I know some barefooters who try to keep their feet in shape over the winter by keeping a pan of gravel in the garage. They then spend a bit of time doing the old gravel massage. It’s not like walking, but at least it keeps the soles thick, exercised, and (mostly) in shape.
I’ve tried something a bit different.
I wrote before about The Seri Boot. It’s named after the Seri Indians who live near the island of Tiberon in the Gulf of California. There’s a lot of desert there, and all that walking (or running) in the hot sand builds up a thick layer of protective keratin on the feet. It almost looks like a boot, hence the name.
You might also recall that, before I went to Costa Rica last September, I tried Baking a Seri Boot of my own. I didn’t have a whole lot of time, starting it only about 4 days in advance. Even then, it did seem to help down there walking on the volcanic beach rocks, but it was hard to tell.
However, I kept it up over the winter. However, I changed the technique just a bit. In the original, I put a tray of sand in the oven to heat it.
I found that instead of using the oven, an electric warming tray (or warming buffet) worked fine to heat up the sand sufficiently (up to about 200°F, or 90°C). I just plugged it in for a couple of hours, and then the sand was ready to go.
The technique was just to stand on the hot sand, maybe digging my foot in a bit if it seemed too cool. I’d do one foot and then the other, maybe repeating. The idea was not to burn my soles (I’m not an idiot—well, ok, may not that kind of idiot). However, I found I could withstand a fair bit of discomfort without damaging anything. (I also found that, for a good 5-10 minutes afterwards, walking on anything felt delightfully cool.)
The advantage of this over gravel is that it didn’t take a whole lot of time to do it. With gravel you kind of have to keep tromping around on it.
So, how did it work?
The first real test of my Seri boots was when I went to Easter Island with Alan Bruens and Machi. Of course Machi was well-acclimated to summer surfaces—it was summertime for him (that and he normally does a lot of barefoot walking). It was a bit more of a challenge for Alan, since he’d been suffering through the same eastern U.S. winter that I had, and he hadn’t “booted up”.
I found that the Seri Boot worked really, really well on Easter Island. While I couldn’t go as fast as Machi on the trails (a lot of that wasn’t my feet that were out of shape, it was my lungs), my feet really handled them just fine.
I found that my feet were also just fine walking on the brick sidewalks and streets of Hanga Roa. They heated up pretty well in the sun, but I never really had any problem walking barefooted on them. On the other hand, Alan heat-tenderized his soles the first day we were there and had to be pretty careful after that.
I had another test of the Seri Boot yesterday.
I’m afraid I haven’t hiked since I got back from Easter Island (over a month ago). Part of that is the weather, but part of that is probably just a winter malaise (we had a few nice days but when they came all I really felt like doing was sitting in the sun—YAY—a bit).
But I got out yesterday and did about a 6½-mile hike down at Clear Creek. About a mile and a quarter of that was gravel.
It actually worked quite well, and I just walked over it unconcernedly. Admittedly, some of that was the endorphins one gets from walking on challenging surfaces.
[I'm sure you've noticed this before. For a challenging surface, it starts out feeling a bit rough, but then your feet work their way into it. I suspect that's your body producing endorphins, which is just what happens to runners or backpackers. You can tell because, if you stop, it gets uncomfortable again as the endorphins fade away, and you have to ease yourself back into it again to allow the endorphins to return. Yes, I'm suggesting that walking barefoot can produce something like a "runner's high".]
This morning I find I am a bit footsore. That will often happen on a longer hike, but not so much when my feet are in summertime shape.
I should not be surprised. The Seri Boot does a wonderful job of building up the keratin padding on the foot, but what it doesn’t do is stressing and building up the underlying tissues of the foot. It provides a fair bit of protection, but not complete protection.
Overall, however, I’d say that my wintertime Seri Boots worked out quite well. (By the way, the heat-thickened soles also worked great as extra insulation when walking on frozen surfaces, so that helped a lot for this winter.) It is something you all might consider for yourselves.
Just remember that you want to stress your sole a bit, not burn it!