Updated on July 23, 2020

Note: Sudden swelling in just one leg may be a sign of deep-vein thrombosis, a potentially life-threatening condition. If you experience this symptom, see a doctor at once.

There are approximately 60,000 miles of blood vessels in your body, a network that is responsible for constantly delivering oxygen and nutrients to every cell in your body and removing waste materials from the same cells. 

Several physical conditions can slow down this flow and weaken circulation. Two of the most common are: peripheral vascular disease, which restricts the flow of blood to and from the heart; and venous insufficiency, which makes it more difficult for blood to flow from your legs back to your heart.

If you have any of these symptoms, you may have circulation problems:

  • Consistent coldness in the hands and feet.
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet.
  • Fatigue or cramping during activity. 
  • Swelling and aches in the arms or legs.
  • Throbbing or stinging pain in the arms or legs.

You will need to see a doctor for a formal diagnosis. Many other common conditions, such as obesity or diabetes, can cause or significantly complicate circulation problems. Smoking is also a major risk factor. Extended sitting can complicate circulation problems in the legs.

As with arthritis, walking is one of the most commonly recommended therapies for poor circulation. Walking stimulates circulation and increases muscle contraction in the legs, stimulating circulation in the part of the body farthest from the heart. Many people also find that massage and gentle stretching exercises like yoga and tai chi can help improve circulation. Strength training is also recommended.

If you’re going to hike with poor circulation, you’ll want to start with light hikes and monitor your symptoms, particularly in your hands and feet. You’re likely to find that hiking reduces your problems, but pay attention to signals your body is sending. If you feel increased numbness, tingling, or fatigue, you may need to consult a doctor.

If you have circulation problems, you may need to be particularly careful about hiking in cold weather. Hands and feet are always vulnerable to cold and if you have circulation problems, that vulnerability is increased. Adding insulation may not help if the blood is not bringing enough warmth for the insulation to retain. You may need to consider self-heating socks or mittens.

Pay close attention to any equipment that could constrict blood flow and exacerbate circulation issues. If you have numbness and tingling in the hands, be sure your pack is not too heavy and that it’s not placing excessive weight on your shoulders. Adjust your pack to transfer weight to your hips.

Swelling is another general symptom that can have many causes. It is very common to experience edema, or fluid buildup, in your feet or hands during or after hiking. Elevating the affected extremities should reduce the swelling quickly. If you’re experiencing edema consistently, be sure to check your electrolyte intake: consuming a lot of water but not enough salt or other electrolytes can provoke swelling.

Swelling after an injury or swelling accompanied by pain – Tenderness, heat in the affected part, or fever can be a sign of more serious problems and calls for medical attention. Swelling is often your body’s response to inflammation or damage, so any swelling that is accompanied by pain or that does not resolve in a few days with a dose of R.I.C.E. (Rest/Ice/Compression/Elevation) should get medical attention.

Most nagging physical conditions will not stop you from hiking, and hiking is often one of the best ways to alleviate and improve those conditions. Physical problems may affect how we hike. 

If you have to start with shorter and less demanding hikes, don’t worry: short hikes can be just as much fun as longer ones, and as the beneficial effects of walking settle in you’ll soon be looking for longer and more challenging hikes.

Hiking is one of the best ways to manage physical issues, but you can help the process along and make faster progress by paying close attention to your diet and adopting a regular exercise program. Eating right and getting regular exercise are a great way to get ready for more demanding hikes and to improve your overall fitness and quality of life!


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