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How to Avoid Muscle Cramps While Hiking in Cold Weather

man backcountry skiing on a mountainside.

As we move into fall and winter and the weather continues to turn cold, chances are some people simply move their fitness routines indoors and discontinue a lot of outdoor activities. If you enjoy cold weather camping or cold weather outdoor activities in general then there are some additional basic tips you can use to keep enjoying being outdoors even in the coldest conditions. Though cold conditions can lead to muscle cramps and sore, overworked muscles, you can take a few precautions to ensure your body is prepared to handle freezing temperatures.

Why Cold Weather Causes Cramps

Unhappy man with injured painful leg sitting on snowy road.
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If you have experienced muscle cramps more frequently while working, spending time outside, or running in cold conditions, you know the toll winter weather can take on your body. However, you might not know why. As temperatures drop, muscles lose the heat they produce more quickly. As the muscles lose their heat, they tend to tighten up and contract, which also causes joints to become tighter.

Such an impact on the muscles can cause them to be sore for a longer period of time. It’s also worth noting that muscles have to work harder under cold conditions to do the same amount of work as they would in warmer weather. While you can’t change the weather, there are, fortunately, several practices you can adopt to ensure your body is protected and ready to perform all winter long.

Warm Up Thoroughly

man is stretching before outdoors training.
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One of the top tips for preventing muscle cramps and soreness during the winter months is properly warming up. During warm or even hot months when muscles are already more limber, it can be tempting or even regular practice for some people to skip their warm-up. However, during cold weather, there is a much greater need to give your body the time it needs to get warm before demanding high-performance tasks or movements from it.

To warm up the muscles and get the blood pumping, there are a number of exercises you can do. Walking at a brisk pace is a good option as is slow, careful jogging. Stretching and aerobic movements such as easy punching or kicks are also good options.

Finally, make sure you spend enough time on your warm-up. Temperatures between 35 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit require at least a 10-minute warm-up. For temperatures below 35 degrees, plan on adding an additional five minutes to your warm-up for every 10-degree decrease in temperature. That means a 15-minute warm-up is required for 25-degree conditions.

Hydrate Appropriately

runner stops for a drink of water from his travel bottle.
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Staying hydrated during physical activity is always important. But staying hydrated during cold-weather exercise and activity is even more important — especially for preventing muscle cramps and pains. Dehydration is a major cause of muscle cramps, so even if it is cold, you do need to make sure you get plenty of water to drink before, during, and after outdoor winter exercise.

Avoid relying on diuretics such as coffee and hot tea that actively dehydrate, and stick with regular water. If you really despise drinking cold or room-temperature water during winter, you can always heat up your water. It’s a simple way to make staying hydrated easy.

Consider Adding Heat

person walking with ski poles on the ridge of a snowy mountain.
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Finally, adding heat packs or hand warmers to your layers before heading out is another great way to keep your muscles warm. However, this isn’t a means for skipping or avoiding a warm-up. When applied to your body, heat helps boost blood flow and ease the tension of sore or tight muscles. That will not only help existing tendencies for muscle cramps but will also help prevent more from occurring.

If wearing a thermal pad isn’t an option, then consider adding a hot soak with Epsom salts to your evening routine. The salts and hot water will help alleviate any pains or stiffness you might have from working or exercising in the cold.

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Molly Harris
Molly Harris is a freelance journalist, cyclist and outdoor enthusiast. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Lonely…
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