Skip to content

“The Barefoot Experience” public program: fun for all

January 19, 2013

This afternoon I was privileged to help lead a hike with Joel Robinson of Naturalist for You. (Joel was one of my first “nature mentors” when I began my naturalist-learning-journey back in 2004.)

Posing for a photo at the trailhead.

Posing for a pre-hike photo at the trailhead.

A while back, Joel had asked me to help plan an event to introduce people to barefoot hiking; of course I was excited to be part of such a worthy endeavor–the more people out hiking our local wildlands barefoot, the less odd I will seem . . .

And what a great group showed up today for “The Barefoot Experience”: 14 adventurous souls, some of whom had been lured under slightly false pretenses to the San Juan Loop trailhead off the Ortega Highway, near the crest of the Santa Ana Mountains. It seems the local newspaper on the other side of the range had included a photo of a waterfall along with the activity listing I had posted to  Zvents. Oops.

What to do with nine people who had made the curvy drive from Lake Elsinore to hike, with shoes on, to see a waterfall like the one in the (undated) newspaper photo? So far this winter there’s not been enough rain to get the water tumbling over the granite shelves that characterize several of the watercourses in these parts. Hmm.

Joel and I explained the situation:  they were certainly welcome on our “barefoot but no waterfall” hike, but they had to try hiking shoeless for at least 20 yards at some point during the trek. They looked at the other hikers who had showed up barefoot on purpose, and within a couple of minutes all but one had their shoes off. Sure, they voiced a few concerns–but these fantastic folks were willing to try something new. (And maybe they got inspired by the contagious energy of the three young brothers,  especially the little guy, who couldn’t have been more than three–he literally took off running as soon as we hit the trail.)

Three miles and a couple of hours later–after a lot of granite encounters–we were back at the trailhead, toes and soles intact, all smiles.

While I definitely DO NOT recommend going three rocky miles for your first barefoot hike (I did 1.8 miles of smooth clay on my original outing, three years ago almost to the day), once these eager folks got their barefoot awareness going, it almost seemed to become a bit competitive, but in a good way. The 20-something son Eddie and his dad Ed had a bit of friendly rivalry going–it became clear pretty quickly that despite their shoe-accustomed feet, these two guys were going conquer the trail barefoot no matter what granite boulder-or-pebble obstacles got in their way.

Of course Joel did a fabulous job helping everyone become more aware of some of the cool plants we passed, explaining everything from where the “chaparral” landscape got its name to unveiling the mysteries of the odd round “ball” with little pinholes someone found hanging from an oak.

Barefoot hiking under an oak canopy along the San Juan Loop Trail, Santa Ana Mountains.

Joel leads all his hikes barefoot (in fact, he lives his whole life barefoot, unlike me–I still wear shoes in the city); on all his hikes he invites participants to join him in experiencing the trail in this simply wonderful way, and I highly recommend joining him on a Naturalist for You adventure–and yes, he does lead waterfall-specific hikes to the many cool places of tumbling water here in our awesome Santa Ana Mountains, formerly home to the most grizzly bears per square mile in the whole state of California.


Since I arrived at the trailhead a little early (there’s no telling how traffic will be on the notorious Ortega Highway), I spent the time scribbling down some “intro to barefoot hiking” notes. Always the teacher, even on Saturday . . .

1) History of barefoot hiking: you were born to do this. It goes back a long way. Before shoe-producing sweatshops, even.

2) How to get started: take off your shoes. Move. Do this at home as much as possible, indoors and out, to gradually get used to it. Roll a tennis ball or golf ball under your foot while sitting at work (or watching TV). Get your feet to help with chores around the house. Make them pick up stuff. It’s a fun challenge.

3) Step lightly. Feel how your foot lands. Concentrate on “picking up your feet” when there are rocks.

4) Scan the trail ahead, but don’t forget to enjoy the view as well. Practice looking down, then up. Your brain will get better at unconsciously “mapping” the terrain ahead. But at the beginning, expect to feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of looking. Where. You. Step.

5) Hiking poles can help and hurt. Help=taking some of the weight off your feet and stabilizing you on downhills. Hurt=slamming your toe into a pole if you don’t coordinate your pole planting. $#!*. I’ve done this more than once.

6) Bring duct tape/bandaids/tweezers. I’ve used all three at various times. (But note: my feet heal incredibly fast now, since I’ve taken up barefoot hiking/trail running. Increased circulation? It’s amazing.) (Results not guaranteed. See doctor if symptoms persist. Possible side effects include  . . . )

7) Public restrooms =  ick. Bears do it in the woods. So should you. (But if you have to hit the port-a-potty at the trailhead, try assuming a wide stance to keep out of the sticky-icky.)

8) Mud = some of the most fun!

9) Stream crossings = even more fun than mud!

10) Glass = you have two excellent tools to avoid stepping in broken glass. Your eyes. Use them. (And see this hilarious video by Orange County’s barefoot guru KenBob Saxton about the “dangers” of broken glass and bare feet.)

11) The soles of your feet may “buzz” for a few hours/days after you expose them to the beauty of natural terrain. This is normal and will go away. Enjoy it while it lasts. It’s weird and kind of cool.

12) Always smile and never say “ouch.” To do so would break the code of barefoot hiking: make it fun or put shoes on. (I learned this from Richard Keith Frazine’s free online book about barefoot hiking: The Barefoot Hiker. )

13) You will get odd looks and/or comments. Embrace them or ignore them; it’s all  part of the “Barefoot Experience.”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe P. permalink
    January 25, 2013 11:09 pm

    What fun! I hike barefoot on various trails in the north county inland area of San Diego, and have done some trails on Palomar and Laguna mountains. I wish there was a barefoot hiking group in this area. I have yet to encounter another barefoot hiker, although once in a rare while I do see barefoot prints (that are not mine!). Perhaps I can tag along on one of your hikes sometime.

    • January 28, 2013 2:44 pm

      Hi Joe–Thanks for the note. You could try the hiking thread of the Barefoot Runners Society (BRS)if you want to find like-minded San Diego Countians to barefoot hike with?

      My husband and I visit North County pretty frequently–lots of relatives in the area–maybe we could hike Daley Ranch one of these days this spring? We could start a thread on the BRS board, and maybe get some interest from other locals? Could be fun 🙂

      • Joe P. permalink
        January 28, 2013 7:16 pm

        Hi Thea – Thanks for the link. I just signed up at BRS as joe4702- just waiting for admin approval. I think I’ll post an “Any San Diego Area Barefoot Hikers?” thread and see if it gets responses. Doesn’t look like a super active sub-forum, but we’ll see.

        I hiked a portion of Daley Ranch last year. It would be great to go again, this time with other barefoot hikers. So far I have mainly hiked alone. My girlfriend sometimes comes along, but she does not go barefoot.

        Hopefully we can set something up at Daley.


  2. Adrian permalink
    January 22, 2013 6:05 am

    Thea! Thank you again so much for your time on Saturday! It was so refreshing to get out for the adventure. I hope to see you soon and join in on additional hikes, walks and hopefully get back to running. You’re awesome!

  3. January 21, 2013 9:00 am

    Hi Kelly! We would have loved to have you along, shoes or not. Hey–have you been setting any of those poetical thoughts to paper? I’d love to feature some of your writing on the blog 🙂

    Happy Trails!


    • Kelly Anderson permalink
      January 29, 2013 7:13 am

      Not sure if my comments on your January 29th post are poetical. In the new year, I realized I’d forsaken hiking for my sofa because I lacked the courage to hike alone.

      I was afraid to hike alone because “something bad could happen.” What if I fell or had a heart attack or was attacked by a weirdo or animal?

      But something clicked in me the other day and I decided right then that I would rather face those fears in beauty than die on my sofa watching reruns of Downton Abbey.

      That sounds more morbid than it is, but it came down to wanting to choose beauty over fear.

  4. kelly permalink
    January 19, 2013 10:23 pm

    I thought of coming along on this hike but my feet aren’t allowed to go naked. I headed to bommer canyon instead and had poetical thoughts in the wilderness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: