Raynaud’s Disease shouldn’t prevent you from hiking or backpacking even in cold weather. Preparation and prevention are the keys when temperatures drop. I have Raynaud’s and I’m going to share my tips for managing Raynaud’s in the outdoors.
What is Raynaud’s?
Raynaud’s disease, syndrome, or phenomenon is an abnormal condition where arteries in the extremities such as the toes and fingers suddenly constrict. When a person with Raynauld’s is cold or stressed, the blood vessels narrow and the blood can’t get to the surface of the skin. Symptoms that come along with this state vary depending on the person and the severity of the case, and may include:
- The affected area turns white, and after a few minutes may turn purple or blue.
- The area may feel numb, tingle or ache; in my experience, it feels as if I have
minimal sensation in the spot that’s affected.
- When blood flow resumes, the skin reddens, may throb, or burn a bit (No fun).
What this translates to is that my feet and hands are a lot more sensitive to the cold than your everyday hiker. It can feel painful at times, my dexterity goes down, and if my toes are in that state before going to bed, forget trying to sleep that night in my tent.
Who Does Raynaud’s Affect?
It’s said that 5-10% of the population experiences Raynaud’s. For the most part, it’s self-diagnosed, although you can get it determined medically. Raynaud’s is more common in women than men, for people who live in colder climates, for those with a family history of Raynaud’s, and if you’re over 30.
There are two types of Raynaud’s, primary and secondary.
- Primary Raynaud’s is most common and supposedly just happens, meaning the cause is unknown. and that’s a tough thing to swallow for someone who likes to know the root of things (like me).
- Secondary Raynaud’s is caused by other underlying diseases such as autoimmune disorders, medications, or injuries.
Raynaud’s: Preparation and Prevention
The best way to deal with Raynaud’s is to be prepared so you prevent a negative scenario from arising. Some of my suggestions are based on trial and error during my long-distance hikes and shorter adventures because I wasn’t always hip to the preparation supports prevention theory. If you create habits and systems that prevent your hands and toes from getting chilled, to begin with, you’re staying ahead of the game. Because let me tell you, it’s really hard to bring your extremities back once they go to the Dark Side.
Keeping your metabolism revved up will help you to stay warm. Whether you’re on a day hike or a backpacking trip, make sure you eat first thing and keep fueling your body through the day with snacks. Hydrate first thing in the morning and continue to stay hydrated all day. Ideally, you want to focus on a healthy diet and avoid alcohol, caffeine, and smoking, since they contribute to constricting blood vessels. The more you can support a good flow of your circulation system, the better.
If you’re backpacking, devise a system of how to pack as much of your bag while in the cozy warmth of your tent. Loss of dexterity is a big issue for those of us with Raynaud’s, which means I try to avoid exposing my fingers to the cold as much as possible. We all know that it’s easier to do things without gloves on, so get packed up in your shelter and do the last bits outside.
I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve had to take down my tent when it’s rainy, frigid, wet, or with snow and ice. What to do, especially if you want to keep your gear dry but also have the use of your fingers? I’ve tackled it a couple of ways, depending on how much back-up gear I had with me:
- Option #1 – Take off your gloves or rain mitts and endure the suffering while you take down your shelter, so they remain warm and dry waiting for you when you’re all packed up. Place your cold hands under your armpits, do jumping jacks, twirl your arms, and get hiking ASAP!
- Option #2 – Hike with back-up liner gloves so you can change them out after packing up. This means you don’t have to fight the cold or add more stress to the situation, remembering it’s often challenging to get warm again. Yes, it adds weight to your pack, but I’ve learned that it’s worth it for me to feel safe, comfortable, and warm. You decide. You know your body best.
Exercise and movement are some of the best ways to combat Raynaud’s, which is all the more reason you shouldn’t give up cold-weather activities. As much as I love breaks when hiking, I take shorter ones when it’s cold out to keep my body moving to prevent an attack. Pack snacks and lunch that are easy to eat and don’t require a ton of prep so you don’t have to spend time being idle.
If you do find yourself in a situation where your Raynaud’s acts up and you begin experiencing symptoms, try to stay calm. Raynaud’s is aggravated by stress and it doesn’t help to panic. I’ve been there before when I’ve barely felt my feet against the ground while hiking on a ridge in a thunder and lightning storm on the Pacific Crest Trail. We’re more at risk of having an accident if we aren’t thinking clearly or rushing, so it’s important to mentally slow down. Do what you need to take mindful action, get warm by moving your body, and affirm to yourself that you’re going to be fine.
One of the points I really want to emphasize is the need to stay dry and maintain your body temperature when you have Raynaud’s. Sure, this is key for any hiker or person who does snow sports, but it’s a hundred times more intense for someone in the Raynaud’s club. Here are some gear suggestions and tips that have worked for me.
Always carry gloves, no matter what the season or what the weather report says. I’ve been in situations where it wasn’t even that cold out and I was chilled, in summer months in high altitudes or at night. Yep, that’s Raynaud’s. Do yourself a favor and bring gloves with you. A lightweight pair of Smartwool gloves are great to keep in your bag at all times. Mittens are also practical because they keep your fingers warmer because your skin is touching.
When it’s really cold out in winter, I double-up on gloves. Sometimes I’ll use the Smartwool merino wool gloves as the base because merino wool is super insulating, but I also really like Outdoor Research’s Vigor Heavyweight Sensor gloves. I slip them on and then put a pair of heavy-duty snow gloves on top. It may seem over the top, but without that set-up, I’d be miserable while hiking.
There are tons of awesome, expedition-type gloves and mittens on the market, but honestly, I got my REI Co-Op pair at a thrift shop and they’re a winner. My boyfriend’s mom just made me a wool pair that does wonders on top of my gloves. And you know those long, yellow Playtex gloves some people use for dishwashing? Guess what – they will keep your gloves dry underneath when raining, and they’re both light and cheap. You get my point; see what you’ve got and give it a go first.
What I love about rain mitts is they also block wind, so they act as an insulating barrier. REI Minimalist Gore-Tex Rain Mitts are ultralight and they do a fantastic job at protecting from rain, snow, and wind. Even when not raining, they give you the added insulation to stay warm on top of a base layer of gloves.
I use Merino wool socks, but I’m not loyal to a particular brand. In winter I like pairs that are long going up my leg, kind of like leg warmers, for extra warmth. When dealing with snow and cold rain in Patagonia, I used large Ziploc bags around my feet (see vapor barrier liners) for added protection and it definitely helped. Many folks swear by those chemical hand and feet warmers that activate when you open them, but I’ve never found they get that warm for me. Plus, they’re filled with chemicals that I don’t want against my skin, so I opt not to use them.
I got a tip from an experienced hiker recently who suggested I invest in some down bootie socks; he said they’re like cushions of love for the feet and I won’t have to worry about having ice blocks in my sleeping bag anymore – sounds worth trying on my next trip.
Tops with Thumb Holes
I don’t have much of an issue keeping my core warm when in the cold, it’s more my hands and feet I worry about. I prefer wearing a shirt with ‘thumbies’ as I call them: a shirt that stretches over your hand but allows your thumb and fingers to poke out. My favorites are:
I find this style helps keep my wrists and lower arms warm where my veins are close to the skin, plus it’s thin enough to fit under my gloves or mittens.
Keeping my core warm supports my hands and feet in terms of circulation, so I never hike without a fleece or wool beanie that covers my ears completely and a Polar Buff for my neck and face.
With some thought given to preparation and prevention, there’s no reason why you can’t get outside in colder temperatures to enjoy hiking and winter sports. Movement and exercise are like medicine to those with Raynaud’s to boost circulation, so it’s not something you have to give up when it’s chilly outdoors as long as you take precautions. Give some attention to your nutrition, a packing up strategy, sustained movement, remaining calm under stress, and staying warm and dry with appropriate gear. With these tips, you should find you can manage your Raynaud’s in the outdoors with more comfort and ease.
Updated December 2023.SectionHiker is reader-supported. We only make money if you purchase a product through our affiliate links. Help us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.
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