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Introduction to Barefoot Backpacking – Pt. 1

Editor’s Note: I would like to welcome back Barefoot Jake for this post which will be the first of a three-part series explaining more about Barefoot Backpacking.

As a barefoot backpacker and someone who is passionate about being barefoot as much as possible, I wanted to share with all of you what I think are the most important considerations and things to know about getting started with ‘going barefoot’. These are the things that I have learned through trial and error, and hope that by sharing my experiences with you I can save you from potentially making the same mistakes.

Most lightweight, ultralight, and especially super-ultralight backpackers are focused almost exclusively on their pack weight – and for good reason. I would like to suggest we all start thinking slightly differently and instead focus on what moves the most while we are traveling this great Earth – our feet!

Over the course of the next three posts on Brian’s Backpacking Blog, I’d like to cover the following topics related to helping you understand more about barefoot mechanics:

  • Part 1: Posture, Cadence, and Toe Splay
  • Part 2: Ground Feel, Balance, and Foot Placement
  • Part 3: Strike Points, Socks, and Foot Care

It is my strong belief that we must first master maximum efficiency while moving (hiking), once we have achieved that we can begin to focus on the rest of our body, clothing, and ultimately the gear that we use. Would it make sense for a backpacker to strap 2-pound rocks to each foot or to tape all of their toes together and go hike a mountain? That may sound silly and be a bit extreme, but my point is that’s what common practice has led us to believe is necessary to accomplish anything outdoors – I’m saying you don’t need any of that!

Improved balance, stability, agility, and increased health (on and off the trail) are some of the benefits of a barefoot approach that have been well proven. Many of the same techniques used by a barefoot runner or chi running can be applied to barefoot backpacking. Obviously there will be some variables due to the fact that backpackers tend to travel at varying speeds and over different surfaces unlike the steady, even pace of a long distance runner.

Proper Posture
The easiest way I can think of to describe proper posture is thus: With your head in a neutral position, your upper body needs to be directly over your hips and your hips need to be directly over the center of the arches of your feet.

To begin with, I would recommend spending some time to master getting your body into the proper alignment posture while standing still, to know what that feels like before you begin to hop, twist or turn. Once your body has this ‘memorized’, you can always go back to this proper posture alignment. The purpose of doing this is to let your body ‘learn’ what this feels like before putting anything on your feet or back.

  • Feel the weight over your feet
  • Keep your knees relaxed
  • Hips tucked in (not pushed forward)
  • Proud chest
  • Level chin

Learning to know when your body is in this proper alignment will help you avoid potential foot, ankle, calve, knee and back problems. Your upper body is also affected when the body is out of alignment. Having a conditioned lower back, core and upper body also helps hold the body in that alignment for extended periods. For example, sitting upright in your chair right now takes a lot more core strength than sitting slouched over in your chair.

It is also very important not to have a significant elevation change in your footwear. Having even a minimal rise in the height from your toe to your heel in your shoes will effect your posture, for this very reason I am a proponent of the ‘zero drop’ movement. Also, having any amount of significant weight on your back, even while standing still, can alter your posture considerably – something to keep in mind when making your gear list and deciding how much to carry.

Cadence (the number of times your feet strike the ground)
Once we have a proper and well aligned posture, we need to figure out the most efficient way to travel. This is where I am a firm believer that everyone is different when it comes to efficiency in travel, mainly because there are so many variables to consider:

  • Height
  • Torso length
  • Leg length
  • Gender
  • Size of foot

All these variables factor into determining what your stride length and cadence will be. One method I like to use to determine cadence is to march in place, or as I like to call it ‘shuffling in place’.

Example: A six foot male who is ‘shuffling in place’ will be striking the ground at roughly 200 times per minute. While a female at five foot two inches, moving at exactly the same speed, would be at roughly 150 foot strikes per minute = cadence. It has been proven that a shorter person has a higher rate of efficiency with their body, because it takes less energy for them to move each leg.

Toe Splay (or toe spread)
A perfect toe splay pattern would be one where your foot lifts off the ground and as it returns to the ground the pinky toe opens and the rest of the toes follow, with your big toe acting like stabilizer on an archers Bow. As the pressure increases from your body weight all your toes open or ‘splay’. Every body type has a slightly different splay pattern, but the body mechanics remains the same. The pinky toe also plays an important factor in your overall balance. Having the pinky pushed in or hindered at all affects a natural stride pattern as well as your balance.

This is still somewhat of a controversial subject in the minimalist/barefoot world, especially with the huge growth in footwear sales that we’ve seen in the last few years. It feel as though almost every manufacturer has come out with a ‘barefoot’ model these days, with barefoot this and minimal that. How do you know which is right for you as a user? Other than ground feel, I believe that toe splay is the biggest differential between these types of footwear right now. The to choosing the proper barefoot/minimal shoe is to find one that lets all your toes move freely and let you feel the ground – that’s typically referred to as a wide or ‘spacious toebox’ in shoe review terminology. The pinky toe must be able to float freely to fully be able to execute a perfect natural stide.

I personally prefer to wear Vibram Five-Finger (VFF) shoes because they fit like a pair of gloves on my feet and I absolutely love the natural feel and comfort they provide. I mostly wear the VFF KSO, KSO Treksports, and Trek (which are only good for dry environments), but I am also trail testing a pair of the new VFF Seeya for trail running and hiking, and a pair of VFF SpyridonLS for snow travel. I also enjoy my Luna Huaraches sandals (testing the ATS system) and just going truley ‘barefoot’ with my real skin to the ground in valley type hikes.

I have personally been a little turned off by minimal shoes that are more of a shoe shell. I have tried on a few models that are popular in the market right now and decided that they weren’t the feel I was personally looking for. Since I believe in the importance of breathablity and keeping your skin dry as much as possible to avoid ‘hot spots’, being able to purge water from your shoes as fast as possible (as you are running or walking) is extremely important. Even though I get asked all the time what ‘barefoot/minimal’ shoes I would recommend for this or that, I feel like I would make a bad minimal shoes reviewer because I am so used to the VFF glove-style shoes.

If I had to give some recommendations of non-monkey feet shoes, I’d suggest the following models based on feedback I have received and reviews that I have read online from reputable resources that I trust:

My top four non-toed shoe picks:

To learn more about barefoot backpacking, stay tuned for the next two installments from Barefoot Jake. If you have a Twitter account be sure to follow @BarefootJake or the hashtag #BarefootBackpacking.

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  • I love VFF but I hate using them on hikes as getting rocks, twigs and even picking flowers with them gets annoying (got a whole bouquet after a stroll through a field)!
    I tested Inov-8 but found them to be far too narrow, personally I use the Merrell barefoot shoes wich is a perfect compromise even though the ground feel is significantly less than in the VFF and I can use normal socks (a big plus!). 
    The perfect shoe for me would be a “one-toe” VFF, the same thin sole as the KSO but with one large compartment for the toes.

  • Hello Friend,
      I am glad you found something that works best for you.  That is very important.  However (something i should included in the Toe Splay Section) Wearing convectional Socks significantly affect the way your Toes Splay with each Stride.  Also the more material you put next to your skin affects the way that your skin drys once they get saturated.  
      To meet you half way.  I would suggest wearing a Synthetic Toe Sock inside your Barefoot Shoes.  That will keep the Moisture away from your Skin as much as possible and let your Toes Naturally Splay with each Step.  – Cheers BFJ

  • Ryan Wheeler

    Is it the toe box itself that makes VFF less than ideal for you, or just the space between the toes on the outside of the shoe? Because a shoe that maintained the glove-style shape, but had webbing between the individual toe boxes on the outside of the shoe would probably eliminate the “bouquet grabbing” that you described. That might be a way for VFF to maintain their style, too. Not sure how other feedback is on VFF about this, but that’s what came to mind for me, anyway.

    I tend to walk around totally barefoot whenever possible – I even know the stores and such around that practice “No Shirt No Shoes” policies, for which I just carry a pair of flipflops to throw on when I walk in. I drive barefoot (operating a clutch barefoot is better than operating one with a flimsy flipflop, anyway). It’s just a much better situation for my experiences, anyway. I like the tactile sensation of the ground wherever I walk.

    I look forward to reading the rest of this series!

  • I find the topic of cadence interesting. In the minimalist running world, it is generally agreed upon that a cadence of 180 bpm or more is ideal. The reason being that at that speed our muscles maintain maximum elasticity. I have wondered if there is a minimum cadence for walking/hiking that has similar benefits.

  • Thanks for your feedback,
      The slower you walk the cadence would be affected.  The ‘degrees’ in your Forward Lean would also be affected. 
    An easy Training Tip would be videoing yourself Walking with any higher end Camera.  Then slow down the Frames Per Second. Pay attention to what your hips do and where your striking the ground.  The slower you go the strike point tends to drift back to the Mid Foot.  The fast you go the Forefoot should be where your striking.  All this information listed has variables on Height and Limb Length.  So it would be difficult for me to describe a perfect stride in words since there are so many variables to consider.   Hope this isn’t to confusing and is helpful to you.  Cheers – BFJ

  • My daughter is a barefoot shoe proponent – and I am coming around a little bit, but I am too worried about foot injuries from abrasions to head out on a backpack trip with minimal shoes.   A couple of summers ago I had on some diver’s socks when crossing a creek in Montana, and severely bruised my foot on a sharp rock – wondered for a while if I was going to be able to hike out.

  • Good article. I’ve been experimenting with minimalist footwear since ’09 and love what it has done for my feet. I’m a huge fan of the Altra Lone Peak shoes and am stoked to see more folks talking about them.  Having a nice wide toe-box has alleviated many problems for me, and their zero drop construction feels amazing. They are my shoe of choice for my upcoming 3000 mile thru hike of the Continental Divide Trail.

  • John

    I’ve been wearing VFF’s for two years now, do several 5-8 mile hikes a week and have done backpacking trips up to 70 miles in them. I don’t wear toe socks, while providing a bit of padding, they hold too much moisture. One of the things I love about VFF’s is that they dry out incredibly fast.
    I have been wearing Merrell Tough Gloves for the past month or so, just for work. Got tired of the questions and jokes while wearing the VFF’s in public. I was surprised that I had some major pain in my feet and ankles for the first week or so wearing the Merrell’s. There is something different about the sole of the shoe compared to the VFF, but after a break-in period, they are just about as comfortable. 
    I have three backpacking trips in the coming months, one of which to the top of Mt. Washington, will be wearing my VFF’s on all.
    Can’t say enough about barefoot/minimalist shoes, they are awesome.

  • @lint I’m a personal fan of your adventures.  I watched a video that Oregon Field Guide did that you were featured in.  I  gave you complements on your stride while you were hiking in that video while i was watching it.  Did you feel your ears burning?  lol  Thanks for your feedback on the Altra Lone Peaks.  – BFJ

  • Good to see others are getting some Trail Miles in with there VFF’s. Thank you for your feed back John . 
    With the Merrell sounds to me like an issue with breaking in the Shock Plate that the manufacture put inside the shoe to ‘help you’.  Others have expressed this issue to me as well with the Shoe in the past. 
     Sounds to me like your in the Wa area?  You should shoot me a PM with your contact info.   I would love to get some trail miles in sometime friend.  – BFJ

  • John

    Actually I’m in south central PA. Traveling up to NH for the Seek the Peak fundraising hike in July. 

  • I’ve had good success with the Merrell Trail Gloves even on some
    fairly rough terrain. They feel nice and cool and there seems to be enough
    under foot protection in my opinion. For heavy loads I go with the Inov-8
    ROCLITE 312 GTX, gives you a bit more padding and goretex – which can be nice
    for quick stream crossings, morning dew or mild rain.

  • I love my Merrell Trail Gloves too, but mostly for running and not trail running. Probably because my feet are not yet strong enough to handle the rougher terrain with such minimal foot protection.

    I am considering trying the Columbia Drainmakers, does anyone have any experience with these?

  • Marita

    Really? Barefoot? This is hardly barefoot. Barefoot backpacking is carrying pretty much nothing on you except a little food and maybe a handmade fire kit, no shoes, plain clothes… purist at its finest.