Traveling and Living Lightly - Footwear
Are you a boot bigot? Have you ever given any thought to why you wear shoes or other footwear every day (assuming that you do)? Much of the world's population goes their whole lives without footwear with many consequences both good and bad. Given the potential health, financial and other consequences, whether you are a hiker, world traveler, or just like a nice-looking pair of shoes, perhaps it is time to take a closer look.
One of our most basic pieces of attire, yet footwear (shoes, sandals, boots, etc.) is among the most poorly understood and a source of more misconceptions and fairly hot-tempered arguments than any other article of clothing I have encountered (the internet has a number of arguments going on at any time). There are a surprising number of shoe and boot "bigots" who will argue that the world has changed and we must wear shoes/boots for a particular activity, and by extension, we should wear shoes in our daily lives. In my travels, I have even seen signs and brochures from government agencies claiming that you must wear sturdy hiking boots on certain trails. To date I have never once seen these statements backed up with hard data, and while I also lack much in the way of hard data, our bodies did not come with shoes built-in, so the burden of proof should be on those promoting living in a manner contrary to how we were built. I do not claim we should go barefoot while working with molten metals, but how many of us have done that or are likely to? I have worked with molten metals and dangerous machinery but this hardly constitutes the majority of my life, and even for those who do it on a daily basis, there is life outside of work. Why do you need the protection then? My goal here is not to get you to go barefoot (I still wear shoes much of the time), rather it is to make you aware of some of the consequences of your choices in footwear so that you can make better choices. NOTE: I hiked some of those "must wear sturdy hiking boots" trails wearing running shoes, some of it in cold, torrential rains, and at no time did I think the boots would have been a better choice.
It is important to keep in mind that we were built for running, jumping, walking, and climbing, no foot wear required! On the other hand, we were not built for asphalt, concrete, streets covered in broken glass and sharp bits of metal, though there are plenty of sharp things in nature which might offer comparable threats to the foot and we did manage to survive up until the sandals/shoes were invented. You might also want to keep in mind that some world records and Olympic championships in running have been won on tracks and city streets by people running barefoot. Here are some of the consequences of our footwear:
- Prevents us from getting cuts on our feet due to sharp objects
- Protects from parasites entering through the soles of our feet. Though this is not a problem in most areas of the world that people live in, it is a problem for some.
- Can provide support to prevent injury when engaged in activities that stress our feet and ankles well beyond the limits they can handle such as snow skiing.
- Heavy boots may make sense in snow and ice for insulation and the thick, stiff soles will allow you to more easily kick a foot hold in ice and snow.
- Lug soles provide better traction on some types of slippery surfaces
- Fungus - enclosing our feet in shoes keeps them in a more humid environment from both sweat and water which can get in but can't get out. This creates the perfect growth environment for fungus and bacteria. You might argue that wearing shoes prevents exposure to the fungus/bacteria, but in areas of the world where footwear is relatively rare, foot problems of this sort are also rare for those who go barefoot.
- Sole thickness - the thicker the sole of your footwear, the greater the risk of injury. If the sole of a shoe raises your foot by one inch (2.54 cm) and the distance from the bottom of your foot to your ankle is 2.5 inches (6.35 cm) this means that if you accidentally twist your ankle sideways, the amount of force on it will be 40% greater than if you had been barefoot. Thicker or raised soles, such as are found in heavy boots and high heels, greatly increase your risk of injury by increasing the amount of force on your ankle. NOTE: these numbers were taken from my feet and the shoes I am currently wearing.
- Stiff soles have poor traction on loose, hard objects like small rocks which can roll underneath them and climbing rough irregular surfaces the stiff sole may only be able to grip a tiny area of the surface. Bare feet can wrap around loose rock and irregular surfaces, providing a much better grip.
- Lug soles, while they help make up for loss of traction caused by stiff soles under some circumstances, also cause a great deal more damage to nature if you are hiking off trail, and do a fair bit to tear up trails if you stay on them.
- All of our standard footwear makes our feet softer and unable to handle the abuse of day-to-day life. If we go barefoot all the time, the skin of our feet becomes much tougher so they are better able to handle sharp objects and rough surfaces.
- Ankle support, while it helps to prevent injury initially (offsetting some of the problem caused by the thickness of the soles), gradually weakens your ankles by causing muscular atrophy in much the same way that wearing a cast on your ankle would. Over time, you may actually be at greater risk of injury while wearing the ankle support, and of course while not wearing it you are even worse off.
- Arch support causes muscular atrophy and makes your arches weaker and more prone to arch problems.
- Joint problems - wearing modern shoes while running teaches you to run in a completely different manner from the way in which we evolved to run, resulting in most of us landing hard on the heel of the foot with each stride. For many people this "running on the heels" technique can cause numerous foot and joint problems. People from areas where shoes are rare generally run on the balls of their feet rather than the heels, this means that both the ankle and knees are providing a spring-like action and absorbing some of the shock from each stride. When you run on the heels of your feet, the ankle cannot provide this spring action, greatly increasing the impact on the knee joint. Many people who gave up running due to knee problems have reported that they were able to start running again once they switched to running on the balls of their feet.
- Cushioning - we often include padding in our shoes to further "protect" our feet. Recent research has shown that gymnasts when landing on a padded surface (to protect them from injury) actually plant their feet harder on landing when the surface is softer / more padded. Apparently we instinctively put our feet down harder on soft surfaces in order to gain stable footing (a soft surface feels inherently unstable), so it may be that all the padding does is cause us to step harder in order to compensate.
- Sanitation - You may have seen signs like this in the USA, and other countries may have similar things (though I haven't noticed them): "no shirt, no shoes, no service". This is typically found in restaurants and retail stores. In some areas I had heard that at least the "no shoes" was a legal requirement due to sanitation issues. I don't know if there is any evidence to support this, or if it was simply a convenient way to discriminate against the poor. Anything "unsanitary" which could be carried into a business on someone's bare foot can just as easily be carried in on their shoes, the only potentially valid argument would be someone cutting their foot and tracking blood through the establishment or picking up something in the cut from the unsanitary floor. This would of course be extremely rare for people who have spent their life barefoot (and therefore have much tougher soles), and people can and do cut themselves in other places from time-to-time which can also be carried into the business. I have my doubts that the sanitation argument holds any statistically significant validity.
There is a great deal more that can be said regarding the issues, but I think from the above you can get a pretty clear picture of some of the major points. If you are a runner, here is a good article about the problems and myths of running shoes you might want to read. For lots of interesting articles on both sides of the issue, try a Google search on: barefoot running
What if anything should we wear?
Obviously barefoot has some merit, but if you are like me you will need to build up slowly to toughen your feet and give your body time to adapt to using muscles in different ways (like barefoot running). Of course in modern society, footwear is still going to be necessary for social reasons if nothing else, and I doubt fashion is going away any time soon either. Just because the logic says that high heels are dangerous, doesn't mean that men are going to suddenly stop looking at a nice pair of legs in high heels. Despite my recognition of the facts, I certainly still find a woman in heels more attractive.
So what is the ideal footwear? This article is ultimately about traveling and living lightly, so the goal is to meet all your needs with as little as possible. Using the discussion from above as well as my traveling goals from the beginning of this series of articles, the ideal footwear in my view would meet the following:
- Thin, flexible, flat soles with a low impact traction tread on it.
- Tough, well attached upper for hiking / rough environments.
- No ankle support.
- Breathable to prevent trapped moisture and dry quickly when wet
- Large enough to handle heavy socks or similar insulation.
- A single uniform color which doesn't show dust and dirt too readily.
- Styled to look at least tolerably nice for more formal occasions
- Suitable for running and hiking
- Insulation when my feet might get too cold
- Light weight - as Ray Jardine points out in Beyond Backpacking, you can end up doing literally tons of extra work during each day of hiking just from each step you take while wearing heavier shoes.
And the winner is ...
While they did not meet all of my criteria, the best compromise I could find for my most recent travels was a pair of New Balance running shoes, specifically model: CM477BG, size 12 2E (not an endorsement, just provided for information). So how do they stack up?
- Since they were designed for running, their construction is tougher than more casual "tennis shoes"
- The mesh uppers make them more breathable so they dry quickly when wet inside.
- Insulation - these shoes provide no insulation value to speak of; however, it is silly to expect one article of clothing to do everything. Rather than taking the usual approach of different shoes, I purchased these in an extra-wide size so I could wear multiple layers of socks inside to keep my feet warm in cold weather. Since these shoes are exceptionally breathable, the socks would quickly get wet so I bought a pair of water socks (a thin neoprene sock) to provide extra insulation in really wet conditions. These particular water socks are not water proof, so your feet do get wet, but they cut water flow over the skin of your feet to a minimum and have worked reasonably well in conjunction with my wool socks even when I spent hours walking through cold running water.
- The color is gray with black trim that looks reasonably nice except for the giant "N" logo on either side of each shoe. Working carefully with a sharp knife, I cut the stitching holding the "N" logos to each side of both shoes which gave them a much less casual appearance (though it is still far from a "dress" shoe). NOTE: there is a bit of glue under the center of each "N". If you try this, you will need to be careful to scrape the glue off the back of the logo as you are removing it in order to prevent tearing the mesh it is attached to.
- The soles are about 1" thick and have the wedge shape that is so popular today, I consider this a big down side to these shoes.
- They work well for both hiking and running, but the thick soles and wedge shape make it harder for me to run on the balls of my feet.
Overall these shoes did the job and held up well for seven months as my only pair of footwear and another couple months since my last trip. During that time I went running many times, did several hikes in the mountains, attended parties and walked well over 1000 miles through cities and countryside. I'm still looking for a better choice in shoes, particularly from a "dress shoe" and "thin flat sole" perspective. Since barefoot running has suddenly become more popular many shoe manufacturers have taken notice and are starting to design shoes which are as close as possible to "barefoot" in their feel, so I am hopeful that new and better choices will soon become available. The biggest problem is likely to remain that manufacturers insist on making all their sports shoes in wild color blends, which, while I have nothing against these color choices, they aren't generally suitable for going out on the town.
A final note. The layering approach used for keeping warm by using a lot of thin clothes rather than having a big heavy jacket applies well to shoes. While I don't think the water socks I was using were adequate protection for more extreme environments that I would like to be prepared for, they did work well and there are better choices out there. In addition, the same principle could be applied to traction on snow, ice and other slick surfaces (basic sole with add-on traction device). I have recently run across two items which I have not tried (and therefore cannot recommend), but look promising as part of my future footwear choices:
- Fleece lined water proof socks from Hammacher Schlemmer
- Yaktrax Pro - looks kind of like tire chains for your shoes. I would be careful about pairing them up with some of the new "barefoot" running shoes, since it looks like they may be expecting a certain minimum amount of sole between your foot and these devices.