Bruised toenails from hiking? Try these four hacks

A hiker's foot in the foliage with a bruised toenail
Bruised toenails from hiking are a common trail hazard, but there are measures you can take to protect your toes when walking downhill (Image credit: Aitor Diago)

Do you suffer from bruised toenails from hiking? Hikers' toes are either a badge of honor or absolutely revolting, largely depending on whether you’re on the Appalachian Trail or wearing open-toed sandals at a wedding. Yellow, red, brown, blue, black and even missing toenails are a common complaint among those who like to travel far on foot, but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with them. 

Training for hiking long distances while wearing a heavy backpack usually focuses on increasing leg strength and stamina and preventing blisters, so it can be a bit of a surprise when, feeling fit as a fiddle, you find yourself limping along due to painful toes at the end of the day. Whether you’re tired of having sore toes, or are just trying to not incite the gag reflex in your friends and family with your repulsive-looking feet, we can help you avoid bruised toenails from hiking.

A hiker's foot in the foliage with a bruised toenail

Whether you’re tired of having sore toes, or are just trying to not incite the gag reflex in your friends and family with your repulsive-looking feet, we can help you avoid bruised toenails from hiking (Image credit: Aitor Diago)

Why do my toenails hurt after hiking? 

Basically, if your toenails hurt after hiking it’s because while you walk, your toes are repeatedly ramming into the end of your hiking boots or shoes. This will be increased by hiking longer distances which involve downhill walking while carrying a heavy pack. The result might just be sore toenails, or a light or dark-colored bruise under the toenail which can appear during your hike or a few days later. Like any contusion, this just indicates some damage to the blood vessels that has led to some internal bleeding. 

Bruises aren’t typically anything to worry about, but they can hurt, look unsightly and when they’re under your toenails, may result in the loss of the nail after a few days or weeks. 

A tired hiker puts lotion on her feet

If your toenails hurt after hiking it’s because while you walk, your toes are repeatedly ramming into the end of your hiking boots (Image credit: CasarsaGuru)

How do you treat a bruised toenail from hiking? 

Though there are some sources out there that describe piercing your toenail with a hot needle to release the blood, we absolutely don’t recommend piercing anything on your body without medical supervision, or following instructions to do so from something you read online. If you have a toenail that’s so badly bruised as to be raised and causing you difficulty in walking, or you suspect it’s infected, it’s best to consult a medical provider.

Now that’s out of the way, the Cleveland Clinic (opens in new tab) advises that most bruises will clear up within a couple of weeks, and you can take the following measures to assist in the healing process:

  • Stop hiking and rest to allow your toes to heal.
  • Ice your toe for the first 48 hours when the injury is most acute to reduce swelling.
  • Apply a hot compress after the first 48 hours to assist circulation.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication as needed.
  • If your toenail falls off, keep the area clean and protected with a bandage for a few days – don’t worry, it will grow back.

How do you protect your toes when hiking downhill? 

Whether you’ve lost a toenail and are keen not to repeat that particular hiking experience, or you’re just fed up with having sore toes after your hijinks in the hills, there are a few preventative measures you can take to protect your toes when hiking downhill. 

1. Re-lace your hiking boots 

First, you might  need to experiment with how to lace your hiking boots properly. When setting off, you want your boots to be tied tightly enough that your feet aren’t moving around too much, as this can cause rubbing and blisters on your heel. Use the extra lacing holes to tie a heel lock to keep your heel as close as possible to the back of your shoe, and therefore your toes away from the toe box. 

However, as you walk, your feet will swell. If you start to feel that your feet are bumping up against the toe box of your shoes, loosening this area can alleviate some of that pressure. To do this you can use toe-relief lacing by completely unlacing your boot, then re-lacing but skipping the first set of eyelets. 

A hiker tying their laces

When setting off, you want your boots to be tied tightly enough that your feet aren’t moving around too much (Image credit: Getty)

2. Seek some arch support 

No matter how high your arches are, once you add a heavy backpack, the extra weight will press down on your feet, making them widen and your big toes and pinky toes might start to press into the edges of your boots and shoes. The additional rubbing and pressure here can cause bruising, even when you’re wearing softer hiking shoes or trail running shoes. A possible solution is to add some support to keep your arches lifted and your feet from spreading. Look for shoes with arch support or add some with a removable insert. 

The legs of two men as they hike downhill at sunset

Once you start striding, heat and gravity cause your feet to swell and your footwear might end up being a little tighter than you’d have chosen back at the gear shop (Image credit: Westend61)

3. Size up 

It’s possible that your hiking boots or shoes are the perfect size for you – when you’re sitting on the couch. But once you start striding, heat and gravity cause your feet to swell and your footwear might end up being a little tighter than you’d have chosen back at the gear shop. 

For hiking boots and shoes, it’s a good idea to find a pair that are a half size bigger than your normal shoe size. A half shoe size is only about half an inch, so it’s not going to affect your gait, but it will give your feet room to move once they swell up. Start out by lacing them tightly and if they still feel loose, you can wear thicker hiking socks with them.

Further, while you’re looking at new boots, consider going for a pair with a wider toe box to give your tootsies room to spread out. This can be a good argument for choosing hiking boots or hiking shoes, rather than trainers or trail runners which may be narrower.

Barefoot in the grass

Trim your toenails before you hike (Image credit: Matthew Roberts)

4. Trim your talons

Too-long toenails are common among thru-hikers and they don't just ruin your best hiking socks. Long toenails can more easily butt up against the end of your hiking boots or shoes, even if you've sized up, and cause pain and bruising, so clip yours nice and short before you set off, especially the big toenail which tends to be the sturdiest.

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.