Numb Toes After Finishing Your Thru-Hike? Here’s Why.

In July of 2018, I lost most of the sensitivity in my toes on both feet. I didn’t think much of it at first. I was in the middle of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, after all. This was far from the first weird foot thing I’d suffered.

I’d experienced numerous episodes of Raynaud’s syndrome and struggled through a nasty bout of trench foot, and my calluses were like the Antarctic ice sheet.

But when October rolled around and I still couldn’t feel a thing, I started to worry. Had I done something to permanently damage my toes?

After seeing no improvement in my condition upon completing my hike, I decided to do what any sensible person would: ask WebMD. Naturally, I came away from my research session half-convinced I had a rare, crippling, and poorly understood immune system disorder.

But further research revealed a much more likely—and less distressing—cause: simple overuse. Even better news: most hikers suffering from toe numbness say it gets better after a few months.

Ed. Note: We are hikers, not doctors. This advice is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. 

READ NEXT – How to Prevent and Treat 7 Common Thru-Hiking Foot Problems.

Digitalgia Paresthetica

numb toes thru-hike

Many cases of toe numbness are simply the result of walking a long way with a heavy pack. Photo via.

After turning to the hiking community for answers, I eventually realized that tingly toes are common among thru-hikers.

The phenomenon is called digitalgia paresthetica, and it’s simply the result of walking a very long way with a heavy backpack. Many hikers know it simply as “Christmas toes,” because most don’t regain feeling until Christmastime. The phenomenon is also common among military personnel, foresters, skiers, and mountaineers.

According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Special Operations Medicine, digitalgia paresthetica is “likely caused by compression of the sensory digital nerves in the foot during load carriage.” In other words, after carrying 20-25 pounds 2200 miles through the mountains, I’d more or less smooshed some of the nerve endings in my feet.

“Although no studies have demonstrated effective prevention measures for digitalgia paresthetica, reducing loads and march distances may help by decreasing the forces and repetitive stress on the foot and lower leg,” the authors suggested.

Backpacking-Induced Parasthesias

A 2003 study in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine took a closer look at incidences of digitalgia paresthetica in Appalachian Trail hikers. Researchers surveyed 96 hikers who had walked a minimum of seven days on the AT. They found that 34% of respondents suffered from some sort of paresthesia. (A paresthesia is a numb/tingly sensation somewhere on the skin with no apparent physical cause).

Twenty-one of the 96 hikers surveyed reported suffering from numb toes specifically.

The study found that women, younger hikers, and 2,000-milers were more likely to experience paresthesias. Backpack weight, footwear choice, and multivitamin usage did not significantly affect numbness.

Interestingly, 98% of study participants had fully recovered from their paresthesias just 30 days after completing their hikes.

Recovery Time

Too-small shoes can also lead to tingly toes. Photo via.

However, while my numbness lasted much longer than it did for most of the study participants, I’ve heard of many thru-hikers through the grapevine who took also took months to heal—hence the “Christmas toes” moniker.

Tucci, a 2021 AT thru-hiker who summited Katahdin in mid-August, said his toes started feeling numb and unusually sensitive in June, roughly halfway through his hike.”I knew the feeling wasn’t right in my toes, but when I got home I started getting pins and needles. It sort of feels like you’re wearing shoes too small.”

He is only now starting to see signs of recovery. “It’s not better yet, but it’s getting better. for the first three weeks (after the hike)… there was no improvement at all.”

Lotus, an AT thru-hiker who finished hiking in early September 2018, said it was late December or January before his toes came back. “I was concerned,” he said, “but I’m relieved to hear that it’s a common phenomenon.”

In fact, a three-to-six-month recovery period may not be so bad in the scheme of things. Some Christmas toe sufferers report needing a year or longer to fully regain sensation. “Even now, nearly a year after I finished I am only just getting back to normal, and not quite there yet,” commented one PCT thru-hiker on a Reddit thread about toe numbness.

Other Causes of Numbness

Digitalgia paresthetica isn’t the only cause of toe numbness among thru-hikers. Wearing shoes that are too small or too tightly laced can cut off circulation to the extremities, resulting in numbness. Bunions, neuromas, and underlying nervous system issues also sometimes produce tingling sensations.

Some hikers report switching shoes, investing in cushioning shoe inserts, and regularly wiggling and massaging their toes to alleviate numbness and tingling sensations. Tucci, the 2021 AT hiker, said he has tried massaging his feet with lotion occasionally and has also tried going barefoot as much as possible. “I was trying to walk barefoot as much as possible to get the toes activated, thinking maybe (the numbness) would go away. Maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t.”

However, in most cases, the only thing you need to do is give your body time to heal.

Did you experience Christmas toes after your thru-hike? How long did it take you to heal?

Featured image via.

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Comments 12

  • "Chappy Jack" Layfield : Sep 16th

    I thru hiked the AT in 2919. By the time I got to Pennsylvania, I had tingling and numbness in my toes and the balls of my feet. It’s been almost 2 years and this condition is a little better, but still exist in my 69 yo feet.
    I went to a foot doctor and he prescribed a neuroleptic which I refused to take.

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman EVans : Sep 20th

      Wow! I would have thought by 2919 humanity would have solved the problem of Christmas toes. Go figure.

      🙂

      Reply
  • Trash Panda : Sep 16th

    I finished my 2017 PCT thru on Sept 26, and it took til mid-December to get the feeling back in my second toes.

    I hiked the GDT this summer with no numbness–I think the trail wasn’t quite long enough to cause the issue this time around.

    Reply
  • BobP : Sep 17th

    I thru hiked the AT in 2018. I finished in late July. My small toes stayed numb until Christmas and my big toes didn’t regain normal sensation until the following spring. I’m hiking the PCT this year and I have some of the same symptoms. Right now my legs also feel like they have been shot with novocaine. I’m 61.

    Reply
  • Clay Bonnyman EVans : Sep 20th

    I hiked the PCT from April 7 to Aug. 7 this year. As at the end of my 2016 AT hike, I experienced numb toes—in fact, it seems worse after my PCT hike.

    But! By accident I have discovered that, for my feet at least, one excellent therapy is jogging and walking on the beach. My toes were extremely numb for the month I spent in Colorado after my hike. But after just a few days of going barefoot in the sand they are much improved.

    I know not everyone has a beach to walk on, but I’m guessing that going barefoot on other surfaces may be helpful, as well.

    Reply
  • mike : Sep 21st

    I’m planning on hiking the PCT in 2023. I’m counting on some foot and toe numbness to help me get through it, because I recently found out I’m getting some arthritis in my feet. 🙂

    Reply
  • Chris : Sep 26th

    This sort of toe numbness happened to me somewhere during Army basic training and I didn’t get feeling back for a few months later. I guess I never really worried too much at the time because it didn’t hurt and I didn’t have excessive blisters or sores or whatnot.

    It was still super weird and I’m glad there is some kind of explanation! Hasn’t happened to me since.

    Reply
  • Dan : Oct 24th

    I completed an 8 mile rountrip hike in the Rockies a week ago. Snow was deep for mid-October (knee-deep in some places) and we used snowshoes. That afternoon, the sun was intense (the MOST intense I’ve ever experienced on a cold day, actually) and it started turning the snow into mashed-potato consistency. It made the snowshoes heavy, of course, but as we descended the 4 miles down the mountain, we were having to really dig in with the snowshoes and poles to prevent loss of control as the snow became quite slippery. I can only assume that it was this descent along with the 25 lb pack on my back that gave me “Christmas Toes”.

    Exactly one week out from my trip (and now back home in southern Texas- I regularly fly to Colorado and hike in the wilderness), I’ve regained SOME feeling in my toes, but today, they’ve started burning a bit. Honestly, it’s better than the zero feeling I had. I think (in my non-medical mind) that it is the nerves healing/regenerating/etc. We’ll see what another week or two brings. I will come back and update my experience.

    I am “happy” to know others have experienced this as well that it isn’t unusual, bit it is my first time experiencing it for myself… well… more like relieved than happy, but… you know.

    Reply
  • Gabrielle : Mar 9th

    I hiked April – Sep 2021. I lost feeling in my toes by week 3 – mostly in my big toes. As I write this 6 months after my hike, i still have extremely limited sensation in both big toes. It feels like they’ve been injected with something to numb them. Idk if I should be happy that I’m not alone or sad that none of us can feel our feet!!

    Reply
  • Ecuador : May 28th

    40 days into the PCT and I have lost most of the feeling in my toes. Actually the whole front half of my foot.

    Reply
  • Maggie : Jul 27th

    Ok I’m embarrassed to admit in front of all you studly long trail backpackers, but I’m going to tell my story in case other simple day-walkers come to this site googling “numb big toe after long hike” like I did: I got a “Christmas toe” from just a 12-mile day hike (walk actually) around a local bay here in Southern California. Most of the miles were on paved roads and despite some significant up and down hills, I wasn’t tired at all when we were done. My shoes were comfy and the only load I was carrying was my extra large Hydroflask of water, which got lighter as I emptied it 🙂 The next day my left big toenail looked bruised and my toe felt like it had a tourniquet on it at the joint, almost as if it was disconnecting from the rest of my foot and was super numb. I can feel a bit of numbness in my second and third toes on the left foot and on the big toe of the right, but no bruising. The “hike” was July 3 and today July 27 I don’t feel much improvement. Encouraged that it sounds like healing is coming, hopefully by Christmas! I have the bruise on my toenail to watch grow out, so maybe that is like my hourglass toward 100%.

    Reply

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