Yes, no, maybe. The experts debate the controversial craze. Proponents of barefoot running and hiking—booming in popularity since the 2009 publication of Born to Run—claim that training shoeless builds foot strength and reduces injuries. One outfit, Barefoot Hikers, organizes boot-free jaunts all over the country. And barefoot-running clubs, websites, and even races have taken off. But naysayers warn that forsaking foot protection only invites new injuries. Who’s right? We think the jury is still out. You?
Yes: Richard Franzine, Author of The Barefoot Hiker
“I have been hiking barefoot for 50 years,” says Frazine, 63. “Going shoeless requires finding the right foot fall with every step. No step is the same. You literally feel your way down the trail with your feet.” A 2009 study by researchers from the University of Belgium and University of Liverpool found that South Indians who spent their lives barefoot had significantly wider forefeet—allowing a more effective redistribution of downward pressure across the entire surface area of the sole—compared to people who grew up wearing shoes.
No: Brian Schmitz, Physical Therapist
“For people who have grown up wearing shoes, hiking without them is a bad idea,” says Arizona-based Schmitz, echoing the consensus of sports medicine professionals interviewed for this story. “You need structure around your foot for support when hiking. And you also need the protection that hiking footwear offers against cuts and injuries.” That doesn’t mean you don’t need the strengthening touted by barefoot advocates, but it’s better to achieve it through training, advises University of Calgary kinesiology professor Reed Ferber.
Maybe: Esther Gokhale, Author of 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back
“The ability to hike barefoot depends on the condition of your feet and how much ‘movement wisdom’ you have,” says Gokhale, who studied indigenous populations in India, Asia, and Africa. She found people who grew up wearing minimal footwear had stronger feet with healthier arches—not to mention a healthy posture and back for carrying loads—compared to well-shod Westerners. Unless you have muscular feet with well-developed arches, Gokhale suggests a “happy medium.” Wear a supportive shoe that has a thin sole, she says, “so you feel contours on the Earth.”