8 Barefoot Hikers Share How They Pack (and Why They Sometimes Bring Shoes)

Barefoot hiking requires a different kind of preparation than normal hiking.

You want to make sure your feet are up for it – and you might also need to bring a pair of shoes despite your dreams of hiking barefooted!

To improve how we hike, we have talked with 8 experienced barefoot hikers and asked them to share their best advice.

Read on and learn from their best tips and tricks (all 8 have years of experience, so they know what they are talking about!).

The 8 Barefoot Hikers

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

I bring a light-weight water filter so that I can resupply from streams, ponds, and even puddles, and this saves having to carry a lot of water — which is heavy. Last year, I went hiking in the Adirondacks with some friends and was surprised at the weight of their packs — they were carrying 4 liters each, whereas I was carrying only 1/2 liter. Yet on the way to the summit, we passed a small lake and numerous stream crossings, in fact, the top of the mountain was streaming with water.

I bring a roll of tape so that if I get a scratch or cut on my feet, I can fix things up.

That’s about it….I try to bring as little as possible, actually, so unless I’m going longer than 24 hours, I don’t bring any food, don’t wear a shirt unless it’s cold, don’t use bug spray except during the spring, etc.

How do you bring things with you?

I have a 20-liter fastpack by Ultimate Direction. That’s plenty of room for summer hiking. I also wear a small hipbag around my waist for phone, knife, reading glasses, car keys, etc.

What are your top tips for other barefoot hikers?

For people getting into barefoot hiking, the most important thing is to recognize that you will go faster or slower depending on how rough is the trail, so patience is often very necessary. Gravel is the worst for everyone, and downhill is often more difficult than uphill. I always carry sandals or shoes in my pack in case my feet have had enough, or sometimes I need them to keep up with friends.

Regarding weather variations, feet do pretty well in rain, because the water rolls right off. However, bare feet may not have great traction in mud or on slippery rocks in streams. Also, you need to be careful about cold temperatures. I do sometimes hike barefoot in snow, but only if the air temperature is above freezing, and you definitely don’t want your feet going numb.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

Whenever I go on a barefoot hike, apart from the typical items, I also usually bring a pair of shoes. I know. It’s crazy! Some of us weird barefooters actually believe in the wonderful benefits of footwear. My barefoot hiking backup shoes are usually minimalist Trail Runners by VivoBarefoot or Inov8. They’re really light. So, they don’t add much weight to my pack.

Sometimes, if I’m familiar with a trail, I’ll sub in a pair of sandals for shoes (usually XeroShoes). The reason I have them is mainly in case of an emergency. Also, going downhill is much tougher on the feet than going uphill, especially when you’re hopping from rock to rock for miles. So, if I need to move quickly, I’ll throw on the shoes.

I also have a first aid kit that (knock on wood) I haven’t needed yet.

And the third thing I make sure I have is a large supply of witty remarks to dish out whenever people make comments about my feet. Never leave home without them!

How do you bring things with you?

I am not much of a gear junkie. So, for my day hikes, I usually use an old The North Face “Recon” backpack that I got to carry my books in high school. The thing is old and worn out, but apart from one stuck zipper on the smallest pocket, everything is still functional. It works when I’m hiking solo for the day. If I’m bringing the family with me or staying out overnight, it’s another story. That’s when I get out the “elephant backpack.” It’s an older Kelty RedCloud 5400, and it’s got more than enough space for me…and never enough space for everything the kids want to bring.

I know some people consider backpack organization an art and science. I’m not really at that level. So, I keep it pretty simple. Heavy stuff near the bottom. Light stuff near the top. Nothing pointy sticking into my back. And the things I need to be handy go in an easy to access pocket. I’m sure there are more scientific ways of doing it, but I don’t overthink it. Maybe I will if I do a long-term hike someday.

What are your top tips for other barefoot hikers?

You’ll avoid the vast majority of problems if you adhere to the following two criteria:

  • Progress gradually into going barefoot on more difficult terrain over a period of at least several months.
  • Always have a set of proper footwear as backup.

Apart from that, I’d also generally recommend slowing down. Don’t fixate on the ground in front of you. Look around. And take your time. Also, while you’re building up your foot conditioning, make sure you practice and train long enough (i.e. over the long term) to get beyond the initial uncomfortable stage where every pebble, root, or acorn hurts. I know it’s cliché, but “listen to your body” and trust your feet. Learn to differentiate between discomfort and pain. And finally, make sure fellow hikers think you’re just a little bit crazy.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

I bring Krazy glue when I hike as I use it to glue the cracks in my feet that sometimes occur when walking barefoot for long periods of time. Make sure the crack in the foot is clean, dry the area, glue it, let dry, and you’re good to go.

How do you bring things with you?

I use a piece of fabric to carry my gear. I put my gear in the fabric, then tie the two opposite corners together and sinch it down tight. This prevents things from falling out. I take the two other opposite corners and tie them with enough space to be able to fit my arm into the load and carry it from my shoulder.

What are your top tips for other barefoot hikers?

Start slow, build up your feet over time, take care of cracks before they get out of control, (by gluing if necessary with Krazy glue) and if your feet get dry use lotion on them every once in awhile.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • My writing journal. I know, I’m old school, but there’s something about putting pen to paper that gets my creative brain going. No matter where I go; to the peak of Machu Picchu or to a cafe in Paris, you can find that journal and my favorite pen packed safely in my bag.
  • Scubba Portable Laundry System. I’ve never met another traveler who has one of these, and hostel friends ALWAYS end up borrowing mine. It’s just a bag you fill with laundry detergent and water. Technically you are still hand washing your clothing, but it makes it SO MUCH easier and saves a ton of water. Plus, it’s super small and easy to pack.
  • ECEEN Solar Hydration Backpack. It’s amazing. I can hike for as long as I want and stay hydrated AND keep my camera charged. Ideal for the travel writer who likes to be in the middle of nowhere (where lack of electricity is common) but still likes to have a charged camera to capture all the beauty.

How do you bring things with you?

I mostly use my Osprey backpacks. I have one that holds 50L and one that holds 100L, so which one I use depends on where I’m going and for how long. Over the years I’ve gotten a lot better and minimizing my pack-size. I used to be a serial over-packer, but it’s improving!! The main thing I work on is mix-and-match. One pair of pants per every three tops kind of thing.

The Scrubba Portable Laundry System has also made a huge difference because it allows me to pack less clothing and just keep cleaning them along the way. I also use Ziploc bags to save space. I fold everything up, place them in the bags, and squeeze out all the air. It’s a DIY version of the vacuum-packed travel bags and works just as well while saving money!

What are your top tips for other barefoot hikers?

I think the major mistake I see is people obsessing about the plan. They feel like they have to have everything figured out before they walk out the door. But the truth is, most of your plans are going to change once you are out there anyway.

So stop worrying about all the little details and just get out there! Sure, there will be challenges, but you will learn from them and each future trip will just get smoother and smoother. There’s no better time to go than NOW!

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

My first bit of barefoot packing advice would be to always carry a roll of duct tape, as it can be used to cover and protect an injury. Good quality duct tape will stay in place for an entire day of barefoot hiking.

Do _NOT_ ever wrap duct tape completely around the foot, as it has virtually no elasticity at all, and can thus seriously impair circulation. All that is really needed is for the duct tape to extend for at least half an inch on all sides beyond the edge of whatever bandage or other dressing you are using.

Some barefoot hikers carry light moccasins or other easily folded footwear for ’emergency’ situations, but I always went without, and always encouraged others to go without, as it is better to be committed to going completely barefoot.

How do you bring things with you?

These days I rarely even carry a day pack, as I now typically now only take walks of an hour or so with my wife who also goes barefoot, and sometimes my likewise barefoot granddaughters.

I get most of my exercise now walking barefoot to daily Mass each morning when it is neither raining nor snowing, nor the roads cover’d with snow, nor the temperature below about 30F. This little barefoot pilgrimage is for me a walk of only about a mile and a half, but it is a very rewarding spiritual practice, which, while perhaps no longer common as it once was, is still well recognized by most Catholics as a remembrance of a time when many shrines were filled with barefoot pilgrims.

What are your top tips for other barefoot hikers?

I apologize for the brevity of my answers. I am 70 years old now, and though still very nearly a 24/7 barefooter, I am no longer that much of a hiker, and truth be told, was never that much of a backpacker.

Only once, more than twenty years ago, did I use a full frame pack for a trek of several days and nights. I was otherwise a day hiker, accustomed to carrying only a light day pack with water and perhaps a lunch.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

Actually, not much. I have a little ditty bag that contains a pair of tweezers, really strong fold-up reading glasses, a pen-knife, and a compass.

The reading glasses are because I’m getting old. I find that I rarely use the tweezers at all. In the past two years, I’ve used them maybe twice. The most recent was removing a small thorn that had penetrated my “spongy” sole. (For those who haven’t been following that, in December I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing tennis. The lack of stimulation on my sole while trying to recover had a rather interesting effect on it: it stayed thick but got rather spongy which picks up material from the surface I walked on.) The other time I used it was last year when I stupidly didn’t pick up my foot enough while stepping over a cactus.

I’ve used the compass something like once in 10 years. I usually also carry a topo map (no GPS!) of the area I’m in, and (so far) I just don’t get lost.

As a general rule, I do not carry backup footwear. I used to but never used it, so I quit carrying anything. The only times I still will carry any is when hiking in the desert Southwest on a sunny day. That’s as protection against hot sand. My current backup footwear is a pair of Cloud Barefoot Sandals from Xero Shoes. Before that, I used moccasins, but they wore out rather quickly when I did use them.

How do you bring things with you?

I use a fanny pack (waist pack). Regular backpacks bother my back, but if I put all the weight on my hips my back is just fine. I have a rather large collection of packs, and which one I choose depends on how much water I think I need to bring and how much extra stuff (like a camera, or if the day starts out cool but I know I’ll be stripping as it warms up and I need a place to stash what I take off). My biggest fanny pack is a Kelty Hawkeye with a volume of 750 cubic inches, and I can carry three liters of water. The one I probably use the most is an old JanSport with a volume of 475 cubic inches and I can carry 2 liters of water with it.

What are your top tips for other barefoot hikers?

Following the advice of Ken Bob Saxton, listen to your feet. If you are just starting out, start out slowly and work your way up. It can take up to six months for all of the beneficial physiological changes to happen.

Use moisturizers containing urea, like Flexitol or Gold Bond Foot Cream. This is particularly important in the very dry environment in the desert Southwest (not so much around Ohio, where I live). The first few times I made special trips out west, I got dryness cracks on the balls of my feet and thought I’d picked up a thorn I couldn’t find. The urea-containing creams have prevented that ever since.

And finally, you can do way more than you think barefoot (after all, our ancestors did). When you start off, you’re really careful where you step all of the time. Once your feet are really conditioned, you have to pay way less attention and/or your brain pays the correct amount of attention subconsciously. That gives you the opportunity to enjoy nature with all of your senses.

We go out into Nature to see the sights, smell the smells, and hear the sounds. And then the shod turn off their sense of touch. Barefooters don’t.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

Only one of the “things” I bring with me is material. That is hiking poles as they help to displace my weight, especially in barefoot unfriendly terrain. They are not necessarily to go faster, but to tread lighter. That is the difference I think then why a lot of shod hikers use them.

The other two are attitude and patience. My attitude is one of believing the journey is far more important than the destination. Slow and steady, a patient belief that “inch by inch it’s a cinch” gives this barefoot hiker more joy through relaxing and being meditative.

How do you bring things with you?

I usually just take a small ruck sack of essentials, water, food, etc. I prefer a bag that I can attach things to on the outside for convenient access.

What are your top tips for other barefoot hikers?

Many shod hikers overstride. Take small strides, enjoy the scenery, and you will arrive a bit later but with far more peace and solitude in your soul.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

I only do day barefoot hikes, not overnight hiking. So for barefoot hikes on trails that I am well familiar with, I usually bring only water but no backpack. Over the years, I eventually stopped bringing a first aid kit as well as I rarely get any injury. For barefoot hikes on trails that I am not familiar with, I bring a small backpack with as little as possible. The most essential thing I bring is water. I would recommend to any barefoot hiker – ALWAYS bring water, no matter how short the hike is or how easy it is.

Aside from that, I do not have any insight on bringing anything for my hikes as I think you are more interested in supplies for overnight hiking and camping. As far as anything that can improve barefoot hiking – my simple answer is one’s mind. The more you learn, the easier it becomes.

An interesting humorous story: In my early days of barefoot hiking I occasionally made dumb mistakes. While I have hiked with many other people over the years, and led many groups (both shod and barefoot) while I was barefoot, I often do my barefoot hikes alone. One hike alone (on a trail I was not familiar with) seemed to disappear, and I temporarily was lost. It was very hot and humid as I tried to find the trail. I had a backpack on but forgot to check what I had in it. So I forgot that I had another bottle of water in it, and when I ran out of the water I was using, I got very worried. No water – possible dehydration. I managed to find my way back and only then, back at the trailhead did I check inside my backpack. I had a full bottle of water that I forgot about, hidden down under some other items. I always checked the pack contents before starting after that.

How do you bring things with you?

My backpack is a small (0.5 m long and 0.3 m wide) one that I got from an environmental organization for being a member. It is organized such that the softer items (such as backup teeshirts or clothes) are closest to the back, while the harder items are in the outside compartments.

Nothing much different from anyone else I suppose. Extra water as mentioned is in there. And I always have plenty of room since I never bring footwear – in the early days I did and over the years it became clear I was never going to use them. (I never did use footwear on any barefoot hike).

What are your top tips for other barefoot hikers?

I have lots of tips, so I will limit this to just 5.

  • Tip 1 – Start with the easiest trail and work your way to more difficult trails over time. Take your time to learn how to do barefoot hiking. Learn about how to recognize and anticipate hazards. There are a lot of little tricks you will learn, but it only happens by experience. Nature is your friend, but only if you respect it.
  • Tip 2 – A common mistake is to try to keep pace with shod hikers who are often more interested in speed and distance than the experience. Barefoot hiking is all about the experience…if you want to maximize your distance or hike speed, then use shoes or boots. You are barefoot so let those shod hikers keep pace with you, if they want. And if not, do not worry about it, let them proceed ahead. Over the years you will get faster and be able to keep up with some of them, or even outpace them. Until then, go at the pace that is right for you.
  • Tip 3 – Always bring a hiking stick and use it. Barefoot hiking is always easier with a hiking stick. Even on easy trails, you never know when you will step on a slippery spot or a jagged rock or piece of wood. The hiking stick really helps to keep balance or change the position of the feet quickly. Successful barefoot hiking is all about balance. And for downhills, a hiking stick is especially useful.
  • Tip 4 – Respect the trail, do not underestimate it. Learn about it. Take time to stop occasionally in places you enjoy. Bare-footing about the experience, so take it in. Appreciate the trail, the environment, the birds, and the wildlife.
  • Tip 5 – Have at least one trail that you go on barefoot hikes over and over. Become a master of that trail. Make sure it is not TOO easy though. It will help you to build your confidence in using only your bare feet. That will help you later to take on more difficult trails.

Things I see barefoot hikers doing wrong – there are many, but I will mention just one. Paying attention to the terrain (or path) ahead is essential – a lot of beginners make the error of being distracted and then hurt themselves. Without footwear there is more risk of injury, of course. So every step needs some attention before you get there, and for me I am looking several steps ahead. Note – while I have never had a serious injury in all my years of barefoot hiking, minor injuries can happen to anyone, even the most experienced barefoot hikers.

Weather variations – this is a matter of personal choice. Some top barefoot hikers hike in very cold conditions, and even in snow. While I have done that a few times, I do not do that any more. And do not recommend it either. I keep it simple – I pick the best days and do my barefoot hikes on those. I am well aware of my limits for cold weather bare-footing, and each person will have their own limits. I want to enjoy the experience, not test my endurance.

As far as getting out the door, my recommendation is simple. I do barefoot walks on grass fields (at a nearby park) several times a week as my primary form of exercise, as explained in my website (www.barefootkc.com). Refer to “Natural Walking for Exercise” on my website. Those are walks for exercise and are at a fast pace. They keep me healthy. That makes it easier for me to then occasionally go to a woodland trail or other hiking area and do a barefoot hike. Do barefoot walking on natural surfaces for exercise…that is what I would say. It makes it seem very natural doing hikes barefoot on trails, and they supplement each other.

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