It is my contention that there are three stages of barefooted mindfulness. By this I mean just how aware we are about how and where we place our feet.
To be clear, I am talking here about barefoot hiking or walking, not barefoot running (which has its own separate gestalt). Also, much of this mindfulness shows up more when hiking than when walking in an urban setting (though it does apply there, too).
Let me start with the zeroeth stage. (Hey, I’m a physicist. All the “3 laws” in an area of physics also have a zeroeth law.)
The zeroeth stage is shod, wearing hiking boots. Mindfulness here is mostly non-existent. On a path you can tromp around without paying a whole lot of attention to your feet or where you are stepping. Sure, you do have to make sure you don’t trip over a log or something similar, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of attention. That also means you might inadvertently step on and damage things on the forest floor. One advantage here is that you can save your attention for looking at the scenery (or at least the higher-up scenery). When you go bushwhacking, you can really whack those bushes and just clomp right through (unless there are brambles and you are wearing shorts).
The first stage of barefooted mindfulness comes from when you first start going barefoot. At this point you are terrified of stepping on anything remotely different. Small stones (not to mention rocks) and even twigs (particularly twigs with pokey branches) are watched carefully so as to be able to avoid them. You don’t see any of the scenery that isn’t right between your toes, unless you stop walking or hiking to do so. (That often means that you don’t see anything because you keep forgetting to stop.) Bushwhacking? You’ve got to be kidding.
The second stage of barefooted mindfulness comes after you have quite a bit of barefoot hiking on your soles and under your belt. It just takes that long for you to get comfortable enough with hiking barefoot and for your mind to figure out how to do things better. What happens is that you learn to scan ahead. Your brain automatically notes and remembers just where the possible hazards (or owies) lie, and you look down at your feet only when you pass over that piece of ground, to make sure your feet are placed correctly. This means that you can spend more time looking at scenery, because you’ve learned to only look down when it is really necessary.
However, when you are bushwhacking, you still pretty much revert to something like stage one. Without a marked (and thereby cleansed) trail there is just too much litter and twigs and stuff that needs to have an eye kept on. So, again, you have to stop to admire the scenery. (In compensation, though, you get to see the scenery of all the little critters that are down there close to the ground, like turtles, frogs, skinks, and the like. You also notice the smaller sorts of ground cover plants.)
The third stage of barefooted mindfulness comes after your soles have thickened considerably to something approaching leather and you have great confidence that they can handle and repel most surface irregularities. On a marked trail, I’ve hiked along for 20 or 30 feet while looking at my map and neither scanning ahead nor looking where my feet are stepping. I’ve stepped on all sorts of stuff (branches with pointy parts), you name it, and done just fine. The inside (high part) of the arch can be a little tricky, since it doesn’t have the thickness nor keratinization of the ball or the heel.
In some ways, this third stage is like being back at the zeroeth stage. However, there is still that barefooted mindfulness. Clomping and tromping are foreign. You still have an awareness of where you are placing your feet; it is just so far in your subconscious that you don’t have to pay attention to it (thereby mimicking stage zero without the fallout). You also know that you are not damaging the environment the way waffle-stompers do. Yes, you are compressing the soil where you step, but you are (generally) not cutting into the soil with treads or digging up pieces of dirt or plants.
Third stage bushwhacking is rather close to second stage trail hiking. There is more of that scanning ahead, looking for difficulties and also looking for a path through the forest understory. But when it comes to stepping down, I find I am remarkably unconcerned about where I put my feet. I look down instead to make sure I don’t fall off a cliff, or kick a log, not because of what I might step on.
So, next time you go hiking, you might observer your mindfulness, and try to figure out what stage you are in.