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“With these shoes you can not possibly descend the next rocky stretch – THAT (points to hiking boots of my friend) are proper shoes for it!” says-scolds the older man indignantly, which we meet on the Prättigauer Höhenweg. And I understand him somehow, because probably in his eyes I look like a city girl who runs around with her flip-flops in the mountains… Except that I’m not a mountain rookie and know pretty well what I have on my feet – namely barefoot sandals.
I’ve climbed mountain peaks or hiked 8h+ hours in them. And after all, people moved primarily barefoot for thousands of years, before the invention of shoes, right? When I explain all this to him, his wildly furrowed brow does smooth out somewhat. But he’s probably not quite convinced yet. Although there are so many reasons why walking in barefoot shoes is simply awesome!
5 1/2 reasons for walking in barefoot shoes
Admittedly, it was not only the elderly gentleman who looked skeptically at my shoes. Also most of my hiking buddies look irritated when I appear with the thin sandals to the starting point of our tour. The question of “why” I then answer with the following arguments:
1 – Space for the feet!
Probably the most obvious point. Applies to open sandals even more, of course, but even closed models have a wide footbox, a wide front shoe part around the toes and forefoot to create space for the natural (wide) shape of the feet. Once you get used to it, you don’t want to go back to narrow shoes!
2 – Feel the ground
This is probably no surprise for most people, as barefoot shoes are usually characterized by the thinnest possible soles without a so-called drop (= an increase in the heel area). This gives you much more feedback from the surface you are walking on – you have a whole range of new sensory impressions, so to speak. Would you have known that feet, like hands, have a particularly large number of nerve endings – around 30,000 to be exact! You can feel this very clearly in Skinners, which are socks made of robust material. But also in my barefoot sandals from Panta, my feet notice much more in which environment they are currently walking – wet grass, muddy path sections, pebbles or soft forest soil….
3 – Musculature and posture
By far the question I hear most often is: “But won’t you twist your ankle? Fun fact: I used to twist my ankle a lot more often with sturdy mountain boots. Due to the thick sole, there was a much larger and rigid lever, through which I fell over much faster in the case of an unevenness – today I feel it early through the sole and can react. Of course, barefoot shoes don’t solve the problem per se – rather, the foot and muscles need to be built up slowly. Slacklining has helped me a lot, because it strengthens balance and also the entire arch of the foot. Speaking of the arch of the foot – some people report that they got rid of their flat foot or hallux valgus by walking barefoot or wearing appropriate shoes. Because the foot muscles build up and the bones have room for their natural shape again. This study has also shown that barefoot walking has a positive effect on gait pattern, physical performance and foot development. In addition, when walking barefoot (or in appropriate shoes), the forefoot and midfoot are usually placed first instead of the heel, which is much gentler on the joints.
4 – Train mindfulness
“Don’t you stub your toes all the time?” is something I hear over and over again. No, I don’t. But yes, it does require concentration (especially in the beginning). With barefoot sandals I look in rocky terrain exactly where I step, completely barefoot of course even more. But this also has something beautiful – I am completely in the moment and consciously perceive what is around me. This way I have a memory layer more from a hike, through my mindfulness, but also through the sensory feedback of my feet. And over time, the body gets used to it and the process becomes more subconscious. As with everything – practice makes perfect!
5 – Healthier through “Grounding”
Now we approach the not-so-obvious reasons. Have you ever noticed how much walking barefoot in a meadow or swimming in a lake relaxes you? How you literally feel “grounded”? Well, you’re not alone. “Grounding” is simply about a direct connection between our bodies and the earth. This is even said to help with chronic stress, ANS dysfunction, inflammation, pain, sleep disorders, and cardiovascular disease, in addition to strengthening the immune system. The field has not yet been systematically researched, but initial studies show clear positive effects on the health of the subjects studied. But this reason of course primarily applies for completely barefoot running without shoes 🙂
5.5 – Merging with the environment
Admittedly only relevant for a few, so I count it only as half point 😉 If you want to learn how to move silently through the forest (e.g. to observe or photograph animals), you will find it much easier with barefoot shoes. Stalking and the fox walk work best with Skinners (or completely barefoot).
Fails and Wins - my personal (brand) experiences
I have been walking and hiking through the world with barefoot shoes for about three years and have already been able to test several models and brands. One thing in advance: I have rather narrow feet, so my assessments are not transferable to all people. In the following, I report on my failures, wins and learnings on my barefoot journey so far. If you don’t feel like reading, you can also just click through the gallery!
Closed barefoot shoes
Let’s start with closed shoes: Here I was originally looking for shoes with which I can be on the slackline even in colder temperatures and which feel as barefoot as possible. I first tried the Five Fingers, but I couldn’t quite get warm with them. Too complicated to put on and too unfamiliar! Soon I became aware of the Skinners, which since then have a permanent place in my assortment – I love these sock shoes (in the picture), with which I have even walked over thorny bushes! The “sole” is 3mm thick and a pair weighs only 160g – and mine have lasted for 3 years. After this experience I started to look for barefoot shoes for hiking and everyday life. First I came across the classic Vivobarefoot, but unfortunately they did not fit me because of my narrow foot. I experienced the same problems with the models of ZAQQ. Finally, I fell in love with the Merell Trail Gloves 5 for hiking and trail running, but had to realize with regret that the successor model has a much narrower footbox – why only Merell?! For everyday life and the city I’m currently testing the shoes from Wildling – from what I’ve read so far, but these do not seem to be particularly robust regarding wet weather. I will report 🙂
Open barefoot sandals
Here I first tested the Lunas (USA), which gave me blisters and also were way thicker, heavier and inflexible than I expected. Also the binding did not convinced me. Next I tried the stark opposite – minimalist, handmade sandals from the Black Forest, the Chalas. But they in comparison were too minimalist for me and didn’t sit well on my foot, the lacing was too uncomfortable and complicated. Finally, I came across a super helpful blog called Anya’s Reviews, which lists over 100 barefoot sandals (with and without thong and also some for children). And especially the countries from which the sandals are – because in the meantime I try to buy as much as possible from as close as possible. Finally, based on this list, I ordered the Enix sandals from Spain and the Pantas from the Netherlands (see picture). The former were unfortunately again a tad too wide for me at the Velcro closure, besides, the Pantas seem higher quality and more durable. And that’s it – I fell totally in love with the Pantas and have worn them nearly all summer long! They sit really tight on the foot, nothing rubs, and the footbed (especially the leather one) fits the foot perfectly. By the way, the Pantas have also vegan options and such for children that grow with them! Tip: They do ship to Switzerland, but I had to pay CHF 27 in customs fees, so I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Instead get a free P.O. box at Grenzpaket – you pay just CHF 2.50 for a package with sandals. Only you have to pick up your package, but there are 68 different stations to choose from from Basel to Lichtenstein 🙂
Just don't overdo it! Of risks and side effects
You are curious and want to try it? Go for it! But be sure to start slowly. Your body isn’t used to this different way of walking, so you’ll soon notice that your muscles ache or pull in completely different places than usual – in my case, for example, at the back of the heel. Give your body plenty of time so you don’t create more harm than good. Focused and mindful walking, especially in barefoot sandals, is also unfamiliar and a matter of practice at the beginning. I started with shorter tours in barefoot shoes and had my “normal” shoes with me in addition, so that I could change if I got too tired. A good start are soft meadows or forest paths, also so-called barefoot parks can be a good place to begin. Over three years I have built up so slowly and can now run without problems 8h and over 1500m in elevation in barefoot sandals. Currently I’m slowly changing to completely barefoot – but this also needs patience, because now my skin under my feet has to get used to the increased friction. Next I want to run longer barefoot trails in Switzerland, this one in Appenzell near Jakobsbad, this one near Krummenau through moorland and this barefoot trail in Engadin.
Overall, I think it’s important to find out what thickness of sole you feel comfortable with and which model fits your foot shape best. Here, unfortunately (like me) you have to order and try different models at home as most brands are not (yet) available in stores. In the gallery you can find a few examples of how barefoot sandals work, what convinced me and what did not. It’s worth giving it a try – because once you’ve experienced the feeling in barefoot shoes, you may not want to go back 😉
And now what was the story about that 2552m summit...?
Yes, the summit! On my tour in the Prättigau I brought a second pair of shoes with me – my city Pantas with leather footbed. And at the start of the trip I thought spontaneously: Hmm let’s see how far I can walk with them! And the first day went suprisingly well – I hiked 15km in them and then my feet got tired. So on the second day I gave them a break and changed in my closed Merell barefoot shoes.
On day 3 I unpacked them again – let’s see how far I would get today. Slowly climbed towards the summit of the day, first through beautiful alpine meadows and soft forest paths. Then the mountain landscape became rougher, more and more stony paths mixed into the picture, until at some point I was even in front of a short climbing section secured with chains. Do I really climb up there now in barefoot sandals? I decided to give it a try – and was surprised how well I found my footing even on stone and scree. Surely the many years in the mountains have also helped, which has made me quite sure-footed in the meantime. And so I finally landed on the summit, at 2552m – in my barefoot sandals. Success! But that’s another story: the whole three-day route on the Prättigauer Höhenweg will follow in the next weeks in another blogpost!
Disclaimer: The products mentioned in this article, with one exception, were purchased and extensively tested by myself. The only exception: After the intensive test on the Prättigauer Höhenweg Panta sandals provided me with the outdoor sandals Zaros free of charge.
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