How to Keep Hands from Swelling While Walking & Hiking

hands swelling when hiking


Have you ever been in the middle of CRUSHING a hike when you realize you’ve got some seriously swollen hands? Ugh. Those sausage fingers are the worst!

Hand swelling can look scary and be super uncomfortable too. But if it only happens during exercise, it’s usually NBD. Several factors can cause swollen fingers and hands when hiking, but the good news is, your Explorer Chick fam has tons of handy (*wink*) tips to prevent it from happening.

We’ll take ya through why hands swell, when it’s a serious issue, and all the best tricks to combat swelling before it starts.

What's Causing My Hands to Swell?

There isn’t always a clear reason why your hands and fingers swell while walking—even though there’s a term to describe it. It’s called post-ambulatory swollen hands (POTASH). This condition exclusively refers to swelling that occurs for a short period and is related to ambulatory activity (walking, hiking, running, etc.).

A super important element of POTASH is that your swelling should naturally resolve a few hours after you stop hiking. The condition is way understudied, so we don’t know exactly why it happens, but there are a few potential explanations. What we do know is that it’s more common in women. Sigh.

Also, note that hand swelling could signal a different medical condition. So even if your puffy hands are isolated from exercise, it’s always best to consult a health care practitioner about any body changes you’re concerned about.


Exercise-Related Metabolic Changes

Moving your body boosts blood flow to your lungs, heart, and all those other muscles that you’re working. And while more blood is heading to those vital areas, there’s a decrease in flow to your hands, which you aren’t using as much.

Even if you’re swinging your arms while hiking, these limbs are still less actively involved than other body parts. So to help balance out these circulation changes, the blood vessels in your hands and fingers may open up, causing swelling in your extremities.

This condition is known as peripheral edema. It sounds scary, but edema is just swelling caused by fluid pooling in tissue. With a bit of rest, most hikers experiencing exercise induced peripheral edema will see their fingers return to normal shortly.


Hot or Cold Triggered Vasodilation

Your hands may warm or cool while you work your muscles—and both of these could cause swelling.

Because your hand muscles don’t receive the same blood flow as your legs, heart, and lungs while hiking, your fingers get cold. This process causes your blood vessels to dilate to promote circulation, making the tissue in your hands swell.

But since your muscles generate heat while exercising, it’s possible that your blood vessels also expand as your body attempts to remove excess warmth by sweating. Especially in hot weather! And this too may result in fluid build up and, you guessed it, swollen hands.


Restricted Circulation

Betcha didn’t think good ol’ gravity would cause fluid pooling in your limbs! But, if your arms are by your sides as you climb, it can cause too much blood to land in your fingers and hands.

Other, more literal things restrict circulation too. For example, carpal tunnel, Raynaud’s phenomenon, and even tight clothing can impact swelling!


High Altitudes

If you’re here, you’re probably familiar with altitude sickness. Maybe you’ve even experienced it yourself! Nausea, lightheadedness, and swollen fingers are all common symptoms caused by rapid elevation gain.

Changes in air pressure and oxygen lead to fluid retention, but it usually doesn’t set in until 6 to 24 hours after your ascent. So it’s something to stay aware of during multi-day hiking but may not show up during shorter climbs.

What’s the best way to prevent altitude sickness? Go slow!


Hyponatremia (Electrolyte Imbalance)

Hyponatremia is an extremely rare condition for hikers but a critical one to watch for. This serious medical issue, caused by unusually low sodium levels in the body, is a type of dehydration. If hand swelling is your only symptom, you’re unlikely to be experiencing hyponatremia. But it is concerning if it’s paired with other signs like vomiting, muscle spasms, or confusion.

When treating hyponatremia, drink plenty of electrolyte rich fluids. Consuming too much water will make the problem worse, so toss some sports drink powders or tabs in your bag and mix them into your water bottle throughout long hikes.

Hyponatremia is more common in endurance athletes like marathon runners, but it’s always best to be careful on the trails!


Previous Injury

Have you ever injured one of your arms or hands before? Maybe had a break or sprain? How about surgery, heart attack, or stroke? Traumas like this can cause complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a type of chronic pain that can lead to hand swelling.

CRPS is pretty rare and typically accompanied by other symptoms besides swelling when hiking. Look for redness, pain, hypersensitivity, and skin temperature changes, and seek medical attention if you believe you have CRPS to begin early treatment.


How To Prevent Swelling Hands When Hiking

We won’t let some swollen fingers get ya down! Hands swelling when hiking is a common problem, and we’re here with all the best tips to prevent swollen fingers before you’ve gone full sausage mode.

Many of these come personally recommended by the EC gals, but it’s all about what works for you. So try a few tricks out and see which you find most helpful.

You’ll get back on the trails in no time!


Try Trekking Poles


use trekking poles to prevent hand swelling when hiking


Hiking poles are a wildly popular hit among the Explorer Chick community. We’ve got some serious hiker gals in the group, and many swear by this.

Gripping a hiking pole keeps your arms and fingers actively engaged, bending, and moving around, which requires more muscle contractions than just swinging your arms. It’s a great way to promote circulation!

Plus, a lil extra stability on some rocky terrain never hurt anyone.


traverse trekking poles

Pick Up Some Pebbles

If you don’t have hiking poles on ya, grab some rocks for a quick fix. Gripping something promotes muscle contractions and can prevent swollen hands. Just try to stretch them out now and then too!

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

It’s crucial to keep your hydration up on the trails—and that means drinking more than just water. Too much H2O can cause a fluid imbalance where you’ve got too much fluid (water) and not enough salt in your bod.

Because you lose both water and electrolytes when sweating, you’ve gotta make sure you replace both. Mix in a sports drink or two! This will help prevent swelling on a long hike and replenish your minerals.


chewable electrolyte tablets

Get Your Fingers and Hands Moving

Encourage blood flow to your fingers by raising your arms above your head and getting them moving. Shake out those extremities! Wiggle your fingers or massage them from the tip towards your hand—almost like you’re milking them. And regularly stretch those fingers wide and clench them into fists while hiking if you don’t have poles to use.

Elevating and engaging your arms limits gravity-induced fluid from collecting in the hands.

Wear Looser Clothing and Accessories

Since swelling is tied to reduced circulation, choosing loose clothing that doesn’t further restrict blood flow is best. Sorry, compression shirt lovers! Skip tightly-fitted tops or bra straps, and if you’re carrying a backpack, adjust those shoulder straps. Ideally, your backpack should feel tension-free and still sit comfortably against your body.

Oh! And this applies to other accessories too. Remove tight jewelry, loosen fitness tracker bands, and even hair ties. You want all the blood flow you can get! But if you forget, get ’em off as soon as you remember to prevent swelling from worsening. And pro tip: a bit of sunscreen or lip balm can help you remove rings if they get stuck on your sausage fingers!

Lighten Your Load

Just like tight backpack straps can constrict your circulation, a heavy backpack does the same. So before you head off, Marie Kondo your bag. But if it’s too late and you’re already on your way, lighten the weight off your shoulders by placing your thumb under each of the backpack straps until the swelling subsides.

Grab Some Gloves

Compression gloves work wonders to reduce swelling. It might seem counterintuitive to apply this light pressure to your veins, but it actually promotes healthy circulation. It’s different from the construction you get with too-tight clothing or shoulder straps!


Pause Your Hike

If you’re ever concerned about having swollen hands and fingers while hiking, pausing your trek is the safest bet. Most acute swelling should remedy itself within a few hours of rest. So worst case, just take a break!

Ready to Get Hiking?

Developing sausage fingers while hiking is pretty common. Many EC gals experience it too! And often, it’s no big deal. Whether you’re with a group of badass Explorer Chicks or venturing solo, keep checking in with yourself and trusting your own awareness of your body.


Related Posts

8 Best Instagrammable Yosemite Photo Spots
8 Best Instagrammable Yosemite Photo Spots

If you’re on your way to Yosemite and want to make sure you snap the best shots in the park, here are 8 locations you'll want to hit.

Hiking, Instagram, North America, Photography, United States, Yosemite National Park

Training Tips for Half Dome Hiking
Training Tips for Half Dome Hiking

Those who have hiked Half Dome already know the absolute magic of the entire journey. But training for half dome is essential.

Backpacking, Hiking, Inspiration, National Parks, North America, Training, United States, Yosemite National Park

7 Benefits of Traveling Solo
7 Benefits of Traveling Solo

Inspiration, Self Discovery