On very rare occasions, I've found myself camping in the middle of the wilderness when I realized that I had forgotten to pack a fingernail clipper.

I really hate having long fingernails. Especially when camping, they're harder to keep clean, so I don't like to bite them.

I do always have knives when I'm camping (for cooking), but I'm not terribly comfortable using a knife on my fingers like that. If I'm in a situation that I can't just run out to buy fingernail clippers, I'm definitely not in a situation to go to the emergency room.

Is there a safe way I can trim my fingernails without a fingernail clipper?

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    I think I would be looking for a rock or concrete to file them down on :) I almost never have to trim my toe nails in the summer because I am almost always barefoot :) – L.B. Dec 25 '14 at 3:13
  • I'm not sure if "How can I trim my nail without a nail clipper?" -> "Use a different kind of cutting or grinding thing instead." really qualifies as a life hack. – Captain Obvious May 31 '15 at 8:46
  • Why can't you leave the nails to grow? What's the big deal? You can clean under them with a toothpick or with a nail of the other hand's finger. – Ronen Festinger Jul 6 '16 at 5:45
  • lot of friends trim their finger nails with their teeth - although definitely not hygienic – Courage Apr 14 '18 at 1:59
  • The real solution: carry a fingernail clipper around with you all the time. Almost as handy as a swiss army knife and a lot smaller/lighter. – jrw32982 supports Monica Aug 7 '18 at 19:44

11 Answers 11


I actually use a pocket knife all the time, but only ones with serrated blades. Since they're serrated, you're able to keep the nail in the groove and just take off small chunks at a time.

If you have scissors or some other method, it may be preferable, but I don't think I've ever brought scissors while camping (unless it is part of a multi-function tool like a Leatherman or Gerber). But I almost always have a pocket knife on me and all of mine have serrated sections on the blade. Obviously, this isn't foolproof, and you should exercise some caution if/when you use this method to prevent injury.

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As you pointed out, a knife is not a good idea. You can use a standard pair of scissors safely though.

If you don't have that, then (as much as I hate to say such a thing) bite them.

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It's a good idea to carry a small swiss army knife scissor, which you can use in such situations to clip your nails. Also, if possible, soften your nails by soaking them for a few minutes in water prior to clipping them.

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    I do this all the time, until they broke; now I use the knife. – J. Musser Dec 9 '14 at 22:06
  • I've never used any scissor on my nails, maybe I'll just try this for fun sometime soon! – CRABOLO Dec 10 '14 at 10:49

While working in construction I would tear/split my nails fairly often, I found using simple wire cutters and tidying up any ragged edges with a fine grit sand paper worked pretty well.

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  • I doubt I'd have a wirecutter when camping, but that seems to be a nice idea – Vogel612 Dec 9 '14 at 22:20
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    @Vogel612 really depends on the camping. We used to go camping for months at a time, well away from civilization. Setting up campsites involved creating windbreaks out of pickets, wire and tin/cloth. Wire was used for fixing broken van parts, building other things (Fire place, toilet shelter...), toasting marshmellows. When off the beaten track enough and for long enough, one would do very well to bring a large roll of wire and some wirecutters. – Lyndon White May 31 '15 at 13:42

Improvise a nail file using a rock. You can also polish your nails nicely using leather from your belt. Most campers travel with one of those multi-tool plier things, their is usually some kind of cutter that can be used and often a file also.

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A nail file works the best. As a person going into the medical field I don't want to have to explain what can happen to you if you use one of these methods and accidentally hurt yourself. Knives are really good ideas if used properly, if not the following can happen:

  • Some sort of infection
  • Blood Poisoning
  • Loss of limb, because of one of the above
  • Death because of one of the above

The best methods are to:

  • Use disposable nail files.
  • Use a metal nail file. Usually this is attached to a pocket knife or you can get freely attached ones.
  • Make your own. Taking a length of sand paper and a board, even a popsicle stick and glueing the sand paper in place can make your own nail files, these are cheaper and better because you can use different roughnesses of sand paper.

Nail Files are better for your nails, as they smooth out any breakages. Scissors can be used, but who really carries scissors with them all the time. If you plan on using large scissors then you are better off biting. Invest in a small pocket knife or other multi function tool that is small, that way you will probably have small scissors, a nail file, a knife, and depending on the type you got a nail clipper, keeping it on you key ring helps not loose it.

  • Clean your nails before even attempting to bite them off. Also, sterilize your knife before even attempting to use it, this will protect you better if you decide to use it.

  • Using any rough surface also works, like rough rocks. But be sure to avoid fomites like wirecutters, and dirty knifes. Knife blades used for cooking(especially meat) unless cleaned properly can result in infection and since you can't reach a Emergency Room that means that whatever happens to you with that knife you will have to deal with yourself. For your own safety I hope you are medically trained.

    • Try putting the nail clippers in the first aid kit and leaving it there. That way you are less likely to lose them.

You might want to try:

Taking a rock or piece of metal and heating it up extremely. Now take your fingers and press the nails to the hot surface, the heat will burn them low. After doing this carefully, plunge your hands into cool water and file with a nail file, if possible. This is better on long nails.

Only do this if you are confident around fire. And don't press a live fire to your fingertips. Just heated up objects.

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  • Can you explain how to bite the nails? I never understood how people trim their nails by biting them. It seems the nail is too strong for the teeth to be able to cut it, And the teeth are not sharp enough. – Ronen Festinger Jul 6 '16 at 5:54

This is difficult to do if your nails are particularly thick or hard, but you can fold the nail back and forth until it naturally breaks off. Your nails also need to be pretty long for this to be manageable, but they must be or you wouldn't need an emergency trimming, right?

  • Be sure to leave a buffer of white, otherwise it will be hard to do and might end up hurting
  • Start the fold in the middle of the nail then work towards the edges to create the crease
  • It might be gross, but lightly chewing on the nail can soften it up to make folding easier
  • Once the crease is establish, fold the white up and down repeatedly. Take your time with this, so you'll get a nice clean line
  • The break will start at the edges and move towards the center
  • Don't tear it off; that will leave a very rough edge. Continue folding until the white breaks off cleanly

mspaint beauty

Not exactly a quick process, but it requires no tools and doesn't leave behind any sharp or rough edges. It's also painless and a lot less risky than a knife.

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    This seems to hurt........... – Pacerier Feb 12 '15 at 10:01
  • If it hurts, you're doing it either too close to the quick (the pink part of your nail) or too quickly. I spend probably 10-15 minutes of sustained effort on one nail. Tedious and time consuming, yes, but if I'm outdoors (e.g. camping, backpacking) for an extended period and really need my nails clipped, I have the time, and I've cut myself enough times to know better than to try and use a knife. Though if you're extremely careful, you might try scoring along the fold to speed up the process. – Esoteric Screen Name Feb 15 '15 at 4:44
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    that picture... extreme MS Paint skills – jimm-cl Mar 12 '15 at 15:48

The simplest way to safely trim your fingernails without nail clippers is to use your eye teeth, fingers, and a rough surface. While it sounds odd, this is how I have trimmed my finger nails for most of my life. I do not do this for my toe nails.

Please note that I leave a 2mm white section even when my nails are trimmed and trim them when then are around 5mm in length.

I use my eye teeth (sorry canines) to pierce the nail on the side closest to the thumb. I then use the thumb and index finger of the other hand to tear the nail off. Due to the way nails grow, the tear naturally follows the same curved line parallel to the pink part.

The resulting "cut" can have two issues: it can show a thinner paper like remnant or the "cut" is slightly rough (but has none of the sharp points I get when I use nail clippers on my smaller toes). Both of these wear off with normal use. In grade school, I used to smooth them by drawing them against the edge of the thumb nail on the same hand. In college, I used a granite rock the same way. Now I use a nail file (doesn't feel good but works better).

I don't know how well this will work for other people. My nails are abnormally healthy, even, and thick and I have been doing this for a very long time. I do this in private (or more likely alone in my car) and don't tell people. Nevertheless, the end result have been complimented many times. I've been accused of getting manicures.

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  • I like that you had to clarify that you don't do this to your toe nails. That would be awesome if you could get your mouth down there – Kolob Canyon Mar 31 at 16:17

Maintain your thumb nails on both hands. When others grow up, use them to trim it. Also keep an mutual relationship with both of them when you needed. It is far better than biting. Believe me, this answer is typed with experienced hands.

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Drug stores sell small fold-up key-fob sized scissors, two to a pack, hanging on the side of the end-cap where the sewing needles are sold, usually the back half of the store. Also in the school supplies aisle there are little blunt scissors for kids. You can keep your fold-up scissors on your key ring along with your p38 or Coleman lookalike (spoon/can-opener) and any keys to far-off places that you may end up visiting once more before you die. Tie the keyring on the end of a lanyard braided of brown or gray shoestrings. Thread the end through the small finger-hole on the kids school scissor, drop the whole mess in the front pocket on your backpack, and bring the lanyard out to secure the loop with a locking clip provided by the pack. Now you have no need for a knife, and you can cut hair and nails, and other things. When cutting nails with a scissor, use the right hand to cut the left nails as you would expect. Then hold the scissors in the left hand backwards, pointed toward you, and trim the right nails in little chips. You have to do it this way because of the order in which the blades are stacked. Pick up small dead sticks for your cooking, larger ones for your heat. I've never used a knife out of doors in seven years. Three of those were the last three years of eleven on the street, and the last four years relying on foot transportation and camping to get me where i need to go when i have to leave the roof I'm under. Good Luck.

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You can get in the shower or run your nails under water to soften them up, then you may be able to use a key to trim them.

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  • The wording is not very clear but I think the answer is there. Get your nails soft in the shower and you can trim them (in a fashion) with your keys. – Willeke Nov 30 '17 at 19:09

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