M Considering Minimalist Footwear for Backpacking

by Ryan Jordan

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Article Summary:

If you drank the ultralight Kool-aid that is a requirement for being a respectable member of our cult, then at some point you are going to spike it with a little bit of minimalist footwear elixir.

As with any cult, we all become a little bit deluded into thinking that "less is better", and we experience little twinges of anxiety when we realize that sometimes, lightest is not always best. In spite of healthy doses of reality, many of these Less is Better subcults exist within our own culture, such as the Cult of Cuben Fiber, the Cult of Tarping, the Cult of Pop Can Stoves, etc. etc.

So it seems with minimalist footwear, where the Less is Better philosophy is prevalent in spades amongst the ultralight faithful.

Some of that philosophy has been born from the study of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico (people who run long distances, over rugged terrain, in huaraches, regularly, from a very young age) and popularized by Chris McDougall in Born to Run, and the introduction of the once socially-unacceptable five-toed shoes by Vibram can now be respected even in executive boardrooms, high school locker halls, and Mennonite churches.

I've studied the biomechanical advantages of barefoot running, and I'm an advocate of the approach's key premises:

  1. That maximizing ground feel and minimizing under-foot cushioning forces you to strike the ground softly. The result is the use of your entire body’s joint and musculature system being a little bit more springy to reduce the impact, and the shortening of your stride so that you spread impact across the entire surface of your foot sole, rather than just the heel.
  2. That allowing your toes to splay further reinforces the ability of your body to spread impact forces across your entire fit, for greater stability and more impact dampening.
  3. That a zero drop (drop = the difference in height from the ground between your heel and ball) shoe (like the zero-drop foot) discourages heel striking.

The proclaimed benefits of barefoot running are numerous, dramatic, and encouraging:

All of this sounds mighty fine to the ultralight backpacker. In fact, this benefit list could be written for the introduction to any book about lightweight backpacking.

But running is not backpacking and therein lies the delusion.

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