Last week, I headed out into the Canadian backcountry for a few days of hiking, camping and detoxing (from technology, that is). Our packs were loaded with everything we would need for a few days, and we headed up the trail to a series of lakes that would be our final destination. An hour into the hike, and after a brief discussion about the benefits of walking barefoot, our hiking shoes were off and we found ourselves navigating the trail barefoot (with fully loaded backpacks, I might add).
Now I must admit, when it was first suggested that we hike barefoot, all I could think about were the potential risks. I am, after all, a North American and former outdoor educator who is used to mitigating risk in the outdoors with protection and protocol. Thankfully, my concern that I would injure my feet or even roll my ankles under the weight of a full pack was short lived. I quickly peeled off my sweaty socks and shoes and happily exposed my feet to the elements.
The moment our shoes came off, something magical happened. Our hiking pace slowed, our conversation lessened and our awareness of where we were increased. Suddenly, every step I took was considered and planned. My feet became part of the experience: I could feel the changes in temperature on the trail and the different textures of rock, root, loam, and dirt. I became directly connected to the experience of walking, something that is usually automatic and unconscious. I was amazed at the sensitivity of my feet (especially over the small rocks!) and I thought of a dear friend who lives in Costa Rica. While she spends most of her days barefoot, I spend most of my days in shoes. How much stronger would my feet be, and how much more connected would I feel, if my feet weren’t cloaked in shoes or resting on hardwood and tile all the time?
Make no mistake; being barefoot on the earth is good for us. According to a paper published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health, walking barefoot has been proven to increase antioxidants, reduce inflammation, reduce stress and improve sleep. But beyond the scientific research, you only need to take a moment standing barefoot in the grass to know that it is good for you. Walking barefoot helps us to slow down and reconnect to where we are in the moment. After all, we can’t be in a rush when we are barefoot (especially if you have tender and pristine North American feet that rarely see the light of day). What happens instead is that we become immediately connected to our bodies, our surroundings and the earth; we become connected to the present moment.
So, if you want to slow down this week, I challenge you to find some time to go barefoot. Maybe it is during your daily dog walk, when you are in your backyard, when you head down to the river or the lake for a swim or even if you are out for a hike. Peel off those shoes and take the risk to expose your feet to the touch and feel of the earth.
Trust me, it will be worth it.