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I've walked barefoot practically all summer for every summer I can remember. However now that I'm a teenager my Mum is saying I need to wear shoes because of glass, needles, worms and diseases. I have done some research but no answer is super clear as to "What are the dangers of barefoot walking?"

I have stepped on tiny pieces of glass that have penetrated (and were tricky to dig out) as wells as bigger shards that didn't get through, and I have burned and blistered my feet out of my stubbornness. So, what are other relevant dangers of walking barefoot in a small town of Canada?

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    Welcome Lexi Bean! It's great to meet you! The body of your question is definitely not too long. In fact, we like as many details as we can get, so this is perfect! Just to clarify, are you walking barefoot on just streets and sidewalks, or also on grass and in the yard, including yours and other people who live in the area? Some of the obstacles are different depending on what type of terrain you're using. Thanks! – Sue Mar 26 '17 at 17:44
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    @LexiBean: have you considered a compromise? There are some types of shoes which are specially designed to mimic the bare foot (and all of the benefits that people have noted here), while still providing a barrier layer between you and the ground, helping to avoid damage and infection. The Vibram "Five Fingers" is one well-known example of the type: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vibram_FiveFingers and they can be found in most outdoors shops with a good range of foorwear. – flith Mar 27 '17 at 7:57
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    There's a couple of good posts on SE about Five Fingers shoes, if you want more information. The consensus seems to be that they are good for running, so long as you don't overstride, and poor for hiking if you are carrying a heavy pack (no load support). Good answers can be found at outdoors.stackexchange.com/a/1680/9308 and outdoors.stackexchange.com/a/5289/9308 – flith Mar 27 '17 at 8:08
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    The Society for Barefoot Living has a lot of useful information about living a barefoot lifestyle in general, including in urban contexts as well as during activities such as hiking and running. The supposed "dangers" are mostly way overblown, but you do need to pay more attention to where you're placing your feet -- a good habit to get into at a young age. After a short while, it becomes instinctive and you don't need to give it much conscious thought at all. – Dave Tweed Mar 27 '17 at 13:45
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    My experience of walking barefoot in Chicago (which is not exactly a small town in Canada …) one summer is that it was sufficiently unexpected that it literally stopped traffic in Hyde Park (people going through a crosswalk somehow noticed and stopped to gawk). Also, I got kicked out of lots of businesses. On the other hand, aside from some glass that got stuck in my heel, I never incurred any serious injury. – LSpice Mar 27 '17 at 21:57

10 Answers 10

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My family walks around barefoot all the time, not just in the summer. We used to live in Santa Clara County, California, but now live in Humboldt County of the same state. We've never had any serious problems and I would not discourage from doing this but there are several disadvantages:

  1. By far the biggest disadvantage is that you will face significant judgment and discrimination. While walking barefoot you people will move to the other side of the street, sneer, shout things like "get some shoes", etc. Not everyone does this and outright aggression happens a lot more to the young women in my family than to me (I'm kinda big, they are really small), but it's a pretty serious concern. This doesn't just apply to strangers on the street, either-- expect to be refused service at many grocery stores, restaurants, and other places of business. Even public places in the wealthier parts of towns often have security that will lie to and threaten you to get/force you to leave if you are not wearing shoes. With regard to businesses, you will be told that "It's against the Health Code for us to allow customers without shoes in the bulding". That's, like, the number 1 reason given when they kick you out. It's also not true (the Health Code prohibits employees from not wearing shoes in certain occupations in certain regions, but neither area I have lived in have forbidden customers from not wearing shoes). Anyways, the harassment can be a real bother; be ready for it.

  2. In the snow, it gets really cold. During the winter, sometimes it snows. Walking in the snow barefoot is alright for a little bit if your feet are used to it, but you risk frostbite if you're out long. If there's snow and ice on the ground, you should wear shoes or limit your time outside.

  3. Feet washing is still important if you walk around barefoot. On the plus side, you are much less likely to get most common foot diseases and your feet will smell nice because they aren't in a moist, sweaty, warm, dark environment all the time. On the downside, your feet won't start to smell bad so you might not wash them as thoroughly as you otherwise would. Basically, just remember to wash.

  4. The other barefoot issue is that if you step in something gross with shoes you can take your shoes off before entering the house and washing them. I find that it's far more difficult to take my foot off before entering the house! Avoid walking in terrain where you can't see what you're stepping on/in. This applies to things like tall grass and dense ferns or ivy. Since you can't see, you have no way to prevent yourself from stepping in something gross, like animal poop, or even something dangerous, like trash. This actually applies even when you are wearing shoes-- walking through such things damages the plants involved (less meaningfully in the case of grass) and exposes you to wild animal related risks like ticks. It may still be worth it to you, at various points in time, to partake in barefoot activities in grassy or otherwise groundcovered areas, but you should try to be aware of the risks and decide on a case by case basis. Personally, walking through tall grass barefoot makes me uncomfortable, so I don't do it unless I absolutely have to. No one in my family routinely walks through areas where you can't see what you're stepping in, so, while we haven't had any problems with this besides the occasional, really-gross-but-harmless stepping-in-dog-poop accident, I can't really speak to an overall risk assessment for your off-trail barefoot walking habits. On-trail and on streets in town you should be able to avoid doing this.

  5. This doesn't apply to you at all, since you've been doing this for years, but if you haven't walked around barefoot before you may not be aware that it hurts. Concrete is rough and hard and will sand down your skin, which means that, until you build up callouses, your feet will start to hurt after walking around for just a bit. As your feet get tougher, it hurts less or not at all, but there's always more terrain that your feet will need to adapt to. Pine needle mats hurt until your feet get tough (then they can feel good instead-- very squishy XD ), gravel hurts always even with crazy rediculous feet (as far as I'm aware), concrete will always hurt if you walk on it long enough to sand down the callouses, but at some point that's no longer a feasible amount of time to walk. This isn't a danger, though, so much as it is unpleasant, unless you end up needing to run away from something else dangerous while barefoot and don't have enough callouses yet to support that.

Broken glass, nails, needles, etc are not real problems. We've never had any serious issues with that. It's true the streets are dirty sometimes, but you don't go tromping around in the gutter or over broken glass barefoot, and it's not like you end up doing those things on accident. The danger of that sort of thing happening is exaggerated in the minds of the community, possibly to disguise their more classist motivations for discriminating against the lack of shoes from themselves (see problem with walking barefoot #1).

Hookworms have been brought up enough times in comments to be addressed directly. There are no hookworms in Canada or the northern US and you are at no risk of Hookworm infection.

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – the dark wanderer Mar 28 '17 at 10:08
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    @LexiBean NOTE: this answer is not correct in the general case concerning "Broken glass, nails, needles, etc are not real problems." I have had exactly these problems in my area, both on the grass and on the sidewalks/road. Sometimes broken glass is spread out across a large enough area that it is difficult to go completely around. There definitely is a risk if you are not paying attention, but that just means we should be careful. I agree with the rest of this answer, as even family treats me different when I go barefoot. – Loduwijk Mar 28 '17 at 23:19
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    I found the glass note strange as well, perhaps it is because I live in a college town but the sidewalks are constantly strewn with glass (broken beer bottles mostly). – DasBeasto Mar 29 '17 at 18:24
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    Fwiw I quite regularly walk around Brooklyn NY in bare feet. I've never had any issues and it doesn't concern me but you do have to be careful. In particular, there is occasionally large patches of glass (shattered car windows being the primary culprit) and you want to watch out for things like dead rats or dog poop, which are just gross (although on the other hand nothing you wouldn't dodge even while wearing shoes, anyways), or things like metal or damaged curbs. The primary issue I have with bare feet is the concrete starts to hurt sometimes, especially when it's hot or if I have to run. – Jason C Mar 30 '17 at 17:35
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In my town, which is a neighborhood in a suburban location in Massachusetts, barefoot walking is common once the summer starts. I'm old and stay cold longer than most, so I don't even switch over to sandals until long after people like you have taken off your shoes! My "winter feet" are soft and vulnerable, so it takes time to build the callous and thicker skin my "summer feet" need to protect from burning (to a degree), and being vulnerable to some of the small shards of things.

I advise looking out for bigger rocks/stones. As your feet get bigger, so do the spaces between your toes, leaving you more susceptible to something getting caught between them, or in the space (arch) under your foot. Those can make you fall, and can be true on all the different surfaces you mentioned.

In the most polite way possible, I'd also like to mention droppings from animals (scat). We have strict laws about cleaning up after your dog on the sidewalk or on people's lawns, but I don't know if you have that. Still, I have to remember to frequently look down on the sidewalks and roads as I walk. The same is true in your yard and on the trails. There can be diseases present in the scat, and sometimes hard things like berries which stick in your feet. You probably know all that, since that falls into your Mum's category of diseases.

Animals also dig in the yard, and along the trail. I've often stepped into holes I didn't know were there and twisted toes and even an ankle. I even fell once and hurt my knee. Shoes can be helpful for support at times like that. I spend many hours in my garden during the summer, and always keep something on my feet, usually sneakers.

There are a few more things that pertain to all of the areas where you walk. Tree "droppings" can be annoying, and potentially dangerous too. Nuts and acorns can be tripped over. Sap can be sticky and liable to cause a fall. Pinecones can be sharp enough to cause open sores. If people on your street have lots of trees, that may be an issue. The same is true along the trails you mentioned. Also in the yard and on the trails, certain insects, like ants, can bite if you step on them, and bees can sting. There's a type of bee called a miner (or mining) bee that builds its nest in the ground, like anthills, and they can sting if you step on them. As I got older, I would go deeper into the woods and encounter things I didn't used to before I hit your age. If you're doing that, you might be technically in more danger of hurting your feet.

You obviously know about things like rusty nails, discarded bottle caps and other sharp litter. Since you're an experienced barefoot-walker, I'll bet you've been careful of those your whole life!

In my area, younger kids leave things lying around on the sidewalks, like small toys, or even bigger things like skateboards. I've often had to step out of the way, or over these things, so as not to trip. Shoes can offer protection if you do step on something like that.

This may sound silly, but as I got older, I paid a lot less attention to what was on the ground and more to the people I was walking with, like friends. If that pertains to you, it might worry your Mum. You didn't say that though, so I don't want to put words in her mouth!

If you don't mind, I'd like to share a quick story from my life. When I became a teenager, I was allowed to go alone or with friends into stores, restaurants, and other places where bare feet weren't allowed, so my Mum made a strict rule not to leave home without shoes on. That's just my experience of mine, and doesn't answer your question!

You obviously have an excellent Mum who cares enough to worry about you, and has also taught you to be mature enough to come to a place like this and ask for advice. I hope our suggestions can be helpful to you.

  • Thank you for the in depth answer! I'm mostly curious where I should have shoes handy and how much time I should spend watching where I step and this answered it beautifully. – Lexi Bean Mar 26 '17 at 19:21
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    as far as scat goes; even if your local laws are strict enough to keep lazy/anti-social/etc pet owners from leaving messes behind, city hall can't control where wild/stray animals do their business. So it's something you should keep an eye out for wherever you are. – Dan Neely Mar 26 '17 at 22:28
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    @DanNeely not sure which part of Canada this is about but where I live Canada geese droppings are found on all walk-able surfaces near ponds. There is no escaping them when the geese are in town. My understanding is that these can contain pathogens. – JimmyJames Mar 27 '17 at 13:48
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    This probably has the best/biggest list of things to watch out for, so it seems the most thorough/direct answer. +1 – Loduwijk Apr 3 '17 at 12:31
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The "worms" your mother mentions are likely hookworms, which in some regions can be acquired by walking barefoot. I've heard several sources say that they can be found in the southern US, which is rather distant from Canada and a different climate, so I would suspect - but can't say for sure - that this particular risk wouldn't be found in Canada.

Other answers have weighed in on other risks, so I'll defer to their expertise there.

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I can't answer about a small town in Canada, so I will answer about my own small town (really just a village center) in northern Virginia.

I don't think there would be any great physical dangers here as long as you check and wash your feet at the end of the day and disinfect, bandage and watch cuts -- and wear sandals if you have a cut.

Of the physical dangers, I think needles are the worst -- if needles are at all common on the streets of your town, your Mom is right. Disinfecting is not enough for a deep needle jab (which includes danger of HIV transmission.) Also, the answer of @Charlie Brumbaugh lists tetanus as a danger. He is right!

Finally, although this may not be fair, how you are perceived if you walk in town barefoot is a danger. You are going to need the high opinion of your fellow townsfolk as you progress towards adulthood, and barefoot people who are no longer children are irritating to many -- here, if not in your small town. It isn't rational: a teenager in flip-flops exposes as much of her feet as a barefoot teenager, and the soles of her feet are no dirtier than the soles of the flip-flops. But it is so: if you were in my town, you will irritate people whose good opinion you really do want. This paragraph adds up to: pick your battles carefully.

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    That makes sense to do a check at the end of the day. I'd never thought about it irritating others though but I will keep that in mind. Thanks for your answer. – Lexi Bean Mar 26 '17 at 17:45
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    I've been vaccinated through school so I am covered for things like tetanus. I can walk around in the same out fit with shoes on, but it's when I don't have shoes on that's when I get a few odd looks. I get how people perceive me is a danger and thanks for mentioning it. Our town is a bit odd for way of dress. In one school you have to be as modest as possible, in the other school you could get away with wearing a bikini (not entirely sure how true that is but the other school does not enforce dress code). – Lexi Bean Mar 26 '17 at 22:42
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    Maybe you should get a tetanus shot. Best preventative measure for a potential deep needle jab is a deep needle jab. Yikes. – msg45f Mar 30 '17 at 12:29
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Well I live in London so my city as an example would give you heaps of problems walking on foot.

1) Injury: The streets on London are riddled with debris, broken glass and other sharp objects capable of cutting through skin. Not to mention the pain of someone stepping on your toes (let's hope they're not wearing stilettos!)

2) Infection: There is a significant amount of pollution, combined with litter and bodily fluids from the high urban population put you at risk of catching an infection through an exposed foot.

3) Discomfort: Although walking barefoot can be more comfortable than wearing shoes when outside in the woods, London is mainly covered in concrete which puts too much pressure on the heels to walk around barefoot in comfort.

4) Ridicule: Most Londoners aren't accustom to seeing a barefoot walker in the city.... You will be stared at.

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    +1 I live near the Yorkshire Dales, and I wouldn't walk barefoot for the same reasons. – user1108 Mar 28 '17 at 11:21
  • I love the Dales! I studied in Sheffield... And yea I imagine barefoot walks are only popular with people who like the feel of goat poop under their feet lol – Jalapeno Mar 28 '17 at 16:00
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I think the possibility of a foot injury increases when going barefoot vs. wearing some kind of foot protection, even moccasins would help protect your feet. But it all boils down to the amount of risk you are willing to take as you move through life. I see it as a matter of doing the best you can to take care of yourself so you may live a long and healthy life without too many injuries. Good luck to you in you're walking.

wooo!

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I literally stuck myself on a discarded hypodermic needle once as an adult, in Rome, through the side of the shoe when I was wearing light "training" shoes; connversely when I was younger than that (a teenager) and used to walk barefoot, I would watch where my feet are going. I had no ill-effect from that incident, though, luckily.

In Toronto it's normal to see signs on shops saying,

No shirt
No shoes
No service

So, don't assume you can wear bare feet indoors.

Glass you know about already.

Some people prefer to be barefoot when they run (in the city or country), even with UK snow (not nearly as cold as Canada), and argue that it's easier on the joints (e.g. knees) because you refrain from landing as hard as you would with cushioned soles.

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I would like to add the snakes and the bees/other biting insects. Stepping on either may be dangerous/unpleasant.

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Sometimes it feels so relaxing to start walking barefoot. Doing this for about 30-60 minutes a day will allow you a vast improvement in your energy and overall well being. Walking barefoot improves your posture.

Possible dangers of walking barefoot could be sharp objects like thorns or flint that can cut your feet or you could get frostbite in winters as a result of the blood in your feet freezing or becoming clogged.

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    Thanks for answering! In the winter up here it would be insane to go barefoot because we get deep snow and average of around -20 degrees Celsius. that's why I enjoy bare footing it in the summer because I have to wear shoes majority the year (I agree with the relaxing sensation of it) – Lexi Bean Mar 27 '17 at 5:29
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Materials which quickly and efficiently heat up can be dangerous on hot summer days. I live in upstate NY, near Canada, and I have been burned by accidentally stepping on the wrong spot. Even if I want to go barefoot, I often bring sandals with me in case I need to go over broken glass or on very hot asphalt.

Speaking of hot asphalt...

There was a barefoot man in Arizona who was stopped by police and put in handcuffs and forced to lie down on the very hot road. The road was hot enough that it was burning off the man's skin (most estimates of the road temperature put it at 150-180 degrees; it was measured the day after and was 150 degrees by then). The man proceeded to scream in pain and try to get off the road, which the police refused, forcing him to stay on the road. The man was screaming for help and repeatedly asked the police to move him off the side of the road which they refused. The man suffered awful burns. At one point I think he even asked if he could put on his shoes, and I think that was denied. All this was caught on camera.

In this case, the man was originally in a car and was made to exit his vehicle, but it could just as easily happen to someone walking on the grass who is forced onto the road. Not living that far south, this would be less of a problem for you or I, but I imagine it would still hurt a lot if we were forced onto a very hot paved road or sidewalk on the hottest summer days.

Here is a link to a news article about the incident I mentioned.

I highly advise that you at least bring sandals with you. I often put them in a bag or tie them over my shoulder. I have forgotten to bring footwear and regretted it. I have hurt myself on hot surfaces, on glass, nails, sharp rocks, and more.

Granted, I once cut my foot bad on a sharp rock while wearing sandals too, and last month I was wearing shoes but had a nail go through the shoe into my foot. So footwear is far from foolproof; still, it is good to have the option and footwear can be the difference between a pleasant day and a painful one.

Summary: barefoot is not "dangerous" in the sense that it should be avoided in many areas, but it does introduce some occasional complications which can be reduced by having footwear available.

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    Anecdotal so not part of answer: I have a cousin who not only spends most time outdoors and often barefoot, she also often sleeps outdoors wherever convenient and has been known to sleep under highway overpass bridges. She travels all over the country and has trekked from east coast to west coast. Her life quality is probably much better than mine, as I am stuck at work most of the time - in formal attire sitting at a desk wasting away, while she travels the world. I think she is in Europe right now. – Loduwijk Mar 28 '17 at 23:59
  • I've burned and blistered my feet middle of the summer this last year because the sidewalks got so hot. I wasn't far from home but I thought I'd be fine and out of my own stubbornness to not go back and grab a pair of shoes haha. I kind of envy your cousin, that would be fun to travel like that (but also dangerous). – Lexi Bean Mar 29 '17 at 0:45
  • Hi Aaron. Downvoted because of the section about the incident with the man in Arizona. It encourages sensationalism and has nothing to do with walking barefoot, so it doesn't answer the question. Even you said it probably wouldn't be a problem for the OP. I'd appreciate it if you'd delete it. If it's so important to you, a quick mention with a link would work. Remember also that OP is a teenager, and we should be especially careful not to include things that are inappropriate and irrelevant. Thank you for your consideration. – Sue Mar 31 '17 at 16:12
  • @Sue On the contrary, as I specified in the answer, the man was not originally walking around barefoot but did have exactly the kind of problems the OP is asking about after he was forced out of his vehicle. His feet were injured by the very hot asphalt - not only does this answer the question and do so completely on-topic, I even related that incident to my own experience walking barefoot since I have hurt my own feet. Despite being less of a problem for OP (and I, as I'm at a high latitude also), it is still a problem. Less does not equal nonexistent. The content is completely appropriate. – Loduwijk Mar 31 '17 at 17:55
  • @Sue Since that section is on-topic, answers the question, and is appropriate, I would appreciate it if you remove your down-vote. Thinking (incorrectly in my point of view) that emphasizing a real incident is sensationalism may warrant comment, as you did, but is an abuse of down-vote since that is not the purpose of the vote. Granted, you pointed out that your reason was more for the "non-answer," but since it is part of the answer, the "sensationalism" thing and your feelings are all that's left, and I disagree with them. I did show the video to my son who is 8; he learned multiple lessons. – Loduwijk Mar 31 '17 at 18:02

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