Questions & Answers

Barefoot hiking hazards

I was recently reminded why I usually hike wearing Merrel Pace Gloves. I hiked Lark Harbour Head, in Blow-me-Down Provincial Park, in the Outer Bay of Islands near Corner Brook, Newfoundland. It's a fairly easy 3 km hike (one way) beginning on boardwalk, but mostly on dirt and bedrock. I hiked out barefoot.

It's a beautiful area, if you're ever in Western Newfoundland I recommend checking out the Bay of Islands as well as the more famous Gros Morne National Park, a bit further north.

The sturdy boardwalk turns into rotting boardwalk, which in turn gives way to a sort of corduroy road in the wet spots: forearm-thick tree trunks laid parallel to the trail, with cross-pieces nailed on to hold them in place. This would be fine, only the cross-pieces have mostly rotted away, leaving the nails behind. Someone has pounded those flat... well, most of them. I found one they'd missed, catching it right between my little toe and the next toe on my right foot.

No serious damage done - skin peeled off at the base of each toe, and a bruise between them. I stopped and washed it off, dumped some alcohol on it (yup, I always have my first aid kit!), and continued my hike. I put VFFs on for the return hike because my feet aren't toughened up, not because of the injury.

This also pointed out something I've noticed - the greatest hazards to bare feet are usually human-made. I also caught a branch between my toes on this hike (it's a talent...) which hurt, but did no damage. The branch could "give", though. The spike could not. Unyielding human artefacts are usually pretty rough on feet, shod or unshod.

I'll go back to my usual habits, wearing minimal shoes unless I'm really sure of what's underfoot. I love gardening barefoot, because I know what's around the yard, but heading onto the trails I'll be keeping my shoes on... mostly. Cool, muddy trails on a hot day are too much temptation!

Happy trails, with or without shoes.


PS: I guess you have to click on the thumbnails to see the images at full size.


Answers and Replies


Looks like an absolutely beautiful hike. Sorry to hear about your foot, it sounds like it had the potential to be a lot worse!

I genarally hike with some form of protection, even if it is a very thin sole, just to prevent abrasion.


I've been thinking about all the people who chant "barefoot is best", and whether that makes any sense. So I decided to see how a short hike barefoot would go. This experience convinces me that my gut feeling is correct - that as soon as humans could make footwear, they did, particularly for any activity during which they might need to concentrate on something other than their feet. I caught the twig and the spike between the toes when my attention was elsewhere. My feet are pretty tough, but there are so many things to trip over or step on that it seems silly not to wear shoes.

I did some superficial research on moccasins a while back, and there are many, many styles. Every tribe in North America had their version. This tells me that the original human inhabitants of this land wore something on their feet, at least most of the time. They weren't heavy, armoured, supportive hiking boots, but they protected their feet from the sharp stuff. Rather like modern minimalist footwear. So I'm going back to my Merrells, although I'm sure I'll give in to temptation on the next really hot day when I reach a stretch of wet trail - nothing compares to being barefoot in mud on a hot day!

The Merrell Pace Gloves have made hiking fun for me again. They've forced me to strengthen my ankles, and I haven't had a sprain since I started wearing them. Seems like a rational compromise between allowing the foot its natural function, and protecting it.


Foxglove I have to agree with you moccasins for a reason. I looked into this last year. Why do we see people in Africa barefoot in the villages and yet over here they were shod. I live in what is called Shield country... Canadian Shield. It is a massive area of granite really. Mother nature does her best to wear it done and break off bits in the winter ice etc. They are sharp and hard it is not like tumbled stones. I tried to walk on it all day but it just did not work. I now wear Wokova Feather sandals with a 4mm sole. They take the edge of the sharp stuff but I am regularly stepping on bits that hurt, just hurt less and this has allowed me to become more accustomed to going bare feet on it. No way I could hike all day on it though. 3 hours south of me it is a different story you can hike for miles in the woods on soft dirt and clay but as you point out as soon as you find man made stuff it gets worrisome. After having gone barefoot for a year and a half I can no longer wear the Merrell products they are simply not near wide enough. I have a pair of Leming shoes that are fantastic and the Feelmax Osma. I just hope my mukluks fit this winter. Oh yes and just yesterday for the first time I got a sliver in my foot. I work all day in bare feet and was in the shop and think I got a bit of metal in it.... man made again LOL


Interesting that you find the Merrells too narrow. I had to go up a size this year, and it certainly wasn't because my feet grew in length! Good to know the Lemings fit a bit wider, although I'm not sure my feet can get much wider than they are already. I've always had trouble finding dressy shoes to fit, my mother attributed that to having allowed me to run around either barefoot or in roomy sneakers (or runners or trainers, depending on your country of origin) as a kid. I continued that practice into adulthood, wearing the roomiest footwear I could find, and the rise of minimalist footwear has been great for me.

I think you're mad to work barefoot, I can't pay enough attention to my feet when I'm occupied with something else. Maybe I'm just lousy at multi-tasking! Those metal shavings hurt like heck, I was always picking them up as a kid running around sock-footed in the basement near my dad's metal lathe.


I was born with wide feet. 5E's wide. My parents had to mail order shoes for me for a couple of years when we lived too far from a major urban center and this was in the 60's. I run a cottage resort so everyday all day is a work day. I find that I work smarter and cleaner when I do it in bare feet. If taking apart a structure boards with nails are not just tossed aside, one places them nail side down for instance. Debris is cleaned up quicker except saw dust it is nice to walk on. I was drilling out a swim ladder to remove the rivets and I think a bit of that might have stuck, easy enough repair. I find it hard to do shovel work but most of the soil here is sand/scree type so it can be done. it takes surprisingly little effort to keep the feet out of harms way and my local hardware store gets a chuckle when I go in with my "work boots" on..... my barefeet where a bit speckled from painting.(have to wear something on the feet in the stores :-(


Most of the injuries I've had while going barefoot have been in my own home! There was once I dropped a large cabinet on my bare toes at work :( When I'm outside in nature I get small scrapes but nothing serious.


For me it depends on the hike. If I have no clue as to what I'll be facing on the trails, I definitely start out in my VFFs, and then take them off once I get an idea. In Thailand, I don't even take a pair of shoes with me when I'm outside the city, and oftentimes there will be people joining me here and there in my barefootedness, especially out in nature.


There's just too much variability in the terrain for me to consider barefoot (not that that stops me). I stick with my hiking huaraches almost full year round.

I have vffs but I no longer use them, too restrictive, hot and smelly ;-)

I've had razor sharp stones penetrate the 6mm huararche soles into my feet on a couple of occaisions, and sticks between the toes too. The benefits of not overheating, being able to stride through creeks and mud puddles without pausing, far outweigh the minor damage I've received.

Other hikers seem more concerned about ankle support and snakes. I find I'm more alert to the potential hazzards of the trail because I'm essentially barefooted, and going without ankle support has improved the strength of my feet enabling me to survive ankle turning mis-steps without problems.

Is this what most people are finding?


That's definitely been the case for me. When I was young my parents were told I needed to have orthotics in my shoes to help with my foot and back pain, but I still had constant problems with weakness in my ankles. I've always been a very cautious person (in fact, I think if anything I've only grown less cautious with age!) so I never had a very serious ankle injury that left me long-lasting problems, but since I've started barefooting, all of my problems have gone away, and I've come away unscathed from some missteps that would have been pretty bad before.


Even do construction/destruction work I find I work much more carefully then I ever did in work boots. Lumber is placed nails down and wood with nails in it sorted not just tossed around. Instead of jamming a shovel into the ground I have to think more about how to use it since a bare foot can not force the shovel in with the same force. Nothing gets dropped on a barefoot let me tell ya. One can dance a lot faster unshod LOL


I definitely take more care with where I put my feet since I went minimal. I have a weak ankle, and was told I should wear an ankle brace while doing fieldwork. That didn't last long - I could barely walk in the stupid thing, and it made me clumsy. Pretty counter-productive! I ditched the heavy hiking boots, did some physio on the ankle, and I haven't turned the ankle since. Had some close calls, and those would have been sprains had I been stomping about in heavy boots.

I still do fieldwork in stiff boots, I haven't found a reasonable alternative. I'm a stream ecologist, so I wear stocking-foot neoprene waders with wading boots. Often I'm kick sampling the bottom, which can be pretty rocky, so I need something sturdy. Kicking rocks all day would be pretty painful, but I do wish I had something a little less chunky than I've got. The soles are completely rigid, and I feel quite unstable wading on a rough bottom. I can't feel, let alone grip, the substrate. But spending all the rest of my time in minimal footwear has strengthened my feet, ankles and legs, and made me more attentive to where I'm stepping, and I've not sprained my ankle in the field, even when I'm slogging around exhausted at the end of the day.

I agree, VFF seem pretty hot and restrictive. I wanted to give them a try but it seems my instincts were correct! Oh well, at least they were on sale.

I had the pleasure of visiting Newfoundland and the views were out of this world. I went to the Gros Morne National Park but will take your advice on checking out the Bay of Islands.

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