Sometimes it seems like foot numbness is just an inevitable part of backcountry adventures. At some point, we’ve all stomped on the ground or kicked a nearby rock to regain some feeling in our toes. Foot numbness in hikers is the result of something compressing the sensory nerves located in the foot. This nerve compression is painful and can cause you to temporarily lose feeling in your feet on the trail. Fortunately, it is treatable and preventable. There are two common causes for this pain: impaired walking mechanics or bad shoes.
You can break the walking process down into several distinct phases, but we’re going to focus specifically on the toe phase, when the big toe lifts off the ground just before the leg swings forward. If the big toe has limited ability to bend during this phase, the body will push off from the ball of the foot instead.
This passage from the big toe to the ball of the foot compresses a sensory nerve, which leads to numbness, tingling and even problems such as Morton’s neuroma, a condition in which the nerve becomes compressed. Over time, this condition can cause the body to respond to stress, causing the nerve sheath to thicken. You might feel like you have a pea or a small pebble in your foot between the third and fourth toe and it can be very painful with every step.
If your hiking shoes constrict or squeeze your foot in the widest part, they are compressing the nerves in your feet (especially when your foot swells throughout a hike). Finding a shoe that lets the foot move and flex without pinching or constricting the widest part is essential. Your toes should be fully apart when hiking. Boots that accommodate this natural toe and foot flex without any compression will help reduce your risk of Morton’s neuroma.
You don’t need to make peace with foot pain just because you have a big hike on the schedule. Here are some ways to make sure your feet are strong and stable enough to avoid numbness.
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 of lounging around the house) will greatly benefit your feet.
Spending more time barefoot around the house can improve your foot strength. The same goes for 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 ground, imagine using the foot as a tripod; the base of the big toe, the base of the little toe and the heel all acting as the three legs of the tripod. This tripod will create a strong and stable platform for exercises, balance practice and foot strength work.
This can be a little more complex to treat and may require an appointment with a physical therapist. However, there are a few doable activities that can improve walking mechanics. First, roll your calf in foam for a few minutes. A tight calf pulls on the heel bone and changes how that ankle works during toe. Second, focus on a heel-to-toe motion when walking. Pay special attention to where the toe occurs: 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 to the big toe. Walk slower than normal while remaining aware of how the foot feels when walking during this practice.
Lee Welton is a physical therapist assistant and personal trainer in southeast Idaho. He hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and hiked the Italian Dolomites. He is usually found hiking and exploring Idaho and Wyoming. For more information, videos and resources from Welton, visit trailsidefitness.com.