Toe-to-toe with nature

Barefoot hikers really get a feel for trails

Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Greg Morgan gives his feet a workout on the trail in Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve.
Beckoned to the trail, from left: barefoot hikers Ian Neinast, Greg Morgan and Bob Neinast
Bare feet get a breather during a hike by Morgan and the Neinasts at Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve in Licking County.
Bob Neinast cools his heel while fording a stream.

The pine needles are softer, the rocks smoother and the streams refreshing. From the bottom up, barefoot hiker has a different sense of the woodland trail. ``I feel more. I notice more," said Canal Winchester hiker Greg Morgan. ``You don't notice hemlock needles at all if you're wearing shoes.

``It's nice to have a variety of textures. Walking through grass like you have in your yard, it's actually dull." Barefoot hikers are sole survivors. Theirs is not a tiptoe through the tulips. (A tulip tree, in fact, sheds a seed that makes a sharp point with bare feet.)

A band of central Ohio barefooters meets in state and county parks for regular hikes on trails graded for the surface and terrain, hazards and aesthetics.

Others set off solo or with a barefoot friend.

``You go out in the woods to enjoy the sights, smells and sounds, but if you're shod you turn off one of your senses," Pickerington hiker Bob Neinast said. ``The textures are really interesting. Moss is a delight."

And the unshod have practical advantages, he said. ``I don't get blisters. I don't get sprained ankles anymore. I don't get hot and sweaty feet.

"And crossing a stream is a lot easier."

A stream can be forded barefoot without getting shoes soaked.

Or a fallen tree can turn into a handy bridge.

"If you do find a log, it's kind of fun," Neinast said. "You actually curl your feet around the log. You get a feeling of stability."

Such hikers consider the bare foot stronger in a pinch than the shod foot.

They see the shoe as a fad or a status symbol — or a misguided means of protecting a part of the body that has stood the test of time.

A foot in a shoe is a hoof, said Neinast, who needs the "instant sensory feedback."

Formal occasions and freezing conditions are exceptions, of course.

To a fellow hiker, foot freedom came easy as a child in North Carolina.

"I would go barefoot when I could, despite my mom's best wishes at the time," said Morgan, 49. "It just felt good to me."

Peer pressure during his teen years ended his barefoot ways.

Yet the urge lingered into adulthood: After moving to central Ohio, he found himself back on the trail in bare feet.

"It felt kind of awkward," he said, "but I discovered that, hey, I'm not alone. There are other barefoot hikers out there."

About five years ago, he set up a Web site called Barefoot Hikers of Central Ohio.

The group was off and running with "a few dozen members," including one from Michigan.

The only cut Morgan has suffered, he said, occurred on a beach.

On a trail, glass doesn't pose much of a problem — but "natural hazards" such as sticks, stones and nuts do.

"You don't want to drag your feet or shuffle your feet or kick piles of leaves," Morgan said. "It's a slightly different way of walking. It comes natural."

Snow and ice discourage barefoot hiking, which can be done on warmer winter days.

His feet soften during the cold months, Morgan said; then the soles "thicken up" in the spring.

Along with Morgan, Neinast hopes to expand the barefoot toehold on society.

"I'm not the kind of person who likes having people tell me what to do," the 48-year-old said.

"I do everything barefoot, first of all" — including about 10 miles of hiking a week.

Neinast has encountered some hostility.

"Some people just think it's not proper," he said.

They buy into "the myth that it's somehow dangerous."

"When you first start walking barefoot, you tend to look down," he said. "You do tend to watch your step a bit more. You tend to see things that you might not otherwise see.

"You get more into it. You develop the technique of scanning to see what's there. It becomes absolutely second nature."

Also, he said, "There's a spiritual component in this. You feel more connected with the Earth."


Going unshod

Walking tips

• Plant your feet, never allowing them to kick, drag or shuffle.

• Focus your eyes two to three paces down the trail, stopping to look at anything off the path.

• Keep your weight on the balls of your feet, not on the heels — which don't absorb shocks as well.

• Make a habit of awareness, treading lightly and sometimes warily and tentatively — and, when moving around obstacles, deliberately.



Top spots

• Blackhand Gorge State Nature Preserve, Licking County

• Clear Creek Metro Park, northern Hocking and southern Fairfield counties

• Glen Helen Nature Preserve, Yellow Springs

• Great Seal State Park, Chillicothe

• Hocking Hills State Park, Logan

• Wildcat Hollow hiking trail, Wayne National Forest, southeastern Ohio

Source: Barefoot Hikers of Central Ohio

More information

• The Barefoot Hiker (Ten Speed, $7.95) by Richard Frazine

• Barefoot Hikers of Central Ohio (

• Society for Barefoot Living (


Shoe shunners

• John Chapman, a nurseryman who supplied apple-tree stock to 19th-century pioneers in the Midwestern frontier — and came to be know as Johnny Appleseed

• Abraham Lincoln, who as a child toughened his bare feet ``in the gravel of green streams,'' Carl Sandburg writes

• Confederate soldiers, who nonetheless made long, forced marches

• Joe Jackson, the baseball player who picked up the nickname ``Shoeless Joe'' when he played a minor-league game in his stockings because he had blisters on his feet from new spikes — before his career was ruined in the 1919 ``Black Sox'' gambling scandal

• The scantily clad Daisy Mae Yokum, a central fiture in the long-running Al Capp comic Li'l Abner

• Bigfoot


Sources:, Encyclopaedia Brittanica Online


Supporters, detractors debate health issues

Barefoot hikers preach foot fitness.

They have stronger feet, able to withstand injuries such as sprained ankles, because they have stronger muscles and tendons, they say.

Stuart Schilling, a podiatrist for 30 years, trusts in shoes.

"Personally, I don't like being barefoot at all, not even around my own home," he said.

Minor scratches become portals for "fungus or bacteria that are everywhere."

Infection, he said, "is probably the leading cause of medical expense" in foot care.

"If people are going to do this because they find a need, at least do it in a smart way."

Schilling suggests regular foot inspections as well as moisturizing creams, infection-preventing vitamin A and skin-toughening soaks.

"Injury is a real issue," he said. "It's pretty easy to bump into something or have things stubbed or have someone step on you."

In structural terms, shoes don't make much difference to healthy feet, Schilling said — but they do benefit feet needing support because of weakened arches or ankles.

Barefoot hikers have found scientific studies that reinforce their view.

Shoes render toes "functionless" and restrict motion, according to a 1905 study in The American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery, noting that shoes are designed by "the whim of society and the manufacturers' enterprise."

And, says a 1987 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, runningand jumping-related injuries occur more frequently among shoe-wearing populations.

"High-injury frequency" creates the mistaken perception that the foot is poorly designed, the later study states: Shoes diminish "sensory feedback" without reducing enough impact — "a dangerous situation."

Hookworm, an intestinal parasite, invades the body through bare feet in contact with human feces, mostly in tropical or subtropical areas.

About 1 billion people are infected worldwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Widespread 100 years ago in the Southeast, hookworm infections are "largely controlled" in the United States.

Legal matters

In 2001, Bob Neinast of Pickerington sued the Columbus Metropolitan Library over a rule against bare feet.

A U.S. District Court judge threw out the suit last year, agreeing with the library that the rule protects patrons from exposure to broken glass, blood, feces and semen.

Neinast, who contends he is being denied rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, has appealed to the 6 th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

He has a letter of apology from the Smithsonian Institution, which turned him out when barefoot. (He later returned for a visit with barefoot friends.) And he maintains a list of government buildings he has entered in bare feet.

Public institutions may impose "reasonable regulations for public health and safety," City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. said.

So the Central Ohio Transit Authority bars barefoot riders, although nothing keeps a car owner from legally driving without shoes.

"Dare I say I have driven barefoot," Pfeiffer said. "You can feel that pedal."

Surviving city streets, he said, requires wearing shoes.

"Who knows what lurks in the concrete at Broad and High?"

Columbus health codes don't prohibit bare feet in public.

Meanwhile, "There are no health concerns or health regulations regarding bare feet in restaurants and businesses," said Michelle LoParo, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health. "It is a business decision." 

Copyright © 2003, The Columbus Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.