Modern adults are rarely without footwear, all too eager to cover their feet for everything from walking to the mailbox to relaxing on the back porch. And while shoes are, of course, frequently required (like for your morning coffee run, grocery shopping, and dinner out with friends), the outdoors offer a stellar opportunity to kick off your shoes and free your feet for a change.
Yes, despite the presence of dirt, sticks, mud, and uneven surfaces, you can—and perhaps should—ditch your shoes for your next ramble in the woods. Because going barefoot offers holistic health and wellness benefits, strengthens your feet, improves balance, and is just plain fun. Here’s how to do it safely and why you might want to consider hiking barefoot on your next outing.
The benefits of walking barefoot
The physical effects stem from the fact that when barefoot, the small bones, muscles, and ligaments in your feet can move more freely than they would in typical footwear that reduces natural movement. This restriction can lead to physically weaker foot muscles, less stabilization when walking, and even flat arches.
The potential anti-inflammatory effects may be attributed to the practice of grounding or earthing, which involves your bare skin touching natural surfaces—as it would when walking barefoot. Grounding has been shown in small studies to reduce pain and inflammation, but more research is needed.
There are also more immediately tangible results to hiking in unshod feet, explains Paul Thompson, a podiatrist and founder of The Barefoot Movement, who specializes in barefoot neuromuscular training in New South Wales, Australia. “Traditional shoes often encourage compensations in our natural gait,” he says. “By returning to a barefoot state, we can utilize our entire body in a more balanced and efficient manner. This not only improves the efficiency of walking but also allows us to adapt more effectively to varying terrains.”
Translation: hiking barefoot could improve your balance and reduce your risk of injury. Thompson says that’s because the “heightened sensitivity translates into improved reaction times, enabling hikers to swiftly respond to terrain changes and avoid potential discomfort or injuries.”
[Related: Learn how to use trekking poles]
But strengthening your feet, just like other parts of your body, takes time, so if you’re new to barefoot hiking, take it slow to protect your soles.
Much like transitioning to barefoot-style shoes, slow and steady is the way to go when attempting barefoot hiking. After all, if you’ve spent most of your life in cushioned, overbuilt footwear, walking barefoot on any surface is likely going to take some getting used to.
So start with short barefoot walks on soft surfaces like grass. Then incorporate foot exercises into your daily routine. Perform heel raises by planting the balls of your feet and lifting your heels off the ground while squeezing a tennis ball between your heels. Or a technique called “short foot,” where you stand up straight with bare feet, spread your toes, and strive to raise your arches while keeping your heels and the balls of your feet firmly planted.
All of this will strengthen your feet and condition them to the novel feeling and workload of being barefoot for extended periods of time. When you’re ready to hike, Thompson says one short stroll a week is plenty at the start. As your feet become stronger and your soles toughen, you can progressively increase hike duration.
When you hike, bring along a first aid kit and a pair of shoes or sandals in case you come to a section of trail you’re not comfortable traversing without foot protection. Slide them on when you need to and back off again whenever you’re ready.
Then, take it slow. You’ll likely need to pay more attention to where you’re planting your feet than you do while wearing shoes. That means you may end up hiking a bit more slowly than you’re used to, but it also means you’ll be experiencing your surroundings in a more immersive way. So take your time and enjoy the journey.
Find a trail
When it comes to picking the perfect trail for a barefoot hike, some destinations can be more accommodating than others. In Celerina, a small town located in the Swiss Alps, for example, there are dedicated trails specifically for barefoot hiking.
But those are few and far between in the US, so depending on where you’re located, you may have to do a bit of research. One way is to find a local barefoot hiking group, several of which are scattered around the US. If there’s not an official club near you, check websites like Meetup or Facebook for barefoot-friendly hiking events. Even if you don’t want to join a group hike, you can ask for trail recommendations in your area.
If you’re searching on your own, focus on finding trails with ideal surfaces for hiking barefoot, at least when you’re starting out. These include grass, soft dirt, and sand. Even mud is often more fun barefoot than in shoes—plus, going shoeless keeps your boots clean.
Though there aren’t many high moors left in the world, Katharina Moosbrugger, hiking guide and founder of Naturerfahren, a nature-focused tour company in Austria, says these landscapes are an excellent place to walk barefoot thanks to the soft, spongy surfaces. But because these open tracts of land can hide deceptively deep bogs, you’ll want to opt for a guided hike through such areas if you’re not familiar with them. Otherwise, you could easily sink up to your shoulders in wet mud.
Once you’ve found a few ideal spots and are ready to liberate your feet from shoes, have at it. Just remember to take it slow, pick trails wisely, and enjoy the experience of being outdoors as nature intended.