Hiking events

Swollen fingers while hiking? Here’s how to fix it

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I have chronic circulation issues – it doesn’t take long for my extremities to turn purple and icy cold – so I’m always on the defensive when it comes to exercise-related hand and foot care. While hiking, my fingers sometimes swell and stiffen, feeling like “sausage fingers”. There is no specific cause for this phenomenon; Swollen hands and fingers are your body’s response to the physical stressors that come with hiking. Here are some of the reasons they might get stiff and swollen on the trail, along with tips on how to fix them.

Expansion of blood vessels

On the trail, your blood flows primarily to your heart, lungs and leg muscles, which means your hands don’t get as much blood as usual. This can lead to swollen fingers as your blood vessels open wide to let in as much blood as possible.

The fix: While hiking, note if you do anything to restrict blood flow to your hands, such as keeping your fists closed for long periods of time or arching your back. According to Dr. Edward Laskowski, skier, hiker, cyclist, mountaineer, and co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, there are several things you can do to relieve swollen hand symptoms when they occur:

  • Remove tight jewelry (rings, bracelets, etc.) and loosen your watch strap before hiking. If you forgot, you can use sunscreen or lip balm to help the rings slide on swollen fingers. Or, save yourself the trouble and opt for these anti-puff silicone rings.
  • Rotate your arm in large circles forward and backward as you walk.
  • Stretch your fingers and clench your fists several times throughout the hike to promote circulation.

Hiking with trekking poles helps keep your hands moving and reduces the risk of swollen fingers. (Photo: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

Tight backpack straps

Blood carries oxygen from your heart and throughout your body, but anything that gets in the way of that flow can cause blood to pool in your hands. A backpack strap that’s too tight prevents blood from getting from your shoulder to the rest of your body. Think of it like when you crimp or step on a pipe; it blocks the regular flow of water. This fluid imbalance leads to peripheral edema: the swelling of your lower legs and hands because something has interrupted the regular flow of fluids in your body.

The fix: No need to stress. Your hands will start to taper back to normal once you’ve finished hiking. If you experience discomfort while hiking, use Dr. Laskowski’s advice above.

Before hitting the trails, learn how to prepare your backpack and carry it correctly. For night hikes, it should not exceed 20% of your body weight, and for day hikes, keep it below 10%. Use your belt to evenly distribute the weight of the bag instead of putting all the pressure on your shoulders and chest. If you are unsure of weight distribution or pack fit, visit your nearest outdoor retailer and have your backpack fitted for you.

Then get out your trekking poles. They help prevent swelling as they keep your arms moving and promote better circulation throughout the body. Keeping your arms hanging by your sides as you ascend inhibits circulation. If your pack is heavy, using poles helps shift the weight off your shoulders with each step.

Asian woman drinking water from plastic bottle while hiking
Symptoms of hyponatremia can look a lot like dehydration, so some hikers mistakenly drink more water and make the problem worse. (Photo: Boy_Anupong via Getty Images)


Sometimes endurance athletes such as hikers and marathon runners accidentally dilute their body’s sodium levels when they drink too much water without adding salt. Low sodium levels mean that your body’s water levels increase and your cells expand. Swelling is one symptom, but it’s not the most important or the most dangerous, since hyponatremia causes nausea, headaches, confusion and fatigue. This one is serious: if you feel nauseous, confused, or unreasonably tired, seek medical attention immediately.

The fix: It depends on the severity of the condition. In mild cases, you should reduce your fluid intake. Christopher Tedeschi, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University and a columnist for Backpacker, says there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to hydration, but there are universal ground rules that all the world should follow: “Instead of drinking as much water as you can, use common sense.” Drink if you are thirsty. Salty snacks are helpful along the way if you drink plenty of water on hot days. If you experience nausea, headaches, brain fog, or muscle cramps while hiking, you may need an IV electrolyte or specific medication.

Menstrual hormones

If coping with your period wasn’t fun enough, your rapidly changing hormones during PMS could also cause your fingers and hands to swell. Fluid retention is a common symptom that people deal with in the days leading up to the period itself.

The fix: Track how you feel throughout your menstrual cycle. If you’re reporting swollen hands and fingers at home, take precautions if you’re hiking the trails during PMS or around the time in your cycle when these symptoms appear.