Friday, March 1, 2013

Never Wear Boots

I am fairly picky as to what I wear on my feet. Generally, I prefer something minimal. I have covered more than 2000 miles by foot over the past 12 months and I continue to hike every day.  For the majority of those miles I wore sandals. One of the big things I have learned in this time is what is good for my feet and my body as a whole. Sandals are still my go-to item.

My footwear for half of Virginia and most of Maine
Years ago, before I really knew what hiking even was, a friend of mine invited me to go out to the Grand Canyon and backpack. Knowing nothing about backpacking equipment, my parents took me to a local outfitter where we threw ourselves (and my future gear list) upon the mercy of the salesperson. Fortunately, he really knew what he was talking about. He knew what I didn't need to bring. He knew what I needed to bring. He knew about wool socks and liner socks, about synthetic and down sleeping bags, and about how to fit a backpack. He also knew what type of boots would wear out quickly, what boots would be comfortable, and how to choose a boot that is least likely to be a lemon. He set me up with a great pair of boots. But that was the start of the problem.

Those boots saw me through many adventures. Eventually they surrendered after being baked in an oven (don't ask). I replaced them with a new pair of boots. I wore these new boots for a few years through even more adventures. But just before a trip to the White Mountains those boots started cracking, and I bought yet another pair. This was the best pair of boots yet, being both light and flexible.

Before thru hiking, I occasionally wore trail runners but anytime the trail was rugged I delighted in bringing my boots. Here my favorite boots accompany me to the summit of Longs Peak in 2010.

I truly loved my hiking boots. They fit great, I never had blisters, I always kept my toenails, and generally suffered from absolutely zero of the horrors that people will tell you about hiking boots. Which means that I pretty much had the most idyllic boot experience. Nevertheless, I tell you that I will never wear hiking boots again. Why?

It all started with my quest to buy the best equipment for the Appalachian Trail. Being a gear head, I prepared a year in advance. I read everything I could about lightening my pack. I scoured the internet, searched forums, and devoured massive amounts of information. In my quest, I kept coming across this nugget: mass on your feet takes more energy to move than mass in your backpack. Feet move more through space than the rest of your body. Hikers trying to minimize carried weight were using trail runners. Or sneakers. The idea intrigued me and I started looking for corroboration.

That summer, I ran into a thru hiker at Harpers Ferry; he was wearing toe shoes and had worn the same pair since Springer, hiking over 1000 miles in them. I was amazed he could hike so far in such light footwear and dug deeper. I found the barefoot running community and sought to apply it to hiking. Here are the basic arguments:

Protective shoes reduce pain but do not reduce shock.
The lack of painful feedback leads humans who are wearing protective shoes to land on their heels, to land too hard, and to change their biomechanics in other ways.
The increased shock causes injuries.
The change in natural biomechanics causes injuries.
Running barefoot strips all the disguises away and naturally teaches your body to run correctly.
Running correctly reduces shock, fatigue, and injuries.

It sounded plausible and I gave it a try. I started to wear semi-minimalist trail runners for hiking. They were padded, but ditched the idea of a raised heel. I gradually wore them for longer and longer periods as my achilles tendons stretched and my calf muscles became stronger. My feet became stronger too. I tried to wear thin huaraches but I just wasn't ready for them. My mechanics hadn't changed enough. So I brought my semi-minimalist trail runners for my thru hike hoping to improve my biomechanics during the hike.

Having a lot of wear on them already, those trail runners only lasted until the middle of the Smokies. The replacement trail runners were great and functioned on a similar idea. By then, I started removing the arch support inserts and found I was just fine without them. After 600 miles, those shoes too went kaput. I visited the store in the next town but couldn't find a trail runner that I was willing to use. The trail runners all seemed to be too beefy and inflexible. By now I really valued the ability of my foot to work and flex on its own. I consulted with my fellows, gulped a few times, and took the plunge. I bought a pair of sandals.

For the first few days I carried my worn out trail runners with me, worrying that the sandals wouldn't hold up. They held up. My feet didn't hurt. My feet smelled less. I developed blisters that made me wear socks. Then I developed callouses and started skipping the socks. I didn't need to carry camp shoes anymore. Water crossings could not faze me. In short, I was in love.

Soon enough I flipped up to Maine to hike southbound. Here, if anywhere, the trouble should begin. Maine is full of roots, full of rocks, has plenty of toe stubbing, rock climbing, and sheer faces. If my sandals were going to fail anywhere it would be here. I stubbed my toes from time to time but it taught me to be aware of my feet and how my feet were moving with respect to the ground. The grip on my sandals was phenomenal and as long as my feet were dry, my feet never slipped. I learned that when my feet were wet I could throw on a pair of socks and regain the lost traction. It was also here that I discovered that the sandals should be fairly loose - the friction between my foot and the sandal was what held me. The straps on the sandal were only to keep the sandal on my foot when I took a stride. Or a step into a muddy bog.

While climbing Mount Katahdin I decided to go whole hog and went barefoot for a while. The feeling was incredible.  Photograph © 2012 Laura Hartenstein 'Sweet n Sour'. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
As long as I paid attention, my sandals were the best footwear I had ever worn. But I had to pay attention because I was still learning how to change my biomechanics. In fact, I wouldn't truly be satisfied with my biomechanics until I was halfway through New Hampshire. That's a story for a different time.

Eventually, while still in Maine, I ran into a problem. For a couple weeks I struggled mentally and did not pay as much attention as I ought. I started to stub my toes repeatedly. Then, I caught a norovirus. My mind was definitely not all there as I descended to a road hoping for a hitch to take me to town where I could recover. I never noticed the branch that tore the skin off of my toe as I stumbled down the mountain. My toe was bleeding and hurt, I was tired, and remarkably weakened by illness. I had had enough. I was ready for shoes on my feet that didn't require me to think. I got lucky with a hitch to town and grabbed a spot in a hostel. I later caught a ride to the nearest outfitter and bought a pair of hiking shoes. These seemed to be the most popular hiking shoes on the trail and I knew several people who wore them and were quite happy. But they were shoes.

Right away I knew I had made a mistake. My feet couldn't flex as well. My toes could not spread out to their fullest extent. The stiffer sole meant that my mechanics changed for the worse. The heel was lifted and with every step I could feel the difference. I no longer had a good feel for the ground.

I waited as long as I could - I had paid a decent amount for these hiking shoes - but a scant 300 miles later was finally driven to check out the clearance rack at the outfitter. I found a pair of sandals for $30. My feet immediately felt better. The heel lift was almost nonexistent. My feet could flex. Plenty of air flowed around my feet keeping them cool. I could feel the ground.

I still wear those sandals today. They have more than 900 miles on them and are almost broken in half but still work exceedingly well. When they break in half completely, I will procure something similar, although hopefully the new sandals will be even closer to barefoot.

I will never wear hiking boots again. 

A Last Word

After my thru hike I have had occasion to try on and wear my old shoes, shoes other than flat sandals and flip flops. They have been uniformly terrible (although I must grant that I have not tried any minimalist shoes, simply because I don't own any). Now that my feet are strong and my biomechanics are sound, wearing shoes that restrict the movement of my feet feels, well, restrictive. My toes can't flex, my feet can't act as a spring, the lifted heel hits the ground before the balls of my feet. I can feel my biomechanics change. In short, it's terrible. And I feel slow footed and heavy to boot.

Now I am up to my favorite piece of hiking advice. People ask me about my sandals and how I can wear them for hiking in all trail conditions. They wonder about ankle support. They wonder about arch support. Here are my answers:

With a normal, healthy ankle the only way that a person needs a boot for ankle support is if that person wears a boot. It's simple. Without a boot, the ankle becomes strong; with a boot, the ankle becomes weak. The same is true regarding arch support. And heel lift. Thus if one never has ankle nor arch support, one never needs ankle nor arch support.

Be warned that transitioning from shoes to barefoot takes time. Muscles take time to grow strong. Tendons take longer. So if you have always supported your feet take baby steps. Do your research. Trust your body and start small. Try walking barefoot around the house. Try walking barefoot around the yard. For further reading I highly recommend the book "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. Too, there are plenty of resources on the internet available for free.

I have only given a quick overview here and hope to touch upon this subject a bit more when I share how my own biomechanics changed. That will include the story of how I limped my way through the Presidential Range and truly learned how to walk.


  1. May be in my future:

    1. I've been looking at those. They are a bit pricey, so I'm leaning more towards for hiking. There are even a few shoes that seem to fit the bill, such as that I might wear for work.

    2. Here's an update: I bought a pair of Luna sandals in June and I absolutely love them. They are my go to shoe for everything except work. Trail, city, running, road trips, they do it all.

  2. Yes, the Xeroshoes look like a more reasonable price.
    Thanks for the advise.

    1. You're welcome. Be aware that the Xeroshoes are a bit like going cold turkey. Or rather, they are entirely so. I feel absolutely everything through the thin ones. It hurts in the beginning. I haven't had a pair since the beginning so I'm ready to try them for hiking again.

  3. Nice, it was completely random that I found your blog. Didn't know you had one... Take care Merry.

    -Jaron (Guy W/ Dog)

    1. Hey Jaron!
      Fantastic that you found me :). I sent you an invitation on facebook.


  4. (I saw a nice picture on a google search). Meriadoc sounded familiar.

  5. For someone with weak ankles or ankles with a tendency to roll over on themselves, what would you recommend for minimal footwear that offers ankle support/stability?

    1. Hi Monicles! Thanks for your question. I was there once - my inward ankle roll inspired me to fix the problem and kick started my quest to walk well.

      Minimal shoes are designed to work with the foot to make the function and experience as close to barefoot as possible. When it comes to the way we move everything is connected - feet, knees, back, and hips. Changing one part's function changes the functions of the others. I recommend strengthening the ankle to the point where it no longer rolls or becomes hurt after being rolled.

      My advice boils down to:
      * Be aware of the way your body is moving
      * Strengthen the ankle through good movement, a little bit at a time
      * Minimalist walking and running requires awareness of the body. Eventually this can feel so natural that there is no effort in maintaining that awareness.
      * Walking or running barefoot is a good way to get there because your body will shy away from the pain of bad form.
      * Thus the ankles become strong so that it does not matter if they do roll.
      * The ankles are unlikely to roll because you are very much aware of your body and how it is moving.

      Spend a little time each day walking barefoot. Either: (a) pay attention to your ankle and don't let it roll on each step or (b) just walk naturally on a harder surface and your body will give you feedback. Option (b) must be barefoot or you risk injury because your feet aren't giving you enough feedback. I worked mostly with option (a) only trying option (b) much later on. If you take option (a) then you can really use any shoes sans ankle support - but progress will be fastest by walking barefoot. One thing you don't want to do is try to change your gait all at once because your body has adjusted to your gait as it is and a sudden change can cause injuries.

      Gradually increase the amount of time that you spend without ankle support. Muscles take time to build up. Tendons take even longer to build up or stretch.

      So take it slowly and have fun, glorying in the things that you can feel when barefoot. Over time your feet become stronger; at first progress is imperceptible but the process speeds up as you can spend more and more time without support. I find that hiking on uneven terrain builds up my stabilizing muscles faster. So after you walk for a bit without ankle support and feel that you have made some progress with your ankle strength, I would go for a fun walk in the woods without ankle support - paying attention to that ankle roll and avoiding speed like the plague.

      There are exercises that you can use to build up your ankle strength if you want to progress faster. But awareness is almost as important as strength.

  6. Hey there,

    Although this post is quite a few months old, I just wanted to say thanks! I found it while scouring the internet to find anything that corroborated my own decision that I never want to wear hiking footwear again. I recently made one last ditch effort to conform and find a shoe at my local REI but I finally gave up, telling the salesperson that I'm more comfortable in Converse than anything with support. In fact, I used to wear converse 10 hours a day as a waitress and people thought I was crazy. When I hike even easy trails in California other hikers give me looks of disapproval, as though I'm some silly inexperienced weekend warrior. Meanwhile, they're the ones wearing 10 pounds of cumbersome rubber and fabric on their feet to the tune of $150+. I don't know if I could go fully barefoot, especially considering warmth, but you've given me some justification that I'm not alone.

    1. You're welcome! Thank you for your reply. I'm glad you are exploring your own way of hiking with less. Hike on!