Losing Toenails from Hiking!

QUESTION:

Dear Hiking Lady,
I am hiking Half Dome and the last time I did a big hike was the Grand Canyon. I lost quite a few toe nails… any ideas?
A friend of my did Whitney and the same thing happened.

Help,
Lisa, Los Angeles, CA

ANSWER:

Grand Canyon, photo courtesy National Park Service
No need for missing toenails when hiking the Grand Canyon!, photo courtesy National Park Service
Oh no! This is horrible, Lisa! There is no reason that you and your friend need to lose toenails when hiking.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Buy hiking shoes that are at least 1/2 size larger than your street shoes. Your feet need space in your boots, and in no circumstances should they ever touch the front of your boot. Check out my 10 Tips for Mastering Hiking Boot shopping.
  • Trim your toenails. If your toenails are neatly trimmed and filed, you’re much less likely to have them cause problems.
  • Make sure your boots are laced properly, especially on downhills. When you’re headed downhill, you need to make sure your heel doesn’t slip forward. You can’t let your toes hit the front of the boot. Check out these pictures where I show how I lace my low top hiking shoes to prevent heel slippage, and also this video I recorded to help another reader who had heel blisters. The key is to keep your heel secure in the boot – it will prevent your toes from hitting the front of your boot (and losing toenails), and it will help prevent heel blisters).
  • Make sure you’re wearing the right socks: sock liner and outer sock. I’ve written a lot about this because I find it to be extremely important. My favorites are toe sock liners, combined with a SmartWool hiking sock.

There’s no reason for missing toenails! I’ve done my share of long-distance and steep hiking, and never come close to losing a toenail.

My feet wih fully intact toenails at the top of Mt. Whitney!
My feet wih fully intact toenails at the top of Mt. Whitney!

Happy trails!
Hiking Lady

Do you have a question for the Hiking Lady?

15 comments

  1. Pat Midlam says:

    I too have experienced the dreaded black toenail from hiking. It was the South Kaibab Trail at the Grand Canyon. I was wearing shoes that were half size larger than my street shoes. Next time I hiked that trail I wore wool socks and tied my shoes tighter at the top using an alternative method of tying. No black toenail! However, I still have problems with toenails that complain on any trail longer than 5 miles. It’s usually my middle toe. I am still wearing shoes half size larger than my street shoes, and wearing wool socks. It feels like every time I take a step the toe makes contact with the top of the toe box (not the front). Is it possible that because the shoe is a little larger, the toe box is bending downward every time I take a step? I am going to try wearing toe caps on a couple of my smaller toes so that they (inside the cushion of the cap) will make contact with the toe box instead of my tender toes. Any thoughts on this scenario?

  2. Hannah says:

    This post makes me feel better! I did the Cape to Cape (West Australia) and lost 2 toenails on the journey, then another 4 in the week I got home! I think it was a combination of not the best socks (just plain sports ones) and older boots.

  3. Hiking Lady says:

    Hi Allie,
    Sorry about the loss of your toenails! Do your best to keep the areas clean, air out your feet as much as possible (i.e., wear flip flops when you can), and cover it with a band-aid when you have shoes on. To help prevent infection, soak your feet for 20 minutes, 2x per day, in a lukewarm water bath with Epsom salts. As far as ointments, I’d try to keep the area dry.
    Good luck! Perhaps you might want to look for some new boots! 🙂

  4. Allie says:

    Hi! I have terrible luck of always losing my big toe nails when backpacking. Recrntly, I lost both. Do you have any recommendations on what to treat the bare skin with after the toenails have come off? Thank you 🙂

  5. Hiking Lady says:

    Hi new hiker,

    When walking downhill, you need to lace your boots a bit tighter at the top so that your toes don’t slide forward and hit the front of the boot. Get a pair of boots with a Vibram sole (that’s a brand of rubber that is very sticky and it will help your feet grip to ground).

    Keep your back upright and engage your ab muscles (i.e., don’t lean forward down the hill, even though it may seem more stable it isn’t all all).

    Secondly, I’d recommend investing in a pair of trekking poles. If the terrain is really rocky, then get some rubber pole caps (see the bottom of this page about Trekking Pole Accessories).

    Lastly, don’t worry about pointing your feet a certain way. Just walk normally and use your trekking poles to provide extra stability. Side stepping down a hill really doesn’t help provide stability.

    Have a wonderful trip hiking Mt. Vesuvius!

  6. new hiker says:

    I am new at hiking. I found that I have problems going downhill on loose gravel. Can you suggest a shoe and is there a particular way to point your feet??? Please help as in September I will be hiking Mt Vesuvius. I am 64 yrs old. thank you for any advice.

  7. Denise says:

    I am a very curvy girl. Right now we hike 2-5 mile day hikes. We would like to do more. I have a mountain smith hip pack with straplets. Do you have any solutions to keep my hip belt from creeping up around my waist?

  8. Stevonia says:

    I hiked half dome last Friday, I still have them all now but feel like I will lose at least 2. My boots were exactly as they should have been, proper socks and lacing on the the boot. It’s a very strenuous hike my whole body took a beating.

  9. Hiking Lady says:

    Hi Snowrider!

    So sorry to hear about your heel blisters. First off, I’d look to find another pair of boots that are truly waterproof, or at the very least buy some Tectron Sno-Seal to help waterproof your boots. Next, I’d buy a pair of gaiters. That will help keep water out that slips in from the top.

    Good luck out there next time in the rain!

  10. snowrider1120 says:

    speaking of wet hiking, what do you recommend for hiking in rain? i recently enjoyed a 3-day trek of the black forest trail in pennsylvania through constant rain. with the significant climbs and descents in wet boots, i amassed the largest heel blisters i have ever experienced and lost 3 toenails! despite waterproof boots, between the rain and wet brush they still filled with water…any suggestions??

  11. Hiking Lady says:

    Hi Luke,
    Fully waterproof canyoneering booties should help solve your toenail problem! Regular canyoneering shoes aren’t sufficiently waterproof if your feet are going to be in water for extended periods of time. It sounds to me like your feet are probably getting wet while you are hiking, which can easily result in lost toenails.
    Happy trails!

  12. luke says:

    Any suggestions for avoiding toenail loss in the Narrows? I have hiked the Narrows in Zion and have lost toenails while doing the hike. I bought a pair of Merrell canyoneering shoes for last years hike and still lost toenails.
    Thanks, Luke

  13. Hiking Lady says:

    Oh no! Sorry to hear you lost 3 toenails on Half Dome. Hopefully you didn’t lose any fingernails from grabbing on to the cables 😉

Comment or Question:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *