Hiking Toe Problems:
What Can You Do About
The Tales Your Toes Are Telling?

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her's Diane

Sore toes during and after a hike? Here are some tips to find and fix the problem #soretoes #hiking #backpacking #hikerselfcare #sorefeet #hikingforher


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!


Let's identify the problem

Ignoring your toes is not an option for a dedicated hiker.

But there's a small problem (or as many as ten).

Those long suffering little digits on the end of your feet have a very limited vocabulary.

They have no big voice, like a pulled muscle or sprained ankle, to capture your attention.

So instead, they whisper and nag, trying to tell you they're in trouble.

What tales are your toes telling?

To find out, let’s take a close look at the messages you should heed:

  • swelling
  • hot spots
  • blisters
  • nasty nails
  • calluses
  • odors
  • and more!

None of this is medical advice.

Use your own good judgment and visit your health care professional for good foot care.


Just want some great tips for
hiking foot care?

Hiking For Her recommends smart strategies and good foot care products for you right here.


Swollen toes

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:

But 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.


Ask yourself these questions

  • Was more pressure placed on that toe from a new boot that doesn't fit quite right?
  • Did an old boot get wet on your last hike, and dry out in a new configuration to create an unexpected pressure point?
  • Could it be that your hiking sock layers got bunched up? Did they create extra pressure, heat and friction there?

  • If one of the middle little doggies is swollen or bruised? It's possible that a lacing problem pressed on it.
  • Is there something embedded under the toenail? or in the skin?
  • Did you walk around at your lunch spot bare footed, and cut yourself?

Whatever you do, don’t ignore a swollen toe.

  • It's a red flare pointing you to a troublesome issue that you need to deal with right away.

Why create even more hiking toe problems by the wishful thinking mantra "it'll go away"? That never works!


Hot spots & blisters

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.

Has a blister formed on top of your toes?

  • That means your socks rubbed against the skin with each step.
  • Or they were sliding across your boot and dragging your skin with it.
  • Swap out your socks for anti-blister socks, like ArmaSkin.

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.

Be scrupulous about emptying out your footwear before and after (and even during) a hike. You don't want troublesome trail debris trapped against your skin.

Tip:

Do you know about WURU wool? It's from New Zealand sheep. It's cleaned up and oh so soft. You can wind around your toes to prevent blisters.

  • Read Hiking For Her's opinion of this anti blister approach here.

Detailed hiking blister info:


Painful toes:
one of many maddening
hiking toe problems

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?

  • Toes that are sore in all three dimensions could be a normal “souvenir” of your hike.

A toe with a distinctive pain pattern, on the other hand foot, is a big red arrow.

It's pointing to something that you need to change or switch up with your footwear.

It can also indicate a bone problem or inflammation. That requires a visit to a podiatrist before you hike on it again.

Take a close look at your toes.

Compare the painful ones with non-painful companions on both feet. See anything unusual with the toenails or joints? 

For example:

Athlete's foot, a fungal infection, will make your toes burn and itch. You may notice painful peeled and cracked skin, on one toe or on several of them.

  • Get on top of this right away, to prevent the fungus from spreading to the rest of your foot, or between feet.
  • Keep reading for details.

Toe nails: a likely spot
for hiking toe problems

Short, blunt cut toenails are the way to go for hikers.

Trail tip:

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.


Toenail color clues

The color of a toenail can help determine the cause of the problem.

Yellowed, cracked nails are signs of fungal infection (onychomycosis).

  • Here are some photos of a full range of foot fungal infections, for your viewing pleasure. 

It will take some time to rid your nails of these invaders,.

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.

blackened toenail is a sign of bruising in the nail bed. It is 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. Bump, bump, bump... blackened.

Luckily, the nail will fall off on its own, and you will grow a shiny new one.   

That was the good news.

Now for the not so good news
about toenails

Losing and regrowing a nail will take a long time.

Regrown toenails are often lumpy, bumpy and weird looking! It may prevent you from wearing sandals in public if you’re squeamish about the appearance of your feet. 

  • Long distance hikers consider lost toenails a perverse badge of honor! Wear yours with pride if the shoe or boot fits!

Tip when buying used footwear

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.


Calluses are common
on hiking feet

A callus is Nature’s way of protecting the delicate underlying nerves and blood vessels.

That thick layer of dead skin cells protects soft tissue damage by repetitive forces.

A hiker’s foot should develop these tough layers of skin after several hikes.

They develop at the contact points between skin and boot.

Common areas:

  • bottoms of one or more toes
  • 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 remove these protective little bumps of dead skin completely.


Odors: the tale
of the stinky toes

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.

  • Plus, gazillions of resident bacteria on your skin.
  • They love to eat up sweat molecules and then “burp” inside your boots. How rude!

This olfactory combination of food + microbial normal flora gives you Sweaty Boot Essence. Welcome to the hiking club!

But let's be clear here.

It's true that you can expect a certain amount of odor in your trail footwear.

But when your toes smell weird, and smell A LOT, you need to rule out fungal infections.

This is especially true if it the odor is from the toe area of one foot that is odiferous, scaly and uncomfortable. And it is noticeable both on and off trail. 

  • Scraping off some of your skin (it won't hurt!) and examining it under a microscope is the standard way to look for fungi, so get thee to a health care provider ASAP.

Trail tip:

Blame a funky smelling backpacking tent or gear locker on bacteria, too.

These are completely normal microbiological processes. So the word blame might not be correct.

  • Everybody's gotta eat, right?

To keep funky odors to a minimum:

Air out your gear every season.

Never store wet gear for any length of time.

It takes discipline to put away clean, dry gear but you're up to the task, I just know it!


Toe problems after hiking? Hiking For Her shares tips to solve or avoid sore toes. #soretoes #toeproblems #hikingtips #backpackingtips #hikingselfcare #hikingforher


A few more timely toe tips
to solve hiking toe problems

If your toes are taking a beating on every hike, you need to spot -and fix- the hiking toe problems.

Which of these might be the explanation?

Improper boot or trail shoe fit

Your boots or trail shoes might not fit you right – especially if they’re brand new.

If you can't wait to get your boots off, that's a big clue about fit!

Back to the store they go!

That’s why it makes sense to buy from reputable gear stores like REI, with decent exchange policies.


How heavy is your pack?

If your feet and toes hurt during, and after, your hike, think about this.

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.Your foot bones can then distribute your weight better.

  • A switch to boots with sturdy arches, rather than trail shoes, can help.
    Read my review of this type of boots.
  • Supportive, cushioning socks like these are also an idea to try.

The flip side is to carry less and stay with the trail footwear you already have.

  • Tips on ultralight and lightweight gear here.


Check your insoles

When your insoles wear out, your toes begin to bump against the front of your footwear.

It's because your heel is no longer in the right place.

If the soles and uppers are still in good shape, take out the old insoles and replace them.

  • These inexpensive insoles can be cut to fit.
  • No worries if one foot is a different dimension than the other (a common hiking issue).

Or buy more expensive insoles, like these.

  • This gives a longer lasting solution if your boots are new(ish) and you like the fit but have gotten a blister in them.

Third option:

  • Read my Tread Labs review for a look at durable insoles with replaceable top covers. I love mine.

They make insoles to give you more support in boots and shoes with non-removable insoles, too.


Are lacing issues lurking?

Hiking toe problems could be a lacing problem in disguise.

Experiment with new ways to hold your feet in place and prevent toe bumping.


Fresh air is your friend

Give your feet some fresh air at least once during a hike.

This also does some really nice things:

  • dries up sweaty skin, 
  • allows oxygenated blood to flow to your feet,
  • robs the fungal population of the damp dark conditions they prefer, 
  • and encourages you to notice the tales your toes are telling!

Plus it's a great excuse to put your feet up as you enjoy the hiking scenery you worked so hard to achieve.

Alpine lake with log detritus at outlet on a sunny day in the mountainsBonus points for a nice relaxing foot soak at the lake shore. Ahhh!


Foot hygiene for hikers
to prevent hiking toe problems

Backpackers need to pay constant attention to their feet, for obvious reasons.

Daily foot hygiene can make a long backpacking trip enjoyable.

Neglecting your feet? Not so much.

Here are some tips for keeping your ten toes in good shape, along with everything else connected to them.

Use pre-moistened wipes midway through your day if you aren't near surface water.

  • These work well.
  • You can dry them out and re-use them for cleaning chores at camp.

Make time at the end of the day to inspect your toe and the webbing between them.

You're searching for places where dirt can get into your bloodstream.

  • When you find them, wash the area with soap and water. 
  • After it's dried, consider whether covering it is a good idea.


Eliminate your hiking toe problems
by treating your toes right!

Banged up, callused hiking feet are all 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 these best hiking toe problem busters?  Your toes will feel happy again!

And happy toes make happy hikers.

For more hiking self care strategies for happy trails, read this.


Hiking toe problems can keep you off the trail. Find, and fix, foot issues fast with these Hiking For Her tips. #hiking #backpacking #hikingtips #footproblems #soretoes #hikingfeet


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Hiking Toe Problems


Female hiker leaning on boulders with hiking poles and backpack

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.

She 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.