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Originally published Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 7:02 PM

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Barefoot hikers get a toehold on the outdoors

A Bellevue-based video-game developer who leads a club for barefoot hikers is an enthusiastic advocate for embracing the natural world with your bare toes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

If You Go

Northwest Barefooters club does monthly hikes, rain or shine, usually at Paradise Valley Conservation Area in Woodinville, Discovery Park, Tiger Mountain or Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and at Bellevue parks such as Coal Creek, Wilburton Hill and Kelsey Creek. To find out more about barefoot hiking or to join barefooters on a hike, contact club leader Matthew Medina at barefootmatthew@gmail.com. Hikes are free.

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There is a growing fad of barefoot runners. I notice a lot on the subject when I'm... MORE
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Hiking sans hiking shoes. Someone thought this was a good idea? Bare feet sinking into mud, jagged acorns and even snow. I've heard about these folks. I think I ran into a few at a Grateful Dead campground a few years back.

They rhapsodize about trails in peculiar terms, these barefoot hikers. They coo about wrapping toes around tree roots, massaging soles on sunbaked rocks and cooling feet on a carpet of moss.

Intrigued, I met up with Matthew Medina, who leads barefooters up to Tiger Mountain or Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest every month.

Their numbers range from two to 10 hikers. Their motivation varies. Some swear shoes weaken their foot-muscle development. Some believe feeling the terrain with every step enhances the hiking experience. Medina? He just likes being footloose.

"It feels natural. It's innate to me," said Medina, a 39-year-old video-game developer who also goes barefoot in his Bellevue office.

I met him at a Bellevue park to go over the barefoot basics. He was easy to spot: hopping out of his car, feet decorated with toe rings. The broken bottle nearby didn't faze him.

His soles are leathery, but not freakishly so. I heard a solid tap, tap when I flicked with my pen at the sole of one of his feet. On my foot, the sound was muffled.

Clearly, mine needed some toughening. We strolled barefoot on the grass first.

"We've all taken our sandals off and gone barefoot at a picnic in a park at some point," he said. "It's familiar. It's a pleasant memory."

You build on that to harder surfaces and longer walks until you can hike in comfort or without soreness, he said.

The grass tingling my soles and in between my toes felt like a massage. The forest floor of dirt, mulch and evergreen needles was no bother. But gravel? Gravel was hell. I tiptoed as if I were dancing on hot coals. Did I mention you should pack shoes on your first attempt?

Author inspired

Like many, Medina was inspired by Richard Frazine's 1993 book "The Barefoot Hiker."

Frazine believes the abundance of sensory receptors on the soles serves as another sense. Just as you see butterflies, hear birds chirp and smell flowers, you should feel the trail with every step — the coarse dirt, the snowmelt stream. It makes you more in tune with nature. It's a more in-depth hiking experience, so the thinking goes.

The cult book was a Kumbaya moment for many. It did for the barefoot-hiking movement what Christopher McDougall's 2009 best-seller "Born To Run" did for the barefoot-running movement. Thousands of hikers worldwide, including Medina, ditched their hiking shoes and formed or joined barefoot-hiking clubs.

"On a trail, you map stuff in your head with your eyes and your senses. But when you take off your shoes and walk barefoot, you are mapping the trail in a different way," Medina said.

"You're applying the senses from your feet. 'This part of the trail is muddy. This part of the trail is piney.' You're taking in more information with the soles ... info that you wouldn't have if you had shoes on."

On the trail

On a recent Sunday, Medina and two friends met for a hike in the evergreen forest at Paradise Valley Conservation Area in Woodinville. Up the trail they went, over grass and dirt, between the vine maples and western hemlocks.

Their gaits were different from shod hikers: They methodically stepped straight down instead of shuffling or dragging. To avoid cuts, Medina said.

The weight fell on the balls of their feet, not their heels — to better absorb the shock, he said.

Barefooters hike at a slower pace, staring down to anticipate a couple of steps ahead, watching out for rusty nails or slugs and negotiating what texture to step on or to grip their toes with.

"I want a bit of moisture, a bit of coolness," Medina said. "Mud is one of my favorites. I like the feel of it, the coolness of it. More than any other surface, it caresses your foot. Your foot sinks in."

And he likes the feel of pebbles pressing against his feet. "Like a reflexology massage," he said.

He even enjoys soft snow, except when the weather drops to 25 degrees, the breaking point between a tingling sensation and just downright cold.

The threshold is different for every barefooter. Some can't stand asphalt on a hot summer day. Others find it soothing.

The "Barefoot Sisters" from Maine, Susan and Lucy Letcher, even hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia and back in 2001, carrying 45-pound backpacks.

The longest hike Medina has led is six miles. The camaraderie is more the point. Sometimes he doesn't even have to say anything. Those who go shoeless really get it, he said.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @tanvinhseattle.

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