Why I am “The Barefoot Backpacker”

So, The Barefoot Backpacker. It’s occurred to me that, apart from my first podcast and a bit on my ‘about me’ page, I’ve not really explained much on my blog about the concept of the ‘Barefoot Backpacker’; where it comes from, and why.

As you’ve probably already noticed, I prefer to be barefoot, and there’s a whole host of friends on twitter who have never seen me wear standard footwear. Indeed, I’ve met people from Twitter at events who have recognised me purely by my toenails 🙂 [That, right there, is an example of a great brand image.] In fact, these days people seem to be disappointed if I meet them and I am wearing footwear!

My bare feet meeting Seannasworld's sandalled feet at the Traverse17 Blogging Conference, in London.
At the Traverse17 Blogger Conference in London. The funkier leggings and sandals belong to Seanna from ‘Seannasworld’.

I’ve collated a few popular questions that my online friends have asked in the past, so hopefully this will give you a better insight into the ways and means of ‘the barefoot backpacker’.

Note that somewhere in this post is an affiliate link. See if you can spot it.

Why did I start to travel barefoot?

Well I’m sure you’re expecting me to say something about how it allows me to feel a resonance with the Earth, and how ‘grounding’ is important, or I’m channelling my inner hippie (I do like daisies, to be fair, I have a couple of daisy toe-rings), or because I’m anti-authority and trying to stick it to the man, or something. Or maybe you’re expecting me to reveal some kind of foot fetish, that it excites and arouses me to walk barefoot.

But no. It’s simply that my feet get too hot in closed shoes; they make my feet uncomfortably warm and stuffy, and sometimes make me feel like I’ve got two bricks on the bottom of my legs. Doubly so considering I walk around a lot, or am stuck on transport in enclosed spaces with dodgy aircon. That said, I do enjoy the freedom that being barefoot gives – the relaxed, casual style and that sense of being unrestricted – and after having been barefoot for a while, it feels weird to put footwear back on again, even just sandals. On my hike across Great Britain, my hiking companion Becky pointed out that when I was barefoot, I seemed to be a lot happier.

Hiking barefoot on the Cross-Borders Drove Road in the Scottish Lowlands
Somewhere on the Cross-Borders Drove Road in the Scottish Lowlands, taking advantage of the grassy path to hike barefoot.

Oddly, I never used to like being barefoot at all; I remember once my uncle dropping me off at school, then getting him to go back home to pick up my trainers for PE that I’d realised I’d forgotten to bring, rather than have me do it barefooted. I hated the idea of being barefoot, I found it … I dunno, humiliating maybe? Or at least, that I’d ‘lose face’ by being so, or worried that people would laugh at me if I did. No idea when it changed; some time in my mid-teens I think, and I’ve still no idea why.

I still have those feelings sometimes, especially the thought that people will judge, that people will laugh, but the older I get the less I seem to worry about it. It’s kind of linked in with self-confidence; it’s something I do more when I’m feeling more confident in myself. As a result, I feel more at home being barefoot, and doing it ends up *giving* me that self-confidence, as it means I’m being ‘me’, I’m able to be the person I am, so I’m more likely to stand tall and adventure forth. It’s also great for my mental health; as someone who often has issues with mood swings and feelings of low-self-worth, I find feeling the grass under my feet to be very de-stressing and relaxing.

Standing barefoot in a field of daisies, somewhere near the Southern end of the Norfolk Coast Path
Standing barefoot in a field of daisies, on the first day of my hike across Great Britain. Told you about the daisies 🙂

In addition, I always feel more confident walking barefoot if a) I’m walking with someone else, whether they’re barefoot or not (it doesn’t actually matter to me), or b) if I’m holding my footwear or they’re attached to my belt (rather than being in my bag). I guess that way it’s clear to people looking that while I’m choosing to walk barefoot, it’s not that I don’t have shoes at all which in my mind makes it more … socially acceptable, maybe?

Two pairs of bare feet on the pavement in Venice Beach, California, either side of a chalked pair of eyes
Standing barefoot in Venice Beach, California, with my friend Jess. Who has better feet than I do.

How does it feel to walk barefoot?

I find it comfortable and natural. Generally, pavements are pretty smooth, and some of the country trails around my house are made of what feel like compacted soil/mud, so they’re soft but not damp. Sandy roads, the mainstay of clichéd holiday pictures, don’t feel much different to walking on hard beaches (soft sand is awful to walk on, regardless of footwear). It does take some getting used to, but once you’ve done it a bit, it’s fine. My stride seems to naturally shorten a little, and I have a tendency to walk more on the balls of my feet than further back; my heel barely strikes the ground at all. This means that less of my foot touches the floor, so less scope for injury.

Do you ever get injuries walking barefoot?

The one thing walking barefoot does is make you concentrate more on the route in front of you, so you pay more attention to what’s there than normal. To be fair, most of the things you might be worried about walking in, you wouldn’t step in anyway; no-one walks through dog-poo on purpose, and things like broken glass you’d probably avoid anyway just out of sheer reflex. It’s more the things you wouldn’t think of that are the most dangerous; for example, I find that cobblestones/flat marble are slippier under bare feet when wet than they are in shoes, and I don’t have good balance at the best of times. Also, I’m not very good with spacial awareness so I’ve banged my little toe several times on things like raised kerbs or, in three very painful cases in the past year, the wheels of shopping trolleys I’ve been pushing. Apparently I have dyspraxia.

Barefoot in a supermarket in Nambour, Australia; feet in the background out of focus; a shopping trolley in the foreground, a purple bag in the trolley.
Barefoot in a supermarket in Nambour, Australia; be careful of those wheels on that trolley!

The other thing that frequent barefoot walking gives you is very tough soles. This has the advantage of meaning that I can (and indeed have) walked over small shards of broken glass or thorns without any discomfort, because my feet are too hard for them to penetrate far. The disadvantage is that my heels get very dry and rough, and if I rub them together I’m in danger of starting a bushfire.

It’s not infallible; After 10 days of barefooting in the Benelux area, I was in Antwerp and managed to get a large piece of glass stuck in my sole. But after limping to a nearby wall, I pulled the offending glass out, mopped up the blood, waited a while until it all stopped, and then walked on. The thing is, at no point did it hurt at all, it was just bloody (literally) annoying. That said, I always carry a pair of tweezers with me, just in case.
Also, one day on my hike across Great Britain, I was jogging barefoot to try to catch up with my hiking partners, scraped my foot across the top of the pavement, and ripped a toenail off. It stopped bleeding the next day; again it didn’t hurt, and it looked much worse than it was.

What a toe with a ripped-off toenail looks like
Of course it doesn’t help that my nail varnish was red, but you get the general idea…

How do people react when they see me barefoot?

It’s sometimes interesting to gauge people’s reactions once they know I’m barefoot, though it’s hard to judge whether they’re thinking about the feet, or what’s on them. My toenails aren’t particularly attractive so I bling them up with sparkly nail varnish, usually green or purple, which catches people’s eye if I’m sat down or not moving much (in Chile I had three people walk past me, look at my toes, and walk off laughing!). To be fair though, often I won’t notice people’s reactions at all, and it’s only friends I’m with who’ll tell me that people are looking. My friends have told me though that much of the time people don’t notice at all, because they’re lost in their own world.

I had a few comments in West Africa, mostly, amusingly enough, from shoe salesmen. African shops tend to be more like street stalls; people sitting by the road with their wares displayed on the floor in front of them. When I walked past them, I was invariably greeted with ‘you want shoes, look, here good shoes’. This especially happened in Togo, where I also had several offers to “repair my sandals” (they assumed I was barefoot because they were broken); they seemed a little surprised, but accepting, that I preferred to not wear shoes.

Sitting barefoot by a roadside in Natitingou, Benin, while a woman watches on
Natitingou, Benin. Honestly, I think the woman looking in my direction was more curious about what I was doing with my camera.

Other than that, a chap in Shkodra in Albania chatted to me and said it being unusual and culturally ‘odd’ but that was about all. As I’m registered on Hostelworld as “Barefoot Backpacker” I’ve had a couple of hostels (in Albania, but also the USA) note my unusual name and look at my feeds online before I arrive, and been looking forward to my arrival in excitement so they could ask me about it.

Have I ever got in trouble for being barefoot?

I’ve certainly had no problem with officialdom; I’ve crossed a number of international borders barefoot, including two in West Africa and a couple in the Balkans. I’ve travelled on coaches, local buses, trains, through airports (in and out) with mostly no worries, and riding on the back of motorbike taxis in Africa barefoot felt so free and refreshing. In more recent times, with my barefoot sandals (which I’ll talk more about later), I’ve been going to restaurants, pubs, etc with no-one batting an eyelid about the fact my feet were bare – indeed I think only one pub (in Australia!) and one sports arena (also in Australia!) warned me about it. People genuinely don’t pay attention!

Barefoot on an escalator in an airport, next to a sign that says 'no bare feet'. I am such a rebel.
Barefoot on an escalator in an airport, next to a sign that says ‘no bare feet’. I am such a rebel.

I’ve had a couple of issues with air travel though. At Brisbane airport (there’s a theme developing here!) the woman at the gate wouldn’t let me on the plane until I’d put my sandals on (I was completely barefoot and wearing my knee-length shorts, so it was blindingly obvious), whilst on a flight from Chicago to London I was sat in the bulkhead seat near to where the air crew sit, and one of them told me I should really wear footwear for take-off and landing, just in case the plane crashes and we have to all make a quick escape. Cheerful, thanks for that advice; I’m sure in that situation my first thought isn’t going to be how my feet were feeling – and also, what if my only shoes had been high heels?

What are ‘barefoot sandals’?

I’ve posted about them specifically before, but a while ago I had a friend crochet me a couple of pairs of what are called ‘barefoot sandals’. You’ve already seen them in a couple of the pictures.

Daisy-themed Barefoot Sandals, on the grass
My first of the two pairs of crocheted barefoot sandals – the daisy theme again!

Brown strap-themed barefoot sandals, on a pavement
The second pair of crocheted barefoot sandals – they look more like proper sandals with straps.

I wanted something that made it less obvious I was barefoot; what she made me were a thick pattern (one of daisies, the other of sandal-like straps) that cover most of the foot and hook around two toes. The effect means that unless you’re paying attention, or look at me walking from behind, it does look as though I’m wearing proper, if slightly fancy, sandals. This allows me to get into museums, restaurants, etc without anyone batting an eyelid, and walking down the street is a breeze. People have loved the style of them and been genuinely surprised when I reveal their lack of sole. I’ve had them for a couple of years now – prior to that I was entirely and clearly barefooted – and I feel more comfortable and less-self-conscious wearing them than I was wearing nothing, thus making it more likely I’ll be barefoot.

Where have I backpacked barefoot, and where have I thought better of it?

* The only country I’ve been barefoot for 100% of my time in is North Macedonia, mainly through a feeling of ‘let’s see how long I can do this for’, though I was only there for four days (across two visits).
* I spent twelve days in Sri Lanka and was barefoot for all but a small part of three of them, probably about eight hours in total.
* At no point did I wear shoes during an eight or nine day exploration of Netherlands in May 2018, and this included attending a travel blogger conference.
* I wore sandals for only a couple of hours on two separate days while in Athens (Greece) for a week.
* About 80% of my time in Albania, over two visits, has been barefoot.
* Despite how it seems in the above section, for my last two visits to Australia I was mostly barefoot, including to a wedding.
* I didn’t wear footwear for maybe half of my five-week West African adventure, more so in the second half, in Benin, Togo, and Eastern Ghana.
* Other places I’ve backpacked barefoot include Berlin, the Baltic States, Singapore, and, perhaps surprisingly, more of the USA than you might expect.

Standing barefoot in the main square of Skopje, North Macedonia
Standing barefoot in the main square of Skopje, North Macedonia.

Walking barefoot with a backpack down a street in Birmingham, Alabama
While changing coaches in Birmingham (Alabama), I thought I’d take a wander through the streets.

Standing barefoot, overlooking the city of Cape Coast, in Ghana
Overlooking the city of Cape Coast, in Ghana. The ground was just about barefoot-tolerable.

One example of a time I didn’t was on an overland trip from Zambia to South Africa; I was happily barefoot stepping off the plane, but the surface temperature on landing was so hot it made my feet burn. By the time I got used to the temperatures, I’d kind of lost the initial impetus.

This leads to another point – sometimes I have to be in the right mindset; I wore sandals for most of my time in Central Asia because I didn’t feel … comfortable being barefoot, socially I mean. Just because I brand myself as ‘The Barefoot Backpacker’ doesn’t mean I have to always be barefoot; as my good friend Bea Marshall pointed out very early on in my branding life, ‘The Naked Pastor wears clothes’.

I’m also much more likely to be barefoot when I travel than when I’m in my hometown. I think this is partly because I know when I travel, I’m just passing through a place and I know I’ll never see those people again. That said, I’m often in my local micropub without shoes, but they know me very well.

What do I wear when I’m not barefoot?

Yep, I admit, I’m not always barefoot, even allowing for the crochet ‘sandals’. Let’s be honest, I’m British and it gets cool and wet. I’ve done the whole ‘barefoot in the snow’ thing “for the ‘gram”; it burns. I know of people who do go barefoot in the snow, and fair play to them, but while I like cooler weather and I’ll show my feet at anything above 5ºC, I’m quite fond of my toes and I’d quite like to keep them.

Standing barefoot in the snow in Deschambault, Canada
Deschambault, Canada, April 2018. I don’t remember how cold it was, but it was a ‘dry cold’ so not as bad as you’d imagine. Didn’t walk to the shop though.

More likely though, it’s underfoot conditions that prevent me being barefoot. I don’t like gravel, or trails littered with small stones; again this is quite a popular British thing, with many footpaths being through quite stony ground, as I noticed on my hike across the country in the summer of 2019. With a light enough step, trails with scattered stones are ‘okay’, but a full gravel path is very awkward. I also find that damp weather causes every little stone, even on what appear to be decent pavements, to stick itself to my foot like glue, which is incredibly annoying. Obviously also some wilder environments are often … ‘unsuitable’; climbing hills or walking through forests is usually best done with some foot protection if you’re not used to it (rocks and twigs and prickly flowers, oh my!).

Rock-climbing barefoot, at a waterfall near Nambour, Australia
Clambering over rocks barefoot at a waterfall near Nambour, Australia. It was easier than using sandals, tbf!

In addition, I’m always a little wary if I’m in a new town and don’t know the feel of the environment yet. I’ll often sit on buses and look out the window at the pavements and go ‘hmm, that looks okay’, or ‘erk, I’m not sure about that’.

So what do I wear when I want the freedom and coolness of bare feet but not the hassle? Basically, I’ll most often be found in sandals, ideally so-called ‘minimalist sandals’ (I tend to prefer Xero Shoes). They have very thin soles (around 4mm), and there’s two basic kinds. Some attach to the foot using a cord that links to a node next to the big toe, and a strap around the back of the ankle (causing an argument at work when their suitability as office footwear was called into question; my old workplace banned flip-flops, but these have a back to them …). The other type look more like orthodox sandals with a couple of straps over the top of the foot, and again one round the back.

Me wearing Xero sandals on my hike across Great Britain
An example of the second type of sandal; these were what I wore for a fair amount of my hike across Great Britain

Despite their thinness, I’ve had no problems with them across any of the terrain I’ve worn them on, from mountain passes in Kyrgyzstan to hot stony roads in West Africa. They’re also easy to slip on and off if I need to enter a temple or someone’s home, and for barefoot days, I can roll them up and stick them in my pocket or, more usually, slide them between my trousers and my belt, so I always have them to hand if need be.

I’ve said at times “Barefoot” is also metaphorical. What do I mean by that?

As I mention on my ‘about me’ page, a “barefoot doctor” is someone, usually a local farmer, who is trained in basic medicine and operates with few resources, but serves as the only local doctor in rural areas (mainly in China) where more qualified doctors generally can’t, or won’t, practice.

I kind of see myself similarly when travelling. I have a basic knowledge and skills around travel, carry very few resources with me, am not great with languages, but am prepared to go right down to the local level when I travel, and see a country from directions other than from outside the window of a 4-star hotel. My expectations of aspects like comfort and luxury are very low; I’m not one for restaurants, taxis, etc. For me, luxury is having my own room; the height of opulence is having my own bathroom.

So there we have it; an introduction to who I am and what it means to be a “Barefoot Backpacker”. If you have any other questions, let me know!

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Why I am a barefoot backpacker

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2 thoughts on “Why I am “The Barefoot Backpacker”

  1. Thanks for the in-depth post on the why of it all. I went barefoot for more than a decade when I lived on boats, mostly in the Caribbean. Nowadays, I can only dream of it as plantar fasciitis has become part of my life. Keep on keeping on!

    1. That makes perfect sense; it’s not like being on a boat in warm weather requires much foot protection lol. But shame you’re having severe foot pain, hope you’re managing it well. Thank you 🙂

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