You’ve got a hiking trip planned next weekend. You decided to try on your hiking shoes because it had been a while, and to your surprise, they no longer fit. You could buy another pair of hiking shoes, or you could try barefoot shoes instead. Which is better for hiking?
Both barefoot shoes and hiking shoes are advantageous for different reasons. If you want to feel the ground beneath your feet and have more room for your toes, then wear barefoot shoes. Hiking shoes are known for their excellent traction, but they’re far thicker than barefoot shoes.
This guide will help you decide whether traditional hiking shoes or barefoot shoes are your ideal choice in footwear for outdoor and indoor adventuring alike. Ahead, we’ll discuss the features of both barefoot and hiking shoes and then compare them in areas like price, style, and traction.
Let’s get started!
What Are Barefoot Shoes?
We’ll start by talking about barefoot shoes.
It used to be that barefoot shoes were very unique-looking. You probably remember one style of barefoot shoes where each toe had its own space. Those shoes are known as Vibram FiveFingers, and they’re still made today.
That style of barefoot shoe either piqued your interest or turned you completely off this type of shoe. Yet in the years since the Vibram FiveFingers were introduced, barefoot shoes have come a long way stylistically.
These days, you can buy barefoot shoes in literally any shoe style you can imagine, from trendy Chelsea boots to athletic shoes and everyday sneakers, winter boots, and even flip-flops and sandals.
So what is a barefoot shoe exactly? Barefoot shoes are designed to mimic the feeling of being barefoot while still offering the protection of footwear.
Part of how barefoot shoes accomplish that feat (no pun intended) is by reducing the thickness of the shoe’s outsole. The average outsole is 12 millimeters thick. A barefoot shoe has an outsole that’s maybe 4 or 5 millimeters, sometimes less!
When you take a walk in barefoot shoes, you will notice the difference. The thinner outsole allows you to feel more of the ground beneath you, from the soft firmness of the sand to the hardness of rocks or the whisper-quietness of grass.
This is known in the world of barefoot shoes as groundfeel, and it’s something that barefoot shoe enthusiasts highly prioritize in their footwear.
Another trademark of barefoot shoes is the toe box. Compared to a pair of regular shoes, the toe box in a pair of barefoot shoes gives you much more room. This extra space allows your toes to move and splay without feeling constricted.
The toe box is supposed to further encourage a barefoot feel even though you’re wearing shoes.
What Are Hiking Shoes?
Next, let’s discuss hiking shoes or boots.
Sometimes referred to as walking shoes, hiking shoes are built for hiking and outdoor activities such as hunting, mountaineering, climbing, and backpacking.
Hiking shoes support your feet and can ward off injury, so they’re considered among the most important pieces of gear a hiker will bring with them on their treks if not the most important.
A pair of hiking boots feature heavy-duty construction, especially around the heel and the rest of the feet. These are the areas that take the brunt of the impact for each step you take on hard rocks or a dusty trail.
The height of a pair of hiking shoes varies. Some are more sneaker-like while others cover the ankle. In the case of the latter, the boots will usually be stiffer to support your ankles. The sole can be thicker or thinner, with thin soles in vogue lately, and undoubtedly because of the barefoot shoe trend.
You can select from three types of hiking shoes. The first type is trail shoes, which are intended for use on rocky paths but nothing rugged or intense such as cliff walls. If you’re going on a day hike and not a multi-day expedition, then a pair of trail shoes suffice. They work best in dry climates.
The second style of hiking shoe is called the trail hiker. This shoe can withstand mud and sharp inclines. Trail hikers are waterproof or watertight thanks to their high cut. The sturdiness of these shoes supports you when climbing, but trail hikers are still lightweight.
The third and final type of hiking shoe is the mountain walking boot. If you’re doing hill walking or mountaineering, these are the boots you’ll need. They’re the strongest and stiffest boots so that even on uneven terrain, you won’t buckle.
Barefoot Shoes vs. Hiking Shoes – Which Is Better?
Now that you’ve become acquainted with both barefoot shoes and hiking shoes, it’s time to look at areas such as waterproofing, moisture-wicking, traction, and more to determine which of these two shoes excels.
As we touched on earlier in this guide, barefoot shoes used to be quite unappealing to a lot of people. To reach a broader market, barefoot shoes have changed in design drastically in the past decade or so.
If you held up a pair of barefoot shoes against a pair of hiking shoes, you’d be hard-pressed to tell one apart from the other. Sure, wearing them is a vastly different experience, but today’s barefoot shoes fly under the radar looks-wise.
They look just like any other shoe you’d see in a store or when browsing around online. Thus, we’d say that barefoot shoes and hiking shoes are about tied in this category.
Whether you’re hiking through a wooded trail or ascending several hundred feet on your route, traction is a priority in your shoes. Both barefoot shoes and hiking shoes deliver optimal traction.
Barefoot outsoles usually include a sticky rubber compound that gives them an excellent grip on dirt and hard surfaces such as rocks. Likewise, hiking boots are built with some of the best traction around, especially if yours are mountaineering boots.
A pair of barefoot shoes, as we talked about earlier, will feature a toe box that’s wider than usual. This allows your toes to splay. In non-barefoot shoes, you’re a lot less likely to come across this feature, and that will be true of hiking shoes as well. Barefoot shoes win in this category.
Nothing is worse than foot sweat, but it’s also unavoidable, especially when you’re expending effort trekking over rocks. You don’t want your socks to become wet and your shoes slick, as then you can feel your footwear squeaking with each step you take. You could also slip and fall.
Plus, with all that perspiration comes the most unpleasant side effect, and that’s shoe odors. Once your shoes begin stinking, it’s sometimes impossible to remove the odors entirely.
That’s why many shoes feature moisture-wicking properties, especially in the upper and insole. Given the propensity for foot odors when doing outdoor activities, it’s common for both barefoot shoes and hiking shoes to wick away sweat and other sources of moisture like water.
That said, this feature is not guaranteed, so double-check that your shoes are moisture-wicking before you buy them.
Waterproofing is different than moisture wicking because it’s concerned with the exterior of the shoe rather than the interior. Some shoes are only water-resistant, which means they’re treated with a coating to protect them from water.
The water will slough right off without soaking through to the shoe and your socks, but only for as long as that coating is on the shoes. Once wear and tear causes the coating to wear away, your shoes are water-resistant no more.
Waterproof shoes have a tight-knit weave or outer material that resists water. These shoes might feature a fabric or canvas outer, but even some forms of leather can be waterproof. It all depends on the shoe manufacturer.
Waterproofing is common in barefoot shoes and hiking shoes alike but again is not guaranteed. Please read the shoe listing carefully when buying to ensure it’s waterproof, especially if you’ll go splashing around on your hikes!
Shoe sustainability is important to more consumers than ever, and that includes whether their shoes are made from animals.
Many barefoot shoe brands are sustainable, so if you’re looking for vegan options, there’s usually no shortage. Hiking shoes are less likely to be vegan, but if you really want a pair, you can usually find them, especially online.
Between barefoot shoes and hiking shoes, which is more expensive? That all depends on which brand you like, the style of shoe you prefer, and what kind of features you’re interested in.
You can find barefoot shoes for under $100 just as you can hiking shoes, but in both cases, the shoes might not be the best quality.
Instead, you want to invest at least $100 into a quality pair of shoes, maybe even closer to $200. That’s about the average price of barefoot shoes anyway.
Tips for Adjusting to Barefoot Shoes
You might decide to try barefoot shoes either out of curiosity or preference. As we’ve detailed throughout this entire guide, wearing barefoot shoes is going to be a drastically different experience than what you’re used to. How do you adjust?
Here are some of our top tips.
Before you ever progress to wearing barefoot shoes on a hike, you’ll have to slip on your shoes and wear them around the house first. Once you’ve got the shoes broken in a little, you can finally take them outside.
Even then, you’re not going far. You want to take a short stroll up and down your block and that’s it.
Once you can walk up and down your street, try walking on two streets, then around your neighborhood.
The goal is to gradually increase the amount of time spent wearing barefoot shoes over the subsequent days and weeks. By the time you finally hike in barefoot shoes, it won’t be as jarring.
Be Prepared for Gait Changes
When you first start wearing barefoot shoes, each step you take is going to feel awkward at first. That isn’t only due to the wider toe box or the thinner outsole. Barefoot shoes change the way you walk.
Rather than heel striking, which can be detrimental to your hips and knees, you might begin midfoot or front-foot striking instead. Before you transition though, heel striking is going to be more painful than ever in barefoot shoes since you have less protective material in the back of the shoe.
If you keep at it, eventually you’ll transition into midfoot or front-foot striking, and you’ll spare your heels!
Use Helpful Accessories
Heel cups are a great tool for minimizing heel pain while you’re still in your rearfoot striking phase. We also recommend metatarsal pads to protect your lower leg tendons and muscles as you walk barefoot.
Toe spacers are another accessory you might use as you adjust to barefoot shoe life. A set of toe spacers can keep your weight properly distributed while building up strength in the tendons and muscles across your feet.
You don’t need these accessories forever, only until your body adjusts to walking barefoot. Then you can gradually discontinue their use.
Barefoot shoes and hiking shoes are two opposite types of footwear, but both can be used for hiking and many other outdoor activities. If you’re curious about barefoot shoes, the tips we provided in this article will make it easier to get started. Best of luck!