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Why Do Hands Swell on Long Hikes? Causes of Fat Fingers

Read Time: Approximately 9 minutes

Hiking is a great way to get in some exercise and enjoy the outdoors. Unfortunately, many people experience swelling of their hands when they hike for long periods of time. What causes this? Read on to find out why your hands swell when you hike!

A hiker ends up with swollen hands due to the body and blood vessels having to manage increased energy demands while controlling the core body temperature. In nearly all cases this is harmless and more of an irritant until your body gets its temperature under control.

Now we can talk about why you have swelling when hiking and why it is more than just a nuisance but also frequently not dangerous or deadly. There are quite a lot of reasons why swelling can occur, lets take a look at the most common causes when out on a hiking trail.

Is It Safe for Your Health if Your Hands Swell?

Overall, many people who do any physical activity may have issues with their hands swelling to some level, and while there are many causes they are all typically rarely dangerous to your health.

For most hikers any swelling can be managed or avoideed with a few simple tweaks and adjustments which we speak about in more detail about below and doesn’t impact your ability to still make miles on a thru-hike.

The bigger worry would be if is happens over a long-term, either never stopping or continuously repeating even when doing all the steps to lower or eliminate it, at this point you should speak with your doctor to identify the cause of the problem.

Will It Impact Your Hiking Performance if They Swell?

 As long as you can manage uncomfortableness, which I swear is just in a thru-hikers bones, you would not typically expect any performance impact to speed and distance traveled.

For some they might be impacted more in the first weeks as they adjust to eating and drinking, and in general keeping their body electrolyte balance maintained while working out nearly 10-16 hours a day.

While hiking, each section from town to town with swollen hands constantly is not a good practice nor idea, since it will take days to complete each part. So I suggest if you have issues consistently to make use of trekking poles and to check how you backpack is sitting.

Furthermore, going for walks is an excellent method to increase your mental and physical health while hiking with swollen hands and sausage fingers may make you appear unwell its not a show stopper at all.

Lets dig into reasons why you have issues with swelling, you can then use this information to make changes in your approach to lead to happier hikes!

Reasons For Swelling

There are many common reasons why you have swelling while trail-walking. You should be aware that if swelling is accompanied by other symptoms then you may have a more serious condition and should see your doctor right away to check for the following reasons why hands swell while hiking:

Fluid Retention or Build Up

This is the most common issue most hikers will encounter as it is typically due to constriction faced by the veins and arteries. For those without a degree in biology, like myself, the blood pumps to your hands through your shoulders down the arms to get to your hands.

Once this blood reaches your fingers the oxygen is delivered to the cells and the deoxygenated (blue appearance under the skin) returns to the heart to be oxygenated once again for a new trip via the veins.

This transport typically can work without issue but when you obstruct these paths you can get issues either in the artery and pumping out of blood or the veins to return the blood. Many times for hikers this will be wearing a poorly fitted backpack that rides hard on your shoulders and impedes the path of bloodflow in both directions.

Is it true that compression on your blood vessels will this cause swollen fingers? It’s improbable. This compression at the shoulders affects both the arteries’ and veins’ circulation. It is much more similar to putting a tourniquet on to prevent fluid from flowing correctly in both directions.

Hyponatremia (Electrolyte Imbalance)

This issue is by far the most common issue on the trail for those who consume excessive fluids and can become very serious if not managed correctly, so why is this?

When you consume liquids, whether this is water, coffee, energy drinks, or other beverages they can and will directly impact the amount of electrolytes in the bloodstream.

The most common one people know about a little is sodium, the dangers of sodium can be two-fold: too much water and not enough sodium. A high amount of sweat and or urination an cause a large amount of sodium loss which will show itself in nausea, fatigue, and swollen hands and fingers.

If you should be one of those who loves to camel up and drink loads of water you may cause the overall sodium level in your blood to drop dangerously without knowing it, this is part of why hiker foods are good to be high in sodium in the first place.

Additionally to sodium there are two other electrolytes that probably are less of a concern but can be supplemented if you need, like someone on a keto diet may require. I personally like to use LMNT packets, they have theiitems on Amazon and can be Prime delivered incredibly fast.

To stay in equilibrium, we must maintain a delicate balance between water and electrolytes. When you only consume water, though, you don’t receive enough salt to keep the system functioning properly. Excess water vs. electrolytes is referred to as Hyponatremia, which implies that there isn’t enough sodium in the body fluids.

Symptoms Of Hyponatremia

Hyponatremia symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • loss of energy
  • restlessness
  • muscle spasms/weakness/cramps
  • seizures
  • coma

Allergens

There are various outdoor allergens that can cause an allergic reaction, such as swelling in the hands or other areas of the body. Several plants, such as poison ivy, oak, and sumac, are common plants that may induce skin allergy and discomfort when hiking.

Wearing a long-sleeve top and pants might aid in the reduction of contact related allergic reactions.

Jewelry

Wearing tight jewelry, such as watches, bracelets, and rings, might make the first symptoms of swelling more unpleasant and apparent. You should leave your valuable objects at home to avoid the risk along with they hold no use on the trail to your success but can always be lost or stolen.

Options and Methods to Prevent Swelling

There are some simple tweaks you can do to help cut down on issues related to swelling that aren’t complicated. Each of these can help but together they can make you as defended as possible to being out on the trail!

Remove Unecessary Jewelry

The simplest step as it is not needed on the trail and effortless to take off, items like bracelets, necklaces, and rings serve no purpose on the trail but hikers will frequently forget to remove them prior to hiking out.

Your muscles and all of your body’s cells increase in size after hours of exercise, which can lead to uncomfortable tension in any jewelry like your rings or bracelets on your fingers and wrists.

Those tight accessories may restrict blood circulation to your hands, causing them to puff up and even become numb. Although you might detect the problem straight away, removing those pieces before your fingers and hands have already swollen is difficult.

Therefore, remember to take them off before you hike. If you don’t, you will want to remove soon but note they could be easily lost from a backpack.

Check and Adjust Your Backpack Fit

Many new hikers will unintentionally fit their backpacks incorrectly leading to discomfort and pain during the hike. One of the most common issues is having a backpack that’s too big or small for your frame, which can cause abnormal strain on different parts of your body.

When you’re picking out your pack, make sure to get one that fits comfortably and snugly against your back. The shoulder straps should hold tight into the shoulder area enough so that the pack doesn’t move around when you walk, but not so tight that they dig into your skin.

A properly fitted backpack isn’t just important for avoiding pain; it can also help prevent swelling in other areas of your body. When you don’t have a pack that fits, the weight of it will put pressure on your shoulders which can cause them to swell.

Use Those Trekking/Hiking Poles

This will engage your arms and upper body as you use them to hike uphill and downhill. This added resistance will help keep the blood flowing evenly throughout your body, preventing any one area from becoming overwhelmed with fluid.

This movement can help you push any slow returning blood back instead of relying on the vascular system to manage it alone. In addition, using poles can actually reduce fatigue in your legs, meaning you’ll be less likely to experience swelling later on in your hike.

Compression Gloves

If you have constant hand swelling issues then you might want to invest in a good pair of compression gloves. These gloves will help to keep the blood flowing evenly throughout your hands, preventing them from becoming too puffy.

Wearing compression gloves can also help to reduce fatigue in your hands, which can lead to less swelling later on in your hike.

Hand Exercises

Practicing hand exercises like opening and closing will help to keep the blood flowing through your hands and fingers. This will help to prevent any fluid from building up, keeping them healthy and happy on your hike!

Add Electrolytes To Water

One of the easiest things you can do on a hike is add some form of electrolytes to your water when you are drinking, though if just after you ate food you may have more than enough sodium for awhile depending on the food you ate.

Some good options for trail packed in electrolytes:

  • LMNT (Havent Seen in Stores)
  • Nuun (Grocery Stores)

This will ensure that you are replacing the lost fluids and minerals from sweating, and will also help to prevent any swelling from occurring. If you are hiking in a hot climate, any large physical exercise or exertion will make it especially important to make sure you are drinking enough fluids and adding electrolytes to them, as dehydration can lead to even more swelling.

The other way will be to make sure you have a wide assortment of salty snacks which can help you, or you can look into sports drinks if in town trying to refresh yourself. 

Final Thoughts on Swelling Hands on a Hike

The question around “why do my hands swell” is one of the most common questions asked by hikers. The main reasons for this are loss in sodium content due in part to a high amount sweat and or urination, too much water consumption, and then items like allergies on hikes such as poison ivy oak and sumac.

In addition, wearing tight clothing along with jewlery which can cause allergic reactions in some people with sensitive skin or who wear too tight of jewelry which can make the body swell as needed due to lack of blood flow.

There are many things you can do before going out on your next long hike that will help reduce swelling in your hands: remove unnecessary jewelry like bracelets rings etc., check and adjust backpack fit if needed, use trekking poles even if they seem inconvenient at first; wear compression gloves to make sure those fingers don’t get cut off circulation; hand exercises before hiking.