Everyone should go barefoot now and then. A meadow delightful to the eye is equally so to the naked sole, feeling the grasses and flowers and the cool delicious dew of morning. And a stream is only known with true intimacy when toes are probing swift, cold water seeking a finger-like grip on pebbles and boulders. Glacier-polished slabs, squishy black muck, powdery dust, beach sand, pine needles, snow, all give joy to the sensual foot.
—Harvey Manning, Backpacking One Step At A Time, 2nd ed.,
A common misconception is that ankle support comes primarily from the height of the boot extending over and above the ankle. When I worked as a boot fitter for a specialty outdoor shop, I was amazed at how deeply this belief ran. As a response, I would take a boot off the wall and bend the top part of the boot back and forth to show there was no way that significant support can come from this part of the shoe. After providing literature on the subject and relating my personal experiences, some people simply could not be convinced that ankle support has practically nothing to do with the height of the shoe. Ankle support comes almost entirely from how stable a shoe keeps your arch and heel.
—Ryel Kestenbaum, The Ultralight Backpacker, p. 50
Central Issues Addressed in this Article
What is the best footwear for me to use on wilderness trips into the backcountry? Heavy-duty leather boots? Mid-height, lightweight fabric boots? Low-cut trail shoes? Lightweight running shoes or racing flats? Sport sandals? Moccasins or other minimalist footwear? Bare feet? Some combination? Am I open minded enough to seriously consider all of the mentioned options for use under some conditions?
Dialogue Between Footwear Proponents
To shed light on the numerous choices of footwear and to assist in answering the above questions, the following debate/dialogue has been constructed featuring the following proponents:
Logger Man = heavy duty boots
Running Feet = lightweight racing flats/minimalist footwear
Barefoot Boy = moccasins or bare feet
Light Shoe = trail shoes/cross trainers
Hippie Kid = sport sandals
Logger Man: To start things off, I want to share a bit about my grandfather. My grandfather, with his high-topped, steel-toed logger’s boots, has always been my role model. He just loved his Chippewa waterproof “super loggers.” My grandfather was as tough as they come, as tough as his boots. I probably will never measure up, but I will never compromise on boots. Wet weather or dry, cold weather or hot, on or off trail—these boots can handle anything. These boots will support the heaviest pack and protect against mud, rocks and snakes. There is nothing more important than your feet when out in the mountains. They deserve the best. Only the toughest boots are good enough for me.
Running Feet: Wow, Logger Man! Have you ever tried to hike very far in plastic molded downhill ski boots? I know the analogy is extreme, but that is what heavy-duty logging boots would feel like to me after hiking a few miles, especially when compared with lightweight racing flats or running shoes. Your heavy-duty logging boots will do everything except feel comfortable on longer hikes. I would be surprised if your feet were not one bloody mess at the end of several long days on the trail. Feeling the freedom and flexibility of minimal protection on your feet is heavenly. As the experts are fond of saying, every pound on your feet is the equivalent to 4-6 pounds on your back. Let’s see, that could be as much as 20 pounds extra on your feet compared to mine. When involved in long hikes with lots of elevation gain, that would translate into tons of extra weight lifted uphill. Now, going from a heavy boot to a lightweight shoe is not to be taken lightly (pun intended). Kind of like taking first steps after wearing a plaster cast for months. One should work up to it by gradually strengthening feet and ankles and legs. One needs to train for a better sense of balance. One needs to be more careful about foot placement.
Barefoot Boy: Running Feet is really on to something here, but why not take his philosophy to its logical conclusion? Make the transition gradual from heavy to lighter boots, from lightweight trail shoes to sandals and finally to no rigid sole shoes at all (i.e., go barefoot or wear moccasins). I am serious. With moccasins or barefeet, I literally feel the earth beneath my feet. I am forced to slow down, which allows me to fully tune my senses to the natural world. “Sensuality” is my middle name. More primitive cultures, not corrupted by "civilization," have been doing this for thousands of years. Young children do this naturally until brainwashed by overprotective parents. Modern society does everything it can to insulate us from life and from nature. At the least, feel the earth under your feet while out in the wilderness. Immerse them in a cold stream on a hot day, walk barefoot in the mud and wet sand. Massage your feet in cool marshes and damp moss. Ahhh—heavenly! My environmental philosophy of living lightly on the earth carries over to walking lightly on the earth. If I also carry a lightweight pack, I don’t need heavy boots or shoes to support my weight. Unfortunately, since my lifestyle in the frontcountry doesn't support toughening up my feet to go barefoot full time, I always take some sort of protective footwear (usually moccasins or light sandals) when in the mountains, but I still go barefoot as much as I can.
Light Shoe: Talk about impractical! Racing flats and moccasins and bare feet (Running Feet and Barefoot Boy) have their place but not on the mountain trails I travel. They certainly will not work off trail. Yes, I know, primitive peoples have learned to adapt to rough terrain with inadequate or no good footwear, but there is no reason I should suffer the same fate. The best of all worlds is a sturdy, lightweight trail shoe made especially for the backcountry. Most trail shoes provide aggressive traction outsoles, a rigid plastic or carbon fiber shank for the needed rigidity and stability on uneven ground and midsole cushioning for the longer days. High-tech fabrics allow them to breathe and be waterproof at the same time. They can be insulated with the thinnest of insulations if needed for cold weather, and they are not so light as to feel every pebble. Here is one place where technology has triumphed. The more one wears a quality trail shoe with a quality insole, the more one learns to appreciate this technology.
[Note: in the complete article, this imaginary dialogue carries on for a couple more pages.]
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Boots, Shoes, Sandals or Bare Feet? – Word Format
Boots, Shoes, Sandals or Bare Feet? – PDF Format
The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:
Dialogue Between Footwear Proponents
Reader Participation: Footwear Values and Priorities
Claimed Truths and Myths About Hiking Boots
Assumptions About Selecting Footwear for the Backcountry
Personal Experiences and Conclusions on Hiking Footwear