Barefoot Jake caught my eye not too long ago on Brian Green's backpacking blog. Jake is a barefoot/minimalist proponent, a full-time fitness instructor/coach, an ultralight backpacker, and father who likes to get out with his son. I thought he would be an interesting guy to get to know, and what better way to do that than with an interview.
What is your preferred footwear for backpacking?
For me the Vibram Five Finger Seeya works the best. I love the super minimal upper and the 2 piece sole design. These also work great for an ultralight backpacker; since only coming in at around 9oz per pair.
More important to me since I primarily travel on trails in the Pacific Northwest; is their ability to purge water. This allows the surface of my skin to dry a little faster than the previous footwear that I have tried.
Most backpackers think heavy leather boots are the way to go. What you are doing is very unconventional by todays standards. How did you arrive at this point where you prefer minimalist footwear?
5 years ago I would have agreed with them. Back in the 90's my footwear of choice was a military type issue boot. As a fitness coach and personal trainer through the years; I have educated myself more on how the muscular system in works. That is what originally shed light on minimal footwear in my journey.
After a few months of transition time; since I had very weak feet. I started day hiking to build up to backpacking type mileage.
My feet finally free of the restricted range of motion of a traditional boot. This made hiking up and down the mountain side enjoyable on my joints again. After some time passed; I chose to get rid of all my traditional footwear.
In the last two years I have been focusing more on weight and breath-ability. Restricted range of motion in the top of the foot is also to be considered.
What do you do when things get cold and wet? I have found that while FiveFingers may work ok in conditions down to around 35 - 40F, below that they are too cold for me. If conditions are both wet, cold, and slushy it gets worse. How do you deal with those problems?
The human body is designed to adapt to its surroundings. Could take weeks to a month for the body to adapt. I purposely train my feet year around to the cold and damp environment. So that while I'm walking on snow; my feet don't get cold. For me my comfort zone is around 25 F. The coldest I've been in wearing Five Fingers is 17 F; but had to keep moving around to try to keep my extremity's from feeling numb.
Various Core layering techniques can be used while not moving as well. Keeping properly layered will keep this level regulated. I personally like to keep my torso area dry and warm. Also using tools such as a beanie, balaclava and wind breaker jacket to keep heat from escaping my body.
What is your preferred method of backcountry winter travel, when FiveFingers are no longer a viable option?
I have picked up a pair of synthetic socks. That way not to much water is absorbed and provides my skin with some type of insulation barrier against the snow. While traveling in winter the surface of the ground has minimal needs for your foot to be protected at all against sharp objects. Most of the time no footwear at all is even needed; long as constant movement is maintained.
Runners feel technique is very important when wearing minimalist shoes, in fact more important than what you have on your feet. How important do you feel walking technique is for backpacking? Is there a right way and a wrong way to do it?
I feel walking is more important than running when it comes to form. Walking is our postures foundation. One should learn how to walk first before attempting to run in minimal footwear. Less risk of injury and helps the body's muscles strengthen properly before moving up in speed when traveling on this earth.
Another key point is that humans take more steps in the form of walking, 95% more frequent than running in daily life.
A lot of the same form is used as a barefoot runner. While backpacking my posture is upright; High cadence with natural flowing arms and an upright chin.
Forward lean technique is also used like a barefoot runner. The faster you want to travel; more you lean forward. Always using forward motion; even on up or down hills.
The foots strike point also varies by speed. For a slower pace you tend to strike toward the rear of your arch and move forward on the foot when speed is increased.
If a seasoned backpacker were to throw on a pair of FiveFingers today, how long would it take them to learn the correct technique and build-up to their usual mileage?
I think the time that it takes to rehab foot muscles to their natural state varies by each person. The things I look at are age, sex, body type, weight and activity level. So based on these things; there is no set timeline.
I suggest to people - almost daily when asked - start out very small. Work on balance and posture first. After feeling comfortable with your own bare-feet; then you can move to walking. Short distances to start and gradually add by listening to feedback your body gives you.
If your body is sore; don't increase until you acclimate to your current activity.
I find it interesting that kids need little time to build these muscles or correct form. This confirms my belief that it is a very natural way to walk, as their bodies haven't gone through the same amount of muscle atrophy as an adult. Children have also not picked up all the bad posture habits from years of wearing shoes.
Since you are known by the handle Barefoot Jake, I assume that you spend a certain amount of your time unshod. What percentage of your your time do you spend barefoot vs with protection on your feet?
I prefer to be bare much as possible. However I only do so on natural surfaces such as mud, dirt, pine needs, roots, natural rock. Pavement, crushed rock, snow and alpine backpacking I prefer to be in minimal footwear. What works best for me is some of the VFF models or huaraches. 80% of the time I chose to have something on my feet.
I see that you offer coaching and workshops to hikers, backpackers, and fitness enthusiasts. How long have you been doing that? Do you have a mission and/or long term plans for developing your offerings in that area?
I have been a full time fitness/running coach since 2006. However only a minimalist running coach for the last 3 years. My coaching is very personal and will not take on large groups for that reason. Recently I picked up some new clients via webcam. Which I do full stride and posture instruction right through Skype. I plan on taking on a few more this winter.
I am booked to spend the winter of 2012 down south, but will be picking up some more spring clients in the Seattle area in 2013 when I return.
Late Spring into Fall is my time. Which I do my backpacking trips.
My long term goal is to teach workshops on natural walking and backpacking lighter in the Winter/Spring. I also will continue to take on fitness minded clients for the years to come. Since walking and being healthy go hand in hand.