Cold barefooting in the Fells

  The winter weather of Feb 2018 brought relatively little snow and several unseasonably warm days, which tends to contribute to a bit of cabin fever and the urge to get outdoors.  The local barefoot hiking group tends to mostly shut down over winter, although there had been a short-notice pop-up run to the Blue Hills that exactly two of us hardcore types went on [and had some fun snowfooting around on the ski-slope near the end, garnering many incredulous stares].  In general, though, I wasn't likely to find a lot of activity in that group until things warmed up a bit.

I can and do get out to the woods on my own well enough, but sometimes going with a group is more fun.  Meetup shows quite a few hike groups, some of them quite localized, and I noticed one that concentrates on the Middlesex Fells.  Practically in my backyard!  And when I happened to view the details, they had a group event scheduled for the very next morning.  Just the event title described exactly what they were going to do, with the start time.  On something of a whim, I decided to go see if I could just find them and randomly jump in on it.  I almost didn't bother, because the night had been about 24F and it was still fairly cold, but was heading to the mid or high thirties that day with brilliant sunshine to warm the ground.  So I figured it would be borderline, aka a nice barefootin' challenge.

Here's the official DCR Fells map.  There's an excerpt of it at the end of this page showing my entire GPS route for the day.  I arrived at the north parking lot a half-hour early, just so I could take a quick warmup loop to get my core going and my feet thermally equalized, and then hook back toward Bear Hill and see if I could find the group.  My first half-mile or so was quite chilly, as I expected, but by the time I circled around to the tower, the warm glow of increased circulation was just reaching my toes and I was already good to go a lot farther.


[Images here are linked to larger copies.]
Spotted the group coming! I walked past the tower right around 11:00 and back down the hill toward the parking lot a little, and could see the main entry path down through the bare trees.  I didn't have to wait long; it was a largish group and easy to spot.  As they came up past me I wished them a good morning and engaged one or two in conversation, and asked if it would be okay for me to accompany them since I had an inkling of where they were headed.
Now, hiking groups can get a little weird about this sort of thing sometimes, especially if the participants all know each other and a stranger appears at an outing.  But I made sure to ask nicely and express genuine interest in the event and the effort, not the people, to try and avoid being perceived as just some random creepy guy in the woods.  I was totally prepared to accept a "no" or "we'd rather you didn't" and head off in some different direction -- completely their choice.  But these folks seemed amenable enough, and I fell in with them for the rest of the ascent up the first hill. When we all got up to the tower and regrouped, the day's leader seemed a little iffy about my footwear, mumbling something about "liability".  Really??  I assured him that I do a lot of this and he had absolutely nothing to worry about, responsibility was 100% mine and I wouldn't allow myself to hold back the group's progress or pace.  He asked my name and then announced me to the rest of the group, which seemed like official acceptance to stay with them for a while. 

  But the bootless concept was clearly novel to most of the people there, although one or two had maybe vaguely heard of the "barefoot hiking movement".  Some were barely able to conceal their astonishment that I was out in these kinds of temperatures, especially after a cold night.  And I knew exactly what I was dealing with underfoot, too, having brought along an infrared thermometer I could sample the ground with.  In the shady spots it was still only high-twenties on the surface, with most of the mud from previous days now frozen solid and locking in an entertaining variety of deep impressions -- hiking-shoe treads, dog pawprints, mountain bike tire tracks, and everything else that had gone through when it had been warmer.  Lots of interesting textures to explore, in fact, although now it was all cold and thus maybe a little harder to feel every detail of.

The group set off down the Bear Hill fire-road at a fairly brisk pace, which suited me just fine as I usually try to blitz my own woodland outings anyway.  Some of them probably thought I'd fall way behind as we got into the rough gravel stretches, but no, that wasn't in the cards today.  Kept right up with the pack, with the minor downside was that there was very little opportunity to pause for pictures.


Right turn onto Skyline Part of the intent was to take the Skyline trail most of the way down, so the group turned toward it at the appropriate next intersection.  As we traipsed on I answered several questions about my preference, my experience, my research, what resources I had studied, etc -- and took a few opportunities to point out circumstances where shoes are a disadvantage, such as spots with tricky traction or uneven downhills with risk of a shod person twisting an ankle instead of just adapting to all the terrain.
One lady had "microspikes" attached to her shoes, and she sounded sort of like studded snow-tires on pavement when going over the rocks.  Since there wasn't really any ice today, she was probably at more slipping risk in places with them on.  Some folks in the group had recently done other snow/ice hikes up north, for which such extra insulation and grip enhancement would be more appropriate.

Expanses of broken glass Skyline went on a bit longer than I thought it would, since it winds around and goes over most of the high rock outcrops on the way, but eventually we got down to Wright Tower [still closed] and took a bit of a break.  While the group wandered around and took in the views of Boston and such, I was studying the generous collections of broken glass that are all around the tower area [like this one].  I commented to the others, while standing in various accretions of bottle fragments, "let this forever lay to rest all those fearful rumors about broken glass".  This may have been a bit of an eye-opener to some, but I think most of them do understand how glass in this state is basically little pebbles, not very different from the fire-road gravel we'd already been on.  On any such terrain, of course, the trick is to come straight down onto it and never slide. 

Not Art! along reservoir trail The return route took us along the reservoir trail instead, to more or less make a loop of it.  The NOT ART guy has apparently made it this far out of town too.

In conversations with people the Rock Circuit trail was also mentioned, which I and a lot of these folks had been on as well.  It's sort of the equivalent of Skyline in the eastern half of the Fells, even marked the same way on the map, and similarly visits all the high rock outcrops over there.  Recommended!


Stop for a zen moment over the water The little bump down to the edge of the Middle Reservoir on the GPS track [below] was here; the group leader referred to it as where we could take our "Zen moment" and quietly contemplate the water for a while.  The return leg northward seemed a lot faster than the Skyline path southward, probably because of flatter terrain and a wider trail where it was easier to walk abreast and keep lively conversations going.  My feet still felt great at this point; I was banging along over gravel, mud, sticks, ice patches, and whatever else with the same alacrity and drive as anybody in their hiking boots, and loving every minute.  Winter generally doesn't present as much opportunity to keep one's feet in top condition, but I knew that after today and subsequent recovery I'd be in way better shape than if I'd just hunkered in the warm house all day.

GPS-log map overlay Here's the complete GPS track of the day, in darker blue.  Use the big-pic to really see it.  My route totaled 7.8 miles in all; the group probably did more like 6.5.  The triangle westward at the top along "North Dam" was my warmup; then the small loop north of Bear Hill was me scouting around near the top of the rise waiting for the group to show up.  There's actually a whole network of ill-defined but usable trails up the nose of that hill, not documented on any maps, just formed over years of people bushwhacking straight up to the tower from the parking area.

Overall I declared the day a good success; I got my lazy ass out of the house for three or four hours, constructively beat the crap out of my feet for a while, and did quite a bit of education by example in the process.  My dog-pads had that delightful hard-worked tingly feeling that evening and into the next day.  No injuries or mishaps, and the one or two skin cracks I'd been taking care of previously didn't open up again which was my only real concern for this run.

And the summary concept of the Hobbit making the journey to the Two Towers is entirely appropriate.


  About six inches of snow then magically appeared overnight, and when I went out in it the next morning it almost felt warm underfoot.  This got me thinking more about how we adapt to temperature conditions and some of the transient effects I've observed when handling cold weather, as well as how to deal with some of the typical winter problems.

  Some discourse on winter barefooting and foot care

I've found that when just starting out on a chilly day, be it for a walk or a bunch of work to do, my soles and toes feel cold for a while and then start warming up nicely about 15 - 20 minutes in.  I have to be active and keep my core warm, and after a while the circulation profile seems to change and send more warmth to the extremities.  Some refer to this as CIVD, cold-induced vasodilation, and it's a lovely feeling when it starts kicking in.  But a more complex process happens in the feet, as they're still in heat-draining contact with cold surfaces.  The fat-pad in the sole serves as insulation as well as cushioning, and the way insulation works is to resist heat flow through a thermal gradient between warm and cold.  It takes a while for that gradient to get set up and stabilize, between the interior of the foot and the ground, and while that process is happening I seem to sense the cold more acutely.  But after a while I can tell that the bottom of my sole *is* cold but not harmfully so, i.e. I can still feel everything, and once things get equalized then I can pretty much go indefinitely and be quite comfortable.  There is a minor numbing effect, perhaps, but not in any dangerous way.  The nerves are simply sensing less of a delta at the surface.

As long as the ground isn't much under 32F and fairly dry, the rate of heat loss can easily be tolerated.  At that point I tend to not even slide so much on ice, as my feet are less likely to melt a slick film of water on top.  Wet contact radically increases heat loss -- especially when in the form of that "road-salt slushie" that can be at single-digits and still liquid!  That obviously changes the game completely and puts us well into frostbite-hazard territory over any significant exposure time, at which point we need artificial insulation and waterproofing.

On the other side, once I get back into a warm place those cold parts of the sole *stay* cold for quite a while afterward, so there's clearly a bit of thermal mass in there, too.  None of this process has any bad effects; on the contrary, once the body is accustomed to it the transition process gets a lot easier.  Unfortunately we don't have the same sort of mechanism in our hands, which would probably be a lot fatter and clumsier if we did.

Winter also tends to bring skin dryness and occasional exposure to hydrophilic or downright corrosive chemicals. For those of us who carefully choose to avoid having "the good sense to put on a goddamn pair of shoes", we sometimes have to wrestle with the effects of that -- which of course many people also suffer on their hands and lips in cold weather, too.  With stress and movement, cracks can open in the thicker skin around the heel and the main pads, and on hard-working feet they can pull open deep enough to hurt and even bleed.  While keeping foot skin generally moisturized can help head that off, sometimes radical intervention is needed.  This is where krazy-glue comes in.  Cyanoacrylate is commonly used as a surgical tool, to bond tightly to living flesh and cures almost immediately upon meeting humidity.  For foot cracks it doesn't have to be "medical grade"; anything of the right sort from the hardware store will work.  A liquid formulation is best, as opposed to a gel, as it allows a thin layer to run down into the bottom of the crack and seal off the raw and sensitive bits.

Sometimes just gluing is enough; sometimes the area needs more protection for a while especially if we want to continue being active.  A glue layer isn't flexible, but if the skin moving around it is also dry and inflexible the fissure can split right open again.  What helps is to tape over the area to protect and stabilize it, ideally with something that *isn't* moisture-permeable.  I've found that a good brand of duct tape, like Nashua, works really well for this -- avoid the cheap stuff.  Sometimes it helps to first cut back the very top edges of the crack with tiny cuticle-nippers or something and angle them off, for a little less skin mass right around the critical area.  A thin strip of toilet paper or the like is laid over the crack itself as a non-stick layer, and then a wider patch of duct tape applied and pressed down nice and tight especially around the edges.  The outer skin surface must be dead-dry for this to work and stay stuck on, after which normal moisturization can resume.  [Or for that matter, slogging along wet trails.]

Because the tape isn't permeable, the skin stays more naturally moist underneath -- the tape almost forms a tiny shoe for that one specific area, also creating a little humid "terrarium" underneath to let the skin heal back up.  Proof of this is the fact that the skin under the tape becomes pasty and white and smells bad -- the only time a barefooter will have any foot odor!  Why would anyone want that going on all the time over their entire foot, though, by entombing it in a *shoe* the entire day??  Yuck.  But it's okay for a while, a few days in this curative process, with occasional checks and tape replacement if needed.  As the body works on ejecting the foreign object, e.g. the glue layer, the skin grows back in to fill the gap.

On this very hike, in fact, I had such a patch in place over a somewhat annoyingly persistent slit in the pad behind the left little toe.  Amazingly, it was still mostly in place after I got back to the car -- somewhat shredded from the day's brutal treatment, but the crack area was still fairly protected and nothing had started to pull open.  Whew.  For some reason, my left foot seemed generally more abused over winter '17-'18 than my right one, and it started around Arisia.  Maybe I hit a particularly big patch of corrosive calcium-chloride based ice-melter or the like, with my left foot and not my right?  No idea, but it was kind of annoying.  But it was also an opportunity to experiment with some different seal-up techniques, leading to the above as a decently-proven solution.

This all assumes a certain degree of physical flexibility on the part of the individual, and ease of self-repair may depend on where the crack is located.  Not everyone is able to easily access all of their own feet, but fixups like these can also be applied by someone else assisting.

As always, your mileage, as well as your preferred method for "patching your tires", may vary.


_H*   180217