Going barefoot, well almost

There is a lot of bullshit about footwear. Even reputable and reliable opinions are seldom supported by much evidence.

Some 40 years ago, when I was living in Copenhagen, I came across the Earth Shoe. The idea was appealing: their designer Anna Kalsø aimed to put the foot into the same, heel-down position that it assumes when walking on soft sand. I bought some, and loved them, although I am not sure that it had anything to do with their low heel position.

In the years since, my feet have walked, cycled, skied, and more all over the world, in the Falklands, the Antarctic, Norway, the Alps, and Pyrenees. My knees are now pretty well knackered, largely from running a lot with heavy loads, wearing boots, on tarmac, which was daft I know. A few injuries have not helped either: the worst was when practising landing craft drills, and a colleague smashed the butt of his rifle so hard into my right patella that I could barely walk off.

My recent preference has been for open sandals which put my feet roughly level from ball to heel, allow their copious sweat to evaporate without repelling close friends, and have suede footbeds to stop my feet from slipping around when I discard my socks in the heat. Brasher sandals were close to ideal, but have been discontinued.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to try some ‘zero drop’ or ‘barefoot’ trail running shoes: Merrell Bare Access Trail shoes to be precise.

My Merrell Bare Access Trail shoes. Zero drop, barefoot, and supremely comfortable gloves for the feet.
My Merrell Bare Access Trail shoes. Zero drop, barefoot, and supremely comfortable gloves for the feet.

My verdict so far is that they are the most comfortable off-road (and on-road) walking shoes that I have ever worn, although we still have the really sweaty season to come.

The aim of these shoes is to wrap a thin, grippy Vibram sole around your foot, without pushing the heel up above the ball of the foot, just like walking barefoot but with the protection of the Vibram sole. They are almost incredibly light, Merrell claiming just over a couple of hundred grams for the pair, and completely minimalist.

The biggest concern with switching to ‘zero drop’ shoes is that anyone used to a significant heel raise can find them very tiring, particularly on the small muscles in the feet. Because I walk so much in what are effectively zero-drop sandals, and my feet are only too happy to be working away whilst I walk, I have been able to wear them for long periods and decent distances – earlier this week I completed a good, rough, and very hilly 4+ miles, followed by 6+ miles of flat terrain bash. At the end I had no trace of aches or soreness.

Another worry is ‘print through’ – with such thin soles, the tendency to feel every stone and bump that you plant your foot on. I do not know if the sole is specially designed to minimise this, but somehow it is very supple and flexible but has less print through than some of my walking boots.

A few years ago we did quite a lot of rocky walking near Bagnères de Luchon in the Pyrenees, and even wearing good Vibram-soled walking boots some of the paths were so rocky that by the end of a full day’s walking my feet started to ache. It may be a while before I can put these shoes to that test, but so far they seem to have minimal print through.

I am also delighted with the grip afforded by the Vibram sole. Its cleats are rather finer and not as deep as those on my more rugged boots, of course, but they have not faltered on the slippery surface mud, or softer deep mud, which we are currently ‘enjoying’ here.

My only sadness is that at present, I cannot find anyone (even Merrell) who offers anything higher than a low-cut trail running shoe with these wonderful properties. Can anyone suggest a good zero-drop barefoot boot?