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.
Note: I’ve updated this article over the years, be sure to check the updates at the end of the post for my latest thoughts. Last update January 2020. Go straight to the updates.
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 lightweight – 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 affect 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 up to January 2020.
Conclusion #3: Update: 2020
In 2019 I went out on more winter trips, and the soles of my Xero Shoes huaraches were too thin to keep out the cold. Much against my better judgment I invested in some Xero TerraFlex hiking shoes, they are very light and comfortable. The most interesting thing I discovered was that my hiking speed picked up a lot. It was a fact I couldn’t ignore. I concluded that the difference in speed was simply down to me not having to be so careful about where I placed my feet. And that, I realized, wasn’t because of the open foot design of the huaraches, but simply down to the thinness of the soles.
Over the years I’ve tried to persuade the owners of Xero Shoes to come out with thicker soled huaraches, but it’s not a product they wanted to produce and over time they have been moving into the regular shoe market.
I started searching for another supplier. It wasn’t difficult. Luna Sandals have a great range of huaraches, and more importantly for me, their shoes have thicker soles. I’ve been wearing and testing a pair of OSO Flaco Winged Edition hiking huaraches from Luna Sandals since August 2019. Finally, in December 2019, I took them out on a backpacking trip. My suspicions were confirmed, with the thicker soles my hiking speed with the Flaco huaraches was the same as with my Xero TerraFlex hiking shoes. Result. The Falcos use a webbing lacing which I don’t find quite as comfy as the thin lacing of the Xeros, but that’s minor. The footbeds get a little slippy when wet — but so did the Xeros.
There are other options in the Luna Sandals range that I’ve yet to try out, and I’m thinking that the Mono Winged Edition huaraches might be a good deal as the footbed adapts to the contours of your soles over time, which I would hope might help reduce slippage when wet. I’ve read of another solution to slippery footbeds, though I’ve not tried it myself. That is to wear toe socks for extended periods of hiking in the wet. Maybe I’ll test that one day.
In conclusion, as of January 2020, I strongly suggest taking a close look at the Luna Sandals range of huaraches.
Conclusion #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 online. 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 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. Nowadays I only wear shoes if I am attending a business meeting.
If you’ve got any questions or comments why not post a reply below?
Dude, those soles are stupidly thick. Are you overpronating or something?
Ah! I see what you mean – making them, I work on a pair at a time clamping them loosely together to sand the edges. So that’s a pair you can see in the picture (or even two pairs I can’t remember), not just one sole.
As to overpronating, the wear is fairly even so I’d say not unduly so. Sole thickness is a personal preference and also down to terrain and activity. They may look thick, but I’ve had rock shards come through them (just) – which makes them just about right for me backpacking and bush-whacking in the Ozarks 🙂 The soles of the huaraches I use vary from 6mm – 8mm new but soon compress down – so maybe not as thick as they look? I experimented with several sole thickness, and can’t say which one I was working on when I took the picture, I think those were 12mm (two layers of 6mm soling glued together for each), which does make them look super thick.
[edited for clarity]
I would love to know were you are sourcing your soling materials, I have been using some 5mm stuff for running in but hiking I need something thicker.
I found it tucked up on an out of the way shelf in Springfield Leather: http://springfieldleather.com/
There seems to be a good selection of soling sheets on this website: http://www.cobblersupplies.com/servlet/the-Soling-Sheets/Categories
I hope that helps a bit!
After much searching I did find cobblersupplies, are you glueing different sheets together to make those soles? What glue do you use and how well does it stand up to wear?
I use barge cement. It’s expensive but also very good. I’ve used just a single sheet on some shoes, but the footbed becomes very slippery, so I started gluing two sheets together, or I glue a more notched soling material for better grip.
For a pair, I found some cheap rubber floor tiles that made for a better grip and glued them to the smooth side of the soling sheet with the diamond pattern upwards to prevent the footbed from slipping. That pair, I’ve worn the sole right off in places, the glue has held perfectly for 2-3 years of regular use.
You can find barge cement here: http://www.cobblersupplies.com/servlet/the-Adhesives-%26-Glue/Categories
I sourced mine locally.
Great post Gary, thank you so much for sharing.
I am from France and it’s so difficult to find here some informations about homemade minimalist sandals.
I am thinking about a project with a cork footbed adding to a 4 or 6mm vibram sole. But your diamond pattern seems to be a very good options, what do you mean exactly by diamond pattern?
Thank you again Gary.
I did a search and found some on Amazon the pictures here are quite clear. I hope that helps. Link: Amazon.com
Thank you Gary for your research (and sorry for not replying before).
I have been trail running, hiking, and mountain climbing in my huaraches for six months now.
When I did a section of the PCT in the Spring of 2014 everybody and myself had a lot of problems of varying degrees with footwear. This spanned from “bad” for me and many others, to “incapacitating” for a few. Well, not everybody. I met one man who had zero blisters. He had no problems at all with his footwear. He wore huaraches.
When I completed my short 265 mile section hike of the PCT, I made my first pair of huaraches withing three days after returning. I have since made three pairs.
My first pair, and my favorites, are made from bike tire. A very wide, four inch, downhill MTB tire I picked up for four bucks at a local used-gear store. They provide a nice traction on the bottom, and do not slip much at all when going through wet/muddy conditions.
It took me a good three months to learn how to properly move in them. During that time, I had an almost endless case of plantar fasciitis which I was beginning to think would never go away. It did, but it required me to be completely committed to the retraining of my feet.
When transitioning from arch-support shoes to “barefoot” style, you are removing a lifetime of “crutches” for your feet. Learning the natural way of moving doesn’t happen overnight.
As this past summer ended, I have hiked up some very difficult mountains like Mount McLoughlin, South Sister, Dirty Harry, and several others all with my 4mm to 6mm huaraches. I prefer them thin. I like feeling the rocks and stones and it makes my hiking and trail running more “sure footed”. I also now go out completely barefoot too. I climbed to to the top of Angels Landing in Zion National Park in October, 2014. I got a lot of “looks” and “you must have tough feet” comments. I was able to do it, easily, because of moving to the evolved foot motion that only happens with bare feet (or huaraches).
I never stub a toe or have any difficulty with huaraches. My hikes up scree covered mountains were never a problem.
That’s a great example. I still prefer a little more thickness to my huaraches. I’ve been trying out a pair of Xero Shoes for several months now – for everyday and hiking. I’m very pleased with them, but I need thicker soles for the winter as they let the cold through. I had the same problem with Five-fingers.
I’m glad you’ve found huaraches and are having a positive experience with them.
I very like your post, I’ve been running in my homemade huaraches over a year and just yesterday I was having an argument about hiking boots with a friend of mine. So I proposed why not huaraches or some luna sandals and he was like “How are going to hike with that its need to be very strong boots”. I’m glad to find that somebody tried it and told the experience.
Next time I’ll do hiking I will take the huaraches with me 😀
Huaraches are so lightweight and small, you can easily just take them with you and try them for part of a trail. I am really enjoying the Xero huaraches – https://xeroshoes.com/ the Amuri Ventures in particular. I’ve had mine for several years now, and wear them all the time.
I couldn’t use huaraches on Missouri trails, because I’m a chigger magnet. I know they like tight places, but they seem to get me no matter what I wear. I found that washing after hiking with a rough towel ASAP after hiking helps the most.
Chiggers like me too! So I sympathize. I must admit I’ve not found them to be a problem with my feet though. I agree I’ve found a shower and a good wash helps, the huaraches get washed at the same time to remove any chiggers and ticks that might be hiding on or in the lacings. Unfortunately, showers are few and far between when I’m backpacking.
When backpacking, do you clean your feet before you climb in the bag/quilt? How? Sometimes I end up with very dirty feet at the end of the day, and there’s no water around. If I have spare water, then it’s good, otherwise…
Good question. Typically I brush and rub any dirt off, I figure if I can’t brush it off it ought to be good 🙂 If I’m hiking in muddy conditions I try to find a clean-ish puddle to wash the worst of the mud and grime off as I go. I’ve not cleaned my quilts yet (I’m not sure I should be sharing this!) and one I’ve had for over 10 years, and thus far it’s not been a problem. I do try and make sure I’m dry before wrapping myself up in my quilt though.