Is there something that works like epoxy or natural tar that I can apply to the most delicate impact points of my feet (balls and heel) that will form a very durable bond, and let me backpack (i.e. hike with 30lbs on my back) "barefoot" (without shoes) for days?
In answer to the original question:
- There are several products on the market designed for dogs with sore paw pads. These are often wax based, and adhere to the skin to provide some protection.
- Super-glue bonds well to skin, and can provide a layer of protection. A medically sterile version called "liquid stitches" is used in the medical world to glue up small lacerations. However, I don't know what the toxicity is for long-term, large area use.
As a second option, you might look into a variety of "zero drop" and "minimalist" footwear that offers the "barefoot" experience while providing some protection.
All that being said, a few words of advice:
If your feet aren't up for the task, then no amount of additive is going to allow you to "hike for days" barefoot. In addition to the wear on your skin, hiking without shoes/support uses your bones and muscles very differently than hiking with. In simple terms, your feet spread out more, actively engaging each of those little bones and muscles that make up the complex matrix of your foot's inner workings. Additionally, when you hike barefoot, your stride will change naturally, resulting in soreness of ankles, knees, hips, etc.
In short, it should be treated as a process, not a "goop up and go" experiment, but something you work up to.
During the process of building up your foot and leg strength, through a series of short hikes, your feet will build up callouses where needed, just as climbers develop callouses on their fingers.
People in many parts of the world hike barefoot every day, carrying heavy loads over rough terrain. However, most of them started walking barefoot from day one.
What you want is called "skin". However, that's not something you just add on one day and go hiking for days. Keep in mind that our species evolved to get around by walking and running with our feet. Our feet have evolved to handle that. Unfortunately, habitually wearing shoes eliminates the stimuli that the feet need to produce the necessary thick skin in the right places.
The solution, if the desire is to be able to hike reasonable distances barefoot, is therefore to stop wearing shoes. Unfortunately, our feet can't respond to the new stimulus instantly. I like walking around barefoot, and do so whenever possible in the summer. I find it takes a month or so of significant regular walking over rough ground to build up the thick skin so that you don't care anymore. If you only do this occasionally, it will take longer, perhaps never even get to the full thick skin level.
So how do you get to the point where you can walk most anywhere barefoot comfortably without at some point pushing the limits of comfort? You don't. Your feet need the feedback that you consider uncomfortable to trigger them to build up the thick skin that makes it comfortable. Once you do though, you'll be surprised how much rough stuff you can walk over without giving it much thought. About the only thing I've never really gotten comfortable on is a bed of artifically crushed rock.
Once you regularly walk around outside barefoot, you'll probably be amazed at how much more you are aware of details in the ground. Different ground is at different temperatures, which makes sense but is generally not something you realize when wearing shoes. You also find that your toes start doing some useful things, not just stay lumped together with the rest of your foot inside a shoe. You will feel a lot more shure-footed too. I don't know how exactly to explain it, but you can feel that you will loose traction with bare feet before you actually do in a way that just doesn't match up to any sensation with wearing shoes. Shoes just suddenly slip. With bare feet, you can sense you are getting close before you slip.
I like walking around barefoot and make of point of doing so whenever the temperature allows it. Here in New England, that is roughly half the year. Unfortunately the feet loose the thick skin during the winter so you mostly have to start all over again every spring. I don't have a good answer for that.
I think it is unfortunate that our urbanized society usually looks down on walking around barefoot. This is to the point that many private establishments actually require you to wear shoes to enter them. Contrary to common belief, there is actually no law that says shoes are required in supermarkets. These are private property, so the owners have the right to set the rules, but it's wrong of them to claim state law makes them require shoes.
In the summer I keep a pair of sandals or "flip-flops" in the car so I can put them on when walking into a store I frequent. If I'm in a distant place where I'm not coming back any time soon, I sometimes have fun seeing what I can get away with. I get thrown out of the supermarket in Lincoln NH about once a year. It's interesting to note this has always been after I bought whatever I came in there for. Usually a manager comes over and tells me I need to wear shoes in the store as I'm paying in the checkout line or even after I've paid and am already walking out. I recognize they have the right to make the rules on their private property and I never resist when asked to leave, but that doesn't mean I can't have a little fun tweaking their nose every once in a while.
As an interim step, have you tried the Vibram Five Fingers running shoes - these still have protection under your feet, but give a lot of freedom as they are very thin.
This could let you see how you get on.
If you're going to walk outside barefoot then my advice is to just go with it - build up the strength on short distances and eventually you shouldn't have an issue with hiking long distances just barefoot. This article claims someone who hiked around South Island barefoot, so it's definitely possible, but I wouldn't try that straight away!
If you decide you must have something then you might want to try the sort of gel pads you can get to put above your insole, but tape them directly to your feet.
Having said that, make sure any scrapes, however slight, get cleaned and taped up quickly - I wouldn't even think about hiking miles over all sorts of ground with open wounds on my feet...
I have gone on several barefoot day hikes and really enjoyed it. Easy peasy. I have a couple of thoughts for you:
- Barefoot hiking is fun. I never ran into any problems. If you want to be extra safe, maybe start running barefoot on weekdays. That will build up the callouses on your feet and really help out.
- I agree with Rory Alsop. Just buy a pair of Vibrams or the New Balance Minimus. There's no reason not to wear the minimal shoes, accept for fun or aesthetic reasons. I've done some very strenuous day hikes in my Vibrams and had a blast.
- WARNING: Please practice carrying weight before going backpacking barefoot. Hiking while carrying a heavy pack is different from normal walking. All that extra weight means more effort for the muscles and tendons in your feet. This is why "backpacking boots" have such stiff soles: to make it easier on your feet. I would recommend a barefoot day hike with a 30-pound pack as a good test.
Hiking barefoot is great fun. Please be very careful before you decide to go backpacking barefoot.