I test a lot of stuff for WIRED, it is rare that I run across something that I find totally life changing in a great way. When I do, I write things like this.
The Z-Trail sandals from footwear maker Xero are true “barefoot” shoes. The sandals are so thin of sole, so minimal of strap, I routinely forget I’m wearing them. Which is the whole point: Instead of protecting your feet from the ground, barefoot shoes bring the feel of the ground through the sole to your feet.
Barefoot shoes—a design that has gained a sizable following among runners and outdoors enthusiasts, particularly those of us inclined to believe that modernity creates more problems than it solves—take everything you think you know about shoes and inverts it.
A growing body of evidence suggests that the padding in the modern shoe isn’t good for your feet. Allowing your feet to bend, twist, flex, stretch and otherwise do what feet evolved to do can reduce injuries and improve balance and agility. The more information your feet can convey to your brain, the better you can navigate the terrain.
Still, there’s something undeniably quixotic about paying real money for footwear with almost no support or cushion. While emerging science appears to be on the side of bare feet, for me the barefoot shoe is about something more than the purely physical benefits. I have had a lifelong love affair with being barefoot, because to be barefoot is to be free.
Not free in any political sense of the word, but free in the way you were free as a child. Free to run and jump and play. Free of obligation. Free to do whatever you wanted for no reason at all because that freedom is the foundation of all human delight.
Remember when school first let out for the summer? Your feet had been imprisoned in shoes all through the year and suddenly they were free. You’d head to the pool or the beach or the park and jump out of the car with bare feet, ready to play. Of course, it hurt. The burning hot asphalt singed your bare soles. But it hurt so good. Walking across the hot blacktop was nothing compared to the boredom of staring at a blackboard all day. That pain would be gone after a few weeks—your feet are remarkably adaptable body parts—but that sense of freedom remained.
This carries into adulthood. What do we do at the end of the long day? We take off our shoes. If you’re barefoot, it’s unlikely you’re working. (And if you can do your job barefoot, congratulations, you win.) If you’re barefoot, you’re also unlikely to have any pressing tasks. You’re more likely to be in the backyard or at a pool or at the park or at the beach. You’re probably outside and free, or at least doing something delightful.
There was only one thing that ruined those barefoot summers. It was that sign you’d always see at the entrance to the mini mart: “No shirt. No shoes. No service.” Ah, commerce, enemy of freedom.
That’s where the Z-Trails come in. I’m not ten anymore. I want my freedom and I want to go into the store. The soles of the Z-Trails are 10 millimeters thin, and the shoes are enough that I don’t even notice them in my bag. (They’re a favorite camp shoe among ultralight backpackers.) Walking around, I still feel like I’m barefoot. My feet stretch and flex and bend and roll the same way they would even if I wasn’t wearing the sandals.
While I had already tried a few barefoot shoes, I wasn’t sold on the idea until I tried the $80 Z-Trails. Every other “barefoot” design I had tried felt too much like a regular shoe. Then Xero sent me a pair of the sandals to test for a barefoot shoes buying guide I’m working on. I distinctly remember putting them on and going outside to walk around the yard for a bit. I remember following my kids around the yard, and when they headed into the brambles at the back of the house, I hesitated. I thought I wasn’t wearing shoes. Then I looked at my feet, and surprise, I was wearing shoes. I plowed right into the brambles. Twenty minutes later, I was on the Xero Shoes website buying myself three pairs. Since that day, I have worn next to nothing else on my feet.
Barefoot shoe advocates would probably prefer I extol the science behind the benefits of barefoot shoes rather than sounding like a hippie chasing childhood memories down flower strewn trails, but you can discover that yourself by starting with the links I put at the top of this piece. I will also say that an increasing body of evidence shows that, while comfortable shoes make life easy on our feet, they make life much harder on the rest of our body. Balance and coordination decline over time, injuries become more likely.
More compelling to me, the Xero Z-Trails are the type of shoes people have worn for most of human history. The materials may be new, but the design is very nearly as old as human feet. Put on these sandals and you will walk like your ancestors. Their tactility creates a positive feedback loop between your feet and your brain. You step on a rock, your brain tells your muscles to adjust. Your balance improves, you stumble less. Your feet grow tougher too.
The benefits of barefoot shoes cascade over time, but if you decide to dive in, start slowly. Very slowly. Xero founder Steven Sashen suggests anyone curious about barefoot shoes should begin by going outside and walking about ten steps in bare feet. Yes, just ten. Then tomorrow, walk 20 steps. If there’s no pain, keep increasing the daily step counts from there.
I should probably say there may still be some circumstances where padded shoes are better. In October, I spent three days of hiking some of the most brutal, root-strewn, leaf-covered rocky trails the North Carolina mountains have to offer with 50 pounds on my back and barefoot shoes on my feet. I chickened out and did not wear the Z-Trails backpacking. Instead, I wore Xero’s HFS road running shoe. It doesn’t offer any more padding than the sandal, but since it’s an actual enclosed shoe, it’s better at keeping your foot situated over the sole. Even though I was worried my feet would slide around too much in the Z-Trail sandals, the HFS turned out to be overkill. I missed my sandals.
In fact, the only thing better is letting my bare feet free. That’s the point after all—to feel the world. So even if I haven’t convinced you, and even if you never buy a pair of barefoot shoes, take a moment every now and then to delight in that child-like joy of feeling the ground beneath your feet, the earth between your toes. Your soles will thank you.