You don’t have to have read this blog very long to know my favorite phrase when fellow hikers ask me about being barefoot:
We go out into the woods to see the sights, smell the smells, and hear the sounds. And they we turn off our sense of touch. Well, I don’t turn off my sense of touch.
Today I thought I’d riff on that a bit.
Obviously, hiking barefoot really takes advantage of our sense of touch. But it also can enhance the other senses, too.
When it comes to touch, there is all sorts of feedback that you don’t get with boots on. One of those is proprioception, which is the body’s sense of where it is, and how our body parts are positioned relative to each other.
You can get a bit of a feel for this just by standing on one foot for a bit. (Try it both barefoot and shod.) When barefoot I can feel my soles gripping the ground and I use my foot muscles to retain my balance. My toes actually do work, and I can simply feel what it going on a lot better.
When hiking, this comes into play. You can feel the small slopes in the trail without the filter of a thick sole. You get a lot of feedback on how your foot is placed. It not only enhances the experience, it probably also makes you safer. I used to sprain my ankle fairly regularly with hiking boots on—I’ve never sprained it barefoot.
The most obvious enhancement of the sense of touch when hiking barefoot comes from feeling the surfaces. Moss is always heavenly, but I think my favorite surface is old decayed hemlock needles. Here’s a photo from a couple of weeks ago.
It has a slightly crisp feel (from the needles) coupled with a sponginess (from the thick layer of decaying needles) that is unparalleled.
And then there is the difference between hemlock needles and pine needles. Pine needles have a different texture because they are so long; they are also much drier. And that’s different than just walking through old dead deciduous leaves, which are again different from newly-fallen deciduous leaves in the fall.
Even more challenging surfaces are fun. After a while your soles get used to them, and even rocky surfaces become yet another textural experience. (And sometimes a challenge is fun, too.)
There’s another way the sense of touch comes into play, and that’s through temperature.
The classic example of that is not hiking, but in grocery stores. It’s really easy to find spots on the floors that have some sort of chilling equipment underneath.
But temperature differences also happen on the hiking trail. Areas of sun and shade provide different temperature feedback. You can also tell wetter soil from drier soil, just from temperature differences. Streams are always a refreshing explosion of sensory experience.
If you wear boots, you miss all of this.
I already mentioned that hiking barefoot also affects the other senses.
It helps you see sights that you otherwise might miss.
I suspect that a lot of shod hikers rarely look down (I know I didn’t do it much when I hiked in boots). It’s just too easy to tromp along. But you cannot do that with impunity when barefoot. You need to keep an eye out for where you are stepping, and that adds to the sensory experience. I have seen all sorts of plants and animals that I otherwise would have missed.
There is a bit of a downside: when looking down, you’re not looking up. At least that’s the way it starts out. However, as you become more used to barefoot hiking, you will find that you develop a technique of looking down 10 feet ahead, to see what you are hiking on and to not step on any uncomfortable places, and then looking up and around.
It gives you more visual coverage than shod hiking.
Hiking barefoot also enhances hearing the sounds of nature. Part of that is just because using more of your senses in the first place immerses you better in the experience. But hiking in bare feet is also quieter.
When I am on an organized group hike (with non-barefooters), I am always amazed at how loud they are. They tromp down. The shuffle their feet through fallen leaves. (Do that barefoot and you’ll stub your toe on a hidden rock—with a boot, it just gets kicked.) They don’t make a careful placement of the foot, so it will often slide around a bit.
When I’m out barefoot and alone, I keep accidentally sneaking up on things. That’s because I’m quieter. And since I am quieter, that means I can hear those things around me. Or, if nothing is happening, I can hear the sounds of silence.
The last item in my phrase about going into the woods is about smelling the smells. When I come to barefoot hiking enhancing that, I’ve got nothing. I can’t think of how it might make a difference. I could probably concoct something about how feet only smell because when in boots the boots provide the warm, moist environment that foot fungus likes, but that really doesn’t fit here.
Oh, well. Three out of four ain’t bad.