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  1. #1
    Long Trail '04
    Join Date
    San Francisco (PCT country)

    Default NYT feature on Barefoot Hiking

    Hmm.. even the New York Times is covering barefoot hiking now. Think i'll continue to keep my boots on..

    <NYT_HEADLINE type=" " version="1.0">Footloose and Boot Free: Barefoot Hiking </NYT_HEADLINE>

    <NYT_BYLINE type=" " version="1.0">By ETHAN TODRAS-WHITEHILL
    September 22, 2006

    </NYT_BYLINE><NYT_TEXT>FIVE minutes into the trail at Oxbow Park, west of Rochester, Minn., the dirt path became a narrow field of sharp rocks. Immediately ahead was a twisting wooden staircase with extruding nailheads. Nothing to be concerned about if you’re wearing shoes. But I wasn’t.

    Jim Guttmann, my guide to the world of barefoot hiking, walked calmly ahead of me over the rocks, his face a portrait of serenity, and up the steps. Not once did he wince or alter his gait. “Your body adapts,” he had told me. But mine was not adapting fast enough.

    The Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota were at Oxbow, an Olmsted County park with trails through wooded hills and along a river, for one of their regular get-togethers to challenge nature with feet au naturel. The six members who turned out this particular Saturday ranged in age from David Berg, 26, a tall, tan stay-at-home dad who hiked with thumbs consistently tucked under the straps of his small backpack, to Meg Palan, 67, a former nurse with oversize glasses and mostly white hair. Mr. Guttmann, one of the group’s original organizers, fell somewhere in the middle at 44.

    None of the hikers seemed to think they were doing anything particularly odd — and from a wide perspective, maybe they weren’t. Going barefoot is still the norm in some cultures in warm climates. Although the half-dozen or so barefoot hiking clubs in the United States tend to attract turnouts in the single digits for hikes, Germany, Italy and other European countries have entire parks devoted to barefoot walking. Broader barefoot lifestyle organizations include the Society for Barefoot Living ( and Parents of Barefoot Children (

    The hikers of the barefoot world tramp not only through mud and dust, but also over rocks, tree roots and the frosty ground of autumn (though they usually draw the line at snow). Yet although they may bring to mind tales of fakirs or extreme-sports enthusiasts, barefoot hikers are neither ascetics nor thrill seekers. Almost universally, they say they go shoeless for a sense of communion with the earth and for the sheer pleasure of feeling more of the world with their feet.

    The Minnesota hikers compared the sensory experience of barefooting to wine tasting. Fresh fall leaves, Mr. Guttmann said, are “crunchy and cool,” and mud is “black dough that squishes up between your toes.” Dennis Slattengren, a 60-year-old nudist who owns a vending machine route and who was at least wearing shorts for this trek, savored the texture of silt that has run onto concrete and partially dried — “like warm velvet,” he said. On the hike at Oxbow, the pace was languid, and although the path was wide enough for two or three to walk abreast, the barefooters frequently walked single file to enjoy the spongy earth or a strip of moss underfoot. “So many people have very little or no connection with our beautiful earth and all of nature,” Ms. Palan later lamented.

    AS a first-time barefoot hiker, I just wanted to make it through this four-mile hike with all 10 toes intact. Confronting the rocks and the nail-studded staircase, I gritted my teeth and stepped forward, but before I even reached the stones, my right foot came down on a bent stick that buried itself in the tender arch like a stake. I let out a muffled yelp.
    Mr. Guttmann encouraged me to press on. “It’s like if you always wore a blindfold or earmuffs and then suddenly got exposed to lots of light or sound,” he said. “At first it’s overwhelming, but you get used to it.”
    Our hike that day took us from a picnic area across a river and into tall maple forest, where we walked a circular route, popping out briefly into small fields and eventually returning to the river. We all waded in to enjoy Mr. Guttmann’s “black dough.”
    Barefoot hikers take care of their neophytes. Mr. Guttmann showed me how to walk flat-footed on stones to distribute weight across the many sharp points and how to lead with the ball of the foot on the forest floor to roll off any stray twigs or rocks. Mr. Slattengren identified scourges like nettles, whose oil makes the feet itch, and thistles, which can take weeks to fully work themselves out of the foot. Every now and then I noticed a footstep that felt gooey and moist, although no water was to be seen. Mr. Guttmann waved it off. “It’s all in your mind,” he said, laughing. “Just don’t think about whatever it was, and it’ll wear off down the road.”

    The only other hikers we met were a well-shod family of five who hurried past, glancing askance at our feet and barely returning our friendly greetings. Alan Seaver, who created the Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota with Mr. Guttmann, said that snubs were an exception and that people were generally pretty friendly on the trail.

    “The funny thing is the number of people who will pass us wearing huge, expensive hiking boots and talk about how ‘they wish they could do that,’ ” Mr. Seaver said. “You can. Just take off your shoes.” He and Mr. Guttmann carry barefoot-hiking business cards to hand out on such occasions, but finding other barefoot enthusiasts is not easy, and the members of this club were happy to have one another.

    Seasoned hikers, of course, have the advantage of seasoned feet. This group’s looked pretty normal from above, but on the underside were footpads more suited to bears than to humans. David Berg, who was in training for a barefoot marathon, had a particularly remarkable set: his feet resembled those of the Michelangelo statue with which he shares his first name: wide, bulging with muscle and solid as marble. Since a canoe trip in the fall of 2004 when he started “taking the shoes off,” he said, his feet had grown wider and stronger and no longer needed arch support.

    “My dad thinks I’m crazy,” Mr. Berg said. “My father-in-law can’t imagine how I manage to walk all over his property without shoes or regard to the location of any paths, but my wife has become accustomed to it.” He’s pinning hopes on his children, 2 and 4, who still go barefoot.

    Although a few barefoot marathoners come along every generation, like the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, who set a world marathon record while running barefoot in 1960, barefoot trail hiking is pretty much the antithesis of a competitive sport. Still, it has its shining stars.

    Among them are Susan and Lucy Letcher, sisters who barefooted most of the Appalachian Trail in 2001 — while carrying 45-pound packs. Their feet were tender at first, Susan Letcher, 27, said, but after five days of twigs and sharp pine cones they were ready for anything. At one campsite in New Hampshire, 300 miles into the hike, they realized that they had been walking around on broken glass and hadn’t felt a thing. “The bottoms of our feet were like boot leather,” she said.

    Their favorite hiking surface is sun-baked rocks, which Susan says feels like “walking on the scales of a sleeping dragon” and which Lucy, 30, describes as “cat’s-tongue’s roughness combined with a lovely warmth.”

    Barefooters’ abilities to handle trails are no surprise to Edward Tenner, a specialist in the history of technology (including shoes) who is a visiting scholar at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. In his book “Our Own Devices,” he cited research in the 1950’s in which the feet of barefoot Hong Kong fishermen were found to be structurally healthier and more dexterous than those of shoe wearers, despite lacerations and deformed toenails. Shoes reshape the feet, Dr. Tenner said, and “if you believe that evolution has optimized parts of the body, it’s presumably healthier for a part of the body to assume its normal shape.”

    DR. DAVID E. SAMUEL, a podiatric surgeon in Philadelphia, notes that the skin is a very sensitive organ and says that constant barefooting will increase that sensitivity, which seems to explain barefoot hikers’ enjoyment. But he firmly favors shoes. Barefooters risk puncture wounds, nail trauma and the invasion of small foreign bodies or unfriendly organisms, he said, adding, “I’m sure a lot of Neanderthals died from foot infections.”
    Nevertheless, as the hike at Oxbow Park wore on, I found myself focusing less on the patches of gravel and muck and more on the bushes of purple and white phlox and the shifting greens of the maple leaf canopy. Somehow the extra sensations I felt that afternoon from the ground heightened all the others: I paid more attention than usual to the play of sunlight dappling the ferns and the sounds of bluebirds chirping.

    Near the end of the trail, we came across a stretch of ground that molded to my feet while still supporting them, like space-age memory foam. I bent down to examine the substance and found it was several packed inches of pulverized leaves — pure compost — and I realized I had a tasting note of my own to share with the group. Soft, spongy, cool but not wet, with just a hint of crackle.


    SEVERAL clubs around the country run barefoot hikes. Here are a few and the hikes they sponsor.
    Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota, Hikes near Minneapolis, usually on the second Saturday of each month May through October.
    Seattle Barefoot Hikers, Monthly hikes April to October in the Seattle area.
    East Bay Barefoot Hikers, Monthly hikes year-round in the San Francisco Bay Area.
    Barefoot Hikers and Grass Walkers of Greater Kansas City, Hiking once or twice a month, except in winter, around Kansas City, Mo.


  2. #2
    Registered User Shiraz-mataz's Avatar
    Join Date
    Leonardtown, MD


    What a fantastic article! As someone known (among my small circle) for hiking barefoot, it's encouraging to read such a positive article in a mainstream publication.

    Hiker wearing boots: "How can you walk without shoes on?"

    Barefoot hiker: "Well, how can you THINK without a HAT on!?!?"

  3. #3 Miss Janet's Avatar
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    Erwin, Tn

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