by Diane Spicer
Hiking toe problems can sideline your ambitious hiking plans.
Gravity, friction, pressure, and heat all take their toll on your toes.
That's why you need the best tips for handling toe problems as a hiker.
Lucky for your toes, you've found them right here!
Ignoring hiking toe problems is not an option for a dedicated hiker with ambitious mileage plans.
But there's a small problem.
Those long suffering little digits on the end of your feet have a very limited vocabulary to capture your attention.
No big voice, like a pulled muscle or sprained ankle.
What tales are your toes telling?
To find out, let’s invest a few moments in a close look at the messages you should heed from these
helpful little bony protuberances, including:
None of this is medical advice. Use your own good judgment and visit your health care professional for good foot care.
It’s normal to have slightly swollen fingers, toes and ankles after a long hike.
Not fun, but you can deal with it using these tips:
However, it’s not normal to have one or two toes which are more swollen than the others.
When this happens, your job is to figure out what those tender toes endured, and then fix it.
Whatever you do, don’t ignore a swollen toe.
Why create even more hiking toe problems by the wishful thinking mantra "it'll go away"?
If you have a blister by the end of a hike, it was created by the unavoidable triad of heat, friction and moisture.
Number One Rule:
Jump all over a hot spot and eliminate as many factors in this triad as possible before you earn a painful blister.
Already have a blister?
Look at its location.
A blister on top of your toes means your socks rubbed against the skin with each step, or they were sliding across your boot and dragging your skin with it.
Blisters between the toes also can be a sock issue.
Blisters on the sides of your feet, including your toes, are a trail footwear problem.
There is too much pressure and friction on your skin at that particular location.
Ever hear of WURU wool? It's New Zealand sheep's wool that you can wind around your toes to prevent blisters.
Detailed hiking blister info:
Sometimes hiking toe problems like discomfort are normal.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to distinguish between pain and soreness.
When you curl your toes, do you wince?
Or is it more of a tender feeling?
A toe with a distinctive pain pattern, on the other
hand foot, is a big red arrow pointing to
something that needs to be changed with your footwear.
It can also indicate a bone problem or inflammation, which requires a visit to a podiatrist before you hike on it again.
Take a close look at your toes, comparing the painful ones with non-painful companions on both feet.
Athlete's foot, a fungal infection, will make your toes burn and itch, resulting in painful peeled and cracked skin.
Short, blunt cut toenails are the way to go for hikers.
Make it a habit to trim your nails before every hike. Nails grow quickly enough to catch you by surprise between day hikes, or on a long backpacking trip.
The color of a toenail can help determine the cause of the problem.
A blackened toenail is a sign of bruising in the nail bed, caused by repeated trauma inside your trail footwear.
Example: Your toes bump against the front of the toe box as you descend a long, steep trail.
Luckily, the nail will fall off on its own, and be replaced with a shiny new one.
That was the good news.
Here’s the bad news:
Losing and regrowing a nail will take a long time, and may prevent you from wearing sandals in public if you’re squeamish about the appearance of your feet.
Yellowed, cracked nails are signs of fungal infection (onychomycosis).
It will take some time to rid your nails of these invaders, and once you do, make sure you have a brand new pair of boots or trail shoes so you don’t re-infect yourself.
It's also a great idea to disinfect your daily footwear, or replace it if possible.
Don't try on used hiking boots without wearing your socks.
You don't want to inherit onychomycosis!
It will lead to big time hiking toe problems for you and your trail partners if you share gear.
A callus is simply nature’s way of protecting the delicate underlying nerves and blood vessels from being damaged by repetitive forces.
A hiker’s foot should develop these tough layers of skin at the contact points between skin and boot, usually on the bottoms of the toes and along the sides of the foot.
The more you hike, the more pronounced these raised patches of skin will appear.
You can smooth these calluses with a nifty little volcanic pumice stone.
But go easy! You don’t want to eliminate these protective little bumps of dead skin completely.
Bromodosis is the fancy word for the odor emanating from your well loved hiking boots.
Blame it on the fact that you have more sweat glands in your feet than anywhere else.
Food + microbial normal flora make a potent olfactory combination which culminates in sweaty boot syndrome.
But let's be clear here.
It's true that a certain amount of odor in your trail footwear is to be expected.
But if it’s only your toes that smell weird, and smell A LOT, you need to rule out fungal infections.
This is especially true if it's just the toe area of one foot that is odiferous, scaly and uncomfortable - even when you're not hiking.
A funky smelling backpacking tent or gear locker can also be blamed on these completely normal microbiological processes. Air them out, and never store wet gear for any length of time.
If your toes are taking a beating on every hike, you need to spot -and fix- the problem.
Which of these might be the issue?
Your boots or trail shoes might not fit you properly – especially if they’re brand new.
Back to the store they go!
That’s why it makes sense to buy from reputable gear stores like REI, with decent exchange policies.
If your feet and toes hurt during, and after, your hike it's possible that you’re carrying too much weight for what you’re wearing on your feet.
Consider more supportive footwear in a half size larger, so your foot bones can distribute the weight more easily.
When your insoles wear out, your toes begin to bump against the front of your footwear because your heel is no longer in the right place.
If the soles and uppers are still in good shape, just take out the old insoles and replace them.
Or purchase more expensive insoles, like these, for a longer lasting solution if your boots are new(ish) and you like the fit but have gotten a blister in them.
Hiking toe problems could be a lacing problem in disguise.
Experiment with new ways to hold your feet in place and prevent toe bumping.
Give your feet some fresh air at least once during a hike.
This also does some really nice things:
Plus it's a great excuse to put your feet up as you enjoy the hiking scenery you worked so hard to achieve.
Banged up, callused hiking feet are just part of the fun of being a hiker.
But you don't have to suffer with hiking toe problems.
A little proactive strategy based on the best hiking toe problem busters can make your toes happy again!
For more hiking self care strategies for happy trails, read this.
Hiking Toe Problems
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades, & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
Purchasing your hiking gear, clothing, and outdoor supplies through the links on this website means you pay nothing extra but Hiking For Her receives a small commission to keep the hiking tips flowing.
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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.
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