I wouldn’t be stupid & walk in snowy sub-zero temperatures for long, but I’ve been Christmas shopping in temperatures of -6°C in a city with dry pavements without any problems.
For two winters in a row I’ve hiked barefoot in snow at just under freezing for about one & a half hours without any problems. What was lovely was walking through running streams where the water felt quite warm in contrast to the snow & ice on the ground. I would add that the snow was hard packed , rather than powder snow. I have found it easier to tolerate walking in dry cold conditions than in wet and cold combined. In fact I’ve found it easier to walk in sub-zero temperatures than just above freezing where the ground is also wet. There are added risks of cold injury when walking in powder snow coming from the powder snow kicking up onto the top of one’s feet and melting. Cold and wet conditions tend to conduct heat away from the feet very quickly, and can easily lead to damage of the skin and soft tissues and should only be attempted with caution. I tend to find walking in wet conditions up to 7-8 degrees Celcius okay, but lower than that can quickly become intolerable if also walking on very rough abrasive surfaces like crushed granite chippings or other aggregate. It is in these situations that I use thin Huarache sandals or Vibram FiveFingers.
The secret is to build up the tolerance of the feet to cold temperatures by acclimatising to increasingly colder temperatures through autumn.
There are a combination of anatomical & physiological adaptions which enable humans to cope with extreme temperatures for short time periods.
Winter Barefoot Walking is not for the unprepared!
The main thing is to keep the rest of your body toasty warm by wearing thick insulated warm clothing & a hat.
It is also important to keep your legs and ankles warm, perhaps with leggings etc.
The foot needs time & gradual stimulation over months to adapt & acclimatise to the cold.
Firstly, after walking and running barefoot for a few months during warmer weather, the soles of the foot develop thick, flexible, insulating & protective layers of skin which keep out most of the cold from ground contact.
Another adaption for the cold is that blood flow is increased by unrestricted foot movement & therefore a stronger blood pumping action is achieved than is possible in constrictive footwear.
Also increased muscle activity (due to the foot muscles needing to work harder without the support of footwear) generates heat within the foot itself thus keeping it warm.
The next two points are conjecture as to how our bodies adapt to cope with cold.
Some people think the blood supply increases just due to cold exposure in order to keep the feet warm to protect them from the potential freezing effect of the cold. Of course this wouldn’t happen if the core body temperature drops which would then drain the peripheries of blood to protect the vital organs to the detriment of the feet & hands. So it’s vital to keep the rest of the body toasty warm.
Another possible adaption is that the nerve endings which would normally react painfully to the cold, do adapt by moderating the sensation so that you don’t feel intense pain. This could work in the same way as nerve endings adapt to the initially painful sensation of touch on rough surfaces. It is possible that the only reason we feel intense pain from cold is that we are not used to feeling that particular sensation, so the nerve endings are at first ‘dazzled’ by the over-abundance of sensory nerve sensation, but moderate with continued gradual increase in exposure till the sensation normalises.
It is possible to cope with temperatures below freezing as long as you are careful.
It is especially important to “keep moving!” Otherwise the increase in blood flow & increase in muscle-generated heat will not occur.
I only have limited experience, of three winters, but apart from just a couple of times where I wore sandals for insulation & once my FiveFingers, I managed most of the winters comfortably barefoot.
I did regularly hike through winter for up to an hour & half even on snow & ice at around freezing point or just below with only one experience of mild freeze injury to the skin, which resulted in slight skin sloughing later. The mild freeze injury occurred in my first winter where I had only been totally barefoot for six months. Now, after over three & a half years barefoot I’m finding easier as my skin is tougher and my feet have adapted more.
The other important point is that everyone is different & respond differently to cold so may be it’s not possible for everyone to go barefoot in winter.
Some people have circulatory disorders, including Raynauds disease for example, which could preclude them from ever attempting barefoot walking in winter.
Being sensible is the key to avoiding serious injuries.
A key point to make as a podiatrist is that winter barefoot walking should always be enjoyable and comfortable & never seen as an endurance challenge. When one’s foot health is at risk it is far more sensible to protect your feet than end up in my clinic with a problem.
As my good friend Julie Hanson (National Trust Barefoot Ranger) says, “going barefoot should be seen as a way to improve one’s health, not endanger it.”
So I encourage everyone to take off their shoes and enjoy the feet nature gave us whilst enhancing our health.
Wishing you all a wonderful barefoot winter season.