimalist boots come up higher on the ankle, and sometimes that's the only difference between a brand's hiking shoe and boot. Hiking boots do, however, tend to be a bit more rugged and offer more support for longer hikes and backpacking.
Barefoot boots have all the features of minimalist shoes but often include insulation to keep your feet warm in cold weather. They are also often waterproof boots, which are great to use in wet weather or when crossing streams.
You might be wondering about trail shoes. Companies don't always use terms consistently; sometimes a trail shoe is basically the same thing as a hiking shoe. Other times, it may indicate a shoe designed specifically for trail running. In either case, barefoot trail shoes can also be a good choice.
For each of these types of shoe, if they are true barefoot shoes, you'll find several features in common (a much thinner sole than a traditional shoe for flexibility and ground feel, a wide toe box, and zero drop).
One other thing you'll notice is that minimalist hiking shoes or boots are the weight. Ordinarily, a pair of hiking boots can be pretty heavy. If you want lightweight hiking shoes or boot, you can't beat minimalist shoes.
You can certainly hike in sandals, and barefoot hiking sandals can be an excellent choice for warmer weather, wet weather, or wet terrain. Even in cooler temperatures, it is possible to wear socks for insulation and greater comfort. For especially rugged terrain and wintery weather, barefoot hikers may want to go with a barefoot hiking boot instead.
Start by thinking about the kinds of hikes you tend to take most often. Do you walk on rocky terrain or smoother ground? Do you tend to hike in hot or cold weather? This will help you decide whether you want a hiking sandal, hiking shoes, or barefoot boots.
As you look at different brands, make sure they offer you true barefoot shoes (with zero drop, flexible soles, and a wider toe box). The best minimalist brands will use high-quality materials for a rugged shoe that will hold up to lots of use. We always think it is a good idea to read customer reviews and talk to other barefoot hikers to find out what they like.
Finally, the best barefoot hiking boots, shoes, or sandals are the ones that feel great on your feet and stand the test of time.
It's best to figure out what you are looking for with your hiking footwear. Typically hikers prefer either a comfortable sandal or boot to protect their feet from the elements and dangers while hiking. This is why we recommend Xero Shoes; no matter your preference, they have you covered. We recommend the TerraFlex or Xcursion for the best overall coverage for any hike.
The best minimalist/barefoot hiking shoes are designed to let you walk in a more natural way with a zero drop footbed. The sole shape also conforms to your foot, providing a wider toe box. Flexible soles let all the parts of your foot move naturally. As we mentioned above, this helps strengthen the muscles of your foot and prevent injuries. It also allows you to feel more in contact with your environment as you hike. Minimalist shoes may also encourage proper posture.
Traditional hiking boots will have a thick sole that flexes very little. Instead of encouraging you to use the muscles of your foot, they allow them to remain stationary. They are also much heavier than barefoot hiking boots that simply have less shoe. When you are on a long hike, you don't want to carry any more weight than you have to.
You may have been told that you need footwear with arch support because your arches aren't very high. Minimalist hiking boots and shoes tend to have a flat sole, so does this mean you can't wear them?
Our view is that high arch support may actually be encouraging any problem you have with your arches. One study found that shoes with minimal support actually helped to strengthen the muscles of the arch.
We think it is worth trying minimalist hiking boots out. See if you don't experience a gradual strengthening of your arches and a corresponding improvement in any discomfort.
It really just depends upon your preferences and the kinds of hiking you plan to do. Barefoot hiking boots give more ankle support for especially uneven or rough terrain and waterproof boots will best be able to keep your feet dry in wet weather.
Minimalist hiking shoes will tend to be a bit lighter and provide more freedom of movement in your ankles. They are also a bit smaller for packing than hiking boots, which might be a factor if you travel a lot.
Either hiking boots or shoes should be fine for most people and most hikes.
As minimalist shoes have become more popular, lots of brands have begun to make hiking boots, shoes, and sandals. Here are some of the more popular models:
- Vivobarefoot Primus Trail
- Lems Boulder Boots
- Xero Shoes Xcursion
- Freet Kidepo
- Be Lenka Ranger Boots
- Zaqq Boots EXPEQ Bash Waterproof
Remember to always look for a wide toe box, a thin, flexible sole, and zero drop. The best barefoot hiking boots and shoes will give you natural movement and feel while using high-quality materials that will hold up to heavy use.
Sure. You don't need to purchase special shoes to hit the trail. Barefoot hiking boots or shoes, however, will tend to give you a bit thicker sole for a little more protection from sharp rocks and other things you'll run into on a hike. A minimalist hiking shoe or boot will often also include features like waterproofing and scuff resistance for dry feet and better endurance.
Once you have worn barefoot shoes, you won't want to go back to traditional shoes. So once you've experienced a minimalist hiking shoe, you're naturally going to want to know what other kinds of barefoot shoes you can get.
The good news is that barefoot shoes have become really popular. In addition to hiking boots and shoes, you can find casual shoes (see, for example, the Denver from Xero Shoes), barefoot running shoes (as well as barefoot running sandals), and even barefoot winter boots. If you don't want to, you won't have to put on traditional shoes again.