Best Reasons For Hiking In Barefoot Shoes and Boots
John Baker CSCS and Lily Hoog-Fry RYT-E of Swell Movement & Longevity
Hiking is becoming one of the most popular activities that people are getting into, and many people now consider themselves a hiking enthusiast everyday. We totally get it, as we at Bearfoot are big outdoors people as well.
Hiking combines elements of exercise with elements of getting out into the great outdoors, and provides people with a sense of reconnecting with the earth and the area in which they live.
If you’re into hiking, or are interested in getting into hiking, we are going to look at some of the reasons why when you convert into a granola-eating hiker, you should consider hiking in Bearfoot shoes or boots over traditional hiking boots and/or traditional hiking shoes (kidding about the granola, stick to meat for real)
Less Low Back Pain
The body is organized as a tensegrity structure -- when we displace one joint, another joint has to compensate in order to prevent us from falling over. By placing a lift underneath the heel, the body has to change positions in order to reorientate itself relative to gravity and prevent falling over. Although the changes can be subtle at time, their consequences can add up.
When the heels are lifted, the most common compensation is for the low back to go into further lordosis, or extend into a deeper arch toward the belly (Rossi, 1999). While this isn’t inherently bad for a brief period, due to the nature of even short hikes, let alone long hikes, an increased arch in the low back can be problematic.
For starters, people typically hike with backpacks, which is essentially like walking around with a barbell on your back. This is because a backpack is no different than any other external load placed upon your body. Depending on the hike and conditions, a backpack can sometimes be pretty heavy, especially if you're doing longer trips than just day hikes. As the weight of the backpack increases it places more stress on your body. Wherever stress is placed on the body, it will adapt to better handle that stress… sometimes negatively.
When our shoes force us to arch the low back, we place more stress on our facets (the back on our spinal segments), the back of our discs (putting undue pressure on these gelatin like structures) , and this has been associated with increased prevalence of chronic low back pain (Wang et al, 2023). Essentially, things are getting jammed into each other and squished and it turns out when you do that for many steps, that contributes to back pain. When hiking in normal shoes, especially with a backpack, each step places more and more stress on your lower back, and increases your chances of experiencing future episodes of low back pain.Who in the world wants that?!
One way to think about this is thinking about your hands or feet. Where you have things that constantly rub against them, your hands and feet form callus (thicker skin). When the weight of your body and backpack are loaded onto the facets and other structures they thicken, similar to forming callus, and further compress and impinge upon each other, increasing their propensity to cause pain.
If you were to ditch your regular hiking shoes or conventional footwear for some Bearfoot shoes or boots, you would be wearing zero drop footwear that doesn't have a heel lift. This would allow you to maintain a natural spinal curvature (as long as you know how to actually do that — video yourself!), decreasing the load on the pain generating structures in the low back. This natural spinal curvature allows the pelvic and respiratory diaphragms to be in plane with each other. This in turn allows your abdomen and back tissue to properly be displaced by your breath, and increases recruitment of our spine supporting muscles. This will allow for better core stability, which can help prevent low back pain (Smrcina et al, 2022).
Is this enough to say that Bearfoot makes the most thoughtfully designed and rugged barefoot hiking boots or the best barefoot hiking shoes? Let's explore more before we answer that.
Improved Muscle Activation and Balance
The brass tax, is that barefoot shoes require you to actually use your foot muscles, which is extremely important for having healthy feet..
When walking in minimalist footwear, there is increased muscular activation prior to heel strike compared to traditional shoes (Hill et al, 2023). Walking in minimalist footwear has also been shown to increase muscle strength more than regular shoes (Curtis et al, 2022) (Jan-Peter Goldman et al, 2013) (Ridge, 2019).
What does this mean to you? It means that wearing barefoot shoes allows you to better prepare yourself to handle the demands of hiking in nature on uneven surfaces, sharp objects, and changing terrain (who wants to sprain an ankle while hiking? Not us). It also means hiking in footwear like Bearfoot shoes and boots will give you stronger foot muscles, ankle support and arch support over time.
However, the benefits go beyond that! Wearing barefoot shoes can also have an effect on improving your balance (Cudejko et al, 2020) (Romer et al, 2020) (Yamaguchi et al, 2015). This is due to several shoe design factors: (in addition to what we've already discussed) wide toe box and a flexible sole. Having a wider toe box and a more flexible sole allows you to have more contact with the ground, resulting in improved lateral stability. This is important because hiking, as mentioned earlier, requires you to walk on uneven surfaces, sharp objects and changing terrain -- all of which really challenge your ankles' lateral stability. If you're not prepared for that, or you're wearing traditional footwear, your risk of injury may be higher.
A flexible sole allows for you to get better sensory perception of the ground beneath you. WIth better sensory perception of the surface you’re walking on, you can make better decisions on how to adapt your foot and ankle so as to not get hurt. In other words, if you’re gonna try and not roll your ankle, you need to first be able to sense that you’ve stepped on something that has the potential to roll your ankle – which is not very possible in some footwear. Additionally, a flexible sole allows for more natural foot movement, which means you will be reinforcing good movement mechanics over injurious positions (more on this later).
So do yourself a favor and get some Bearfoot shoes and boots so you can hike with better balance, avoid awkward falls, and be able to tackle more strenuous hikes. As a bonus, this balance and more natural function can help decrease your risk of developing nagging aches and pains, while increasing utilization of your lower leg musculature.
Built to Last
Traditional footwear relies a lot on foam and squishy materials. These materials are not meant to stand up to the test of time. They often feel very comfortable and supportive when you first try them on, but each time you wear their soles gets more and more compromised, especially if you're hiking over sharp rocks. When the sole becomes compromised, it capsizes your foot and ankle integrity. What this means is that over time, the more you wear your shoes, the more damage they will be doing to your feet by just wearing them.
I’m sure you’ve seen it before where the bottom of someone’s shoe looks like it’s almost at a 45° outward slope, causing them to have to roll to the outside of their feet in order to maintain contact with the ground. This roll places them in a position that is much closer to a lateral ankle sprain than we're comfortable with. Literally, it's like you're halfway there. Couple this position with the fact that foam is inherently unstable and wobbly... add an uneven trail into the mix... and you have a recipe for disaster.
As if that wasn't enough, the further you hike, the more and more fatigued you get. As the fatigue builds, your compensation patterns (a.k.a. rolling to the outside of your feet and relying on ligamentous support instead of the fatigued muscles rather than muscular support) become amplified. What this means is that you’re putting yourself at increased risk of injury, and you’ll be less likely to catch yourself if you do stumble.
Our products on the other hand have a durable, grippy sole that is made to last a long time and keep you in solid contact with the ground. The Bruin can even be resoled when needed, making it the last boot you'll ever need to buy (good idea, we know).
Foam also literally insulates you from being aware of what’s happening on the ground below you. New rocks to step over? Well your traditional shoes will slow down how fast your brain gets that information and thus, slows its ability to adapt to it.
Considerations For Footwear Choice
When looking at the selection that Bearfoot has to offer, there are several things to consider before choosing the right product for your needs.
One important factor to consider is hike duration. Is this going to be a shorter day hike, or is this going to be one of those longer hikes? Longer distances mean more steps, and the more steps you take the more weight can add up. If you're someone who is all about shaving ounces, the Low Top Ursus might be the best choice. These shoes come in lightweight canvas or suede with thin soles that are made of durable rubber, allowing you to coast through the trail while being able to feel the terrain beneath you.
Some people prefer a thick sole for hiking on rough terrain over long distances. If this is you, and you're someone who is more concerned with sole thickness over weight, then the Bruin is the best option. The Bruin comes with a thicker sole that shields your feet better, while still allowing you to feel the ground you're moving on.
Another important factor to consider is material. Do you prefer canvas, or full leather? Canvas shoes are lighter, but leather shoes are more durable. In the long run, we don't think either is a bad choice, as they each have their pros and cons. If you'd prefer durability we suggest opting for either the Ursus Suede or Bruin. If you'd prefer a slightly lighter weight shoe that dries faster we'd recommend one of the Ursus Canvas.
- Cudejko, T., Gardiner, J., Akpan, A., & D'Août, K. (2020). Minimal shoes improve stability and mobility in persons with a history of falls. Scientific reports, 10(1), 21755. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-78862-6
- Curtis, R., Willems, C., Paoletti, P. et al. Daily activity in minimal footwear increases foot strength. Sci Rep 11, 18648 (2021). https://doi-org.uws.idm.oclc.org/10.1038/s41598-021-98070-0
- Hill CM, DeBusk H, Knight AC, Chander H. Military-Type Workload and Footwear Alter Lower Extremity Muscle Activity during Unilateral Static Balance: Implications for Tactical Athletic Footwear Design. Sports (2075-4663). 2020;8(5):58. Accessed September 10, 2023. https://search-ebscohost-com.uws.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=143478128&site=eds-live&scope=site
- Jan-Peter Goldmann, Wolfgang Potthast & Gert-Peter Brüggemann (2013) Athletic training with minimal footwear strengthens toe flexor muscles, Footwear Science, 5:1, 19-25, DOI: 10.1080/19424280.2012.744361
- Ridge, S. T., Olsen, M. T., Bruening, D. A., Jurgensmeier, K., Griffin, D., Davis, I. S., & Johnson, A. W. (2019). Walking in Minimalist Shoes Is Effective for Strengthening Foot Muscles. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 51(1), 104–113. https://doi-org.uws.idm.oclc.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000001751
- Romer, B. H., Weimar, W., & Fox, J. (2019). Footwear Alters Lower Extremity Coordination Variability. Perceptual and motor skills, 126(5), 764–778. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031512519863183
- Rossi, D.P.M, W. A. (1999). Why Shoes Make “Normal” Gait Impossible How flaws in footwear affect this complex human function. Podiatry Management.
- Smrcina Z, Woelfel S, Burcal C. A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness of Core Stability Exercises in Patients with Non-Specific Low Back Pain. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 2022;17(5):766-774. Accessed September 10, 2023. https://search-ebscohost-com.uws.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=158579321&site=eds-live&scope=site
- Wang X-D, Ma L, Wang D-H, Yan J-T. Relationships among the lumbar lordosis index, sacral horizontal angle, and chronic low back pain in the elderly aged 60–69 years: A cross-sectional study. Journal of Back & Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation. 2020;33(1):29-33. Accessed September 10, 2023. https://search-ebscohost-com.uws.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=141382101&site=eds-live&scope=site
- Yamaguchi T, Cheng KC, McKay SM, Maki BE. Footwear width and balance-recovery reactions: A new approach to improving lateral stability in older adults. Gerontechnology. 2015;13(3):359-367.