Dr. Robyn and I were reminded on a recent hike of the importance of wide toe box footwear and natural toe splay for foot comfort and injury prevention. The combination of Correct Toes toe spacers and men's and women's wide toe box footwear is extremely helpful in preventing the foot and knee problems that plague so many trekkers, especially on long hikes and descents, and it saved us from considerable agony during our own 8-hour hike in the mountains.
Conventional hiking boots, which possess tapering toe boxes (along with other problematic design features), force your toes into a wedge position and encourage the repetitive jamming of your toes into the end of your boot's toe box, which can lead to sore feet and toes and excessive strain on the muscles, tendons, and ligaments acting on or supporting your knees (not to mention toe deformities, over time).
Before we began wearing minimalist shoes that accommodate toe spacers, both Dr. Robyn and I suffered from terrible lateral knee pain during long hikes, especially during the descents. Once we switched to proper (i.e., flat, wide, and flexible) footwear and repositioned our toes in the way that nature intended, we experienced no further pain or discomfort while hiking or running. Ever.
Why Wide Toe Boxes Matter for Hiking
Four distinct benefits come from using wide toe box footwear for hiking:
Improved Comfort: Your feet and toes will feel significantly more comfortable in wide toe box footwear during a long day of hiking. Your feet will most likely still feel tired at the end of the day, but it's unlikely that you'll experience any discomfort during your hike. You can boost your foot comfort even further by using other helpful natural footgear, such as Correct Toes, Injinji toe socks, and Pedag metatarsal pads or Strutz foot pads. This is an excellent combination of products for experiencing maximum foot comfort while hiking.
Improved Toe Alignment: Wide toe box shoes allow your toes to splay. When you wear wide toe box shoes and participate in weight-bearing activity, such as hiking, you're encouraging a realignment of your toes to the position that nature intended; that is, in line with their corresponding metatarsal bones. Wearing wide toe box shoes while hiking is an active way to rehabilitate your feet and toes and restore your toes to their true anatomical shape and alignment.
Reduced Likelihood of Injuries: Most hikers have experienced at least one foot or lower body musculoskeletal problem during the course of a hike. Many hikers believe that the problem lies in their conditioning, or that the pain they're experiencing is the result of a past, unresolved musculoskeletal problem. This may be true in some instances, but it's also true that conventional hiking boots themselves are the source of significant pain and discomfort. Wearing wide toe box footwear while hiking will help you avoid debilitating lower leg problems such as knee pain, ingrown toenails, neuromas, and shin splints.
Enhanced Balance: When you wear wide toe box shoes while hiking, it's likely that you'll experience an improved sense of balance. This is due to the wider support platform associated with the splayed toe configuration. Conventional hiking boots force your toes together into a wedge configuration, effectively reducing the surface area of the forefoot contacting the ground with each footfall. This, along with other features of conventional hiking boots that destabilize your main foot arch (such as heel elevation and toe spring), has a direct effect on the frequency of traumatic ankle injuries, especially ankle sprains. For more information about this topic, please read our article on how minimalist shoes can help prevent ankle sprains.
Consider using wide toe box boots, shoes, or sandals (i.e., footwear that's widest at the ends of your toes, not the ball of your foot) for your next day-hike or multi-day trek. But first, please do check out our article on how to safely transition from conventional shoes to minimalist or minimalist-like footwear. You might also enjoy our article entitled What Makes for a Great Hiking Boot?
What Are Some Examples of Wide Toe Box (& Foot-Healthy) Hiking Footwear?
Frequent visitors to the Natural Footgear site can probably surmise that we don’t support the use of conventional hiking boots, as most hiking boots incorporate a number of problematic design elements and (in our opinion) injure the foot more often than assist it. We do, however, have a few suggestions for wide toe box hiking footwear that allows your toes to splay and your feet and ankles to support themselves. And here they are:
Lems Boulder Boots
The Lems Boulder Boot is a minimalist boot, which means that it covers your foot and ankle but stays out of the way of your foot, allowing your foot to look and function as nature intended. This boot has a sufficiently grippy sole, and many people use the Boulder Boot as their principle trail running shoe or hiking boot. The black canvas option is vegan. In early 2014, Dr. Robyn and I hiked the entire Annapurna Circuit in Nepal (a 3-week trek over all types of terrain and through all types of weather conditions) in our Lems Boulder Boots without issue. In fact, it was a wonderful experience. Consider combining the Lems Boulder Boot with Due North Winter Traction Aids if you’ll be using the boots in snowy conditions.
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Xero DayLite Hiker EV Boots
The Xero DayLite Hiker EV is a comfortable and reliable trail companion that will protect your foot yet still allow it to sense the ground and other trail features. This flat-soled, wide toe box minimalist hiking boot includes a durable, abrasion-resistant mesh upper and a helpful Tough Tech toe bumper. The sole of the DayLite Hiker EV incorporates a dual-direction chevron tread pattern, which affords great grip on a variety of surfaces. This boot also includes huarache-inspired heel straps and adjustable instep straps so that you can find the perfect tension. The DayLite Hiker EV is one of my favorite boots for hikes in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
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Xero TerraFlex Shoes
The Xero TerraFlex is a minimalist hiking shoe that lets you feel the ground and experience the true joy of natural foot and body movement. It’s a high-performance, zero drop athletic shoe that enhances proprioception and enables natural toe splay, and it provides an excellent alternative to the excessive weight and sole rigidity of conventional hiking footwear. The TerraFlex's 6 mm flexible sole allows your foot to move the way nature intended and become strong on its own, and its lightweight, huarache-inspired design is unobtrusive and provides your foot with plenty of freedom to function at its best.
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Ahinsa Bare Ankle Lifo+ Boots
The Ahinsa Bare Ankle Lifo+ is an all-weather minimalist boot that is built using high-quality vegan materials. This lightweight hiking boot, designed by physical therapists in the Czech Republic with foot health in mind, has one of the widest toe boxes of any trail shoe or boot. The completely flat and flexible sole provides sufficient foot protection but largely stays out of the way of your foot, allowing you to develop strong and resilient feet, toes, and arches. The Ahinsa Bare Ankle Lifo+ can easily double as an around-town boot, which reflects its great versatility.
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Xero Prio Shoes
The Xero Prio is a well-rounded athletic shoe that you can use for a variety of active outdoor pursuits, including hiking, trail running, and parkour. The relatively thin sole (5.5 mm) and lightweight nature of this flat, wide, and flexible minimalist shoe offers you a true barefoot feel, which is ideal when navigating trail features such as roots, rocks, and other tricky debris. The Prio incorporates a zero drop platform and a toe box that's wide enough to accommodate Correct Toes toe spacers, which helps give you the most stable possible foundation.
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Topo ST-2 Shoes
The Topo ST-2 is a versatile, lightweight, and foot-shaped athletic shoe that offers a sock-like fit and plenty of room for your toes to splay. The ST-2 possesses a zero drop platform that facilitates natural arch support, and the 16 mm sole (11 mm without the included (optional) liner) offers a great combination of foot protection and ground feel. Great for hiking, working out, trail running, and a variety of other activities, the ST-2 is a do-everything shoe that can help keep you injury free and on the trail longer.
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Luna Mono Winged Edition Sandals
The Luna Mono Winged Edition is a minimalist running and walking sandal similar to the huaraches used by the Tarahumara of the Copper Canyons of Mexico (and similar to the style of shoes I saw many mountain porters wearing in Nepal). These “hiking boots” have a semi-lugged Vibram sole, and they work well on a variety of terrain. They are primarily warmer weather footwear unless you use them with a thick toe sock or other foot covering during the cooler months (which a lot of people do). Exercise caution and avoid using footwear that exposes your skin to the elements in cold weather conditions.
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If you have other favorites, we'd love to hear about them! Please leave a comment below or send us a message via our contact form. We're always looking for great new foot-healthy hiking footwear. Happy trails!