Tag Archives: hiking

Why your hands swell while hiking: the real reason

The myths of why hands swell while hiking

You’re five miles into a hike with a group of friends. You’ve never been hiking before and it sounded adventurous and fun and a great way to to get out and have fun with friends, enjoy being outside, and relax for a bit. And you’re having a great time with the exception of a weird feeling in your hands. Your wedding ring and watch are getting tight and your skin feels taut. Your arms feel bloated and you look down and sure enough you’ve got big old sausage fingers. Are you dying? Do you need to turn around and race to the hospital? Maybe you have cell service and after you post a quick pic to insta you do a quick WebMD search. It says you have heart failure or this weird thing called thrombosis. Now you’re worried and want to go back so you can do more internet searching before you head to the ER. When you get home you dig deeper in your internet searching and get more specific. Instead of just searching hand swelling, you search had hands swell while hiking and find an Outside Magazine article, where you may learn that you’re suffering from hyponatremia. You find a facebook thread of loads of confident expert internet commenters recommending the cure-all tip of hydration or electrolytes.

But nearly all this information you’ll find is absolutely, jarringly, painfully wrong, so I hope this article becomes the one to top out on the google searches so maybe some people will learn the real answer, and learn a real solution. You don’t have heart failure, you’re not alone, and you don’t need to hydrate.

The real reason your hands are swelling

The reason your fingers are swelling is multifaceted but actually pretty simple. Before I explain I just want to clarify again that you’re fine, it happens to everyone and it’s totally normal and reversible.

The vasculature in your body is just a giant network of leaky plumbing. Imagine your body being a greenhouse with a sprinkler hose with hundreds of little holes running through it. The water that didn’t leave the hose is simply looped back around, much like your veins bring blood back to your heart. That hose brings essential fluid to the plants in that garden. Your vasculature in your arm is very similar to that garden hose. It runs down your arm, releases water into that tissue, and the excess water drains back to be recycled. When you step on that garden hose, aka put backpack straps on your upper arms, it increases pressure and increases the rate of that fluid shooting out of the uncountable tiny holes in the hose.

This is one cause of the swelling. Another cause is that the backpack straps essentially dam up the return flow like putting a wall in the trough. Now imagine there’s a drainage trough alongside the garden which returns the excess water from the soil to a pool where it can be recycled back into the hose to continue watering the plants. That is comparable to something in your body called the lymphatic system, which, much like a drainage trough, is a series of ducts which drain extra water in that extravascular space and recycles it back to your heart. By clamping down on those lymphatic ducts with backpack straps, it dams the trough, preventing fluid from draining from that extravascular space.

There’s another thing at play though. And if you’ve ever hiked with trekking poles while still wearing a hand swelling inducing backpack, you may be able to reason through that there has to be something else going on by the fact that trekking poles totally fix the problem. When we hike with trekking poles, even if we have the heaviest of backpack straps constricting our upper arms and shoulders, we don’t experience the swelling really at all. So it can’t just be the backpack straps causing it, especially since some people have this issue without wearing a backpack at all.

Something interesting about the cardiovascular system is that the blood pumping through our arteries, the big pulsating vessels we feel when we check our pulse, are almost entirely pumped by the heart. The heart contracts, much like squeezing a balloon full of water, and blood comes out of the hole. However, when the blood is returning back to the heart to be cycled again the blood is to a significant degree pumped because of contracting muscles in our limbs. They have one way valves in them so when we contract a muscle that is wrapped around a vein, it pumps the blood forward. And when that contraction ceases, the blood is unable to flow backwards. That repetitive contraction of our legs and arms pushes the blood forward, back to our heart. The reason we don’t experience edema in our legs on long hikes isn’t simply because of no backpack straps compressing the vasculature, but mostly because of our constantly contracting and relaxing leg muscles. When we use trekking poles, we continually contract the muscles in our arms and push that blood back toward the heart, preventing pooling by overcoming those barriers created by the backpack straps.

Additionally the trekking poles also likely benefit the swelling by shifting our shoulders frequently, releasing the pressure of the backpack straps on the upper arms, even if just for a second at a time. There could be an electrolyte component to it, but I find it exceedingly unlikely that this is a primary cause because the swelling would be consistent throughout the body, including the face, and I’ve only ever experienced and heard of people having swelling in their arms. Additionally, it takes a tremendous blow to knock the body’s electrolyte balance off. The body is very good at maintaining electrolytes in the blood in a very narrow range of values and the hyponatremia it would take to cause swelling would not only cause significant additional symptoms like nausea, vomiting, confusion, seizures, death, etc., but it’d also take a significant blow or underlying medical disorder to cause it.

Additionally, if dehydration were the issue, once again the swelling wouldn’t be isolated to the arms, and it’s also very uncommon for water to collect in the extravascular space when there is an overall deficit of water in the body. It can definitely happen but it’s rare and comparable to a dry paper towel sitting in a pool of water. The paper towel is going to soak up the water like our body is going to soak up that swelling.

Also, definitely not gravity as the primary culprit. If that were the case our legs which are much longer and have a much harder battle against gravity back to the heart so if gravity were the culprit our feet would be as thick as elephant stumps. And definitely not altitude: just go for a hike at sea level; it stills happens and there’s no reasonable mechanism. And just for completeness sake, it’s not temperature’s fault either. Once again, if that were the case, there’s no reasonable explanation for why it would be isolated to the hands and arms.

How to keep your hands from swelling

Now that I’ve explained the pathophysiology of hand swelling while hiking, I have a couple solutions. My first recommendation is using trekking poles, for so many reasons in addition to totally preventing the hand swelling. They help prevent injuries, make hiking easier, faster, and enable you to bounce down gnarly trails like a mountain goat. You’ll look dumb to everyone who has never used them but hey you already look dumb to everyone back at home relaxing on their sofas.


I highly recommend the Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles.

If you absolutely refuse to use trekking poles or simply don’t hike often enough to drop the dough, I recommend you do some exercises while hiking. Take your hands and put your thumbs on your backpack straps and lift them off your shoulders. This will contract your muscles as well as relieve the pressure. It’ll also elevate your forearms to help promote some of that return flow. If you want to look extra special you could wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care, maybe show off your guns and flex a little for the single does prancing through the forest. If you want to look sooooper cool you could whip out the compression sleeves but I can’t imagine that helping much.

Or just get trekking poles and accept your fate that it’s impossible to look cool while hiking.

Winter 14ers for Beginner Mountaineers: Top 10

If you’re looking to bag some winter 14ers but don’t want to risk your life to do so, hopefully this list list can help steer you to some solid safer climbs. Whether you’re looking for a more intense climb than the summer hikes or love the solitude of the off-season, winter 14ers can be an amazing experience that you can’t get during the summer.

However, before even considering attempting any of these winter 14ers, I would recommend that you have experience with climbing 14ers or at least 13ers in the warmer months, or at minimum go with someone who is familiar with the mountain and the cold. For nearly all of these climbs, I recommend having at minimum microspikes and trekking poles. It was a very rare day that these aren’t essential pieces of gear. In addition to that, most of the climbs call for snowshoes, especially after a storm or on the less travelled routes, and many of them necessitate an ice axe and the experience with using one. 10 point crampons are rarely if ever necessary on most of these routes.

This is not meant to be an all inclusive guide to each climb, just merely an introduction to help you decide which climbs to do. Always check weather and route conditions beforehand. I’ve linked to some helpful resources at the bottom.

The short and sweet winter 14ers:

1. Quandary Peak (East ridge)

Quandary peak winter
The route up Quandary follows that ridge and kicks up there in the last third.
Continue reading Winter 14ers for Beginner Mountaineers: Top 10

Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite review: best camping mattress on the market

After sampling multiple closed cell foam and air mattresses on trips ranging from single nights in the Appalachians to multi-day trips on snow, I can confidently say I’m not really sure why someone would use any other camping mattress besides the Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite and Xtherm. On 90% of trips, one of those two mattresses will be my go to. But it’s not without its downsides, so I will look to highlight why I personally think the Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite is the best mattress on the market but also some of its pitfalls.

Continue reading Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite review: best camping mattress on the market

Exploring Rock Climbing Tinker Cliffs

A few days ago I hiked up from the valley in southwest Virginia to scout out rock climbing Tinker Cliffs and check out the possibility of setting up some solid routes. From a mile down in the valley, the possibility for rock climbing on Tinker cliffs appear endless. And up the 3+ mile Andy Layne Trail to reach the summit of Tinker Cliffs, I found exactly that. The beta for the Cliffs is sparse, with the Mountain Project info limited to a few comments on a forum and other sites simply hinting at the possibility. So I wanted to hop up there and see what rock climbing Tinker Cliffs would look like up close.

Continue reading Exploring Rock Climbing Tinker Cliffs

Assumption of Risk

My granddad just turned 83 a few days ago. And as a former cop, he didn’t get there by being a dummy. He has always taken care of himself, paid attention to risks around him, avoided alcohol, and kept himself busy. I’ll never forget seeing him clearing downed trees in his driveway despite being in his 70s. But one thing that has always stood out to me was how he refused to fly on planes. He had helped clean up a plane crash with the bodies of 74 corpses of young soldiers just outside of Richmond in 1961. But despite improvements on air travel and being told about the safety of flying, he decided he would never accept the risk of it, and there was no changing his mind. Continue reading Assumption of Risk

Backpacker gift guide 2016

Family and friends of adventurers, we understand shopping for us for the holidays is difficult. We get it that our alternative lifestyle of living out of cars and rucksacks makes us seem foreign to normal people. We don’t wear jewelry or fancy clothes; our gear is honed for very specific purposes; and what you know about us is based on hair-raising stories and Facebook pictures. So I want to help you on what to shop for that special family member who shows up with a ratty beard and uncombed hair for the holidays. I put together a gift list that may help guide your shopping. Continue reading Backpacker gift guide 2016

Indoors

It’s days like this that put it all into perspective. I remember trudging through knee deep mud in New England, fording flooded rivers that threatened to sweep my legs out from under me and send me downstream. I remember hypothermia, the cold rain seeping into the cracks and seams of my rain gear and drenching me to my core. I remember having to hike faster to stay warm, wake up and get moving to stay alive. I remember being wet for day after day after day, throwing away a rotting pair of shoes that had never seen dryness. I ate soggy food with swollen hands slept in wet clothes in a wet sleeping bag. Continue reading Indoors

Iceland Day 1

Day 1 in Iceland was amazing! I’m backtracking my updates because I am finally spending the night in a hostel rather than car camping. Super nice to be clean for the first time in a week but hell, not my worst stretch without a shower. First day rolling into Keflavik, my buddy Scott and I bolted to the West Fjords of Iceland, a desolate remote area with gravel roads and few sparsely populated towns. I’ll spare you dragging this on and let our daily recap video do the talking for us.

Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 for backpacking

I finally got around to putting together a video of me packing up my Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 running vest. Several people wanted to see exactly how all the stuff I needed for my attempt on the Appalachian Trail unsupported record last summer could fit into a 10L pack. I hope this provides some insight into the possibility of some crazy ultralight backpacking!

Salomon Skin Pro full gearlist

Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 review, Backpacking, Trail Running, Ultramarathon, Grayson Cobb

Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 review, Backpacking, Trail Running, Ultramarathon, Grayson Cobb

Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 review, Backpacking, Trail Running, Ultramarathon, Grayson Cobb