Here’s how hiking makes your legs and feet bigger (and what to do about it)

by | Nov 28, 2023 | Backpacking

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Ever noticed your favourite hiking boots feeling a tad snug after a trail-blazing weekend?

Or perhaps your legs seem to have developed a life of their own, bulging with new muscles that weren’t there before. I

t’s the classic hiker’s conundrum: you set out to conquer the mountains with your backpack, only to wonder if the mountains are somehow conquering your footwear and leg space.

But before you start Googling “expandable pants” or fret over the need for a bigger shoe rack, let’s march into the heart of the matter and explore whether those trails are really adding inches where you least expect them.

Exploring the impact of hiking on your lower body

Hiking with trekking poles in spring

When you’re constantly hiking or backpacking, your body undergoes noticeable changes, especially in your legs and feet.

Long-distance hikes impact your legs in several ways. Your leg muscles become stronger due to continuous uphill and downhill trekking.

As a result, you might gain muscle mass in your legs.

While engaging in strenuous hiking for months, you might notice that your feet can get larger temporarily.

Swelling is often caused by long hours on your feet, wearing tight shoes, and carrying a heavy backpack.

Your feet might also slightly swell due to fatigue, but it’s usually a temporary effect that subsides after a break.

Hiking provides numerous benefits for your legs, such as improved strength, mobility, and balance.

This low-impact exercise can also slim and tone your legs efficiently, providing a great workout for your lower body.

The secret to achieving toned legs is consistent incline hiking to engage all major leg muscles.

On the other hand, if you’re worried about gaining weight during hiking, there’s good news!

Hiking typically helps you burn calories and maintain a healthy weight.

The weight gain you might experience is likely from the increased muscle mass in your legs, not fat.

To sum up, maintaining a regular hiking routine can change your legs and feet, mostly in a positive way.

You’ll likely get stronger and more toned legs but may temporarily experience some foot swelling.

Just remember to listen to your body, rest when necessary, and use properly fitted hiking gear to enjoy the trail.

The effects of hiking on leg muscles

Hiking in the fall

Increase in leg muscle mass

Hiking helps you build leg muscles by working various muscle groups in your legs, including the calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

When you hike, you carry your body weight, along with additional gear.

This increased load, combined with challenging terrain, encourages muscle growth.

To enhance muscle development, try incorporating different trails with diverse inclines and surfaces.

Strengthening of leg tendons

As you hike, you’ll notice an improvement in your leg tendons’ strength, as hiking stresses them in different ways.

They undergo tension from constantly adapting to uneven terrain.

Additionally, hiking helps improve your balance and stability as the tendons engage more to keep you upright.

Remember to practice good hiking technique, such as proper foot placement, to support tendon health.

Endurance build-up in legs

Hiking is great for gradually increasing your leg endurance.

These long-duration activities work your leg muscles consistently, leading to better overall fitness.

Hiking also helps build functional strength in your legs and core, as it targets muscles used in daily tasks like walking and climbing stairs.

To improve endurance, vary your hiking pace and include hikes with steep inclines or challenging terrain.

Impact of hiking on foot size

Two pairs of hiking boots standing in a puddle

Possible foot expansion

When you hike, especially on longer trails involving backpacking, you may experience some temporary foot expansion.

This is typically due to swelling or fatigue in your feet after a long day on the trail.

Your feet might appear elongated, but rest assured, this usually subsides after taking some time to recover.

Another factor to consider is muscle buildup in your feet through consistent hiking.

As you engage the muscles in the soles of your feet and calves more often, they will grow thicker, contributing to an increase in foot volume.

Long-term vs. short-term effects

Short-term effects are mainly related to the temporary swelling and fatigue previously mentioned.

You may experience discomfort or an increase in the length of your feet, but these changes are often temporary and will likely subside once you allow your body to rest.

On the other hand, long-term effects can result from consistent, intense hiking over prolonged periods—notably, in the case of thru-hikers.

It’s possible that your feet may undergo more sustained changes in size or width, and in some cases, these changes may be permanent.

As you continue your hiking adventures, be sure to monitor how your feet feel and readily adjust your shoe size or style as needed.

Regularly examining your footwear and being open to making necessary changes can go a long way in keeping your feet comfortable and happy on the trail.

Remember, everyone’s experience is different, so it’s essential for you to pay attention to your body and adapt accordingly.

Preventing feet and leg size increases from hiking

Hiking shoes and trekking poles in the grass

Adequate footwear for hiking

Invest in high-quality hiking boots that provide support, cushioning, and enough room for your feet to swell.

Wearing shoes that are too tight can cause foot pain and temporary swelling, so look for shoes with a wide toe box and good arch support.

To further reduce the likelihood of your feet expanding, consider wearing compression socks during your hikes.

They can help with circulation and reduce swelling.

Interval training while hiking

To minimize leg size increase, consider incorporating interval training into your hiking routine.

Mix up flat, uphill, and downhill terrain to engage different muscle groups, while also alternating between faster and slower walking intervals.

This allows for a balanced workout for your lower body, decreasing the chances of noticeable muscle growth in your legs.

Interval training while backpacking can also help to keep your muscles engaged and prevent imbalances that contribute to leg and foot size increases.

Post-hike care

After a long hike, take care of your body to alleviate any swelling and prevent permanent size changes.

First, elevate your feet to reduce swelling and improve blood flow.

Soaking them in cool water with Epsom salts might help to alleviate fatigue and muscle soreness.

For your legs, stretching and foam rolling can aid in muscle recovery and prevent muscle tightness, which contributes to leg size increase over time.

In addition, staying hydrated and consuming anti-inflammatory foods can further aid in reducing swelling and promoting muscle recovery.

Remember, being mindful of your footwear, incorporating interval training, and taking care of your body post-hike can help keep unwanted size increases at bay and let you continue enjoying your hiking adventures.

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Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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