The grass is cold and so are my toes. I’m carrying my shoes and socks, walking barefoot alongside two avid barefoot hikers at Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan.
Jim Guttmann has been hiking sans shoes for more than a decade. In 2003, he co-founded the Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota club, which organizes free spring, summer and fall monthly hikes. Shawn Hart, who goes barefoot for everything from running to driving, is a member of the Society for Barefoot Living, a group with chapters around the world.
As we hike, Guttmann says although the grass is cold, his feet aren’t chilled. “It’s 50 degrees, I can hike all day barefoot. If it was wet, I’d probably start feeling cold.” Soon, we’re stepping on packed dirt, a soft and easy surface. When Guttmann, Hart and I reach a patch of sandy trail, we linger, walking back and forth over the sun-warmed surface. We look out over Holland Lake and savor the glistening view ahead and the warm ground underfoot.
Guttmann says going barefoot makes it easy for hikers to savor their surroundings. “Barefoot, you’re more aware because you’re paying attention and you have feedback. You stop and see more. You become part of nature, not just viewing it.” Hart says barefoot hikers can feel more in touch with the nature around them, literally. “You connect.” The sand reveals our footprints, which Hart says are, “like your signature you’re leaving.”
The two hikers discuss trail surfaces the way some people talk about wine. Weathered woodchips are “kind of spongy,” moss is “nature’s carpet.” Guttmann rates clover his favorite surface, noting that “the small broadleafs have a soft matted quality.” Rocks, although hard, are often worn smooth and usually aren’t a problem for bare feet. Pea gravel, acorns, and sand burrs can be more challenging. Still, Guttmann says “I rarely find a natural surface that’s not good to walk on with bare soles. You become aware of the different sensations.”
Both men say going barefoot helps people move properly and avoid injuries. “Shoes are rigid,” Guttmann says, “You almost can’t help but land on your heels. When you walk barefoot, you hit midfoot, landing on the ball (of your foot), then your toes. If you do land heel first and hit a rock, you learn fast.” Hart says, “My form is better when I run barefoot. I feel lighter. It feels easier to (be in alignment) without shoes on.”
Hart and Guttmann are part of a growing barefoot movement. A 2009 best-selling book, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, quoted doctors who say those who go barefoot are more likely to have stronger, healthier feet, free of corns, bunions and fallen arches. Guttmann concurs, saying, “As you go barefoot, your muscles work better. Not having your feet constricted, it improves your circulation.”
Walking shoeless does change a person’s foot. Guttmann describes his soles as “living leather.” Hart says he’s grown a centimeter from the extra pad of callous that’s grown on his soles since he started running barefoot on asphalt, which he compares to “kind of like sandpaper, abrasive.”
Barefoot hikers and runners may have tough feet, but both Hart and Guttmann say bare footers don’t seek pain. “Everyone thinks there’s all this broken glass around,” Hart says, but that’s not true.
Bare feet are more likely to get dirty. Hart has to clean his shower more often because of his barefoot trail runs. Surprisingly, Guttmann says most barefoot walkers don’t end up with filthy feet. “Soles just naturally clean themselves, especially, when you go through grass” that helps brush off dirt. “When we finish our short hike, our feet have just a light skim of dust.”
But even avid barefoot advocates like Guttmann sometimes lace up shoes. Once it’s cold and snowy, he says, “I just resign myself to shoes.”
Kate Havelin likes to run, hike, ski, and kayak. She’s written two popular Adventure Publications trail guides, Best Hikes of the Twin Cities and Minnesota Running Trails: Dirt, Gravel, Rocks & Roots. Contact Kate at www.katehavelin.com