So, how much of a risk-taker are you if you mow your grass barefoot?
I generally think that it is not that much of a risk (at least not over mowing with shoes on). In this entry I’m going to discuss many of the considerations I think apply to barefoot mowing.
You will have to do your own evaluation and make up your own minds.
The first thing to keep in mind is that a mower blade is a big chunk of metal going at a very high speed. Shod or barefoot, if it hits your foot it is going to do damage, unless you are wearing steel-toed boots. And quite frankly, I don’t think a very high proportion of the population mows their grass wearing steel-toed boots. As I look around the neighborhood, I see folks in flip-flops (really), sandals, and gym shoes. There is actually a guy nearby that I’ve seen mow his grass barefooted, while on a riding mower.
Obviously, a lot depends on whether your are on a riding mower or not. On a riding mower, you are probably pretty safe regardless of your footwear (unless you tip it over, in which case your footwear is the least of your worries). So I will restrict my comments to non-riding mowers. (I used to have a riding mower, but it putzed out on me, so I am back to a push-mower, at least until the mower fairy leaves one under my pillow some night.)
To give you an idea of the power of even a smaller mower, let me describe mine. It’s an electric. I’ve never been a big fan of gas-powered mowers; it probably doesn’t hurt that my grandfather worked for Commonwealth Edison (Chicago) and he and my dad both used electrics. They are not as powerful as gas mowers, but that means we can also use them as a minimum.
My electric has a blade that weighs about 2 pounds and the tip travels at about 130 miles per hour. If that hits anything, it’s going to do damage.
So, let’s relate that to mowing, and just what a shoe does.
One way in which I think barefoot could be safer is if you just run over your foot lying flat on the ground. A pair of sneakers raises your foot off the ground by at least half an inch. Thus, with sneakers you might shave off the top of a toe (or whatever) that, if you were barefoot, would have stayed below the blade.
On the other hand, if you are, say, falling back so that your toes rise up in the air, some testing I did suggests you are more likely to lose your toes if barefoot. I actually took a pair of old sneakers (hey, I don’t use them any more!) and fed them into my lawn mower. The results of that testing is that if the blade hits the cloth uppers it will go right through. However, if it hits the sole, I found that the sole, even though rubber, actually stopped the blade. So, if your foot goes under toes-up, the sole of a shoe has a good chance of stopping the blade and not slicing your toes right off. With a shoe it still might damage your foot depending on the angle it hit (front-first vs. bottom-first), but that would be less damage.
There are other considerations, too.
Any barefooter will tell you about their better proprioception, and how they have a better feel for where they are stepping, and how good of a grip they have on the earth. So, when barefoot one can argue that having one’s foot slip on wet grass or being thrown by a surface irregularity is less likely. I know I worry a lot more when I see someone mowing in flip-flops, which are inherently unstable as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve also heard the concern that if the mower throws a rock or something like that, it would cause more damage in bare feet. I’ll give that a bit of credence, but it is not as if any sort of cloth sneaker upper will protect things, and of course plenty of people mow with shorts leaving their ankles and legs exposed.
So, bottom line? Overall, I suspect it is close to a wash. It’s a personal decision you have to make for yourself after being fully aware of the implications, both positive and negative.
And the real bottom line? The bottoms of your feet will get green.