The dangers of going barefoot (if you’re a bit crazy like me)

It’s been a while since I last wrote something on my blogs, and there’s a good reason for it. Actually, it’s quite bad, but it’s why I’ve been unable to write.

I have recently discovered the beauties of going barefoot (in addition to going naked), so I started out on barefoot hikes. I tried increasing distances and different surfaces. I was doing quite well and my foot was growing stronger and more resilient.

That is, until this one fateful day after which I had to drop all my writing and all my walks because I could not walk and I even had trouble sitting properly. Getting myself to the toilet and back to bed was a victory of its own.

What happened was that I had made a horrible mistake of assuming that the surface I’ve usually been walking on – asphalt – will stay the same as it always is; that nothing will be added or removed. And indeed, when I started out my journey, there was nothing wrong with it. It was cold as it usually is at the end of winter, but my feet were well adjusted for that already – I’ve written before about how my feet go a bit numb in the cold. In fact, this numbness was a contributing factor to what happened.

I had no clue what was going on until it was already too late. I had no idea why something like that happened at first – I have trained my feet well and I’ve developed a really hard sole – but when I got home, I noticed I was leaving a bloody trail as I walked about (outside was dark so I couldn’t see it). Due to the numbnes, I felt no pain at all, so I thought it might have been a minor cut. I was so horribly wrong!

When I looked beneath, the skin of the toe mounds on both of my feet was literally gone. Also on both my feet, on the outer arces, there were huge blisters. I was absolutely horrified! I acted quickly to clean up the wounds before my numbness subsited (imagining how it would sting if I postponed that). I had underestimated the wounds, though, and having wrapped them up nicely, I went to bed. I realized only the next day that I should better get myself to the ER.

The docs at the ER said they’d never seen anything like it, so that was encouraging (yeah, right). I got a tetanus shot, antibiotics and bandages and was ordered to refrain from walking at all. For the first couple of days my bandages were to be changed daily. The doctor who changed them was a bit clumsy and every time my fot had grown new epithelial cells, she’d tear them off and it would sting all over again. The second week was much better and the new skin started to stick. My right foot had healed nicely even then and at the end of the second week I didn’t need to bandage that foot any more.

My left foot seems to have taken much more beating and I had no idea how or why. I had covered these distances before and had no troubles whatsoever. I could remove bandages by the end of the third week, but even now I can’t walk on it without a slight limp because the skin in the affected area is still very thin and sensitive.

So, what happened? Well, clearly, the surface changed. But how?

The evening of that day was fairly warm for February. In fact, the temperatures were above 0 degrees celsius throughout the night, which was quite surprising. There was some snow on the ground, but none on the roads. In fact, the snow was melting as I walked, causing some water to run across the road in some places. Still nothing I hadn’t faced before.

What I didn’t know, however, was that earlier that day, they put salt onto the road, to prevent it from freezing.

So, take salt, water from the melting snow and the pressure of my foot against asphalt and you get a concoction that slowly dissolves the sole of my foot. Fast forward several thousand steps and bam, the sole is gone. In fact, here’s what it looked like about a week before I could take my bandage off my left foot:

The sole of my foot.
The sole of my foot.

Yep, that looks painful – walking on it certainly was, which is why I had trouble getting anywhere, and even when I got to where I was going, I tried to spend there as little time as possible before moving back to bed, or wherever I was resting.

Why did my left foot receive more beating than my right?

It seems like a bit of a puzzle, but not really. I walked along the left side of the road and the edges of the road will normally contain more water from the melting snow and more salt because the edges of the road will normally prevent salt from flying off the road as the salt is spread around by the vehicle. Also, fewer vehicles really drive closer to the edge of the road so the salt there is mainly undisturbed, and the edges of the road are normally rougher than the middle. So, my left foot was always in worse conditions than my right.

The most unbelievable thing, even to me, is how I didn’t feel a thing.

In any case, this painful experience taught me several things:

  1. In the cold, my feet are number than I think. If walking barefoot in the cold, it is always a good idea – regardless of the conditions of the surface – to regularly check the soles of my feet.
  2. When walking long distances, always carry some sort of footwear, just to be sure that foot protection is available if needed.
  3. Never assume the surface is what it looks like. Normally, my feet would be telling me what the surface is really like, but when they go numb like they do in the cold, that function is impaired.
  4. It’s probably not a good idea to walk long distances barefoot in the cold in the first place. However, since I’m me, I’m already thinking of buying a lightweight rucksack where I can put my shoes next winter.

This unusual escapade prompted a lot of talk. I even found out that being slightly crazy runs in the family – my grandmother once competed with her siblings to get the water from a community well in winter by going to the well barefoot on frozen snow (even I’m not crazy enough to try that). She said she cried from pain for two days.

Some of her cousins ran barefoot across the field of freshly cut wheat. I tried walking once over that, very slowly and very carefully and I can recommend to you to never try that at home – it is extremely painful. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to run over that.

Well, my feet are healing slowly but surely. I suppose they’ll be just in time for the warm days. There’s that and the fact that there’s a boy who’s about to get the world’s craziest dad. Yep, I’m gonna be a daddy and I’m really looking forward to teaching my kid everything I know and probably infect him with some of my crazy in the process.

Don’t worry though – we’re planning to have more than one (that is, I plan to stick around a while longer).

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8 comments

    • Yes it is. Be careful yourself, however. Whether or not your feet will go numb depends mainly on the temperature of the surface you’re stepping on, and not so much on the environment temperature. If the surface is cold, your feet can still go numb, even though it’s fairly warm otherwise.

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  1. Good luck for your speedy recovery. But it has obviously traumatised you a little, much like that bee sting all those years before. I would therefore ask you to question point four. Any distance in the cold can be accomplished barefoot. As another commenter said, numbness is a bad sign and desensitises you to danger. If after 15 – 20 minutes your feet are still numb then it’s possible you are pushing your feet limits faster than they can grow and should divert to shoes. Also keep an eye on the ground and if it’s dark use a torch. The salt that burned you is usually available to see before you risk being burnt by it.

    Hopefully this experience will inform future outings under similar conditions… Best of luck for then.

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    • Hi, Kit!

      Thanks for the tips. While I didn’t use the torch, I did encounter cars and passed beneath street lights and I didn’t see the salt. I didn’t even think that there would be salt on the roads (which is why I didn’t make precautions), because the forecast that evening was for fairly warm weather (above freezing). I don’t think all the roads I walked were sprayed with salt either, just some. Also, I scanned my feet several times using the flash of my smartphone (the app I have keeps it on for as long as I need). You see, “numb” may not be the best word in this context, because I did feel my feet – just not as clearly as I would if I was walking in warmer conditions. At one point I felt a bit of pressure on my left foot, as if a pebble was stuck somewhere, but I couldn’t see a thing then. I think the worst happened when I was close to home already, when the patch of skin that came loose got torn off completely. Otherwise I would have noticed what was happening sooner.

      Since writing about my injury, I’ve read a couple other articles on how to train my feet for cold conditions, so I know it’s possible to go barefoot long distances in the cold. For the time being I’ll be carrying some sort of protection with me because with the sole of my foot basically gone because of this injury, I’m back at square one regarding adapting it to going barefoot. I’ll need to build that toughness back from scratch (literally).

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