Toe-to-toe with nature
Barefoot hikers really get a feel for trails
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
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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."

Copyright © 2003, The Columbus Dispatch