Sunday, January 19, 2014

Confessions of a Barefoot Shoe Convert

*Note: this post has since been updated with and addendum below containing more info since it was published to address some concerns and offer additional details.

About two and a half years ago, I went on a great trip to Spain where I suffered a minor stress fracture after a lot of hiking on very hard/rough/rocky ground with a pair of slip-on Vans sneakers.  This inspired me to write a post "In Defense of Boots," as I wished I had been wearing a pair of sturdy boots so that I could have avoided the pain and inconvenience of my injury.  Shortly after I reflected on and wrote about footwear for hiking, I decided to dig deeper into the issue to try and gain a better understanding and perhaps find good alternatives.  I quickly found out, and was a bit perplexed, that a significant number of Ultralight backpackers hiked in barefoot and/or minimalist type shoes.

I was new to UL, and never owned a pair of barefoot shoes made specifically for long distance hiking/running.  Since I was a kid and up until about a year and a half ago, I did the same routine with shoes: Vans or Converse All Stars for the warmer half of the year, combat boots for the colder half of the year and also for hiking.  Yet after having altered my perspectives on backpacking and going from fairly heavy to UL and even SUL trips, the idea of wearing these barefoot type shoes was on my mind often.  In short, I didn't buy it.  I thought it was a fad.  Sure, I loved minimalist shoes with no arch support like Vans and Chucks, but not for backpacking.  Yet I kept on seeing blogs and articles written by people that claimed to have done a lot of long distance hiking with these seemingly crazy barefoot shoes.

So there I was in a shoe store, and there was a sale on a pair of barefoot shoes.  They were a black and green pair of Merrell Bare Access, a real-deal barefoot and very light weight shoe.  I tried them on, and had to admit they were comfortable.  Surprisingly comfortable.  So what the hell, I'd buy them and I'd wear them around my neighborhood for short walks.  I needed a replacement for a pair of slip-on Vans that had just died on me anyhow.  

I could kill two birds with one stone, I thought, in that I could have a nice pair of minimal sneakers for light use, and I could prove to myself that these shoes were no match for woodland hiking and heavy duty use.  Maybe I'd do a few tests and then write up a follow-up article to my aforementioned defending of heavy boots text.  Honestly, I wanted to further prove my own point and justify my use of combat boots, and demonstrate that barefoot shoes didn't work for me ("But hey, at least I gave them a try,").

When I come up with a plan I usually stick with it, so I did indeed wear my new barefoot shoes around for light use.  The more I wore them, the more I liked them.  It got me to thinking, well, what if I was wrong about shoes and hiking?  A few test hikes would determine the answer to this question, and I was determined to keep an open mind.  I was converted to UL and SUL, after all--maybe there was a method to the madness of barefoot just like there was to Ultralight backpacking.  So I went on a few overnight trips, and not only did everything go okay, things were actually better than before with my big ol' boots.  My body felt better, and what surprised me most of all was that I had no injuries or soreness.

All the barefoot runners and hikers advocated a slow and gradual switch, and after I felt I had done this, I need something more.  My next goal was to push these crazy shoes to the limit, see how much I could beat them up and my body in the process and see what would happen.  I went running with them on occasion, wore them all the time on and off the trail, and did longer trips of over 20km with them.  Aside from occasionally creating a bad stink and needing to be washed every now and then, the shoes preformed great.  I also went through a strange transformation that I never expected to happen along the way.  

Now, I should again point out that I have pretty much a lifetime of wearing minimalist type shoes, which is why my body took so well to the switch to barefoot.  And there were a few times I felt some growing pains and odd internal soreness in my feet and ankles after some of those initial long hikes.  But after a year or so of use, my feet and ankles had changed and for the better.  They were stronger, more responsive, and my toes began to spread out some--when climbing up steep hills and cliffs and such, I could feel my toes spread out and grip down without me consciously thinking about it.  

I also noticed that I had less pain and soreness in my legs, knees, and especially hips and lower back than before--but this also has a lot to do with going UL/SUL, of course.  Anecdotal, I know, and I am not a fan of anecdotal evidence; but I am not suggesting that barefoot shoes are wholly responsible for these positive changes, and I am just reporting my own personal experiences.  It should go without saying that barefoot shoes are not for everyone--but if they work for your body, they are a great alternative for lightweight backpacking.  

If you are skeptical about barefoot running/hiking as I was, I encourage you to do a quick Google search on the science behind it.  There is not much being done on barefoot hiking, but Harvard University, for instance, is hard at work studying barefoot running.  There is a lot of research going on, and the popularity of barefoot shoes in the past several years is going to fan the flames of the scientists, one would think.  So I think it's only a matter of time before scientists move on to study barefoot long distance hiking, if they haven't already.

I became fully converted to wearing barefoot shoes year round soon after I felt I was more or less fully adjusted.  I bought a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves that I liked even more than my last pair of Merrells, and these are still my go-to hiking shoe for most trips.  Both pairs I should also add are remarkably durable and tough--for instance, I hiked the majority of the 347km of Bohusleden with either my Bare Access or Trail Gloves.  But there were a few complications to work out.  What about off-trail/bushwhacking trips, where terrain was much rougher than marked trails?  And what about cold weather and winter trips?

The cold factor was easier to solve that I though.  All I did was up my sock game by buying some good quality wool socks, and made sure to buy my barefoot shoes slightly bigger to accommodate for wearing extra socks.  I even took my Trail Gloves out in sub-freezing temperatures and my feet were just fine--toasty warm most of the time, even--with a pair of synthetic socks plus a pair of wool socks over them.  But there was a problem with snow, as the Trail Gloves only have a thin mesh top.  Wading through thick patches of snow would result in the mesh being stuffed with snow and then my socks getting wet.  Wet was not that big a deal, as wool and synthetic socks will still keep you relatively warm even when wet.  Yet surely I could find a better solution, I thought.

That's when I was inspired by another successful experiment I had done when going on off-trail hikes, which was to kick it old school with a pair of canvass Chucks.  I just love Chucks.  Simple, affordable, tough, and come in lots of different styles and colors.  They work great for my backpacking needs too, as the soles are thicker, they have a reinforced toe, and the canvass dries out fairly quick.  They also keep out all the extra ground debris found off trail that is not as prevalent on marked trails, like pine needles, twigs, moss, etc.  Then I remembered that Converse All Stars also come in leather, and half a year ago I got the last puzzle piece for my year round barefoot shoe choices.  The leather makes for shoes that are naturally more durable, water resistant--yet thin enough to dry out faster when soaked through than say heavy hiking boots--and significantly warmer.

This year here is a breakdown of what shoe I will wear for what situation when it comes to backpacking:

* Spring, summer, and fall trips on marked trails, which will account for most of my trips this year -- Merrell Trail Gloves, 430g/15oz total, size 10.5 US (the ones in the middle in the picture above)

* Spring, summer, and fall trips off trail/bushwhacking -- canvass Converse All Stars, 820g/29oz, size 10 US, but note that these shoes are generally larger than most other sneakers in the same size (the ones on the right)

* Winter and/or snowy trips - leather Converse All Stars, 1040g/36.7oz (heavy perhaps, but stack them next to most winter boots and they're not so heavy), size 10.5 which is plenty of room for up to three pairs of socks for me (the ones on the left) *Update 28/01/14: Also keep in mind that it is a good idea to take good care of leather for optimum performance.  I rub my leather Chucks with a wax/mink oil shoe polish to keep the leather soft, strong, and more water resistant.

I doubt I'll ever go back to combat boots ever again, and my feet and body feel better than they did before.  I even took my Trail Gloves back to the very same rough terrain in sunny Spain, and no sprains, fractures, or any problems--and I even wore them when I went cliff diving into the ocean.  They are even good for swimming.  Imagine trying to cliff dive and swim with combat boots!

In a few weeks I plan on publishing an extensive gear and clothing breakdown for the entire 2014 season, based on lowest expected temperature and on or off trail hiking, and for use in a 4 season temperate climate--namely here in Sweden, which is where nearly all of my backpacking trips will be this year.  Yet because footwear is such an important aspect of hiking/backpacking, I thought it merited it's own reflections in a separate text.

Until then, make sure to take care good care of your feet and find the best kind of shoe and techniques for your body if in intend on putting in a lot of long hikes out there.

For the record, I am still not sponsored by any company and bought the above shoes with my own money.  But if anyone from either Merrell or Converse is reading this, feel free to hook me up with some free shoes.

*Update 23:12, 19/01/14 -- fixed some typos, added some information regarding the science behind the whole barefoot thing. 

Addendum 25/01/14:

I got a few negative comments on reddit about wearing Converse All Stars that I felt I should address, and elaborate more on some of the nuances of my choice of shoes.  I've already made it very clear that these shoes are my personal preference, and to use the right shoe for you, whatever that may be.  But my choice of shoes work for me, and I am the only judge of that.  Today I got back from a roughly 25km section hike that had me hiking through snow pretty much the entire hike, sometimes knee deep in snow drifts.  I still have all my toes, and didn't get a single blister or sprain and didn't have to get carried out of the woods.  

As far as I know, Cody Lundin was also just fine, and on the show Dual Survival had no shoes at all, wearing only wool socks, in sub-freezing and snowy conditions (e.g. Season 01, Episode 01 and 02).  Not that I would recommend such an extreme choice, but it demonstrates that it's possible to wear no shoes in cold conditions without any harm/injury.  For the record, I have yet to get seriously injured since switching to barefoot shoes.

Something I should have commented on before that also contributed to my switch to barefoot shoes is that for some time now I have simply accepted the fact that feet usually get wet, no matter the season or the kind of shoes you have.  There are no magic shoes that I am aware of out there that both are completely waterproof and breathable enough so that your feet don't get soaked from the inside with sweat.  In many woodland areas, such as here in Sweden, there's a lot of water that can cause one to get their feet wet in all season.  And feet sweat quite a lot--over a pint a day each.  

So herein is a big puzzle for the backpacker to try and solve.  Big heavy boots have more material for water to soak up, and thus get even heavier when wet and take a very long time to dry.  Waterproof or very water resistant shoes trap water on the inside of the shoe, both sweat and the inevitable (given enough time) full submersion into water/snow or heavy enough precipitation.  Even with rubber boots that are knee high, you can still have water get inside from above, and because it can't get out it will stay there.  And I have experienced all of these unpleasant wet boot and foot problems, and find it easier to deal with barefoot/minimalist shoes because they dry out faster.

It's very hard if not impossible to fully control this wet foot issue.  What you can control, however, is the warm foot issue--which is why when it is colder out I make sure to have good socks to keep my feet warm even if totally soaked.  Wool and alpaca socks are quite good at this, as are synthetic socks (to a lesser extent from my experiences).  At night dry sleep socks are also good to have that are packed away in your pack, not only for the comfort of putting on dry socks, but you can also put them on over your wet socks to wear while you sleep to help keep them warm and dry out while you sleep.  In the winter it's best not to try and dry out wet socks (unless near a fire) because they will freeze and will be very difficult to get back on the next day.

Freezing temperatures add yet another complication aside from frozen socks, which is of course frozen shoes.  There are ways to deal with having soaked shoes when it is freezing.  One can start a fire and try and dry them off, but this requires time, fuel, and energy to start up a fire.  Or one could put the shoes inside one's sleeping bag while sleeping to prevent them from freezing.  Or you can just let your shoes freeze, put them on the next morning, and let your body heat thaw them out.  This option will be more difficult for heavy boots that are frozen rather than say, thin barefoot shoes.


*Update 28/01/14 - I was on reddit today and noticed this photo album posted by user "favoredvices" in r/campingandhiking.  This documents a desert trip, and just to remind us how dry things were, the link to the album on reddit is called, "I ran out of water in Big Bend National Park, Texas."  Yet as I was enjoying the photos and commentary on the trip, I noticed under one of the pictures (the one of ice/frost on the tent) a caption that reads, "It dropped below freezing the second night. Our sweat-soaked boots were frozen solid. Not pleasant."  This illustrates a few of my points perfectly.  Even in the dry desert, one can soak boots with sweat and then have them be frozen solid.  And boots will stay frozen longer than leather Chucks will.


As you can see in the picture above, my shoes got wet and covered with snow.  Yet my feet were still warm, in spite of my left foot being damp and my right foot being soaked, and hiking during the day with temps of -3 to -5.  I had soaked my right foot crossing a stream that was hidden by snow and breaking some thin ice.  This is not the first time this has happened to me either.  And when I woke up this morning, my right shoe was frozen stiff, as I expected it to be--which is why I made sure to loosen the laces and open it up before I went to sleep the night before.  I put my cold shoes on, and in the process of doing my morning routines of breakfast and such, by the time I hit the trail again, my feet were already warm again.

I hope this clears some things up, and I should have elaborated more on these issues in my initial post, but now this has been amended I hope.

10/08/2014 -- Yet another update!  I just put up a Youtube video with more thoughts on all this, plus some new insights since I wrote this text.  Check it out: