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A priest said you should! The idea that walking barefoot was something that can improve your health (rather than something you do if you can’t afford shoes) was made popular by a Bavarian priest in the late 19th century named Sebastian Kneipp. Kneipp believed that walking through wet grass or cold water stimulated a person’s internal organs, strengthened the immune system and helped the body repair itself.
When speaking of his childhood in the Alps, he claimed that he and his friends cheerfully waded barefoot through the early spring mud for more than an hour every morning to get to school, fueled by a breakfast of only a piece of bread and an apple. (Though who knows whether it was uphill both ways.)
If you’re more science-inclined, there is data that supports barefoot walking. The soles of the feet have approximately 200,000 nerve endings each, which works out to roughly 50 times (for men and 25 times for women) more than the pleasure zone in the middle of the body. As a result, a disproportionately large part of the cerebral cortex is devoted to handling sensory stimuli from the feet, input which helps us with the biomechanics of walking, jumping and climbing but also helps us feels good.
All those nerve endings mean you have to be careful when you’re walking, but for the barefoot hiking community, this is a major plus. Once barefoot, you automatically walk at a slower pace and derive more pleasure from the different textures and stimuli beneath your feet. Imagine what it would feel like to walk over soft moss after being on a hard dirt track, or like Kneipp boasted about, squishing through some mud.
When children first learn to walk, they do so on their toes. It’s only later (for some of us, much later) that we learn to put our heels on the ground too. When you walk barefoot, your toes are able to spread out, making each step much softer than it would be with shoes on This forces you to land on your heels, a region that is not nearly as shock absorbent as the ball of your foot. If you watch videos of barefoot hikers, you’ll see that they put almost no weight on their heels.
If you’re new to barefoot hiking, head to Barfusspark or Barfusspfad in Germany and you’ll find short trails designed specifically for this sensory experience. These trails are designed to be child-friendly, so you don’t have to worry about any rogue forest animals or sharp rocks causing injury.
If you are feeling braver, or have some calluses on your feet already, just go for a walk anywhere. Germans love to walk and hike, so most trails are well-kept and reasonably barefoot-friendly.
There are excellent barefoot hiking resources on the Barfuss Park website. The left menu lists barefoot parks, most of which are in the country, and the right menu gives suggestions for barefoot trips all over the country, cities included.
When you do venture out for a wander without shoes, remember to lift up your feet like you would if you were walking through mud with shoes on. If you shuffle like you would in house slippers, you will definitely hit or kick stones and roots, perhaps injuring yourself. Though it may feel weird at first and you might have to endure a few stubbed toes, you’ll soon get the hang of being a barefoot walker.