At the end of a very long first day of a hut trip in the Sierras in 2013, my friend Saylor grimaced as I stripped the bloody socks from my feet. I hadn’t cut my toenails in weeks, and over the course of touring on skis for 20 miles with them shoved into my ski boots, they’d cut deep enough on four of my toes that I bled completely though my socks. It was my own fault, for I’d ignored the cardinal rule of self-propelled backcountry travel: take care of your feet. I tried to not draw attention to myself as I began slowly sawing at my nails with the knife in my multitool when another buddy, Tim, offered me his nail clippers. “You hiked a pair of nail clippers all this way?” I asked, incredulous. “You have to take care of your feet, Joe,” he said with a smile.
Up until then, I’d viewed nail clippers as more of a luxury, something you may use before a long trip but not worth adding to your pack on weight-conscious treks. Now I’m a believer. After that trip, I moved a pair of nondescript Revlon clippers from the drawer in my bathroom into one of my first-aid kits, where it stays full-time. The weight penalty is negligible and well worth it if it means I can keep my toenails from hammering into the front of my ski boots or slicing open my toes.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that even the most elite athletes hold the humble nail clipper in high regard. Take Steve House. The professional guide and alpinist stresses that while overgrown fingernails hurt, they’ll also impede your ability to grip rock holds. But don’t go overboard; you’ll regret cutting them very short. “If you clip your nails too short, it can expose more skin on your fingertips, leaving it more vulnerable to splitting, especially on the corners,” he says. “I see this especially in Alaska, where people know they’re not going to shower for three weeks and they do the mega cleanse, thinking, I’m going to cut my toenails and fingernails short so I don’t have to take this pair of clippers up Denali’s West Buttress. But it’s a classic beginner mistake, because you get into a cold, dry environment and your hands are constantly getting wet then drying, leading to horrendous, excruciating splits.”
House also saves a spot for nail clippers in his repair kit. “When you are fumbling with cold hands and trying to fix or sew something up, nail clippers are a little easier to handle than scissors or a pocket knife,” he says. “It’s one of those tools that has more applications than it was designed for.”
Fly fishermen, like Outside’s articles editor Jonah Ogles, swear by them as well. “Nail clippers are one of the most handy things I carry on the river,” Ogles says. “Tying a fly and need to snip excess line? I use a nail clipper. Hitting minute five of trying to undo that nasty wind knot? Reach for the clippers and just start over again.” On top of saving you time, they can also prevent a trip to the dentist. “Sure, you can use forceps or your teeth to untie knots, but clippers are going to save your enamel and are far easier to handle.”
As Outside’s Gear Guy, I get to test out some of the coolest cutting-edge outdoor equipment. But I’m increasingly finding that it’s the small, no-frills gear that can make the most difference for your money, in no small part because it’s often overlooked. I’ll never pass on nail clippers again. Yes, you can hack away at your nails with a knife, but it’s a pretty great way to cut a toe. And after all, you have to take care of your feet.