If one thing is likely to start a passionate gear discussion, it’s hiking and backpacking footwear.
That doesn’t mean that my choice is bad though, it is just different. People used to traditional hiking and backpacking footwear tend to see things rather differently, well they think I and others like me are quite mad. Why? If you look closely at any of our backpacking or hiking pictures, you’ll see I’m almost always apparently barefoot. I don’t like shoes, preferring my feet to be cool and open to the air.
However, hiking and backpacking without shoes didn’t initially sound like a good idea.
Experiment #1: Hiking in flip-flops
In the summer of 2010 I tried hiking in flip-flops. It wasn’t a success, my feet would slip out of them on steep climbs. Crossing or hiking along creeks either they’d float off or worse, act like flippers in the water and eventually break. For creeks sandals just didn’t work either; stones and grit continually got stuck in them and the only way to get rid of it was to do a wild one-legged dance, take them off and shake the offending item out.
Experiment #2: Hiking in Vibram Five Fingers
Over the following winter I set myself the goal of finding a suitable open shoe for hiking. My researches immediately sucked me into the minimalist shoe debate, and I even bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers KSOs. I found that the Ozarks trails are too rough and sharp stone shards were too much for me and the Five Fingers.
Finally I discovered that their thin soles do not give ground insulation at lower temperatures, so they were uncomfortably cold in the late fall and winter.
Experiment #3: Making my own hiking huaraches
After more searching online I discovered huaraches. People seemed to be mainly using them for long distance trail running, so I thought hiking and backpacking in them ought to be a breeze. I checked two main websites for ideas: lunasandals.com and Xero Shoes both of which are advocating a style of huaraches best described as a minimalist sandal.
There was an added bonus too. I could also make them a perfect fit for my feet or flippers as Ginger refers to them (let’s just say my feet are short and wide and wouldn’t look out-of-place on Fred Flintstone).
The instructions I found for making huaraches needed a lot of adjusting to produce a sole suitable for hiking. My first attempts weren’t entirely successful. I found that my feet constantly slipped off the edge of the footbed when climbing steep slopes and scrabbling over rocks. Thinking about it, this made sense. Used for running the sole is held to the ground as the forefoot strikes; hiking over rough terrain places a different set of forces on the sole, which stays in contact with the ground and your foot for longer periods of time. It took five different sole shapes before I settled on one that really worked well. The final changes were mainly cosmetic to make them seem smaller.
For tying them on, I’ve been using the ‘slip on’ method from Invisible Shoe see: Xero Shoes.com which has worked fine for me. To stop the cord slipping and coming undone I use the cord stops found on small bags closures. I prefer a softer cord, my favorite, is some really cheap cord that came with the bike lifts we use to store our kayaks up on the garage ceiling.
Hiking in wet and muddy conditions I initially met problems with my feet slipping around on the footbed making climbing steep slopes almost impossible. I fixed this by adding a diamond patterned footbed which reduced the slipping to almost nothing.
The soles also give good insulation against the cold, allowing me to hike in my huaraches barefoot down to around 32°F. Ginger is an avid knitter, and she made a pair of woolen socks with a toe so I can wear my huaraches when it gets even colder. Being wool, the socks cope with getting wet and still keep my feet warm.
After a disastrous experience in Scotland on wet grass, I’ve tried soling materials with ridges for better grip in slippery conditions. I’m thinking about trying some preformed Vibram soles which can be bought online for under $20. I also want to try different footbed materials, I’m seeking something thinner but with the same or better grip.
Conclusion: Huaraches on the trail
They are great. I can walk straight through creeks, puddles, and mud while Ginger either struggles to find a dry route or changes out of her hiking shoes to keep them dry. I do get stones under my feet quite often, but a simple shake gets rid of them with barely a pause. I did have concerns about injuries, but they’ve proved unfounded. On occasion, I’ve caught a stick between the toes – no worse than doing the same when wearing the Vibram five fingers. I have worn my huaraches without problems when bushwhacking off the trail to find campsites, even among poison ivy and thorns. As for snakes, a good pair of eyes and a hiking pole to probe the trail ahead is by far the best defense.
Friends used to hiking in traditional boots have asked about my ankles. I believe the increased freedom and flexibility of my feet has strengthened both my feet and ankles. I can certainly cope with a mis-step and turned ankle without the sort of problems and pain I’d expect wearing boots.
Which brings us to some of the other good points. Huaraches are very light weight – a great boon when backpacking. They are also totally maintainable on the trail. To date, the only problems I have had has been with the toe knot wearing through. When that happens I just tie a new one. If the side straps ever pull out, I know I can effect repairs to get me home by simply making new holes in the soles with my pocket knife.
If you are interested in barefoot hiking or backpacking, huaraches have proved to be an excellent minimalist solution for me and I highly recommend them. You may need to experiment a bit to get them just right, but the results will be more than worth the effort.
This text was originally posted on the excellent minimalist footwear site www.toesalad.com in August 2011 if you are looking for minimalist shoes, Toe Salad is an excellent place to go to.
For this version I’ve revised, changed and updated the text. It now includes my experiences over the past year.
Conclussion #2: Update: 2016
I still hike and backpack in huaraches, and the designs have got even better. I’ve stopped making my own as high quality reasonably priced huaraches are available on line. If you are interested I highly recommend you visit Xero Shoes, and check out the Amuri Ventures. I’ve been using a pair of these for over a year, and I also have a pair of the Amuri Cloud. I recommend the Amuri Ventures for the conditions on the trails of the Ozarks. The Amuri Clouds have too much ground feel for for my taste – though they are great around town and on more regular terrain. One day I’ll find the time to write a review – but to save time. They are brilliant, go buy some. Now-a-days I only wear shoes if I am attending a business meeting.
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