Photograph by Nancie Battaglia
Wynde Kate Reese sets off for a day hike that will take her to the top of Rooster Comb Mountain in Keene Valley. She’ll pick her way over gnarled tree roots, pine needles and rock for several hours until she reaches the summit, just shy of 3,000 feet. On this trek Reese lacks a piece of gear most hikers wouldn’t consider going without.
“Anytime I’m feeling confused or anxious or a little lost or depressed, I’ll step into the woods in my bare feet,” she says.
For 44-year-old Reese, hiking barefoot is a natural extension of her longtime connection to the natural world. As a child, she grew up on 20 forested acres in Tupper Lake, scrambling through the woods, often without shoes. That early foundation instilled a sense of stewardship and pride in the wild world around her, which has followed her to where she is today: living a low-carbon lifestyle in a hand-built cabin with composting toilet and a rainwater collection system up a rocky two-track in Jay.
At 17, Reese ditched her shoes as an act of symbolic defiance.
“It became my way of resisting authority,” she says. “I decided that I was going to live my life barefoot. I walked into my senior year of high school barefoot, sat down in my first class, and that very first teacher kicked me out.”
But Reese held her ground. Teachers eventually acquiesced, allowing her to attend classes barefoot, though her gym teacher did not. While that teacher—Lynn Malerba—couldn’t allow Reese to go without footwear, she sparked the fire that’s fueled Reese ever since. Reese was on the verge of flunking gym class for refusing to wear shoes. So Malerba offered a solution that would meet Reese’s physical education requirement without stomping on her values.
“She told me that she knew I liked to hike and if I wanted to pass gym class—and graduate from high school—that I could turn in a journal once a week with all the hikes I completed,” says Reese. “If I did that, she would give me an A.”
Reese accepted and met the challenge.
For her it’s more than a quirky or silly thing to do: barefoot-hiking entered her life during a time when she was struggling. “I can look back and see how barefoot-hiking shifted my whole way of being into this calm, centered, more loving and kinder person versus a dark and angry teenager.”
Since then she’s barefoot-hiked all 46 Adirondack High Peaks as well as mountains out West and in South America. What used to baffle other hikers, who would scold her for being unprepared, has changed through the years. “As I’ve gotten older, people are more inspired by what I do,” says Reese. “Maybe it’s because they see I’m an adult making my own choice instead of a kid who might not know better.”
While she’s never promoted her barefoot-hiking lifestyle, she’s unintentionally motivated others to give it a try. During a hike near Marcy Dam a group of hikers from New York City saw what Reese was doing. They took off their shoes for the rest of their hike back to Adirondak Loj.
Barefoot hiking is “literally taking off your shoes and stepping on the earth,” but Reese warns that beginners shouldn’t try to scale a mountain or take on a long trail until their feet are ready.
As a teenager, Reese’s first mountain was Giant, requiring a scramble over slabs and slides, and mile after mile of slippery, difficult terrain. It was a “painful” and “dumb” mistake, she says.
Hiking shoes are designed to protect feet from the rough terrain. Manmade soles add traction to reduce slipping, and thick padded insoles and GORE-TEX materials help keep feet warm and dry. Without these shoes, seasoned barefoot hikers like Reese have to protect their feet. They toughen the pads and soles of their feet over the years; however, the arches remain soft, leaving them prone to cuts or scrapes. Stubbed toes or a cut from an unnoticed rock can happen.
To prepare her feet, Reese walks on different types of terrain, transitioning from softer hiking trails blanketed with pine needles or dirt to paths covered in gravel or crushed stone. She says beginners should stick with relatively flat hiking paths to get used to the sensation of feet against earth. She cautions new barefoot hikers to go slow.
Today one of Reese’s favorite hikes is Allen Mountain, a 20-mile round trip that can take more than nine hours to complete. It’s a lesser-known High Peak with a summit view that rarely gets accolades. But for Reese it’s the ultimate way to experience this landscape she loves. She says, “You start at the Hudson River and then go up to Allen Brook. You literally go all the way to where the water disappears into the mountains.”
Is hiking without shoes good for you? That depends on whom you ask. Kevin Dames, associate professor of Kinesiology at SUNY Cortland, says that the injury risk doesn’t decrease with bare feet. Instead, barefoot hikers may experience different injuries than hikers in footwear. Current research focuses on performance, training and injury prevention, adds Dames, not barefoot benefits. Regardless, hiking without shoes changes the way your foot absorbs im-
pact and can improve your balance and coordination. Barefoot hiking can also change your gait, which develops different muscles in your feet and legs, providing increased agility as you hike across different surfaces.
Reese says it allows her to be a more confident hiker: “I feel more comfortable and secure in bare feet.” She immediately knows the nature of the terrain, resulting in better traction. “You feel it right away and I can test it with my toes. I know exactly what that step is going to feel like.”
She—and others—acknowledge the more metaphysical rationale of slowing down and experiencing the natural world at an intentional pace. The ground needs to be consciously absorbed by each footfall. “There’s something really special about that physical skin-to-earth connection that is, I think, essential for our health and well-being.”
If You Go (barefoot)
Wynde Kate Reese suggests …
For flat terrain:
• Owen Pond trail in Lake Placid
• Lost Pond trail in Keene
• West River trail in Keene Valley
• The Jackrabbit Trail from McKenzie Pond Road in Saranac Lake
For hikes with a bit of elevation gain:
• Mount Van Hoevenberg via Meadow Way in Lake Placid
• Baxter Mountain in Keene
• Rooster Comb Mountain in Keene Valley
• St. Regis Mountain in Paul Smiths
For hikes with a lot of elevation gain and/or distance:
• Northville-Placid Trail
• The Great Range (Lake Placid to Keene Valley)
• Dix Range from Elk Lake