Losing Toenails from Hiking!


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 mine hiked Mt. Whitney and the same thing happened. How do I stop losing toenails from hiking!?

Lisa, Los Angeles, CA

Stop losing toenails from hiking
Toe socks help protect toenails and prevent blisters!


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

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  1. Hiking Lady says:

    Hi SoCalHikerGirl! Excellent insights! Whitney and Langley are two of my favorite all time hikes 🙂
    What did you think of Superfeet insoles? I like them the best, but I know everyone’s feet and unique. I’m glad you found that Dr. Scholl’s works for you.
    Happy trails!

  2. SoCalHikerGirl says:

    Oh – moleskin cut into squares works great for rub spots/hot spots/blisters. I keep some in my pack if needed. Also key is keeping toenails short and calluses under control. I got a whole role of moleskin for pretty cheap on Amazon.

  3. SoCalHikerGirl says:

    I hike a lot – at least once usually twice a week – in the 10K’+ So Cal mountains in the summer (Gorgonio, Bernardinos, Jacinto, etc.) and the steep, loose Santa Rosa desert peaks in the winter, both on trail and cross country and 15-20+ mi trails as day hikes. I have put hundreds of miles on my feet and have also done the So Cal 6 Pack as a primer, then Whitney, Langley, Cactus to Clouds, and Rabbit Peak.

    So I have learned a lot about hiking and have lost/turned black my share of toenails esp in desert season. Here is what works for me after a couple years of trying different things:

    I SWEAR by Hoka hiking boots though they wear out fast. They cushion my feet and grip like crazy even on steep, loose desert descents and mountain rocks. I get them a 1/2 size bigger than my usual shoe size. I did the Gorgonio bowl in my Hokas and some really steep stuff in the desert and my boots held and my feet felt good! I have crossed streams in the spring and the boots did not even look wet – I love my boots!

    Key to the boots for the descent is some ballet toe shoe “lamb’s wool” I got at a dance supply store, which I stuff at the end of my boots for my toesies. This helps IMMENSELY!

    I also use Dr. Scholl’s running inserts – I have tried other brands; this one works best in avoiding the shin splints I am highly prone to.

    I use toe sock Injinji liners under SmartWool socks and DirtyGirl gaiters (help hugely with gravel/dirt/sand), with knee-high ballistic nylon ones when off trail bushwhacking or snow hiking..

    This is what works for me and hope it gives other ladies some tips! Happy hiking!

  4. Hiking Lady says:

    Hi Andrea, thanks for the post. Sorry to hear about your blisters and lost toenails! I tend to agree with you, that the boots were damaged by the wet hike. I hope others will chime in and maybe someone else had a similar experience.
    Happy trails!

  5. Andrea says:

    Hi folks,
    This has been an interesting read.
    I walk about 1000 plus miles a year, all terrain.
    I did a 5 hour mountain walk in August and got soaked (the uphill galley was like a waterfall). So I walked in soaked boots and clothes for about 4 hours.
    I have never had a blister or foot problem.
    6 weeks later, in the same well travelled boots, I did a 100Km continuous hilly walk.
    At 25Km’s I had blisters everywhere.
    They were constantly taped up by podiatrists (who were at stop points on the route).
    I finished but have since lost 6 toe nails and it has taken 2 months for the blisters to almost heal.
    I can only put this down to the shoes being ‘damaged’ after the wet mountain hike.

    Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

    I am about to buy the same pair of boots that I have been using for the past 10 plus years , because I have never experienced any problems with them at all.


  6. Hiking Lady says:

    Hi Patty and Becca, please don’t give up hiking! Try to find a pair of boots that fit you well, where your toes don’t hit the front of the toe box as you hike. Oftentimes, toenails come under a lot of pressure when you hike downhill. They slam against the toebox of your boots…and if you do it for 23 miles they will likely turn black then fall off. 🙁
    Please please please try to find a pair of boots that fit well and then use my lacing technique to keep your heels back in the boot so your toes don’t hit the toe box.

    Keep enjoying the outdoors. Happy trails!

  7. Becca Brock says:

    I was toying with the idea of hiking with my brother in the Badlands next time he goes, but after he told me what to expect in the toenail department, I decided to stick with my Nordic Track treadmill with the round-the-world screen.?

  8. PATTY WOERPEL says:

    This does not help I hiked 23 miles and lost toe nails and took my hiking boots off and wore my sandals…its been 4 years since that happened and I still have swollen toes.
    How to help

  9. Kristen Blaha says:

    I lost 3 hiking the subway top down. My 2nd toe is so long! I lost one of them on the half dome too. My shoes were large enough, had 2 layers of socks, and laced properly. Womp womp at least it’s not super painful. We shall see how Friday’s hike in Zion’s mystery canyon goes.

  10. Jan says:

    Lost 2 toenails in the Skyline Trail. Ever since they are prone to soreness and loss. Does moleskin help?

  11. Pat Midlam says:

    Just an update. Tried putting gel toe caps on the neighboring toes and it work great. Then I hiked mist of the spring and summer using the gel caps but forgot to put them in my suitcase when I left for the Grand Canyon ?. I started hiking and got about two miles down when my finicky toe started complaining. The good news is, I did have some Lambs Wool so I used that to form a little protective pocket for my toe. I liked that better than the gel. No sweat buildup and more comfortable than the gel.

  12. Jesse says:

    Proper shoes help, but that’s not a cure-all. You should note that while trimming your toe nails will help, it wont if you don’t KEEP them trimmed. If you’re only trimming when you’re about to go on a tough hike, you’ll expose that tiny bit tender skin that hasn’t had time to callous. This is FastPass to Blistertown! Keep it trimmed and you’ll thank yourself later.

    Unfortunately, for people who have lost toenails, you are now more prone to losing them again for the reason above. The new sub-nail tissue has not had the time to callous and will shear off more readily. To combat this go on equally strenuous hike, but shorter distances. This way you can temper your toes a little bit at a time. Unfortunately since tread mills and stair climbers do not angle down, they will not provide the stimulation necessary to duplicate this.

    You now have a reason to go on more leisurely hikes between your tough ones! Having said that, still bring a pack with you. The added weight will help duplicate the toe-tempering scenario. It’s not needed or wanted for every hike though. Change it up as much as you want. The important part is to not go from X one day, then do Y the next (X= couch potato; Y= the number of miles and/or incline/decline needed to remove your toenail)

  13. 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?

  14. 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.

  15. 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! 🙂

  16. 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 🙂

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

  20. 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.

  21. 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!

  22. 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??

  23. 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!

  24. 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

  25. 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 😉

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