Elizabeth and I started today’s hike at 9:15 from Borges Ranch. She was wearing her usual trail runners, but she was also carrying a pair of huarache running sandals in her backpack. She asked for them for her birthday and had taken them on short runs around town and loved how light and simple they were. Today she would try hiking in them, but she had her trail runners as a backup if the sandals didn’t work out.
A storm soaked the Bay Area a week ago, but it was followed by warm, sunny days that would continue through today and the coming week. The hills are luminous green, wildflowers are blooming everywhere, and the wet season is coming to an end.
Next was a lovely blue oak woodland on Wall Point Road. The meadow below the trees was filled with white-flowered miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), violet blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), and orange fiddlenecks (Amsinckia sp.).
From the woodlands we walked onto a chaparral-covered ridge, weaving through through a variety of shrubby plants—chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), black sage (Salvia mellifera), and a couple types of manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.)—growing among gray pines (Pinus sabineana).
We stopped under a grove of coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), where Elizabeth took out her huarache sandals. She put away her trail runners, slipped on the sandals, and tied the laces around her feet. They were so simple: just Vibram soles and nylon laces.
I’d first heard of huarache running sandals years ago on Scott Carrier’s wonderful Running After Antelope story on This American Life. In it, Carrier describes the Tarahumara, an indigenous people of Mexico whose long-distance running ability is legendary. In the early 1990s they shook the American ultramarathon scene when they entered some of the toughest 100-mile foot races in the Rocky Mountains and set new course records:
In the 1993 Leadville….Tarahumaras took first, second and fifth place. The most amazing thing about the Indians was their pace. The winner was fifty-five years old and only ran the second half of the race twenty minutes slower than he ran the first!
But what I found most intriguing was their footwear:
They wear sandals called huaraches made out of old tire tread and leather straps.
I knew hiking in running shoes was better than hiking in boots, but could sandals be even better than running shoes? Hiking with nothing but a sheet of rubber strapped to your foot seemed a step too far. I kept hiking in sneakers, but the thought remained: if the Tarahumara wore them on hundred-mile races in the Rockies, why couldn’t I wear them on a little day hike?
So when Elizabeth heard about huarache running sandals and wanted to try them, I got her a pair from invisibleshoe. Now I was curious to see how they would work out on a real hike.
Elizabeth cruised along dusty Wall Point Road in her huaraches with no problems. They were light and comfortable.
Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) was Elizabeth’s first challenge. We were on the Secret Trail, a narrow, overgrown path winding down into Pine Canyon. Poison oak reached toward the trail and sprouted underfoot. But Elizabeth gamely tiptoed around it and avoided touching any.
In the meadows at the bottom of Pine Canyon came another challenge: thick mud that had been rutted, and perhaps defecated upon, by cows. But again, Elizabeth avoided it by finding enough patches of solid ground to keep her feet clean.
Next was Burma Road, a flat gravel road next to Pine Creek. Apparently the creek had inundated the road during recent storms and turned it into a braided river. The huaraches were excellent here, letting Elizabeth walk right through the water. Meanwhile, I had to zigzag across what remained of the road and jump over rivulets to keep my shoes dry.
After two hours of hiking, Elizabeth started to slow down. The soles of her feet were tender from the rocky ground and her skin was getting chafed by the Vibram. She put on her socks and trail runners and said they felt like walking on pillows compared to the sandals, ending her experiment. We hiked out of Pine Canyon through lush and beautiful Buckeye Ravine and finished our hike at 4:30.
So what did I make of Elizabeth’s experiment? Huarache running sandals offer some of the lightest and most natural walking possible, but getting your feet used to them needs to be a long, careful process. Sandals also leave your feet exposed to bugs, snakes, animal dung, and poisonous plants. But then those aren’t always real threats on a hike. Could I see myself ever doing a full hike or backpack in them? Sure. And I think they would be excellent shoes for fording rivers and wearing around camp on a backpacking trip.