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How to Run or Hike Barefoot on the Trail

Merrell "Barefoot Expert" Jason Robillard running in the minimalist Trail Gloves. (Image courtesy of Merrell)

While barefoot running may be the hottest trend on the exercise market these days, there has been an avid following of barefoot runners and hikers for years. Whether it's with the interest of injury prevention or simply the freedom of being in nature sans footwear, barefooting buffs are popping up everywhere.

If you're interested in trail running or hiking barefoot or with minimal footwear, consider the information below.

Unsurprisingly, what’s right for one person, isn’t necessarily for another. While some will find barefoot running or hiking to be incredibly satisfying (maybe even life changing), others will insist on slipping their traditional shoes right back on. With a little education, you’ll be able to determine if going barefoot is right for you.

Who Should Go Barefoot


The recommendations on who should and shouldn’t run barefoot are diverse. As with any training tool, every runner demands different techniques to stay healthy and improve performance.

Jason Robillard, one of Merrell’s “Barefoot Experts” and founder of the educational site Barefoot Running University, says, “going barefoot cured most of the running injuries I experienced in traditional running shoes and helped me get in the training volume I needed for longer races.” The ultra runner first tried running barefoot in 1992, got serious about it by 2005, and now educates both novice and experienced barefoot runners.

Sacramento-based podiatrist Dr. Kevin Kirby, however, calls for moderation amidst the excitement over barefoot running. “It’ll be good for some people and not for others,” says the doctor who has worked with many Western States 100 ultra runners. “You have to take into account body weight, running speed, distance, foot type, injury history, and what type of shoe you’ve used in the past when making your decision.”

Like many barefoot experts and enthusiasts, Kirby emphasizes that a hasty transition into barefoot running will end in injury. “The key is to listen to your body,” he says. While the internet is awash with stories of metatarsal stress fractures resulting from barefoot running, many of these are caused by an overly enthusiastic entrance into the world of barefooting.


Barefoot hikers Ben, Ken, Barefoot Chris Roat, Scott, and AT barefoot thru-hiker Susan Letcher hike in Pennsylvania's Tyler State Park in 2007. (Image courtesy of Chris Roat and Barefoot Hikers of PA)

Since hiking involves less pounding than running, there are fewer concerns over injuries. “Anyone who is in reasonable physical shape should be able to do it,” says Chris Roat of Barefoot Hikers of PA, who has been going barefoot full-time since 1998.

“I think it is therapeutic in that it provides a more peaceful and connected awareness with nature," says Roat. "It also promotes a more gentle walking gait that may prove beneficial to people who are suffering from impact-related knee, hip, and back pain.”

Jim Guttmann of Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota agrees, recommending barefoot hiking to just about anyone. “Unless you have a specific injury or medical condition that would keep you from doing it, anyone can give it a try,” says Guttmann, who started barefoot hiking in 2000 and was hooked on his first barefoot hike. 

"It was so amazing to actually feel the trail below my feet," he says. His Minnesota hiking group attracts both young and old from toddlers up to hikers in their 70s looking for a closer connection with nature.

Check with a medical professional before walking or running barefoot if you have foot issues that affect your gait or sensory loss to your feet.

What to Wear


The good news for trail runners is that your surface of choice may be ideal for testing your barefoot or minimalist abilities. As a result of the uneven terrain on trails, it is generally recommended to go down in support from a road shoe. This allows the runner to sense and adapt to holes, ruts, and rocks.

Dr. Kirby says he directs trail runners to thinner-soled shoes. “The thinner the sole, the less likely you are to sprain an ankle,” he explains. He cautions, however, that you are also at greater risk to step on a rock and bruise your foot with a less substantial shoe, so it is important to choose softer trails to test and to keep your eyes on the trail ahead.

While many experts recommend a lighter weight shoe for trail running, going completely barefoot or wearing just a minimalist or barefoot model is another category entirely. Be sure to consider the differences between going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes versus the shoes you’ve been wearing for your entire life.

Robillard opts for going barefoot whenever possible, but wears Merrell’s minimalist shoes when the conditions or race distance warrants it. Living in Michigan, he wears minimalist shoes during the winter, as well as for longer distance races.


Jim Guttmann navigates a rocky path barefoot at Interstate State Park in Minnesota. (Image courtesy of Rita Guttmann and Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota)

Many barefoot hikers are purists, preferring to go completely barefoot. “While minimal shoes can provide some protection from particularly rough terrain, I think they can also give a false sense of security, perhaps making one more prone to injury,” says Roat.

Indeed, completely barefoot hiking is all about the sensory feedback provided by being barefoot, allowing one to adjust to ruts, roots, and rocks on the trail. "With bare soles, we can also literally feel the world beneath us — cool green grass, a soft carpet of moss, warm squishy mud, the hardness of rocks and roots," he says. "Why wear shoes or boots to unnecessarily isolate ourselves from these sensations?"

Guttmann reports that most of his group is barefoot 100 percent of the time. “We have people that bring along lighter shoes for tough parts of the trails, but given the choice, I’ll go completely barefoot,” he says.

He compares more rigid shoes to wearing boxing gloves on your hands. “They aren’t flexible and you can’t bend your fingers; minimalist footwear, however, is like wearing light gloves, so you can move your fingers without being completely exposed.”

The one time when barefoot hikers are more likely to choose minimalist footwear rather than being barefoot is in extreme weather conditions. If you are out in chilly or hot conditions, minimalist shoes can protect your feet and also allow you to wear socks for further defense.

Where to Go


“Most of the population is habitually wearing shoes and are not used to their skin hitting the ground. So if they are going to run barefoot, I’d only recommend running on a beach or a grassy field where there are not objects that can hurt your feet,” says Dr. Kirby.

Robillard says he has made barefoot and minimalist running work on even the gnarliest terrain. “Part of it is just technique,” he says, “You get good at seeing the trail in front of you and being able to avoid major debris.”

If there is risk of puncture wounds or injuries, err on the side of safety and wear at least minimalist shoes to protect your feet.


Guttmann’s group usually stays away from bushwhacking and hikes on established trails. “Whether it is grass, packed moss, fallen leaves, or forest floor, each type of trail has its own sensation,” he explains. “It adds a whole new dimension to the experience."

Roat’s trail of choice is softly packed dirt or mud, which he says is best for new barefoot hikers. “Grass is also okay, but one needs to be more mindful of possible hidden obstacles,” he warns.

For beginners, rough and rocky terrain should be avoided. Even paved paths can be abrasive for someone who isn’t accustomed to going barefoot. Begin with soft, unobstructed trails in order to gain confidence and awareness before graduating to more difficult terrain.

How to Strike: Heel vs. Forefoot


Somewhere around 80 percent of runners are heel strikers, but barefoot runners tend to strike on the forefoot or midfoot. It is hypothesized that we tend to heel strike because:

  • it requires less lower leg muscle strength, and
  • our shoes encourage such form as a result of their highly cushioned heels.

Barefoot heel strike video from Dr. Daniel Lieberman's Skeletal Biology Lab at Harvard.

Many hypothesize that the form and added impact forces associated with heel striking leads to various injuries, though the jury is still out.

Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, has examined different running styles in his lab. His research, partially funded by Vibram USA, demonstrates that participants who grew up running barefoot usually ran on their forefeet and came down with less force than their shoe-wearing, heel-striking counterparts.

“What we’ve shown is that different ways of hitting the ground have different consequences for collision and mechanics,” explains Dr. Lieberman of his research.

Dr. Lieberman’s research bore this out, showing that a heel striker has a stiffer foot at the moment of landing. With that exaggerated stride and stiff landing, a heel striker tends to collide with the ground in a more pronounced manner. With the leg straight out in front of the body upon landing, effectively putting the brakes on, the entire body feels each strike.

“The main problem with heel striking is overstriding,” explains Washington D.C.-based podiatrist Dr. Stephen Pribut. “You’re reaching out too far with your foot and that can cause all sorts of problems.”

“The issue really comes down to form,” agrees Robillard. “It just happens to be the same form you use when barefoot running.”

Forefoot heel strike video from Dr. Daniel Lieberman's Skeletal Biology Lab at Harvard.

In comparison, forefoot strikers tend to be better aligned, with the feet directly under the body. This means that only the foot’s motion stops at the moment of collision, rather than the entire leg, eliminating that ripple effect up to the knees and hips. The knee and ankle tend to be flexed upon impact as well, increasing compliance of the entire leg.

Some believe that while heel striking may lead to knee, hip, and lower leg injuries, forefoot striking can cause calf and Achilles issues as a result of the increased tension and load. Metatarsal stress fractures are another concern that has arisen since the popularization of barefoot running.

While some of these injuries may be inherent to the forefoot running style, others are simply caused by overzealous runners who shed their shoes without slowly adapting their muscles, tendons, and ligaments to the new style.

Research points to the fact that forefoot and midfoot striking may be advantageous in terms of avoiding injury, due to their softer landings.

“It’s all about the forefoot strike. You could be wearing shoes or no shoes,” says Dr. Lieberman. “If you have a forefoot strike, you have less effective mass and more compliance at the moment of landing, which is why I emphasize that what really matters is the style you run.”


Similar to barefoot running, it's also recommended that barefoot hikers strike on their forefeet. In his 1993 book The Barefoot Hiker, Richard Frazine, an early advocate of barefoot hiking, advised stepping straight down below your body and placing your weight on the balls of your feet.

“The idea is that this gait more properly uses the spring-like motion of your feet and it give you time to react and adjust your step in the event of unexpected obstacles; it also allows for a softer impact,” explains Roat.

Guttmann asserts that this gait comes naturally to most barefoot hikers. Unless you are on a completely unobstructed, flat, soft surface, you will tend to land on your forefeet. “The ball of your foot is the widest and most flexible part of the foot,” he says. “It tends to conform to whatever you’re walking on, so if you step on an object, you can adjust.”

How to Start


Merrell's "Groundwork" video with Jason Robillard, one of the brand's barefoot technique videos.

Robillard recommends starting by simply walking around the house barefoot in order to improve tactile sensation.

After a week of bumming around barefoot, consider trying five to six 50-meter strides on a grassy surface. Notice how you naturally tend to strike on the balls of your feet, rather than your heels. This will allow you to slowly build up your calf muscles and the strength of your Achilles tendons.

Slowly add an extra 50-meter length every few days for several weeks.

Eventually, you should work up to trying a quarter to a half mile of running.

“When you’re on the trail, I recommend bringing your shoes with you and going barefoot periodically along the way,” says Robillard. Then you won’t be stuck on the trail without shoes if things get gnarly.

Merrell's "Bareform" video with Walt Reynolds.

If it goes well, continue running a quarter to a half mile barefoot two times a week for three to four weeks, then graduate to three-quarters of a mile to one mile.

At that point you’ll have a pretty good idea of how well your body is responding to the exercise. Indeed, as you become more attuned to the softer trails, you may be able to attempt barefoot running on more advanced terrain.

Regardless of where you are running, be sure you are aware of what is underfoot with each step; there’s no daydreaming when it comes to barefoot trail running.


While barefoot hiking does involve less impact than running, it is still important to slowly transition. “I definitely wouldn’t head out on a week-long backpacking trip or get out into the deep wilderness without any backup footwear,” says Roat. He suggests starting by taking off your shoes at home and getting familiar with the sensations involved with being barefoot.

Once you have become comfortable, find a soft, unobstructed trail and start walking. “It’s really easy,” says Guttmann. “It’s just like any other physical activity, start slowly and let yourself build up.”

Begin with a short 10-minute walk and see how your feet handle the different surfaces. Make sure to bring along a pair of shoes to help you get over the trickier spots. With time, you will build up the foot strength and calluses to deal with rougher terrain. (See leg and foot exercises below.)

What to Expect


“There is a lot of variability as far as what people’s capabilities are when it comes to barefoot running. There are many factors that play into it,” says Robillard. “Part of it is just technique; you get good at seeing the trail in front of you and being able to avoid major debris. With practice you get pretty good at negotiating the trails.”

While some initial soreness is generally unavoidable, a proper transition will help you skirt major problems. “Most people have very weak calf muscles and feet and they can’t run barefoot very much,” says Dr. Lieberman. “It’s incredibly important to transition slowly. If you transition too quickly, you’re heading for injury, possibly even serious injury.”

Lyle Lange and Jane Maloney explore the Mississippi River bluffs barefoot in Minnesota's Spring Lake Park Reserve. (Image courtesy of Jim Guttmann and Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota)

Robillard describes a newfound motivation for running since first shedding his running shoes. “I stumbled upon barefoot running as a potential solution to injuries and fell in love with it,” he says.

Indeed, many barefoot runners say it is an experience like none other.


Just as with barefoot running, it is not unusual to be sore after first trying barefoot hiking. “Most likely it’ll be soreness in the leg muscles,” says Roat. “Even if you are a reasonably experienced shod hiker, you’ll be using different muscles as your gait adjusts, so some soreness may result.”

Despite a few minor aches and pains, barefoot hikers speak highly of the barefooting experience, with many becoming enthustiastic advocates.

“Hiking in boots or shoes feels the same with every step,” says Guttmann. “Without shoes, every step feels new and different.”

He describes the first experiences hiking barefoot as akin to coming out of a dark movie theater during the day:

“You step outside and it seems incredibly bright; it takes a little time for your senses to adjust,” he says. “For most people who wear shoes constantly, hiking barefoot for the first time can be overwhelming as you soon realize what you’ve been missing out on.”


Barefoot Resources

Interested in trying the barefoot/minimal hiking and running movement? Start slow, listen to your body, and get qualified training and support. If you have medical problems, questions, or concerns, consult a medical professional.

Also, check out some of the barefoot resources below.


The Barefoot Bookby L. Daniel Howell

The Barefoot Hiker by Richard K. Frazine

The Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robillard

Barefoot Sisters Walking and Barefoot Sisters Southbound by Lucy and Susan Letcher

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall



Barefoot Runners Society

Barefoot Hikers


Barefoot Hikers of Minnesota

Barefoot Hikers of PA (NJ-DE-MD)



Barefoot Running University
Site of Jason Robillard, Merrell "Barefoot Expert," founding member of the Barefoot Runners Society, and author of The Barefoot Running Book.

Biomechanics of Foot Strikes
Daniel Lieberman's
research into different foot strikes in endurance running at the Skeletal Biology Lab at Harvard.

Merrell's Barefoot Connection

Vibram's Barefoot Running FAQ

VIVOBAREFOOT Training Clinic

Trailspace Barefoot and Minimal Footwear Reviews



Leg and Foot Exercises

To expedite the transition to the barefoot running style and ward off injuries, try the following lower leg and foot strengthening exercises three days a week. These also will help you strengthen the stabilizer muscles that are vital to the midfoot/forefoot strike pattern:

Single Leg Standing: Stand barefoot on a hard floor on one foot; try not to hold onto anything for balance. Start with 30 seconds and gradually work your way up. Once you get good at it, try closing your eyes and balancing. For the most advanced version, try it on a bosu ball.

Calf Raises: With your feet slightly apart, slowly raise to your toes and slowly lower back down. Start with 20 reps.

ABC's: When you’re sitting at your desk or the dinner table, point your toe and spell out the ABCs. Then switch feet. Try to go through the alphabet two to three times.

Toe Walk: Rise to your toes and tiptoe across a 20-meter hard, flat surface. Start with two lengths and a rest in between.


If I had known that this would end up a big trend I would have kept it up from my days of running barefoot XC. Around 1973. I still hike barefoot at times.

I guess I can see the lure of going barefoot on a dayhike or afternoon stroll through the woods. But I'm not sure about carrying a 30-40 pound pack through the woods barefoot. Would just seem hard on the feet to me.

Also, I think a lot of it depends upon terrain. I know some trail runners who thought it a great idea to run barefoot around here. Then after doing it, I was told they would never do it again because the terrain around here is so rocky. They said it shredded their feet.

Looking forward to and interesting thread.  See you on the trails, with my shoes on.

Rocklion: I do backpacking, barefoot running and barefoot hiking.  I usually don't go far without shoes when backpacking.  This is where minimalist shoes work great.  When the terrain is not filled with sharp rocks I will take my shoes off to enjoy the ground (it is really a sensual experience).  To overcome the heavy backpack problem I do ultralight backpacking.  Once you go ultralight you don't go back.

When it comes to barefoot running I prefer trail-running over pavement.  Again that dirt it is more sensual, though running barefoot on pavement is still fun.

Yep, could see doing ultralight and going barefoot. That helps take off some of the burden. Believe me, know what you mean about trail running. I won't run on pavement. Refuse to.

I have flirted with the idea of barefoot running for awhile. I took off my shoes once on a run and used the form I had read about in most the magazines. I have to say it was a very pleasurable experience, but I guess I'm a little bit chicken to go all the way, and I just don't have the money right now to invest in some minimalist shoes. I might try it out more in the future.

But still not up for barefoot hiking. Not my cup of tea. Not knocking anyone who does it. Just feel a little bit more comfortable tromping through the mountains in a good pair of sturdy boots. I've had too many ankle problems in the past to not trust myself to not turn an ankle out on the trail.

as i read the article, particularly about avoiding bushwhacking and spending more time on softer trails, i was thinking that barefoot is ok for some places and situations, but not others.  i have put a lot of miles on a pair of fivefingers and can attest to some benefits, but they wouldn't be my choice for jagged rocks.  is anyone really hiking barefoot in the granite-dominated white mountains? on volcanic rock or scree?

if so, how long does it take your feet to get accustomed to that, and are there some places that barefooters just won't go, or do your feet get to the point that you can pretty much hike anywhere?

Rocklion said:

 I've had too many ankle problems in the past to not trust myself to not turn an ankle out on the trail.

 At least with running (in Fivefingers), turning an ankle hasn't been a problem for me. I think having your fee flat on the ground and toes spread makes them more stable as far as that goes. But I have banged up my toes pretty bad a couple of times. But in the end I have to agree that I'm not ready to carry much of a load without a little more support and protection.

No need to feel my inner cave man. I will do like Callahan and wear my shoes.


I have ran a few times, "barefoot", in my five fingers and have enjoyed it. I find five fingers work well on the trail especially crossing rivers though I don't see the barefoot hiking trend coming on strong in the Ozarks there are too many rocks, bugs and poison ivy.

 ... Once more unto the breach, dear friends ... once more ....  (Wm Shakespeare, from "King Henry V"


I tried this YEARS AGO ... waaaay before it was "fad-ish".   The dreaded "in-crowd" is now embracing it, I see.  The 1990's "yuppies" would be pleased.

I used to live right on the ocean (in a condo) in Ocean City, Maryland.

I walked and ran barefoot(ed)  almost daily on the beach, along water's edge.   Sometimes, up to 10 miles.   When on the longer forays, I sometimes toted a light rucksack with refreshment, windbreaker, sunscreen, lip-balm,  hat, etc.   (Does that qualify as "hiking"?).

I was also a true "runner" during this time.  NOT a "jogger".   I ran competitively.   Averaged about 50-miles per week of running.    I wore RUNNING SHOES on paved surfaces .... barefoot on the beach and grassy areas.

To give you an idea of how "serious" my training was ... I ran EVERY DAY FOR FIVE YEARS.    Never missed a day.   I kept a log.   Do the math; 50-miles per week X 260 weeks.   Can you say, "Type-A Personality", boys-and-girls ???

During those five years, I did cope with several minor injuries.   ALL from going  BAREFOOT.

BTW -- Has anyone mentioned how your feet "spread" from these barefoot activities?   My Cro-magnon /  Neanderthal ancestors would have been proud of me.

When I changed into business-attire for my 'day-job', my dress shoes felt tight and uncomfortable.   Rather distressing, as I am something of a 'shoe-junkie', and have many pairs of expensive Italian shoes and loafers, that PREVIOUSLY fit me PERFECTLY.

Also, to clean my feet, after hiking / running barefoot(ed?), I had to use abrasive compounds and a BLEACH-solution.


Not for everyone ... 'eh ???

"  ... And the beat goes on .... "

... I became insane ... with long intervals of horrible sanity .... (Edgar Allen Poe)



I'm 48, 6'1" and I weigh 210.  I workout almost daily and spend much of my life outdoors and introducing others to it.  I'm giving this information because age and size are relevant to both benefits and injuries when running and hiking.

I love running hills and trails.  Years ago I had a few runs in which cramps developed in my calves that turned into huge, debilitating, full bore, muscle tearing cramps.  That happened a couple of times using conventional running shoes.

After a climbing accident that sprained the hell out of my ankle I discovered that barefoot hiking was helping my ankle more than any physical therapy so I started running barefoot.  It worked wonders for my ankle.  It had it's downside though.  The combination of steep hill running in bare feet and my age resulted in my calf muscles developing micro tears resulting in more of the extreme injury creating cramping that I experienced years before.  Now I mountain bike much more and limit my runs to 2 times a week.  (In the winter I replace biking with snowshoeing and skiing.)  If I do more running, I risk injury.  If I ran flatland in conventional shoes, the cramping would be somewhat mitigated but I'd rather mountain bike more.  Mostly my runs are barefoot but occasionally I use conventional shoes.

Hiking and walking don't damage my calves the way running does so I frequently hike barefoot.  Acorns, small rocks and sharp protrusions hurt no matter how much callus you have.  It isn't just the sharp pain, they also can bruise the flesh against the phalanges deep into the bottom of your foot.  Being careful and observant makes all the difference but it isn't perfect.  Also, walking with that care means you spend far more time inspecting the ground than looking up at the very things you came to see.  Granted, there are some interesting things on the ground, but the focus tends to be more on where you're going to put your foot.  These aren't necessarily reasons not to barefoot hike but they are unavoidable and should be part of your decision.  I occasionally hike barefoot but I prefer to do it on less challenging hikes.  On more challenging hikes I frequently wear Five Fingers.

I agree with the people who say that the increased feel in bare feet is a plus.  Largely that is because of the wonderful ability to use your toes.  In essence your toes become short fingers when hiking barefoot or using Five Fingers.  You literally wrap your toes around non-flat surfaces.  In conventional shoes you have traction.  In bare feet and Five Fingers you often have both traction and grip.

As for the question about barefoot hiking in the White Mountains.  I live in NH and have done it quite a bit.  If it is dry and you are careful about small rocks, sapling stumps, acorns etcetera, bare feet are very reliable and probably more reliable than any shoe so long as you don't get cut or injured (I haven't).  If you are going to be quite a ways backcountry, bring some form of shoes in your pack in case something goes wrong.  It is preparedness in the same way you should bring a jacket on a nice day in case the weather turns or bringing a medical kit in case of injury.

Traction-wise bare feet don't do well in serious wet (e.g. - beyond damp).  While climbing damp or wet granite can be dangerous no matter what you wear, it is worse in bare feet (and the hard soles of conventional hiking footwear).  Mud and wet granite are very slippery in bare feet.  There is no way that the whorls of the prints on your toes and feet can overcome slipping on wet surfaces in the way that a shoe with a good softer tread does because the whorls are deep enough to channel the water.  While it is far from perfect, I think Vibram's KSO Trek is a great compromise for dry and wet conditions.  That being said, I turned around last weekend when it started to rain while hiking the north slide of the Tripyramids last weekend in the KSO Treks.  Doing that in the rain is just stupid no matter what you wear.

I don't actually run barefoot - too many splinters and rock shards where we run - but do run almost exclusively in my all-time favourite running shoes - Vibram Five-Fingers. They provide the same feeling as barefoot running, with just a 3 or 4 mm sole, but provide the necessary protection from sharp objects. I have the Bikila, but prefer the KSO - they are more minimalist and provide a greater trail feel. Of course, they also open you up to an occasional bruise, but those are the days that I then go back to my "regular" running shoes (Solomon Speed Cross, which are also low profile, but offer some cushioning...).

I wear my V5F (KSO Trek's usually) all the time, and love the feeling of freedom and relaxation (a little foot massage with each step!) they provide. Can't recommend them strongly enough!

Have fun out there!

I was recently hiking the C & O Canal Nat'l Trail ....    Passed a couple barefooted hikers.   They were looking DOWN -- in the interest of avoiding stepping on something sharp ?

Too bad they couldn't notice the scenery.   Maybe (?) they plan to gaze upon the vistas, whenever they arrive at the end of their journey / hike.

Doesn't seem like fun, to me.

Question:   Is there a designated "Darwin Award" for barefooters ??



In 2009 I was the first peson to hike the 600 mile Bruce Trail in Ontario Canada completely barefoot.

It's not that big of a deal to go barefoot on the hiking trails.

The nay-sayers are usually people who have little to no experience with hiking barefoot.

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