Hiking and walking are fun activities with huge benefits to your health and well-being, but you might be alarmed when your fingers start to swell like sausages out on the trail! Don’t worry, put your mind at ease- there’s a very good explanation for the swelling, and once you understand what causes it, it will be easier to prevent it!
Why Do Your Hands Swell When Hiking?
Swollen hands when hiking or walking are extremely common and don’t just happen out on the trail. One study showed that one in four people regularly experience hand swelling when simply walking their dog. While several factors like climate and the weight of your load can affect swelling, the most common cause is a simple build-up of fluid in your extremities.
In most cases, excess fluid retention is responsible for swollen hands while hiking. Our hearts pump blood to the rest of our bodies, and when we hike, a few things happen that interfere with the return flow of that blood back to the heart. These factors all work together to cause your fingers to retain fluid and swell.
First, endurance exercises like hiking increase blood flow to meet your body’s increased demands for oxygen. During exercise, the working muscles have increased blood flow. Hiking engages lots of muscle groups, but not usually the ones in your hands and arms, which means that blood flow is directed away from your hands and fingers.
The body reacts by having the blood vessels in the hands and fingers dilate which will cause swelling. For the blood vessels to dilate, the tissues around these blood vessels have to swell as well, resulting in those pesky swollen fingers.
The position of your hands while you hike only serves to make the problem worse. Since your hands typically swing at your sides, well below the level of your heart, the blood is forced to work against gravity. While this alone might not cause swelling, consider that most hikers wear a backpack.
The straps of your backpack put pressure on the blood vessels leading back to the heart, and it is possible that the force of the return flow isn’t as strong due to some restriction. This may result in added pooling in the hands.
To make matters worse, the return flow of blood to the heart is largely controlled by muscle contractions in our limbs. The returning vessels run through muscles that pump the blood back to the heart, but while hiking, our arms muscles don’t get that much use, even though they are swaying back and forth. The leg muscles are constantly contracting during hiking or walking, which is why you don’t typically experience fluid retention in your feet and ankles during a hike.
It’s extremely important to stay hydrated on the trail, but it is possible to become over-hydrate. Hyponatremia, which occurs when the salt levels in your blood are too low and the ratio of fluid (serum) to salt is too high can cause increased water retention and cellular inflammation. That includes the cells in your hands!
One of the most common reasons for hyponatremia is drinking too much water and not taking in enough salt. This is especially true during a long hike, where you might be sweating more than usual, but doesn’t mean that you should stop drinking water on your hikes! Instead, make sure to supplement your hydration with added electrolytes.
Additionally, people with certain underlying conditions are more prone to hyponatremia and are more likely to see it manifest during exercise. Common conditions which may make you more susceptible to hyponatremia include kidney dysfunction, heart failure, liver disease, and GI problems with fluid loss as a symptom. People who take diuretic drugs (sometimes called water pills) to help with kidney function are also more likely to have hyponatremia.
Aside from swollen hands, hyponatremia has several other symptoms, many of which are neurologic. Common symptoms include dizziness, headache, confusion, nausea and vomiting, muscle cramps and weakness, irritability, and swelling in other parts of the body. If you have hyponatremia, you will likely display one or more of these symptoms in addition to hand swelling.
Hyponatremia while hiking is extremely rare, and usually occurs in people who are already medically compromised and have a medical condition that affects their body’s electrolyte levels. Most cases of hyponatremia occur in hospital settings, where the condition is common due to medical imbalances and reactions that require medication. While it is useful to know what hyponatremia is, it is also important to remember that your swollen hands are very unlikely to be a symptom of it– it is far more likely that you’re just retaining fluid.
How To Prevent Swollen Hands
Swollen hands, while annoying, are rarely a medically significant problem, but can be uncomfortable and distracting. If you would like to avoid them altogether, several techniques can keep your fingers looking and feeling just like they always do.
Adjust Your Backpack (And Check Your Fit!)
Constriction may make swollen hands worse. Check to make sure that your sleeves, the band of a watch or fitness tracker, bra straps, or other tighter pieces of clothing/accessories aren’t leaving dents in your skin. Dents or red pressure marks are a sure sign that they’re too tight for proper blood flow while exercising.
Rings can also contribute to swelling, and if your fingers swell while you’re wearing a ring, it can be extremely uncomfortable. It’s a good idea to remove any rings while hiking, as well as bracelets. If your hands do swell, they can cause painful pressure and can make it difficult to remove your jewelry.
You should also check your backpack straps. Many people wear them too tightly. If they’re leaving dents in your skin, they can make swelling worse. Try releasing all of the tension from the shoulder straps and readjusting their length from their maximum to keep your pack balanced and comfortable on your back.
Engage Your Arms
When we hike, our hands might swing by our side or hold onto our backpack straps, but they don’t always move around that much. Because blood moves back to the heart with muscle contractions, a simple swing won’t do much. One way to relieve swelling is to do something active with your hands that allows your fingers and arms to bend and move. Hiking poles are a good option for this because using them forces you to engage your arms and make constant adjustments to your finger position.
Some people who hike with poles note that even with heavy, constricting backpacks, they never have swelling when they use poles. This is likely because poles increase movement in your hands, arms, and shoulders and keeps fluid pumping back towards the heart. By using those muscles, as well as your leg muscles, you can avoid swollen hands entirely.
If your hands swell frequently during hiking or walking, you might want to consider a pair of compression gloves to help reduce the swelling. You should choose a light pair with moisture-wicking fabric if you’re hiking in the summer, or a heavier pair if you’re hiking in the winter. Be sure to get gloves that fit snugly, but not too tight.
Check out our review of the FRDM Free Fit glove as these are awesome compression gloves for a wide variety of situations.
Remove Tight Jewelry
Tight jewelry like a wristwatch, rings, or bracelet can potentially affect the blood flow in your hands. Consider removing these items to promote better blood flow.
Because swollen hands during hiking are almost always the result of fluid buildup, pushing that fluid back towards the heart can be a way to prevent swelling– or to help swelling go down if it’s already happened. Here is a brief exercise that can help with fluid retention in your hands.
- Raise your arms above your head. If you can’t do that, find a place to sit down and prop your elbows up above the level of your heart.
- Wiggle and clench your fingers.
- Massage each finger with a gentle wringing motion, pushing down the length of the finger towards the heart.
You should do this for at least a few minutes, but longer may be necessary if the swelling is severe.
If you’re hiking with a heavy backpack, you should also do a pressure relief exercise. This can be done while hiking or while taking a break. This exercise is good because it will contract your muscles and elevate your forearms to aid return flow, and it will also relieve the pressure from the weight of your backpack.
- Place your thumbs at the top of your backpack straps
- Lift them off your shoulders
- Hold your pack off your back until the swelling goes down.
Isotonic Hydration / Hyponatremia Prevention
An electrolyte replacement may be a way to prevent swollen hands, especially if you have a condition that makes you prone to hyponatremia, such as kidney or liver disease. Choose an electrolyte replacement that contains sodium as a primary ingredient if you’re worried about your salt balance. You should be taking hydration with electrolytes on any extended hike or trail run for performance and safety reasons.
Electrolyte drinks, also called isotonic drinks, are a popular way to rehydrate safely. You can always carry a bottle of Pedialyte or Gatorade, but electrolyte drink tablets or powder can easily be added to your water bottle without adding much extra weight to your pack. Nuun makes electrolyte drink tablets that dissolve quickly in your water bottle to help keep you hydrated and balanced, and the tube can be easily tucked away with your gear. Hikers often carry gel packs, gummies, or other electrolyte and carb supplements for hiking nutrition.
If you don’t want to use electrolyte drinks, you can also use electrolyte pills or chewables. SaltStick’s electrolyte chewables come in a variety of fruit flavors and are designed to replace what the body loses through sweat. They dissolve quickly for fast-acting recovery. Key Nutrients’ electrolyte pills can also be a convenient, taste-free option for handy electrolyte replacement. Be sure to check the dosage to see what’s recommended for your age and activity level.
While these are great, here are some of our favorites:
- We always carry gatorade on our long hikes due to the great carb, sugar, and electrolyte balance for optimal performance.
- We also always have gel packs from Honey Stinger, Clif, or other brands that.
- Gummies are our favorites, and we occasionally carry waffles.
- For emergencies, we often carry salt packets, or mustard packets for a quick sodium boost if cramping is occuring.
Have any other tips to add? Let us know.
Max DesMarais is the founder of Hiking & Fishing. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. You can read more about him here: hikingandfishing/about