Beating the toenail blues

R E A D E R S '   R E M E D I E S


In your Grand Canyon page on the Web, you asked how to prevent 
losing toenails when hiking downhill:
1) Unlace your shoes halfway, tighten 'em, tie a knot, and then 
relace the top half.  This helps keep the bottom half of the  
boot from loosening up with slack from the bottom half, and,  
thus, helps keep your foot from sliding forward in the boot.   
Some places that sell hiking boots have a test ramp to find a  
better fit, with respect to downhill hiking. 

2) Too late -- already hurt the toenails?  Walk backwards in an  
emergency... 

Ken Oakeson 
oakeson@boi.hp.com 


Wrap lambs-wools around the toes to pad them. I have two different sized feet, lambs-wool padded in the toe of my boots makes a big difference. This can be purchased at most drug stores in small packages for less than $2.50. sillygrinn@theriver.com
Lambswool in the toes of my boots does the trick for me. It creates a comfort barrier between my toes and the front of the boot. I've backpacked in the canyon three times and have never had a toenail problem. I found my lambswool at Walgreen's. Martha E. Bassler bassler@zeigler-coal.com
Foot and shoe moving in differnent directions (foot forward & shoe backward) does this. If your shoes do not fit correctly then walk down sideways. This is actually the best descent method for steep inclines anyway. Drew Logan drewlogan@ravenet.com
I just returned from my first Grand Canyon trip. We took up backpacking just this past year with the goal of preparing for the Canyon. On the first day we descended to the Colorado on the South Kaibab Trail. I can report not a single sore toe or blister for me or my girlfriend. How did we accomplish this? Heeded all the advice. We purchased our boots last March. Tried on every boot we could get ahold of and bought the ones that fit our feet with extra room in the toe. We went on 13 overnight backpacking trips (half of these on the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota) and twice as many day hikes. Our boots were well broken in. We both chose a version of the Vasque Sundowner. On our descent we kept a comfortable pace. At about half way I inserted into the toes of my boots some pillow batting. I had read about the lambs wool but couldn't find any. Pillow batting has the same properties, it won't mat up. My girlfriend didn't use any. We arrived at the Colorado with all our nails intact and ready for the next day's hike. Doug / St. Paul, MN douglaslee@uswest.net
I have hiked the canyon 6 times and am planning my next for October. Every time, I have hiked down in Birkenstocks. Many people made comments re: my alleged stupidity. However, I am happy to report I have never had a single blister! BRITEANGL@aol.com
Taping your toes can help -- this is a marathon runners tip that works for downhill hiking as well. I have yet to lose a toenail in the GC (over a dozen trips and counting at a rate of two a year). I have lost toenails running but that was from dumbness (I neglected to use any tape and had my shoes too lose). Bill Merrow bmerrow@columbus.legent.com
I lost my toenails out of vanity -- did not want to admit my true shoe size. I had to hike out with my toenails all puffed up and VERY painful! Visited a clinic on top and had to have them drilled (yikes!). Once I owned up to my size-9 foot, then bought a size 10 boot, I never lost them again on a canyon hike. So my theory is have enough toe room so that they don't touch the ends of your boots. Andrew Palazola palazola@concentric.net
My first treck into the canyon was Nankoweep. That is quite an initiation. I went down the first day and out the second. The interesting thing is I never suffered from a blister or black toenail. Amazingly this was the first time I had worn these boots, I bought them the day before. I think I owe my saved feet to the advice of the other hikers, the socks that are double layered with nylon inbetween, and cutting all of the free edge off of my toenails the day before the hike. Lynn Raymond lraymond@weber.k12.ut.us
We used to get the black toenails years ago and someone told me to trim the toenails back almost to the quick the night before the descent. I have been doing this for years and have not suffered the dread black nails since. siacat@aol.com
The easiest way to prevent this problem is to wear Tevas on the way down. I found this out after losing my toenails this past May. n9540658@cc.wwu.edu
I've made 4 hikes into the outer reaches of the canyon. My first was during the first week of August 1991 and I suffered greatly. This first hike was both a joy and a hell of sorts. I had the wrong boots and got blisters about the size of walnuts; moreover, I lost the toenails from both big toes and the two toes next to them. It seems that I had boots that fit me exactly and left no room for the foot to move when I stubbed against a rock (as everyone knows is unavoidable). By the time the trip was over my feet looked awful. The next year I brought nice but expensive boots and took my two sons on a BSA 50-miler merit badge hike, and none of us suffered any foot problems. Last year my oldest son and a friend did the South Bass and several excursions on the North Rim without any problems. Ergo: get good boots, the correct socks, use powder and most importantly bang the boots prior to buying them and make sure the toe does not hit the boot Jim Crigger Jcrigger@mnsinc.com
Cut off your toenails prior to the hike. You will find that your toenails will cause you no further pain. This might seem a little drastic at first, but once they are out you will be relieved of more of a headache than you know. Joel Lander jlander@fed.frb.gov
Your boots don't fit! If you can touch the front of your boots with your toes, your boots aren't long enough. OUCH! You should be able to kick a wall without having your toes touch front. Otherwise, every time you take a downhill step, you are (gently, at first) stubbing your toe(s). Find another place to buy boots, because for $185 for good hiking boots, some ignorant salesperson robbed you. msterry@ualr.edu
Proper fitting boots such as Vasque may prevent the loss of toenails. I have hiked the Appalachian Trail and never had such an occurrence. Carol Mattes cmattes@macpost.odr.georgetown.edu
The CAUSE is your toenails hitting the boot during downhill hiking. You are then supporting yourself on the ends of your toenails. This crushes the nail beds and damages it. - FIX - Avoid loads on the end of your toenails by what ever means you can. METHODS 1. Make sure that there is enough room for your toes to wiggle freely in the boots. This mostly means long enough. Do not make the boots wider. In the store with the socks you intend to wear kick something solid like a concrete pillar and stand on tiptoe like a ballet dancer (you can hold on). the toes must be free to wiggle and not touch the boot except on the bottom. Many boots are rather pointy in the toe and such models should be avoided. Many boots were designed for alpine mountaineering where standing on narrow rock edges is critical and have been blindly copied by other manufacturers. I have used Limmer boots (Peter Limmer & Sons, Intervale, NH) for years because they are designed for backpacking and have a very fat toe and lots of support across the arch. 2. When going down hill the boot must support the foot across the arch and not allow the foot to slide forward. Therefore, frequent tightening of the boot may be necessary during a long descent. Everyone should recheck within the first 15 to 30 minutes of starting down. If the point is reached where the 2 sides of the boots come together and can not be tightened any further a pad or spacer should be added over the arch. If you have room you can add more socks with the toes cut off or remove the toes from one pair if you have 2 pair on. Less desirable for most but can be done if desired or necessary. 3. No toe in footware, i.e. Tevas, cut the toes out of your boots. 4. Walk backwards. 5. Omit shoes entirely. Terry Kennedy terryk@sdd.hp.com
Moleskin, Moleskin, Moleskin. OK, so I never hiked the Grand Canyon yet (I'll write when i get back after my month hike leaving next week) but on my other hikes, Moleskin has been the FIRST thing I've packed always! It sticks to anything: toes, early forming blisters (before a bubble appears, otherwise don't use it), and you can buy it in any foot care section. Although I like suggested idea of cutting the toenails off, as I sit here with toenail clippers I find I do not have the nerve . . . JLMartin@aol.com
I just hiked New Hance to the river, Tonto to Horseshoe Mesa & out on Grandview. Being a second-year Grand Canyon hiker who lost both big toenails last year, I was very apprehensive about keeping my toenails. I faithfully followed the advice in this forum, buying hiking boots which gave me 3/4 inch from the toe to the front of the boot, lacing my boots as described by Ken Oakeson, trimming my toenails to the quick, sock liner & wool socks. I had a great hike without the dreaded black toenail! Thanks for the tips. Rob Brower College Station, Texas rbrower@myriad.net
The best remedy I found for not losing nails in The Canyon is to lose them before you start. Excellent preparatory training is best met by one or two barefoot cross-country excursions in the Yukon in January. I recommend this as solution #1 because without toes, you can't lose toenails. The good part of this is the payoff in my family when the Toenail Fairy visits - [s]he pays beaucoup more than his/her competitor aka "Tooth Fairy." Good Hiking, Hugh [IlostmineinTheCanyon] Stallworth Valrico [Flatlands], Fla. dotlynne@gte.net
I too have suffered from black toe in the canyon. I think all the suggestions I read would work. It seems to me the malady has sevewral potential sources. The first occurrence for me was the result of boots that fit fine most places but were not sufficient for the canyon. A friend with vast experience in the canyon suggested a simple on-the-spot fix. Put strips of moleskin on the top of your socks over your arch to tighten the fit. My other occurrence was a result of a too-long toenail catching sock. Jim Halpin Tulsa, Okla. jhalpin@tulsacouncil.org
When I recently had a toe problem, two suggestions came from a salesperson at REI in Seattle. 1st. Don't wear cotton socks when hiking. They hold moisture and add to the blistering problem. 2nd. Lock lace the boots. Loop the laces three or more times and pull hard at various spots on your boot. That will help keep your foot from sliding forward. I tried it after a recent blister bout and both suggestions worked. Bob Saindon biker@accessone.com
In addition to obvious methods listed in other letters here, try putting moleskins on the outside of your socks over problem toe(s). John Hess (rust-colored Trailwise pack) johnhess@mail.clandjop.com
I just returned from the first Grand Canyon trip ever where I did not damage my toes!!! I combined all of the tricks listed on the toenail page. First, I bought new boots (again). I tried on over 25 pairs of boots before I bought. The winners were Scarpas. Seems part of the problem is that I have small feet -- about a size 5-1/2. Most manufacturers just make boots smaller, and don't recalibrate the last for the smaller foot. An insert helped the boot to fit better also, and to keep my foot from sliding forward. Quite frankly, I decided to totally ignore cost, although these were reasonably priced. I knew that if my toes were sore at the bottom of the canyon, I would pay anything at that point to avoid the condition. I wore a quiana liner sock and a wool sock. The moment anything became uncomfortable -- not sore, just uncomfortable -- I put adhesive tape on it. I even wrapped lambs wool around the top of a smaller toe which had become sensitive. I also purchased a new backpack which fits me better -- a Lowe Crossbow. Perhaps carrying the weight properly contributed to my foot health. So although counting equipment, this was the most expensive Grand Canyon trip yet in terms of dollars, it was the least expensive in terms of foot problems, and the enjoyment level was the highest. For the first few days, I tried the shoelace routine mentioned elsewhere. My feet just got aggravated! So, I returned to my old ways -- lace the shoes up comfortably in the a.m. and leave them alone. I hope these tidbits may help someone else. I was glad to find out I was not alone in my toe problems!!! Trude Kleess puffin1@ix.netcom.com
Try arch supports to hold your foot in place and prevent sliding forward. Or if you have incredible balance and superhuman legs, walk on your heels! Amy Mumford wamumford@sprynet.com
TRIM TOENAILS SHORT. WEAR TWO PAIR OF SOCKS, A INNER LIGHT WICKING PAIR UNDER A HEAVY SOCK. GET HIKING BOOTS WITH CORRECT FIT. PUSH HEEL INTO BACK OF BOOT FIRMLY, LACE LOWER LACES SNUGLY, TIE A OVERHAND KNOT AND WHEN YOU START TO LACE UP THE UPPER PART OF THE HIKING BOOT WITH THE SPEED LACING METAL HOOKS, PULL SNUGLY AND TIE AN OVERHAND KNOT BETWEEN EACH SET OF HOOKS. DO A DOUBLE TIE INSTEAD OF YOUR USUAL KNOT WHEN YOU REACH TOP OF BOOT. THIS WILL SECURE FOOT INTO THE BACK OF THE BOOT AND KEEP YOUR TOES FROM SLIDING FORWARD ON STEEP DOWNHILL PITCHES AND RAMMING INTO THE END OF THE BOOT. IF YOU FEEL ANY HOT SPOTS STARTING ON YOUR FEET, STOP AND APPLY EITHER MOLESKIN OR CLOTH BACKED DUCT TAPE TO PREVENT BLISTERS. TAKING YOUR BOOTS OFF DURING LONG REST BREAKS TO LET FEET AIR AND SOCKS TO DRY DOESN'T HURT EITHER. HOPE THIS HELPS. pclifton@co.bexar.tx.us
I read somewhere that the gel toe guards that ballet dancers use in their ballet shoes are great for preventing black toenails, but I haven't tried it myself. Apparently you can find these gel pads in ballet shops. Angie Costales Angela.Costales@valueoptions.com
The very best way to prevent blackened toenails is to use a mule for the descent, but then there is the issue of blackened butt... vze2qp2q@verizon.net


Submit your own black-toenail remedy. Return to the Trip Preparations section