Why Do My Hands Swell When I Hike?

Ever wondered, “why do my hands swell when I hike”? In this post, we aim to answer your question and provide some tips for preventing sausage fingers and crab claws!

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Hands Swelling Up When You Go Hiking?

Wondering why your hands swell up while hiking?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • The answer to ‘why do my hands swell when I hike?’
    • Common causes for swollen hands and fingers
    • Tips for managing and reducing swelling in hands when hiking

If you’ve ever looked down and noticed your hands and fingers swelling while hiking, don’t worry.

Swollen hands and fingers are common while exercising and they don’t happen on the trail alone. There are many reasons why your hands and fingers swell while hiking and most of them aren’t a major health concern, they are something to be aware of and something that can be mitigated with a little bit of know-how.

Below are some of the reasons why you’re prone to swollen hands while hiking and backpacking along with some useful tips for preventing this pesky problem.

Why Do My Hands Swell When I Hike? 7 Causes and Remedies

Cause #1: Blood Vessel Expansion

As you start hiking, your circulatory system begins to pump more blood to your heart, lungs, and leg muscles to accommodate their demands for more oxygen. 

Extremities like your hands and fingers start to feel left out, so their blood vessels expand in size as a means of snagging some of this increased blood flow. This rapid and increased blood flow to your hands causes the hand swelling that is so common while hiking. 

Close up of hikers hands holding trekking poles
Swollen fingers and hands are a common experience for hikers.

Remedy

To prevent this sort of swelling, make sure you’re not doing anything that restricts blood flow to your hands while on a hike or otherwise engaging in physical activity.

Start by removing tight jewelry like rings and loosening your watch band.

Rotate your arms in large forward and backward circles while you walk as this can help ease symptoms and prevent swollen fingers and hands. 

Make fists and wiggle your digits throughout your hike to promote circulation.

Use trekking poles to keep your hands moving and get your blood flowing. 

hiker using trekking pole
Using trekking poles can prevent swelling because it keeps the hands moving and gets the blood flowing.

Cause #2: Tight Backpack Straps

If your digits start to puff up while hiking, check that the shoulder straps of your pack aren’t too tight. 

If your hip belt or shoulder straps are too tight or restrictive, blood will pool in the hands and lower legs. This can lead to something called “exercise-induced peripheral edema” which is just a fancy way of saying you have a decreased supply of blood to your hands or legs. 

Remedy

Prevention starts before you hit the trail. Make sure you know the proper way to wear a pack and hipbelt and make sure the weight is evenly distributed across your pack. Check back regularly throughout your trek to make sure your straps are still comfortably in place. 

If your pack is heavy, use hiking poles as they can help shift the weight off your shoulders with every step. 

If you’re unsure about proper pack fit, get a professional backpack fitting at an outdoor retailer.

hiker and a backpack
Always make sure that the straps of your pack aren’t too tight.

Cause #3: Hyponatremia and Electrolyte Imbalance 

Another common cause of swollen hands is incorrect electrolyte balance (aka fluid imbalance). 

As you work out, your body sweats out water and electrolytes in order to regulate body temperature and promote heat loss. The problem is that water alone cannot replace the electrolytes lost. This electrolyte imbalance can lead to swollen paws along with other symptoms like sore muscles and cramping. 

There is a rare health condition that also causes swelling called hyponatremia, which is essentially just an abnormally low amount of sodium in your blood. You typically see this in endurance athletes whose blood becomes diluted because there’s simply too much water in the blood and not enough sodium. 

Symptoms of hyponatremia include nausea, headache, confusion, muscle contractions, and sometimes, hand swelling. Hyponatremia can be fatal, so seek medical attention immediately if it’s suspected (but remember that it’s exceptionally rare so don’t freak out just because your fingers swell!) 

Remedy

While you should always bring plenty of water while hiking, hydration should be done in moderation. Take regular drinks rather than chugging and use common sense – if you’re a heavy sweater, you’ll need more water and electrolytes than your non-clammy friends. 

hiker hydrating
If you sweat heavily, you’ll need more electrolytes and water.

On a long hike or during a hot day, make sure you eat enough salt (salty snacks like nuts are ideal!) to replenish your electrolytes. Another option is to eat juicy fruits like lemons or grapefruits, which are a great source of calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Otherwise, take the easy option and throw an electrolyte tab in your water bottle.

If you start to feel fatigued, confused, or have severe muscle pain, stop hiking, find shade, and rest. 

Cause #4: Menstrual Hormones

You can add water retention to the long list of annoying problems caused by menstruation!

Water retention occurs when fluids build in the body. Most women experience this every month before their period, although diet might also play a role. It can cause both your hands and fingers to swell along with, well, everything else in the body! 

woman hiking in the wild
Women’s monthly visit can also cause the hands and fingers to swell up.

Remedy

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to reduce swelling caused by menstrual hormones. Sometimes the only treatment is to just wait it out. You can, however, try reducing salty foods before your period as diet is sometimes a factor.

Taking magnesium supplements might also help with water retention and other PMS symptoms – just make sure to speak to your doctor first. 

Cause #5: Swinging Your Arms (Centrifugal Force)

Suffering from swollen hands and fingers while hiking? Believe it or not, you might simply be moving your arms around too much! 

When you swing your arms, centrifugal force causes the fluid in your body to push outward towards your extremities. Combine this with other factors like heat and altitude, and you might be dealing with some serious swelling. 

Remedy

The best way to prevent swelling, in this case, is to keep your arms moving at a steady and constant pace. For instance, holding a hiking pole in each hand is a great way to keep your arms engaged without too much swinging. 

Group of hikers trekking up a hill
Moving your hands around too much can also create swelling due to centrifugal forces!

Cause #6: Altitude

Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS) is another cause of swollen fingers and hands. At high altitudes, breathing becomes more difficult as your body can not take in as much oxygen. This can quickly become a medical emergency if ignored. 

Symptoms of altitude sickness usually start occurring 2,500m above sea level, although your age, sex, and physical fitness level all affect your likelihood of getting sick. Symptoms are often described as having a bad hangover – think headache, nausea, and dizziness – but can also include swollen fingers and hands, and shortness of breath. 

Remedy

You can prevent high altitude sickness by reaching higher altitudes slowly, giving your body enough time to adjust. Climb to higher altitudes gradually and try to climb only 1,000 feet of altitude per day. The golden rule is for every 3,000 feet of altitude gained, give your body at least a day to rest and acclimatize. Going any higher will only make the problem worse.

If you develop severe signs of altitude sickness such as confusion, shortness of breath, or inability to walk, it’s time to seek medical attention immediately. 

Man using trekking poles-to-walk uphill over rocky terrain
Ascending higher altitudes more slowly allows your body to better acclimatise.

Cause #7: Humidity and/or Cold Weather

The weather and humidity levels can also play a role in hand swelling. In hot weather, the body tries to cool itself by pushing more blood close to the surface where it can release heat. This causes blood vessels to expand, so warm blood and body fluid move into those vessels, causing swelling and fluid retention. 

Remedy 

While this type of swelling is certainly an uncomfortable feeling, it is not dangerous. If it bothers you, moving workouts to cooler parts of the day can help decrease your likelihood of this swelling occurring. 

Make sure you’re always prepared for hiking in the heat by bringing enough water and salty snacks and taking regular breaks in the shade. 

hiker resting
Hiking in humid weather can also result in hand swelling.

Final Thoughts

There you have it! Follow these tips and inflated hands when hiking will be a thing of the past! 

We hope this guide has answered the question, “why do my hands swell while hiking”? We’ve got lots of other handy guides on common hiking questions, so be sure to check them out!

If you’ve still got burning questions, feel free to fire them off in the comments below. Happy hiking! 

Last update on 2022-10-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Jolanda is a full-time writer and life-long outdoor enthusiast. Growing up on a small island off the Eastern Canadian coast, she spent most of her childhood hiking, swimming and fishing in the Atlantic ocean.

After a short stint in the corporate world, Jolanda quit her day job to write full-time and check out what lies beyond the Canadian shores. Ever since, she’s been hiking, biking and kayaking her way across 11 European countries and counting.

Jolanda currently lives in the beautiful, Tuscan countryside. When she isn’t hanging out in the woods or at the beach, you’ll catch her foraging for mushrooms and truffles with her truffle-dog, Red.

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