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Zion National Park – Barefoot July 25, 2011

Posted by The Barefoot MD in : Health, Hiking, Shoes, Thoughts , trackback

This past week, I accompanied a varsity scout team on a high adventure campout to Zion National Park.  I’m known by the boys as the barefoot leader.  They’ve been influenced by my barefootedness and have started trying various activities barefoot.  We arrived in Zion on Wednesday of last week and that evening we hiked up Angel’s Landing to Scout Lookout.  I, of course, was barefoot and several of the boys tried it barefoot as well.  Much of the path is cement which wasn’t too bad.  However, there were parts of the path that were a type of asphalt that wasn’t smoothed out very well (worse than chip ‘n seal) . . . it required a lot of concentration and relaxation on my part to make it comfortable.  Overall it was a beautiful hike and the vistas were unparalleled.

The next day would be the ultimate test of my bare feet.  We hiked The Subway.  This is a 9.5 mile hike that begins on some flat sandy terrain through some evergreens, then descends over some sandstone fields, then descends into the bottom of a slot canyon.  There are several sections where you have to swim through pooled water that has been deposited by either runoff or rain then sits at the bottom of these deep narrow canyons seeing the sun only minutes a day.  In essence, the water is frigid!  I was in mild hypothermia through much of this portion of the hike.  One big advantage I had over the shod hikers in the water sections of the hike are that my feet dried quickly and my predisposition for the formation of blisters was virtually eliminated (I didn’t get one blister the entire trip).  Hiking in and out of water with shoes that don’t drain and dry very quickly softens the skin tremendously and blisters are not far behind.

The most picturesque section of the hike is how The Subway got it’s name.  There is a section that has been hollowed out by the water and wind to look like a subway.

Image by John B. Crane

After transitioning through the subway section of the hike, it’s mainly in and out of a river for three miles then a 400 vertical foot ascent over 0.75 miles on dirt and rocks to the end of the hike.  At the bottom of the ascent, I told one of the other leaders that I really surprised myself as I thought I would have put on the VFFs I had packed along as a backup option to barefooting the hike.  After the ascent, there’s a relatively flat 0.1 mile section over dirt to the parking lot.  It’s the only section where human intervention is obvious on the trail.  There are several sections where people have buried branches across the trail to facilitate the construction of “steps.”  Of course, the branches off these sticks were not completely removed and you therefore have “nubs” protruding.  You’re at the end of a long hike that’s fairly strenuous and tiring.  I had been paying attention to every step I’d made throughout the entire hike except for the one over one of the “steps” where I caught the front of the ball of my right foot just behind my big toe . . . ouch!  It was the only injury I incurred during the entire trip.  It only took off the first layer of skin and had to laugh that on the most tame part of the hike . . . I got my only injury.  The kids started calling me “the hobbit,” which I took as a compliment.

Many people in our group as well as others we passed during the hike asked me how I could endure the pain of hiking barefoot.  After thinking about it for a while, I figured out why my feet likely hurt less than the shod population.  When wearing shoes or hiking boots, people typically don’t pay much attention to where their feet are landing or how hard they are hitting.  In contrast, I was acutely aware of every footfall and made sure each footstep was gentle.  Engaging my “feetback loop,” as Barefoot Ken Bob calls it, allowed me to reduce the impact of the hike on my feet.  I felt like Legolas in Lord of the Rings prancing across the top of the terrain with the greatest of ease.

It’s amazing how much the human body can adapt to the environment.  Just another experience that confirms to me going barefoot is the way we were meant to be.

The next hike we took was through The Narrows.  After about a mile on a cement walkway along the Virgin River, you enter the river for the balance of the hike.  Again, the water was very frigid, and I wasn’t excited about having to wade through one section up to my chest as the hypothermic memory from the previous day was still quite vivid in my mind.  I ended up putting on my VFFs for the rest of the hike as the water obscured my view of the bottom enough that I wanted to have a bit of protection.  However, one lesson I learned from donning the VFFs is that bare feet do much better in this situation.  When my VFFs got a bit of sand on them it got somewhat slippery on the rocks.  The previous day in The Subway, I was very sure footed in and out of the water.  I had sand on my feet several times, but it didn’t really affect my grip on the terrain.  I didn’t fall either day, but came much closer to falling in The Narrows than hiking through The Subway.

Overall, it was one of the most incredible barefoot experiences I’ve had in the outdoors, and taught me a lot about my feet.

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