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Why Do My Hands Swell When I Hike or Walk? Learn From Experts

why do my hands swell when i hike

Having hands that swell after hiking or walking is a prevalent problem that many people experience. When you hike, the position you place your hands in usually makes the swelling problem worse or more noticeable.

I’ve been asked many times by fellow hikers why their hands and fingers are swelling after a long hike or walk, so I decided to dig into and ask doctors and professionals how and why this is happening.

Read on to learn more about why hands and fingers are swollen after hiking or walking and what to do to reduce the inflammation.

Why Do Hands Swell When Hiking or Walking?

hikers using poles to prevent swollen hands
Courtesy of Kitty Terwolbeck @ Flickr

When you hike, your heart increases the blood flow to certain areas of your body, such as muscles and lungs, and parts of your body you don’t use as much during the hike or walk (hands and fingers), will experience a decrease in blood flow and will swell. 

Generally, when people walk or hike, they swing their hands down at their sides. This position places them well below your heart, so the blood must then work against gravity to get back up to the heart.

If you’re wearing a backpack while you hike, it will further pronounce this effect, as the backpack’s straps also put pressure on the blood vessels leading back to your heart. 

Some people also notice swollen hands when they hike in the heat due to the body not adequately regulating its temperature. Your body usually cools itself with perspiration.

However, sometimes you may experience a fluid imbalance that could lead to excess fluids in the tissues and swelling. Usually, this reaction occurs when you drink too much water or other liquids and sweat a lot.

These actions disrupt the balance of sodium in the bloodstream, something called Hyponatremia.

When Hyponatremia causes your swelling, you will generally experience other symptoms besides puffy hands, such as fatigue, dizziness, and nausea.

Why Do Fingers Swell When Hiking? 

hiking using trekking poles
Courtesy of Axel Magard @ Flickr

Fingers swell when hiking because of the blood flow to your hands during the hike. Since you are not using your fingers very much and just hanging them down, they aren’t getting as much blood flow as usual. Your blood vessels in this area open up, which causes your fingers to swell. 

Keep in mind that other factors, such as jewelry and your backpack straps, can also exacerbate the swelling that you experience in your fingers. A tight watch, wedding ring, or bracelet restricts blood flow even more.

They will also make you notice the signs of swelling earlier and can make the swelling feel even more uncomfortable. Removing these items before starting your hike is a good idea.

You do not want to be in the middle of a trail, and your wedding ring starts to feel like it is cutting off your circulation. At that point, you will not be able to remove it, negatively affecting your hiking experience. 

How Do I Stop My Hands From Swelling During Hiking? 

hiking using poles
Courtesy of Ed and Eddie @ Flickr

To help prevent or lessen swelling during hiking, ensure that you are rotating your arms regularly and stretching your fingers. Try hiking with poles, and remove any tight jewelry (such as rings) before your hike.

Your hiking poles help prevent swelling because they actively keep you moving your arms while you walk and promote better circulation, not only through the arms and hands but also the rest of your body.

If you don’t have poles or don’t like to use them, make sure you consciously rotate your arms in both forward and backward circles throughout your hike. You can also stretch your fingers and make them into fists at regular intervals. 

What we recommend is to lose your backpack straps.

If you suspect that your hands feel swollen due to the start of Hyponatremia because of other symptoms, like brain fog, nausea, or headache, start cutting back on your fluid intake and eat a few salty snacks to replenish your sodium.

Remember to drink only when you feel thirsty. If those steps do not help with the other symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible. You may need to receive electrolytes via an IV to solve the issue.

Finally, ensure that you have packed your backpack correctly so that it is not too heavy, ideally no more than 20 percent of your body weight.

Secure the hip belt on your pack as well, as it helps distribute the weight evenly and lessens the pressure on your shoulders. 

Related Articles:

How to Reduce Inflammation After Hiking? 

massage to reduce hands inflammation
Courtesy of DH1JM @ Flickr

Your hands should start to return to normal soon after you finish hiking and your body starts to cool down. Make sure you rehydrate yourself and replace the fluids you lost.

You may want to consider an electrolyte drink. You can also take pain relievers or anti-inflammatories, such as Advil if the inflammation bothers you. 

However, if your hands still swell after walking or hiking, ensure that you are cooling down properly after your hike. Proper cool down means that you do not abruptly stop the activity but slowly move around until your body is ready to stop.  

You can also continue to do hand and finger exercises after you’ve stopped hiking to increase the blood flow to the area and help reduce the inflammation.

Gently massaging the hands and fingers may help as well. If the edema in your hands takes longer than expected to return to normal, you can try taking medication to reduce the discomfort. 

Our Recommendation

To prevent hands and fingers from swelling during a hike, you should:

  • Remove your rings and bracelets
  • Stretch your hands and fingers
  • Use hiking poles when hiking as it promotes better circulation through the arms
  • Secure the backpack hip belt properly to distribute the weight evenly.