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Barefoot Backpacking – Part 2 | Barefoot Jake

In the last article I wrote about barefoot backpacking I covered posture, cadence and toe splay. Now I want to cover some other aspects of going barefoot/minimal that are important for you to be aware of: Ground feel, balance, and foot placement.

As I’ve mentioned in the past; one must have a strong foundation to have a strong house. The same rule applies for our bodies.  If one thing goes out of alignment, it trickles down to other parts of body or has an impact in some way. Completely different muscle groups can be used by just changing the smallest thing.

Ground Feel
This is a major problem that is in decline in the current trend of minimal footwear. Shoe companies are the ones that are most at fault in this issue. As backpackers we use or should use three major senses at all times: Touch, hearing, and smell.

Unfortunately modern man through several generations has forgotten how to use these key senses. For example, many of us happily block our sense of hearing by using MP3 players as we walk, run, hike. This is further fueled by the trend in footwear to be as soft (and comfortable) as possible. After decades of shoe manufacturers providing our feet with a sense of comfort, we are now realizing that it is ruining our feet instead of helping them. I will go far to say, “numbing the outdoor experience.” (pls, no hate mail)

Example: You grab onto your ultralight pot lid after bringing your water to a rolling boil. Quickly pulling your hand back before you even realize what happened. Saying to yourself, “$#@!, that was hot!” Before you even realized that you had grabbed hold of something that was dangerously hot, your nervous system took over and reflexively pulled your hand back away from the danger faster than you could comprehend it.

The same thing should happen when walking. If a person walks incorrectly in any way, such as over-striding or pronating, their body should automagically let them know through their senses. With an increased sense in a particular environment, the human foot can even be an indicator if you are at risk of hyperthermia or that you should protect yourself against the effects of the sun.

No matter what shoe manufacturer say, there is no such thing as a minimal transition shoe! Companies mislead you with ads and sponsored reviews and opinions of running coaches that publish online content. They perceive that you should taper down the amount of cushion and the angle of heel elevation to transition your feet in slowly. The truth is that the amount of time stimulating foot muscles and distance should be tapered the opposite direction. Starting off with very small/short time on your feet. Only increasing by 10% at the most after soreness period is gone.

I personally have “fit” over a 100 people into footwear by request over the last year. I first would ask, “what primary surface will you be traveling on?” Based on their response I would build from there starting as minimal as possible. The greater material that you use to provide “protection” around your feet, the rate of fighting atrophy is decreased. It is very important that you stimulate these muscles daily (within your own limitations) to rehabilitate back to the way you were meant to travel.

Be barefoot as much as possible whenever you can. Want to protect your feet against sharp rocks, snow, etc? Then chose footwear that is as light and minimal as possible. Only add material to your feet based on the environment that you travel in. Remember, there is no one pair of perfect footwear.

Most of our balance comes from equilibrium and the body’s core. The feet also provide a great amount; giving us the foundation. The more material you protect your feet with, the greater your balance is decreased. This is very important, since 99% of backpacking is traveling on or over uneven surfaces. The type of surface can also hinder our ‘grip’ to the ground, such as loose rock, snow and ice.

There is an enormous amount of balance required to keep proper posture when ascending and descending different grades along our route. We must remember to keep our core tight and be “falling forward” from our ankles, even while descending. The only thing that should change is the cadence of our steps. Taking more steps while traveling on a downhill grade than you would climbing.

I understand that you cannot always have perfect posture and balance. Especially when traveling in more sketchy or hazardous conditions. However, having good balance to fall back on as much as possible is a very valuable skill when it comes to efficiency. This can be mastered over time and with lots of practice.

I personally believe the best way to master this is to run and walk on sheets of ice. (Do this at your own risk!) It is impossible to have bad posture, gate and balance when traveling on a slippery surface. If you alter any one of these things you will slip and fall. Ouch. After falling; my body tells me not to do that again. Simple, as long as you listen.

Foot Placement
Proprioception plays the biggest role on where we place our feet. Like a chess master your body should always be thinking several moves ahead. Knowing where each foot is going to be placed, even before we take that step.

One of the most common things I hear is, “I tried minimalist footwear once, but I kept stubbing my toes.” The more time you spend walking barefoot and listening to how your feet feel, the more you will be able to use this sense to your advantage.

Example: If you were searching for car keys in a dark room. Would you put oven mits over your hands and then try to find them? One wrong step on a dangerous section of trail could mean the difference between a broken bone and an epic weekend adventure. Sure footing is key for our safety and why it’s so important for these senses to be stimulated.

I personally believe that it is better to take a few extra steps, than to take a longer step and elongate your stride. Elongating your stride will drastically affect your overall balance and stability thereby ncreasing the risk of a fall.

Tip: A drill I like to do while near a river gravel bar is to walk around on the tops of smoothed river rock balancing your body over each one as you go. Take your time with this, try to step on each one in your route. The slower you go, the more balance and muscle control will be involved. This is also a great way to stretch your feet, if you try to wrap your toes around each rock as you step on them :)

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

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  • what do you recommend for “soft skin” transition? My shoe protected feet are ‘baby butt’ soft. So to keep from getting a serious infection from cut skin while walking on a BOAT load of bacteria et al found in the soil, what do you do think for folks like me?? [[btw: really have grown to your blog/site: you’re info is great and I have actually bought a couple of items you rec’d. What is your choice of knife btw?]] Thanks!

    • Hello Friend,
      I try to wash my feet a few times a day in streams and such. This keeps the dirt from mainly drying out my skin. Also great for hygiene.
      To toughen up your skin I would suggest going and finding a coarse round rock. Take this rock and rub it on the bottom of your feet during washing. This same rock can also be worked on the bottoms of your feet while one the ground through the day.
      Hope this answers your questions. – BFJ

  • Great article Jake!

    When we first started doing serious hiking and backpacking, my wife struggled with knee problems. The answer of course was for her to get a pair of VFF KSOs, and from that point onward the problem went away. She now wears a shoe with a little more protection (NB Minimus Trail), but every so often if she feels a problem working it’s way back, she knows she needs to spend more time with less on her feet.

    It is amazing, once you tune into your body, how much it really can tell you.

    • I have been spending a lot of time studding kids and how they move without shoes. Its very interesting to see them have the most perfect ‘barefoot running form’. This is all without any coaching. I have also found that kids need no ‘transition period’. What does all of this tell us?

  • Shawn Amison

    Great advise! Glad to see the follow up from the first part finally! I spend a lot of time barefoot already when the weather is above freezing. So transitioning to barefoot shoes was rather fast for me. I just hiked about 13 miles a day this past weekend in Merrel barefoot shoes and didn’t have any problems. I really enjoy the added feel of every stone and every stick under my feet that you can’t feel with normal shoes. Definitely take the advise of the article and start slowly and ramp up over time or you could easily injure yourself. Practicing frequently, you learn that you can’t just jump on a sharp rock from 4 feet up because that will actually hurt quite a bit :)

    • agreed. take what you think you can do. cut that in half and go slow. Its not worth an injury because of impatience. Glad Brian and I could get this up for all as well.

  • Excellent series, can’t wait until #3 comes out (any idea when this will be?)

    • If you cross your fingers. Maybe before xmas? ;-)

      • And then only if I get it published in time. I’ve been somewhat behind on many of my posts lately.

    • I can’t wait for the Barefoot Jake podcast – gonna be epic! #thatshowrumorsstart

  • David

    I am not seeing a part three to the series… Is it hiding somewhere or is it not on the site?

  • Meierjo

    What brand are those hurrachas in the picture above? (Top down shot of your feet in snow)