Source: Experience: I don’t wear shoes
Cities appear to be unfriendly towards bare feet. Chances are you’ve never seen anyone going about their daily business without shoes. However, it is possible to do pretty much everything barefoot, and although I’ve been stared at or had to face a few comments (sometimes negative, often out of “concern”, usually positive!), I’ve never been kicked out of any establishment. I thought I would list some of the places I’ve been to barefoot.
At home! This should be obvious but many people wear slippers at home. When I’m invited by friends or family some of them are concerned to see me barefoot and try to convince me to wear a pair. Thanks, but no thanks.
On the streets just about anywhere in the city. I walk many kilometres every day as I move across town a lot. There are fewer hazards than one would think but I occasionally come across something scary. Recently, a triple fish hook smack in the middle of the pavement. That’s a rare occurrence.
In the car. I’m not the driver but if I were to do it again I would definitely go bare. It is not forbidden by the law (unless your discarded footwear gets stuck under a pedal and causes an accident) and makes you more attuned to sensations.
In public transports such as the tram, the bus, or the train. People look at me but no one really cares. The weirdest time to do this is during the morning rush hour, all dressed up for work.
In a café. At the cafeteria. At take-away restaurants. I haven’t tried a more formal type of restaurant yet but have been fine everywhere else.
At the post office. The pharmacy. The supermarket. These were a little challenging at first. I thought pharmacists would be health freaks or that angry customers would complain to staff at the supermarket. The first couple of times I was convinced the police were coming at me everytime there was an announcement. I was invariably disappointed.
At the hairdresser’s. They were a little startled to see that I didn’t have any footwear, but they took it in stride. My hairdresser asked my to be careful because freshly cut hair can lodge themselves in your sole like thorns. At first I thought she was joking, but she said that it was a problem for them in the summer when they wore sandals. I walked across the floor several times without a problem. My skin is tough enough to handle sharp rocks, so it probably wouldn’t let hair in. Or else I was lucky.
Smaller shops and businesses. At my local health store, no one’s even batted an eyelid. I’ve gathered admirative comments at the farmer’s market, especially when the weather’s cold. After a while I started missing the old adrenaline rush, so I headed for a pretty posh stationary shop. With a beating heart, I strode through the main entrance and across the ground floor to take the stairs down to the basement. It is the most laid-back section, where I was able to calm down a bit. But when I asked staff, they told me the brown ink cartridges I was looking for were situated on the top floor – “the attic”. This meant crossing the ground floor again and making my way to the poshest section of the shop. I climbed back up, tried to walk with confidence among other customers, said a bright hello to a clerk, and took the carpeted stairs up to the attic where Mont Blanc pens and the like are displayed in shiny glass cases. Thankfully, the clerk couldn’t see my feet from behind the counter. The transaction went well and I was just about to make my escape when she handed me the bill. I let it slip out of my hand and, like an autumn leaf, or a feather, it fell down slowly and landed right next to my foot. Of course, she stepped out in front of the till, bent down to retrieve it… and handed it back to me with a smile.
On hikes in the countryside.
On a meditation retreat.
At taiji practice. My opinion is that every taiji practitioner should go barefoot, but in my club this isn’t the case. Still, it’s one of the few places where I’m not the only barefooter in sight, at least until the class ends and everyone suddenly realises that I haven’t brought any shoes. I have a friend from taiji who spends his entire summers barefoot. He’s the only person who’s ever gone bare alongside me on the street. Other than that, it’s just me and Frankenstein’s Monster.
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I don’t like it when a so-called barefoot blog turns into a serial shoe review, so let’s be absolutely clear on this: there is no such thing as a “barefoot shoe.” Barefoot means barefoot. Shoes are shoes. My personal definition is that if it covers most of your sole, then it qualifies as footwear and performs at least partly like a shoe, which means it protects you from outer conditions while constricting movement, impeding on breathing, and reducing the sensory field of the foot.
There can be a few reasons for a barefooter to wear shoes occasionally even during the warmer season. First, it helps with social acceptance in a range of contexts where you feel (or are made to feel) that footwear is the only appropriate option. Second, it can relieve you of intense sensations when you get tired of walking on difficult terrain or need protection for, say, a patch of brambles that you must walk right through. Third, if you get one of those terrifying open wounds that everybody talks about but I’ve never experienced, you might want to wear a shoe until it starts to heal and baring your feet is safer again.
The one shoe I recommend is the Xero huarache sandal with a “4mm connect” outsole. You can get them custom-made or order the DIY kit. You can also improvise a pair: I’ve seen someone on the web make them out of an old yoga mat. Unlike many minimalist shoes, the Xero isn’t priced too outrageously; it lets your feet move pretty naturally and breathe fairly well; it allows you to feel the irregularities of the ground and adapt to them; the sandals are light and compact, long-lasting, and you can slip them on and off with ease. I wear them when I teach, I pack a pair when I go hiking, and I sometimes put them on when my soles need protection for one reason or another. I have three pairs: the older, comfortable back-up pair (the brand was called “Invisible shoes” at the time), the hiking sandals (with mostly intact soles; I’ve trimmed the other pairs rather drastically), and the decorated pair (pictured above). They’re all the exact same model.
It’s very important to be a barefooter primarily and not get into the habit of wearing minimalist sandals all the time. Maybe it’s a process, because I’ve built up my barefoot practice over the three previous years and gained confidence. While I used to wear sandals much of the time and feel compelled to wear closed shoes when teaching, I now go barefoot most of the time and only wear sandals when I teach. I also take more social risks than previously. I’ll soon post a list of places where I’ve gone barefoot.
I own a pair of VIVOs but I’m not too happy with them. Well, they’re shoes. I’m not too happy with shoes. They are more restrictive, tend to heat up or get very cold quickly, and are not the right shape for my feet. They lack necessary space for my big toe while most of the shoe is way too wide. I’m not sure why but they also make my arches ache after a while.
And, quite simply, I no longer need sneakers. I have enough confidence to show up everywhere either barefoot or in sandals and to deal with people’s reactions. I do need minimalist winter boots, and I haven’t found many of them. It’s a little ironic, isn’t it? Companies have been quick to capitalise on the barefoot movement, but they’re mainly trying to get people to wear different shoes instead of being barefoot. When it’s not possible or comfortable for most of us to stay barefoot (i.e. during harsh winters), they don’t have very much to offer. I’m glad summer is still ahead of me!
My favourite barefoot activity is hiking. It feels amazing and is also much easier than people usually imagine. I have to laugh when I see Sunday afternoon hikers all geared-up with brand new expensive gadgets that seem to come straight out of an outdoors magazine. I used to say that the only item you really need is a good pair of hiking boots. Now I keep them safe at home for the winter months.
There is no need for Nordic walking equipment; if you want to give your body a full workout, simply take your shoes off as you scramble up a slope. Your toes will grasp tree roots, dig in the mud and find balance on rocks. When you are barefoot on a forest path, you really merge with your environment. You become more aware than before. You have to negotiate uneven terrain and need your senses to be tuned in. You’ll be so busy enjoying yourself that you may not realize how much more supple and strong your entire body is becoming. A barefoot walker also tends to be swift and silent, which means that animals won’t flee as quickly when you approach. They will manifest more curiosity and, attuned to your surroundings, you will be more likely to see them.
If you find this interesting and want to learn more about barefoot hiking, I encourage you to read Richard Frazine’s The Barefoot Hiker, which is available online. It contains great tips for barefoot walking in general, as well as specific instructions for hiking.
I had a funny experience two years ago. My partner and I wanted to hike up a mount in early spring and it turned out that snow hadn’t entirely melted yet. At first there were snow patches with icy rivulets of water rolling down the path, but soon we were walking through a thick, heavy layer of snow. I made it for perhaps ten minutes and then had to sit on a tree stump to warm my feet. The sun was out and the air was quite warm, so there was no serious risk of frostbite, but since we weren’t even half-way up the slope we decided to turn back and find a valley path to hike instead. I had lots of fun leaving footprints in snow and mud on the way down. At the bottom of the mount, we stopped to drink some water and decide where to go next. We could hear a chatty group of hikers approaching from the path we’d just left. Soon a man arrived, said hello, and looked at my feet. “So you’re the yeti?” he asked. He turned to his friends “Hey! Come here! I’ve found the yeti!” he shouted. They all came to have a look and a quick chat and they seemed pretty impressed. They’d followed my barefoot trail through snow and mud down the slope and hadn’t known what to think. The group was much better prepared to face winter conditions on their hike – they all wore good boots, appropriate clothes, and hiking sticks – yet they had also decided to turn back because of the snow. So go prepared, but go barefoot!
Barefoot living is so much fun !
I highly recommend the barefoot lifestyle in Guadeloupe and Martinique.
Anyone with a barefoot experience to share in the Carribean (not at the beach, please) ?
If you’ve been wearing shoes for most of the winter or, even worse, most of your life, you will need some serious barefoot practice in order to become fully at ease. Ideally, you will spend a few hours a day and a few days a week exposing your feet to a wide range of sensations and situations, which will also enables you to get used to feeling the ground and other people’s reactions. This is what I call Toe Camp.
Last weekend I took a trip to the Bernese Alps for a four-day meditation retreat. I decided from the start that I would try to stay barefoot the entire time. I’d already been mostly barefoot for a full three weeks so I figured it wouldn’t be hard. I walked to the the station barefoot, took several trains, and rode the bus barefoot, then climbed the hill to the center alongside other retreat participants as if I did this all the time (which, actually, I pretty much do).
I already knew that socks were compulsory in the meditation hall (supposedly for “hygienc reasons”) and had packed a pair. Ironically, the Buddha statue stayed shoeless the entire time. The green Tara also showed off her bare soles while sporting most interesting footwear. I sat in awe, my feet trapped in a thin layer of cotton. However, in spite of the regulations’ incentive to “please wear slippers in the house”, I was allowed to go barefoot as soon as I left the hall.
And barefoot I went. The weather was beautiful on Thursday and I discovered a lovely path which started off with a patch of crackled dry mud, then a short distance of broken slate stone, followed by a wooden bridge and a trail winding through the woods. Roots, needles, leaves, moss, smooth stones, tree stumps and small streams made the area very interesting. I forded a narrow river and walked through squishy marshy pastures where my feet were powdered yellow by pollen. But on Friday it started snowing. And it went on snowing. At that altitude I knew it could snow, even in May, but a centimetre or two weren’t going to stop me. I’ve been barefoot on snow and ice before, and it’s ok for a short while. I can walk longer on snow than in snow, however, and the 20 centimetres which soon covered the ground were a bit too much to handle. I had many short strolls on that day but never left the vicinity of the house. By Saturday the wind had turned and the snow was melting. I put a pair of sandals in the back pocket of my jeans and strode along the road. I took a left turn and that’s where I had a painful incident. I’d read about road salt on the web but hadn’t experienced it for myself. Suddenly I felt a very odd sensation under my feet, something like a chemical burn. I jumped off the road and tried to clean my soles in the snow, then put on the sandals and went straight back to the centre. I rinsed my feet in the shower and the sensation gradually wore away. I haven’t had many negative experiences when going barefoot but this was definitely not a pleasant one. Seasoned barefooters of the North, how do you deal with this?
A few hours later I was back on the road, sandals on again, and then I walked across the fields. I mean, this was an ideal situation: I could walk through snow as much as I wanted without taking any risk since I could turn back at any time, plus this was a silent retreat – nobody could say anything! On Sunday the snow had cleared and regular barefooting resumed. When the retreat came to an end, people came to me, saying “So you’re the one who is always barefoot!” and asked lots of questions. I’d earned my barefoot status.
Urban Toe Camp is great, too, if that’s your immediate environment. Be creative and let yourself become as curious as a young child. When a surface, texture, or structure catches your attention, ask yourself “I wonder how this would feel” and immediately proceed to explore it with your feet. You’ll soon be so happy that you’ll forget any self-consciousness. Seek out new experiences and challenge yourself, but be patient. Never push yourself through pain. Instead, let yourself be guided by the pleasure of discovery. Have a wonderful Toe Camp!