What Causes Your Fingers to Swell During Hiking & How to Prevent it

Last Updated: January 2021

Written by: Opt Outdoor Staff

In this article, we explain what causes swollen fingers (i.e., sausage fingers) when hiking, how to treat it, and how to avoid it happening again.

What Are Sausage Fingers?

As you may have guessed, sausage fingers is not actually the technical term.  The correct name for it is Peripheral Edema.

  • Peripheral = away from the center, i.e., areas away from the body such as hands and feet.
  • Edema = swelling
  • Peripheral + Edema = Swollen hands or feet.

Have you ever taken your shoes off for a flight and then struggled to squeeze them back on when you landed?  If so, that was also peripheral edema.  

What Causes Swollen Fingers?

Medical professionals are not entirely sure why hands swell during exercise, such as hiking.  However,  it does not seem related to dehydration, as some people might think.

According to research by the Mayo Clinic,  it may be because the increased blood flow to your heart, lungs, and muscles during exercise reduces the amount of blood flow to your hands. This results in your hands cooling, which, may lead to their blood vessels opening wider, and hence, swell up.

Anecdotal evidence from hikers points to a connection between swelling and backpack shoulder straps being too tight, high temperatures during the activity, and hyponatremia (an abnormally low level of sodium concentration in the blood often as a result of drinking too much fluid).  

How to Treat Swollen Fingers

Thankfully, normally the swelling will subside in 1-2 hours following the cessation of the activity.  

If the swelling does not reduce, then the cause may be something more serious, and medical advice should be sought.

How to Prevent Swollen Fingers

There is no proven way to prevent swelling from happening. but some of the following tips have been known to help:

  • Loosen backpack shoulder straps or regularly lift them off your shoulders to allow circulation. Check out our Backpack Buying Guide to make sure you get the best fit for you. 
  • Use hiking/trekking poles.
  • Have a hydration plan to ensure you are consuming the appropriate amount of water for the activity.  
  • Hike during the cooler times of the day, if possible. 
  • Regularly stretch your arms by lifting them overhead.
  • Gently massage your hands and stretch and then ball your fingers into a fist.
  • Also, it is recommended to remove rings and any tight watches or jewelry before hiking.

Key Takeaways

For most people, hiking-induced sausage fingers (peripheral edema / hand or foot swelling) is a mild discomfort suffered during hiking and other prolonged exercise activities.

Although not serious, there are ways to lessen its effect, such as loosening backpack straps, massaging and stretching, and using hiking poles. 

This post may contain affiliate links. Read the full disclosure here.

Related Posts