Atop Mt. Monadnock, barefoot
            [Atop Mount Monadnock, 2017.      Image by *Hobbit*]

  What, no shoes?
 

You're heading out to lead a local hike one morning.  The weather's nice,
perhaps a bit of chill in the air, but with a milder forecast ahead it's
clearly going to be a fine day for an outing.  You pull in at the trailhead
and find a couple of people who got there early, and as you're chatting with
them a few more cars arrive.  As people continue to gather and add their
names to the signup form, you're perhaps subtly eyeballing their gear and
visible condition to reassure yourself that they can likely handle the trip.
Then, another person walks up, or maybe even more than one, asking "Is this
the AMC hike?" They're carrying the typical day-hike stuff -- packs with
lunch, water, maybe some poles -- and then you notice that there is nothing
at all on their feet.

What??  Many folks would be terrified at the idea of venturing into the
woods without their favorite sturdy boots on, so what on earth are these
people up to?

Well, they're not crazy.  They are most likely barefooters, and if they're
well-conditioned and accustomed to it then they are every bit as ready to
hit the trail as anyone else in the group.

Barefoot hiking, while still not that common, has been "a thing" for quite a
few years.  In the larger sense, indeed, it was for thousands of years before
shoes were invented -- and we humans managed to survive!  But in the present
day, interest in letting one's feet freely explore the outdoors has been
slowly ramping up since the early nineties, and those who engage in it
generally find it quite enjoyable and quite safe.  In fact, a seasoned
barefooter may be more stable and less injury-prone than a shod hiker over
many types of terrain, and almost certainly more comfortable and engaged
with their environment.  They are quite happy with a brisk pace, and will
often overtake other typical trail users and blast ahead.

Hiking unshod does take a little conditioning to get used to it, and the
advice to newbies among the barefooter community is "start slow and work up
to the rough stuff".  One does not try to go barreling along a gravelly fire
road on the first day out!  That only leads to pain.  But after a few months
of practice and toughening-up, most experienced barefooters can easily handle
gravel, sharp rocks, bits of glass, mud, sticks, and whatever else a trail
might throw at them.  Even some snow and ice, for some of the more hardcore
enthusiasts.  And frankly, the grip of a bare sole on our typical New England
granite is phenomenal.

There is a lot of information about the topic on the internet.  One only has
to search for the two words "barefoot" and "hiking", and the numerous results
will likely include some of these.
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Some long-standing references:
   http://www.barefooters.org/barefoot-hiking/
   http://www.bhthom.org/hikertxt.htm   [an entire book online]
   http://www.earthshod.com/barefoothiking.html
   https://thetrek.co/5-questions-i-get-asked-about-barefoot-hiking/
Our Boston-local Meetup group:
   https://meetup.com/eastern-mass-barefoot-hikers/
And of course, the two sisters who yo-yoed the entire AT mostly barefoot:
   https://thelongbrownpath.com/2016/12/24/the-barefoot-sisters/
Plenty of reading to be done on the subject!  Chris McDougall's book "Born
to Run" also bumped up general interest in barefoot running and hiking back
around 2010, so awareness has been growing, albeit still slowly, since then.
You may see a theme here -- human feet are far more robust than we tend to
give them credit for these days, especially when set free from the bonds of
social convention.  It's really one of the healthiest things we can do for
ourselves, and it's unfortunate that prejudicial stigma from the sixties
is still so pervasive today.

Recall that every participant is fundamentally responsible for themselves on
AMC outings, even if by leading you are to some extent tasked with looking
out for their general welfare and not getting them lost.  So should your new
sole-stompin' acquaintances go along on the trip?  If you're not sure, what
you might ask them is where they are in their own barefoot journey -- how
long they've been hiking that way, and/or if they're confident about their
ability versus the expected trail conditions and pace.  If the answer is
an unequivocal "yes", then you all should be good to go.  If they don't seem
entirely sure of themselves, or hint that they're just starting to get into
it, at the very least they should *bring* their normal shoes along as a
backup, and be cautioned against slowing the group down.  Chances are that
you'll all have a great time either way, and the whole group might learn
some new things about what is humanly possible.
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_H*  190403