Hiking Barefoot/ Vibram Five Fingers on the Pacific Crest Trail

After reading “Born to Run“, I had high hopes of never buying another pair of shoes.   I had visions of flitting down the trail like a fairy in bare-feet with nothing in my food bag but chia seeds.

But the reality didn’t measure up in the long haul.   I don’t know if barefoot hiking is compatible with  hiking 10-12 hours a day, month after month. When I get tired,  I want  to take nice long strides and slap those feet down anywhere and make some miles.    I also get  clumsy at the end of the day and that doesn’t mix well with bare-feet.   It takes a mental adjustment to hike in barefeet  that I sometimes found hard to make when I got tired.  It was slow and sometimes painful.

I then switched to Vibram Five Fingers. Though they offer some protection, if you step on a rock or a stick with your arch,  the pain reverberates through your body.    Another thing is your toes are all separated which offers the opportunity for each toe to individually snag on something and get wrenched.

I put them away for good when I caught my little toe, which I think I may have broken a few days earlier,  and it caused me so much pain I thought I was going to pass out.

You can hit miles of fist size rocks that would be nothing to hike across in shoes and those sections become tedious and exhausting in Vibram Five Fingers.

While wearing my Vibram Five Fingers and hiking south I met many northbound thru-hikers who had started the hike with them but quickly abandoned them.

The one thing I learned from going barefoot is a gratitude for shoes.    If you like hiking day after day for months, taking long carefree strides; I highly recommend shoes or hiking sandals.

My trail tested compo is Chaco Z-1 woman’s size 9 wide and New Balance 817′s mens size 9.5 EEEE with NB IPR3010 Pressure Relief insoles with the metatarsal rise. Switching shoes all day long I can hike 30 mile days.   The only problem I have with this set up is the shoes are like ballet slippers when they hit snow and it’s a lot of money to shell out on shoes for every thru-hike.    I also don’t like having to carry two pairs of shoes…. but with my feet I know it’s what I need to do.

I was really optimistic about going barefoot and gave it my best shot but it didn’t work.

About crow

Hermit, long distance hiker, primitive cabin dweller, seeker.
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18 Responses to Hiking Barefoot/ Vibram Five Fingers on the Pacific Crest Trail

  1. Dylan Snodgrass says:

    Ya I was really excited after reading Born To Run but your right hiking barefoot is a PITA.

  2. I’m an avid barefoot runner and [day] hiker, but I’m also very appreciative of modern technology for filling the gap when going barefoot just isn’t practical. I can’t possibly hike barefoot with our New England winter, and running barefoot in the winter is reserved for dry surfaces in 20+ F weather. That’s when I appreciate a good pair of shoes – as minimalist as possible, while still getting the job done.

    Still, I’ve been more than surprised how well my feet have adapted over the past two years of transitioning to unshod recreation. I’m able to go farther, longer, and harder with each passing season, and I’m not sure when my progress will plateau. It hasn’t showed any sign of slowing.

    I could see how with ample preparation, one could entertain the idea of a multi-day backpacking trip completely barefoot – but I imagine it’ll be another 2-3 years before I’m personally ready to try that :)

  3. Diane says:

    I hiked this summer in Chacos. My feet were quite happy. They worked well. After a long day, they start to hurt though. Chacos are pretty hard on the bottom.

    It’s interesting that your Chacos are a women’s size 9 but your shoes are a men’s size 9.5. Is that because even with a 4E width the shoes are still not wide enough?

  4. crow says:

    No, when they measure my feet they come out to a men’s sized 9.5 – 10.

    The first time I hiked the PCT, I wore men’s size 12 shoes. Any smaller and my toes would bang up against the toe when I went down hill. Probably because they were to narrow for me.

    On the Chacos, my toes come right up to the ends. That would be to small if the shoes were enclosed, but works fine with a sandal. Once, when I went to buy Chacos, they didn’t sell the woman’s wide sizes so I bought a men’s regular 8. Even though they appeared to be the same size as the men’s, theyt hurt my feet.

    You might like the 817′s. They have the SL-2 last. It’s narrow in the heal with a deep wide toe box. I’ve been wearing them since 2004. I really wished I had a pair on my last hike.

  5. AC says:

    Thanks for your candor. It can be pretty hard to give up precious new strategies/ideas/beliefs.

    Ultimately, the greatest value of books like Born to Run or Beyond Backpacking is their liberation from the tyranny of common wisdom. Like most revolutions, it’s all too easy to entrench oneself in the new belief — the new boss is same as the old boss thing. So the trick is to keep the liberated feeling while skeptically yet hopefully trying new stuff.

    The point is to have fun and learn cool new things and go places and be present. Whatever works.

    lovely blog, by the way

  6. Diane says:

    One thing I don’t like about Chacos is I fall down all the time in them. They have no traction. There’s a spot near Butt Mountain near the halfway mark that’s really sketchy. My Chacos had no traction there. I slipped and skinned my knee. Hiking a section of the JMT a few weeks later, I was coming down some switchbacks and all of a sudden I was flat on my face. I really banged up my knee and finished the hike with big bruises and bloody scrapes. The scrape from the PCT was still there so I’m sure I looked like a mess. I fell again later on the trip. I’ve fallen other times on other hikes as well. I kind of don’t trust them anymore. Forest duff wouldn’t be a problem, but sandy, shaley, rocky stuff they don’t do well in.

    I’ve been trying to learn how to make shoes. I found some really good soling material. I might try to resole my Chacos with this stuff. I have an old pair of Chacos that I had to hack up with a knife to make fit my heel, so if I ruined them trying to resole them it wouldn’t be a huge loss.

    I don’t think I have a wide heel. Your New Balance look really comfy.

  7. crow says:

    I haven’t notice that Chacos are that slippery but it might be that I’ve been hiking in them so long that I don’t notice. I’ve been hiking in Chacos since 2002. I fell many times on the Appalachian Trail but everyone does.

    817′s don’t have good traction either, it’s just the compromise I make to get my feet to stop screaming.

    I wish New Balance would make a lightweight mesh trail shoe with the SL-2 last. I noticed that they have a last that they say is similar–the W/MOL-01 last. They make trail shoes but they are goretex linned and leather. If I hike the Grand Enchantment Trail, I might try a pair of those since Blisterfree says not to wear mesh shoes on that trail.

    I hiked in a pair of Garmont Eclipes’s this year, I liked that they had more traction but they hurt my feet.

  8. cyberhobo says:

    I also tried some backpacking barefoot and in five fingers this summer, but fell back to the Chacos. It wasn’t tweaked toes in my case, it was more due to blisters between my toes. I never had that problem with less weight and fewer miles.

    I still hike all I can without shoes, or in VFF’s. Something about it makes my body happy. But when it comes to distance, I’ll keep the Chacos at least as a backup.

  9. Just out of curiosity, what sort of preparation did you do before attempting a long distance hike barefoot? I get the impression that you’ve done quite a bit of long distance hiking, so your body has likely adapted somewhat to the stress and workload. If you’ve done most of that wearing shoes and tried to jump into barefoot hiking without a pretty extended period of working up to it, it’s not entirely surprising that you ran into some difficulties.

  10. crow says:

    I had been going barefoot for about 4 months before my hike. I hiked a 7 mile loop around my cabin with a pack on 3 -5 times a week.

    I’ve done a lot of long distance hiking (about 14,000 miles). This hike was going to be different. I was going to go slow, walk barefoot, and refrain from caffeine and music. The only thing is, I would start to run out of food or water and have to get some miles in.

    My feet have always been the biggest problem for me when long distance hiking.

    Maybe if a person trained barefoot for longer they would have an easier time of it. But it may be that barefoot hiking is not compatible with long distance hiking. Like I said, I met many hikers who started out with Vibram Five Fingers but quickly ditched them.

    I’ve heard of two sisters that yo-yoed the Appalachian Trail barefoot but they wore shoes 1/2 of the time and they went really slow–16 months. On the Appalachian Trail, you can go really slow because there is always water and food available.

  11. Yeah, they wrote a pair of books about their trip. I picked up the first one (“Barefoot Sisters: Southbound”) a little while back, when I started thinking about doing some longer hikes. I’ve been mostly barefoot pretty much everywhere exceot at work for about two years (dress code at work prevents me from doing it all the time), and I enjoy hiking barefoot. I’ve never done more than a long weekend hike barefoot so far, though. When I started contemplating doing longer hikes, I did some research online to find out how everyone else was was hiking barefoot.

    I will note, after reading their first book, the Barefoot Sisters put shoes on because of weather (winter arrived, and hiking barefoot through deep snow in frigid temperatures is just not a good or safe idea), not because they got tired of hiking barefoot. Also, while they definitely weren’t keeping to a rapid pace, some of their extended time was due to delays (injury, sickness, etc), and not just to because slow hiking from being barefoot. Also, one of the sisters was more interested in just enjoying the hike, seeing the sights, and having fun. She had no interest, and made no effort, to push for mileage. They do state in the book that they were able to increase their pace a little when they put shoes on, though.

    Fairly entertaining book. I enjoyed reading it, and it has further encouraged me to explore longer hikes.

    I’m really glad I came across your blog, and this post in particular, though. It makes for a good reminder that I need to have realistic expectations and make sure I’m very well prepared for the rigors of long hikes, especially if I want to stay barefoot. I think I’m going to continue with weekend and long weekend hiking trips this year, and then maybe try a couple of 10 day hiking trips next year. If things go well with that, I’ll start making plans for the long hike.

  12. lisa d says:

    i would recommend at least a year or so in vibrams or barefoot before trying to do a long distance hike…it takes a really long time to figure out how to walk ‘naturally’ and without heel strike on each step. your feet toughen up and when you don’t heel strike, you don’t really get the bumping and bruising in the arch area of your foot.

    i’ve been using vibrams for over two years now, and actually suffer when i wear regular shoes for more than an hour or so. i wear vibrams or go barefoot as much as possible, whether hiking, walking doen the street in my neighborhood, or at work.

    it’s a lifestyle, not just a different pair of shoes. everything changes, your feet, lower legs, hips, lower back, the entire chain…

    i’ll never go back.

  13. Xep says:

    I wonder if it would be any different with some of the newer barefoot running shoes that are available – those that don’t separate your toes so you don’t run the risk of catching them. I really enjoy the New Balance Minimus shoes which have a Vibram sole and are very grippy but look more like a normal shoe. I wear them pretty much exclusively but haven’t done any long distance hikes in them yet.

  14. Scott says:

    Vibrams are fairly light weight. Just take a pair along with your boots/shoes so you can switch it up as needed.

  15. sasquatch says:

    I am attempting a thru-hike of the PCT in vff’s. I have never hiked before. My baseweight is 15lbs. So far I have made it to scissors crossing wearing only vff kso treks on the trail. I abandoned my precautionary normal shoes at mt laguna. My only problem is blisters.

    I envision having to switch to a more aggresive model to combat thorns and spurs in the desert. However, rocks and anything else the trail has thrown at me thusfar has not been an issue. Kicking rocks can hurt, and happens roughly once
    per day. Hiking over rocks is not a problem. I usually only misstep when I am fumbling with a water bottle or my phone.

  16. sasquatch says:

    I hiked around 900 miles and then got really lonely in the Sierras and went home. The VFF’s worked fine as it was such a low snow year. The Sierras caused the VFF’s to fail sooner. Certain passes which were all stone kind of sucked. I had to go slower than I would have liked. There were certainly a few times I thought I broke my toes.

    I’ll be back on the PCT next year. Again, in VFF’s. Maybe then I will do the whole thing.

  17. Kevin Burton says:

    I think part of the issue is that most modern humans did NOT grow up walking barefoot everywhere.

    This might be a key part of the equation. If the soles of our feet and the muscles aren’t tough it might not work very well.

    Clearly there was a time in our prehistory where we didn’t even have sandals and I assume humans were getting around JUST fine.

    Evolution didn’t have to route around humans wearing shoes. So we may just have evolved with the “training” of our feet being a major part of our youth.

    The question is how could a modern human,… in their 20s or later, develop this strength.. I’m not sure.

  18. Wayne Whiting says:

    I would also agree with a couple of years barefoot before trying a long distance hike. I have been running barefoot for four months and can just now do six miles every other day. Ken Bob Saxton has run 79 marathons barefoot.

    I think the PCT would also represent more of a technical challenge than the AT given the snow and higher elevations. I would love to try it though!

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