I’ve struggled for a long time to write this article. To write good advice for this blog, I have to do two things. I have to provide instructions and explain “how” to do a thing. Then I have to provide motivation and explain “why” to do a thing. No one needs to be told how to go about being barefoot (at least, not anyone literate enough to read this article). So that just leaves me with the task of answering why. And that’s a struggle to answer. Few people’s travel experiences will be materially affected if they choose to wear shoes or not.
And yet, travelling barefoot is such an important and intrinsic element to how I travel that I can’t not write this article. Allowing the soles of my feet to make contact with the earth enriches my travel experience. While a great many of you may understand why I feel that way, many more of you would dismiss this as an idiosyncrasy. I believe the latter group is missing out. So, as difficult as this topic may be to articulate at times, I do feel it is my duty to persuade and convince ye skeptics that raw hoofing it is the way to go.
A Way of Life
My desire to be barefoot isn’t limited to my travels. I’m barefoot whenever I can get away with it.
Naturally, I wear shoes out in the snow and ice when it’s twenty degrees below zero. I wear them at job sites and construction sites to avoid impaling myself on nails and screws. Begrudgingly, I also wear shoes into stores and other businesses because I don’t want to be refused service.
But at home or out in nature (in what could charitably be described as “mild”), you will almost always find me barefoot.
Valid (and Bullshit) Reasons to Wear Footwear
I don’t deny that there are some good reasons to wear shoes when you’re out and about. Maybe you don’t want to gouge your foot on a pointed stick and risk the cut getting infected. Maybe you’ve got a bad back and need special orthotics to improve your posture. Or maybe you’re travelling to a part of the world where exposing your feet is considered some grave insult.
I don’t want to receive an angry letter from you because you followed my advice and your kid got gangrene after slipping on a sharp rock. I don’t want to hear how you fell and broke your hip because you weren’t wearing the Dr. Scholl’s your podiatrist prescribed. And I definitely don’t want to hear about how you were arrested for walking barefoot in Tehran. Exercise common sense.
What I am saying, however, is that we are the only species on this planet that uses manufactured footwear. Every other animal does just fine without them. In fact, so did we. There was a time in the history of man before shoes existed. Shoes are not a necessity. They are a convenience and a comfort that we are accustomed to.
Won’t I Get Sick?!
A lot of people are paranoid that they will get sick if they walk around barefoot in the dirt. Simply not true. Few people think of their skin as part of their immune system, but it is an effective barrier against pathogens. I am aware of no bacteria or virus that can penetrate and infect the body through unbroken skin. You can get infected if you’re exposed to a pathogen where your skin is cut or scraped. And I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t care for such wounds. But even if you do get infected, there’s a good chance that your immune system is more than capable of handling random, minor infections like this.
The truth of the matter is, pathogens are all around us. No amount of prophylaxis is going to insulate you from them all. Most of these bugs come and go without us noticing them because our bodies are more than capable of dealing with them. And for what it’s worth – people who are more willing to get their hands and feet dirty tend to get sick less often. Their elevated exposure to pathogens helps build up a stronger immune system than someone who actively tries to avoid them.
Connection with Nature
I think a lot of people who prefer to be barefoot would argue that the direct contact with the earth gives you a more direct connection with Nature. That’s true, but I prefer to frame it another way… socks and shoes act as a barrier, insulating us from nature.
When I am barefoot, I am much more aware of my surroundings. I am – obviously – more aware of the terrain. My feet grip the land better than they do in shoes. Grip improves my agility and stability. I become more aware of weather and local vegetation. And being barefoot brings me slightly closer to understanding what it’s like for other species to exist in nature.
The pricks and jabs and scrapes that my feet endure during the day stay with me. At night, they remind me of what I experienced earlier in the day. Like my bandanna, my feet trapped fine particulates from everywhere I had been – creating a sort of microscopic catalog of my travels.
By the time I finished the North American Road Trip, my feet had formed thick callouses and were caked in layer upon layer of dirt and mud. It was impressive, considering that most of the time, my feet were touching the gas and brake pedals of my truck. Still, I was pretty proud of how gnarly my feet looked by the end, because they were a testament to how much time I had spent raw-hoofing it in the wild.
I felt the same way about all of the other injuries I had endured. I was constantly being stabbed, poked, and prodded by errant branches and rocks. My body – especially my legs – was covered in scrapes, cuts, and large stains of dripping blood. It didn’t bother me in the least. They were good reminders that I was living. Had I been neurotic about cleanliness, preventing infections, and hygiene, I would merely have been erasing that history.
Kick Off Your Shoes
There is no single right way to be a nomad. Not having thick callouses on your feet doesn’t make you any less of a traveler than the next guy. But before you rush off to put on a pair of shoes to keep your feet from getting dirty or injured, consider what you’re depriving yourself of. It might not seem like much, but the blood, the grit, and the pain – all of that makes the experience more authentic.
Kick off your shoes, put away the disinfectant, and put away the band-aids. Get your feet dirty and dig your toes into the sand.
For more information on the benefits of being barefoot (and the legality of it), check out Barefoot Planet.