When most people go hiking, they reach for stiff, heavy, boots with high-rise ankle support and thick soles. But others choose to go in the exact opposite direction and instead grab breathable, lightweight, flexible footwear that allows for more organic movement.
The concept of barefoot shoes is something of an oxymoron, but proponents of this style rave about the footwear’s ability to strengthen your feet and allow you to enjoy a more holistic experience outdoors. But hitting the trail in minimalist shoes requires some knowhow, lest you end up hobbling home with supremely sore feet–or worse.
Many brands now offer barefoot or minimalist shoes, and most options look similar to their more conventional counterparts.
The differences, however, are easy to spot if you know what to look for. Most barefoot shoes feature little to no cushioning, a thinner, more flexible sole, a wide toe box, and minimal arch support, if any. This design is based on foot anatomy and aims to allow more natural foot movement, feeling, and balance.
Barefoot shoes forgo some of the classic characteristics that pop to mind when you think of boots made for the outdoors, like narrow toe boxes and aggressive stabilization elements such as heel cups. But these minimalist hiking shoes can still offer features like high ankles, deep treads, and durable materials—after all, they’re still made for hiking.
Most people don’t actually need any of the built-up features in conventional footwear, says Emily Splichal of the Center for Functional and Regenerative Podiatric Medicine in Chandler, Arizona. She is a functional podiatrist, human movement specialist, and educator on natural foot function. In fact, all that cushioning and support may be doing more harm than good.
Splichal explains that shodding your feet in footwear that highly restricts your range of motion can result in your feet becoming weaker from lack of use over time.
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Barefoot shoes, on the other hand, especially when combined with foot exercises like the ones Splichal recommends to her patients, do the opposite. A 2019 study from Brigham Young University in Utah showed that walking in minimalist shoes increases foot muscle size and strength. Plus, strengthening bones, muscles and tendons “can offer benefits all the way up your spine,” Splichal states.
After all, our ancestors didn’t have super cushioning foam insoles or rigid arch support, and they got around just fine.
Most research on the matter has looked into the positive effects of barefoot shoes for running and walking, but don’t assume rough terrain is an exception. Splichal explains that the freedom of motion provided by barefoot-style shoes help train your body to move and respond to irregular surfaces–like trails covered in rocks and roots.
Less structured footwear can also help with balance, as allowing your feet to move and flex more naturally can unlock a natural stabilization response, Splichal explains.
So, if you step on an angled rock, a stronger foot and ankle, paired with a flexible shoe, can help keep you centered and upright and better able to react to uneven surfaces.
Hitting the trail with little between your skin and the ground also brings cognitive benefits. The slim sole on barefoot shoes will allow you to feel the earth beneath you, which a 2015 study from the University of North Florida, can help with memory retention. Plus, feeling the changes in terrain and the heat or coolness of the ground will provide a delightful boost in sensory stimulation.
If you’ve hiked in overbuilt boots your entire life, don’t be surprised if the transition to barefoot shoes is a bit rocky.
For starters, while Splichal advocates for this type of footwear for most people, she mentions there are certain foot types that can’t control the freedom of motion a barefoot shoe offers and may not be able to wear them for long periods of time or may never be able to fully transition.
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This includes people with flat feet or feet that are overpronated due to ligament laxity. People with high-arched rigid feet may also struggle with barefoot shoes, as they often need the cushioning of conventional footwear to help absorb impact when walking for long periods of time. Foot injuries or plantar fasciitis can also make wearing minimalist shoes difficult, at first, but a slow transition can make things easier and more comfortable.
If you think you might have one of these conditions but are not entirely sure, a podiatrist like Splichal can help you make the determination. She even has instructional videos online about how to assess your feet.
If you decide to ditch your heavy boots and give barefoot shoes a try, you should do so slowly and with caution, as your feet won’t be used to the higher stress and load they’ll be experiencing. After all, you wouldn’t hit the gym after years of inactivity, lift the heaviest weights you can manage, and not expect to be sore the next morning.
So if you don’t have a foot type or condition that prevents wearing barefoot shoes, Splichal recommends transitioning by hiking on smooth terrain at first, which will help build strength, awareness and stabilization. And since your feet will be working harder than usual in the beginning, do the same thing you’d do after a strenuous workout: balance it with recovery.
Use a golf ball, small cork ball, or—Splichal’s favorite—a Neuro Ball, but instead of rolling it under your feet, stand on it. This will create pressure, which will result in a sort of deep-tissue massage to five points on the bottom of your feet: where your heel meets your mid-foot, the middle of your foot, the ball of your foot, the center of your arch, and the outside edge of your foot.
Then, work on strengthening your feet, which you can do while cooking dinner or watching TV. Splichal recommends an exercise called “short foot,” where you stand up straight, lift your toes, spread them out wide, and place them back on the floor. Inhale through the nose and as you exhale, push the tips of the toes down into the ground. Splichal says to use 20 percent of your maximum strength while engaging your core. Hold your toes down for the full length of your exhalation, then relax, inhale and repeat five times.
Another good way to strengthen foot muscles is to stand on one leg while you’re brushing your teeth or at a standing desk.
As for how far and how fast to go while you’re transitioning, start slow with shorter hikes at a pace that’s comfortable for you. And listen to your body—as long as you’re not feeling foot fatigue or lateral ankle pain, Splichal to keep going and enjoy the journey.