As an avid hiker, you’ve likely encountered problems with your feet including complete or partial toenail loss. Today I’m going to talk to you about the best way to treat toenail loss on and off the trail. 

What It's Like to Lose A Toenail on the Trail

Perhaps you lost a toenail recently. You were on a hike, and you started to notice your toes brushing the tops of the inside of your shoes, maybe you even felt some pain. But you were mid-hike with friends, and you didn’t want to turn back. At some point, you took off your boot and sock and then checked out your toenail. Not only had it turned a nasty shade of purple but the nail was coming off.

Now what? Should you ignore it? Rip off the offending nail? Or perish the thought, call the ranger station to get some help?

If you've never lost a toenail while hiking, it's important to know that partial detachment is more common than having your toenail completely fall off. Likely there will be bleeding (also known as subungual hematoma) and possible pain due to the build-up of blood under the nail.

What Should I Do On the Trail If My Toenail Is Coming Off?

  • Don’t rip it off! Secure it with tape to your toe to protect the underlying area to prevent infection.

  • Always carry salt with you. Prepare a saltwater solution (1 tsp salt to 2 cups of water) and soak your toe for 15 minutes. This not only aids in preventing infection but also provides relief by drawing out some of the blood.
  • After soaking, apply a topical antibiotic like Bactroban or Neosporin and cover the area with a bandage.
  • To relieve pressure on your affected toe you can change the lacing of your shoes. Instead of lacing them starting at the bottom, skip the bottom set of eyelets and start with the next set up.

How to Manage Your Toenail At Home

Once you return home, trim away as much of the nail as possible with toenail clippers to allow the underlying nail bed to heal. Continue daily soaking in warm water with Epsom salts for ten minutes.

When to See A Podiatrist for A Loose Toenail

If the pain intensifies or you notice red streaks traveling up from your toe or pus, see your podiatrist or seek other medical attention promptly as these are signs of infection. When pain and redness develop behind the cuticle, the nail is detached and should probably be removed.

How To Prevent Toenail Loss

While knowing how to manage toenail loss is crucial, prevention is preferable. One of the most important things you can do is ensure you have boots or hiking shoes that fit properly. Our feet can get longer even as adults so be sure to get your feet measured before you purchase your next pair. If your boots are too short your toes will hit the inside of your boot. If they’re too long your feet are more likely to slide forward into the top of your boot. Both can cause damage and eventually toenail loss. Learn about how to buy hiking boots by downloading our eBook, "How to Buy Hiking Boots". 

Use These Lacing Techniques to Prevent Feet from Sliding Forward

  • If you have hiking shoes, use the extra eyelet on the top of your boot to create a heel lock. This will allow you to keep your feet back in your shoes. (Watch the video above for the demo)
  • If you have hiking boots, you can use a surgeon’s knot for the same purpose. (Watch the video above for the demo)

Other Toenail Loss Prevention Tips

  • Another important prevention tip is to keep your toenail clipped short.
  • Avoid socks that are too thick. Be sure to purchase your socks when you buy your boots and then stick to the same thickness when you replenish them.

So next time you head out for a hike, check your boots to be sure they fit right, review the lacing techniques I mentioned, and don’t forget your first aid kit which should include salt, bandages, and a topical antibiotic.

Dr. Rion Berg
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A podiatrist in North Seattle treating families for over 40 years.