Meet the man who has travelled across the world without wearing shoes

Ian Oliver has travelled the world, but when it comes to packing, there’s one thing he doesn’t worry about – shoes.

The 44-year-old, from Nottinghamshire, is known as the Barefoot Backpacker.

Ian first started getting comfortable with being barefoot as a teenager but admits that as a child, he really disliked the idea.

He tells ‘I think, as a child I never used to like being barefoot, at all.

‘I remember once my parents dropping me off at school, then getting them to go back home to pick up my trainers for PE that I’d realised I’d forgotten to bring, rather than have me do it barefooted.

‘But something changed, at some point during my teenage years.

‘Over the years, I got more and more brave about doing it. Certainly by the time I was at university I was happy to embrace the concept much more, and it’s been off and on ever since.’

Now Ian goes barefoot as much as he can, and he enjoys travelling without shoes – although there are times when he feels more comfortable with something on his feet.

He says: ‘I’m British and it gets cold and wet. I’ve done the whole ‘barefoot in the snow’ thing “for the ‘gram”; it burns. I’m quite fond of my toes and I’d quite like to keep them. That said, I prefer cooler weather; it has to be snowing before I resort to closed shoes.

‘More likely, it’s underfoot conditions that prevent me being barefoot. I don’t like gravel, or trails littered with small stones.

‘I also find that damp weather causes every little stone, even on what appear to be decent pavements, to stick itself to my foot like glue, which is incredibly annoying.

‘Obviously also some wilder environments are often unsuitable; rocky hills and thorny forest paths most notably.’

In these circumstances, he will wear thin sandals, which protect his feet and are easy to slip on and off.

The reason he likes to live this way is simple – he feels his feet get too hot in closed shoes.

He says: ‘They make my feet uncomfortably warm and stuffy, and sometimes make me feel like I’ve got two bricks on the bottom of my legs.

‘Doubly so considering I love to walk around a lot, or am stuck on transport in enclosed spaces with dodgy air-con.

‘That said, I do enjoy the freedom that being barefoot gives – the relaxed, casual style and that sense of being unrestricted.’

Barefoot life has benefits for Ian’s physical health. He explains: ‘I find it more comfortable, oddly enough. It feels kind of more natural to be barefoot.

‘It does take some getting used to, but once you’ve done it a bit, it’s fine.

‘My stride seems to naturally shorten a little, and I walk more on the forefoot than further back; my heel barely strikes the ground at all. This means that less of my foot touches the floor, which means less scope for injury.

‘The other physical thing that frequent barefoot walking gives you is very tough soles. This has the advantage of meaning that I have walked over small shards of broken glass or thorns without any discomfort because my feet are too hard for them to penetrate far.

‘The disadvantage is that my heels get very dry and rough, and if I rub them together I’m in danger of starting a bushfire; moisturiser is your friend.’

But one of the biggest benefits of going shoe-free is how it has helped Ian’s mental health.

He adds: ‘As someone who often has issues with mood swings and feelings of low-self-worth, I find feeling the grass under my feet to be very de-stressing and relaxing. I find it peaceful and calming, especially standing with my eyes closed and feeling the air over my feet.

‘It’s also something I do more when I’m feeling more confident in myself; I always worry about it beforehand but once I do, I’m fine. And, because I feel more at home being barefoot, doing it ends up *giving* me that self-confidence, as it means I’m being ‘me’.

‘I’m able to be the person I am, so I’m more likely to stand tall and adventure forth; walking barefoot is thus good for my own personal self-development.’

But living barefoot isn’t without issues. Ian says the most frequent question he gets is about stepping in something unpleasant or painful.

He says: ‘Walking barefoot makes you concentrate more on the route in front of you, so you pay more attention to what’s there than normal.

‘But you should be looking anyway – no-one walks through dog-poo on purpose, and broken glass you’d probably avoid anyway just out of sheer reflex.

‘It’s more the things you wouldn’t think of that are the most dangerous; for example, I find that cobblestones/flat marble are slippier under bare feet when wet than they are in shoes, and I don’t have good balance at the best of times.

‘I also regularly bash my little toe against things like shopping trolleys and kerbstones.’

Most of the time, he says he has been able to travel easily barefoot but occassionally comes up against some problems.

He says: ‘I’ve crossed a number of international borders barefoot, including in West Africa and the Balkans. I’ve travelled on coaches, local buses, trains, through airports (in and out) with mostly no worries, and riding on the back of motorbike taxis in Africa barefoot felt so free and refreshing.

‘In more recent times, I’ve been going to restaurants, pubs, etc with no-one batting an eyelid about the fact my feet were bare, although admittedly this is usually while wearing my barefoot sandals. People genuinely don’t pay attention!

‘The only times I’ve ever been warned have both been to do with air travel. At Brisbane airport the woman at the gate wouldn’t let me on the plane until I’d put my sandals on.

‘While on a flight from Chicago to London I was sat in the bulkhead seat near to where the air crew sit, and one of them told me I should really wear footwear for take-off and landing, just in case the plane crashes and we have to all make a quick escape. I’m sure in that situation my first thought isn’t going to be how my feet were feeling.’

To avoid any problems, his friend crocheted some ‘barefoot sandals’ which fit over the top of his feet and hook around his toes, leaving the sole still bare.

He adds: ‘The effect means that unless you’re paying attention, or look at me walking from behind, it does look as though I’m wearing proper, if slightly fancy, sandals.

‘This allows me to get into museums, restaurants, etc. Most people don’t notice, so if they only glance at me once, they only see ‘cool, nice sandals’.’

And his lack of shoes certainly makes him memorable when he travels the world.

He laughs: ‘As I’m registered on Hostelworld as “Barefoot Backpacker” I have had a couple of hostels note my unusual name and look at my feeds online before I arrive, and look forward to my arrival in excitement so they could ask me about it; this happened in Albania but also in the USA where I was called ‘famous’ by one of the hostel staff. It seems I have a strong brand image.’

You can follow Ian on Instagram and Twitter or listen to his podcast.

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