Sometimes it seems like foot numbness is just an inevitable part of backcountry adventures. At some point, we’ve all stomped the ground or kicked a nearby rock to get some feeling back into our toes. Foot numbness in hikers is a result of something compressing the sensory nerves located in the foot. This nerve compression is painful and could make you temporarily lose feeling in your feet on the trail. Luckily, it’s treatable—and avoidable. There are two common causes to this pain: altered walking mechanics or poor footwear.
You can break down the process of walking into several distinct phases, but we’re going to focus specifically on the toe-off phase, when the big toe pushes off the ground right before the leg swings forward. If the big toe has limited ability to bend during this phase, the body will instead push off from the ball of the foot.
This shift from the big toe to the ball of the foot compresses a sensory nerve, which leads to numbness, tingling, and even issues such as Morton’s neuroma, a condition where the nerve becomes compressed. Over time, this condition can result in a stress response from the body, causing the nerve sheath becomes thicker. You might feel like you have a pea or small pebble in the foot between the third and fourth toes and can be very painful with each step.
If your hiking boots constrict or squeeze the foot at the widest part, they are compressing your feet’s nerves (especially as your foot swells throughout a hike). Finding a shoe that lets the foot move and flex without pinching and squeezing the widest part is essential. Your toes should splay fully when hiking. Boots that accommodate this natural toe and foot flexion without any compression will help reduce your risk of Morton’s neuroma.
Knock out Numbness
You don’t need to make peace with foot pain just because you have a big hike on the calendar. Here are some ways to make sure your feet are strong and stable enough to prevent numbness in the first place.
These handy little tools help realign the toes and stretch the muscles between the foot bones. Wearing them for 30 minutes once you reach your campsite (or even just after a day lounging around the house) will greatly benefit your feet.
Spending more time barefoot around the house can improve your foot strength. So can targeted exercises, such as single-leg deadlifts, squats, lunges, step-ups, balance activities, and calf raises. For any exercise where the foot is flat on the floor, imagine using the foot as a tripod; the base of the big toe, the base of the pinky toe, and the heel all acting as the three tripod legs. This tripod will create a strong and stable platform for exercises, balance practice, and work on foot strength.
This one can be a little more complex to address and might require an appointment with a physical therapist. However, there are a few actionable activities that can improve walking mechanics. First, foam roll your calf for a few minutes. A tight calf pulls up on the heel bone and changes how that ankle functions during toe-off. Second, focus on a heel-to-toe motion when walking. Pay close attention to where the toe-off is occurring: Is it on the ball of the foot or the big toe? If it’s more on the ball of the foot, consciously shift the motion back to the big toe. Walk slower than normal as you stay mindful of how the foot feels when walking during this practice.
Lee Welton is a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in Southeast Idaho. He thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and trekked through Italy’s Dolomites. He can typically be found hiking and exploring Idaho and Wyoming. For more information, videos, and resources from Welton, visit trailsidefitness.com.