13 June 2013

Reflections on Minimalist and Imaginary Footwear, Part 1: Erosion

... so think positively and do not let the shod see you wincing.
- Richard Keith Frazine, B.D., The Barefoot Hiker
I have logged over 110 miles in minimalist footwear since last Fall, split up between running and walking, over a variety of terrain.  I have also logged 6 whole miles without any footwear whatsoever over the last month.  My imaginary footwear, if you will.  What follows are my observations and reflections on this experience.  This will be broken up into several posts, with each post focusing on a theme.  Today's theme is erosion.

This past weekend I had the pleasure to go off and hike one of the Adirondack 46rs.  While the majority of the peaks are still under a voluntary closure, due to the trails being sodden, a few are on the "OK" list, including Big Slide, which I hiked up with four companions: two humans and two canines.  I did this trip in a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, specifically a pair of Bikila LSs, and this was my second time hiking up a mountain in this pair of shoes.  Their intended purpose is for running, but I have found them adequately suited for hiking.

There was a bit of mental tennis about going out and doing it barefoot, but Mr. Frazine convinced me, through the book quoted at the top of this piece, that this would be a very bad idea for a first barefoot hike.  I did get out yesterday to do a shorter hike in my bare feet, over relatively flat terrain.  Yesterday's hike was over well-drained, sandy ground, so some of what follows is necessarily hypothetical and not empirical.  I have never walked through six or more inches of blackened standing water in my bare feet, and I have no intention of ever doing so.

I would like to address one of the stated reasons for wearing minimalist footwear on the trail, which is to reduce damage.  The idea is that you are stepping with less force, in footwear that weighs less than a traditional boot, and therefore you are damaging the trail less.  This was mentioned in The Barefoot Hiker in Chapter 4, although he also talks about damage to grasses or other plants, which does not come in to this piece.  I am talking strictly about well-established hiking trails here.

I understand the concept, that wearing less on your foot would reduce erosion, but until a controlled study has been done, we're only left with empirical evidence.  The only thing that comes close to a study of this that I am aware of, is the Leave No Trace pratice of always walking through muddy areas, which has been shown to strengthen trails and reduce damage.

Here are my thoughts and observations:
  1. Over dry ground, I do not see a difference between the various forms of footwear, or lack thereof.
  2. When the ground is damp, I do see a difference.  Minimalist footwear or bare feet will often leave only a slight impession, whereas a boot will often leave a deeper impression.  So, over slightly wet terrain, I agree with the hypothesis.
  3. When there is standing mud, this becomes less true.  The minimalist or barefoot hiker must will themselves to step into the mud of unknown depth.  This does get easier over time, but I found it to be a constant effort.  In boots, an inch of mud is no problem, whatsoever.  It doesn't even touch the upper.  A few inches of mud is generally not a problem, either, and it only ever really becomes a problem when the boot is submerged past the lowest point of entry (usually the top of the boot, but occasionally the tongue, in a poorly constructed boot).  In minimalist footwear, an inch of mud will soak your foot.   When barefoot, you run the risk of stepping on something hidden in the mud, and so must take great caution.  The natural tendency in minimalist or imaginary footwear is therefore to avoid the mud, and to walk on (and therefore erode) the edge of the trail.  This tendency can be overcome, but it takes willpower.
  4. When this mud gives way to deep pools of standing water, I feel that the barefoot hiker is at a loss.  Unlike a stream which can generally be peered into, the mud puddle is impossible to penetrate with the eyes, and the water itself must be avoided, regardless of the footwear.  This is especially true for the barefoot hiker, for whom the pool provides almost certain danger, in the form of unseen sharp objects and a large supply of microorganisms feeding off of the decaying material.  This is further complicated by the fact that the dead wood and slimy rocks that we walk along to traverse these deep pools are, well, slimy.  It's easy to fall off of them.  I would not want to risk this while barefoot.  I would go around.  At least in the minimalist footwear, I can accept a slightly higher risk factor, and balance along the logs and rocks placed haphazardly in the mud.  I still do not want to fall in, since I could still suffer a puncture wound.  In boots it becomes much less of an issue.  The worst that will happen is that your foot might get wet if you fall in.
  5. Finally, continuing the empirical evidence, in my experience over the weekend, I found that I displaced as much mud in the deeply muddy sections as my boot-shod companions.  Every time I watched them walk through a muddy section that was several inches deep, and then watched myself walk through it, the mud displacement was very similar.  Granted, I weigh slightly more than they do, so it would be good to repeat the observations with someone who weighs the same as I do; preferably someone who weighs the same when gear and clothing is taken into consideration.
So, in conclusion, on this first point, I do not see minimalist footwear or bare feet causing any less erosion on the most sensitive terrain I have encountered: muddy trails.  The weight of the user is far more important than the style of footwear.   I would love to see this disproven or confirmed through repeatable tests, but in the meantime, all I can do is observe.  I would also advise hikers and runners to look for and respect voluntary trail closures, to help keep the trails in the best shape possible.

P.S. On a personal note, I will say that I enjoyed walking through the mud and streams.  I alternated between rock hopping and simply walking straight through the muddy sections, and found that I preferred just walking through them.  Yes, my feet were sodden by the end of the hike, but I had already anticipated this, and had a towel and a clean pair of sandals waiting for me in the car.  The rock hopping was actually more painful in the Bikilas than it is in boots, presumably because of the extra impact on the ball of my foot.  The streams felt refreshing, and it was interesting to see how much of the mud would be scrubbed off by the action of the water alone on each iteration.  While I expected them to be wiped clean every time, a decent amount of mud remained after a few seconds in the running water.

Well, that's it.  Until next time, "be excellent to each other..."

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