Chances are, if you are a regular hiker, you have encountered mystery rashes that have popped up. And chances are, the first place your mind goes to is to ask yourself, “what plant or bug did I just run into?” Plants and bugs are often the first culprit in our minds when we encounter a rash from hiking, or develop a rash after hiking, but sometimes there is another culprit to be aware of. This guide will explain what exactly is hikers rash, what causes it, how you can prevent it, and what are some options for hikers rash treatment.
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What Is Hikers Rash?
In the medical field, hikers rash is referred to as exercise induced vasculitis. That prefix of “vasc” gives you the first clue that hikers rash deals with blood vessels, and “itis” gives the second clue that hikers rash deals with inflammation. In short, hikers rash is inflamed blood vessels in the legs. Here’s a few other ways that hikers rash can be identified:
- Itchy, sensitive, or painful rash found on the lower legs (sometimes stretches from the ankle to the knee)
- Red or purple in color
- Can be raised and bumpy
- Texture can change over the course of a couple days
- Sensations range from painless to itchy to burning
- Occurs after hiking, running, golfing, or other other forms of extended exercise that involve being on your feet all day long
- More common in hot and humid conditions
- Anyone can get hikers rash, but it is more common in women over 50
- Typically not a serious medical condition (won’t make you sick, not contagious, and only affects the surface of the skin)
- Hikers rash will not spread to the rest of the body
- Usually resolves on its own within 3 to 10 days (discoloration can last longer, sometimes several weeks)
What Causes Hikers Rash?
Hikers rash is caused by the body pumping more blood closer to the skin in hotter weather, in order to try and help cool itself. As small blood vessels in the legs become inflamed from prolonged activity, they strive to empty and fill in order to deliver oxygen to those hard working muscles, and sometimes just fall short. In older women, leg muscles and vessels may not do as good of a job in helping to return blood flow to the heart, becoming “tired”, being unable to keep up with the load, and thus working less efficiently. This in turn causes blood to pool in the small vessels of the legs located under the skin, which causes inflammation, irritation and rash.
Strenuous exercise and various forms of extended activity, involving prolonged time on your feet, is the main culprit. Here are some common forms of exercise or activities that can cause hikers rash:
Another important thing to note is that if you have had hikers rash previously, you are at increased risk to get it again. In fact, some studies have shown that 78% of hikers who have developed hikers rash will get it again.
How to Prevent Hikers Rash
Luckily, there are a few things you can do to help prevent hikers rash from happening:
- Dress as coolly as possible when hiking (in breathable, moisture wicking material if possible)
- Keep legs covered to avoid direct contact with sunlight, which may make hikers rash worse (use leggings, hiking pants, or long socks). If you can’t cover, use sunscreen!
- Take breaks when hiking to elevate and massage your legs, in order to help with circulation
- Condition your body for longer, extended hikes (gradually work up to extended day hikes – like the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim hike – with a hiking training calendar like THIS ONE!)
- Compression socks may help some women with improving circulation in the legs
- Massage legs regularly
- Avoid long hikes if not properly conditioned for them (use a hiking app like AllTrails to check the total roundtrip distance of a hike before committing)
- Avoid intaking too much salt
- Stay properly hydrated (use a hydration bladder on your hikes to ensure proper hydration on the go!)
Need help staying hydrated?
Hikers Rash Treatment Options
Hikers rash usually goes away on its own within a week or two. Other alleviating remedies and treatment for hikers rash may also include:
- Non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Calamine Lotion
- Witch Hazel
- Avoid heat – staying out of the heat can help keep your symptoms from getting worse
- Take a break from strenuous activity and exercise
- Take a cool bath or apply cool, wet towels to the affected area, or an ice pack
- Elevating the feet
- Wear compression socks – this can help the body’s natural process of circulation
What to Do If You Start Getting Hikers Rash Mid – Hike
If you do start to get hikers rash during a hike, it is best to try some of these strategies immediately to try and keep it from escalating.
- Stop, take a break, get out of direct sun, cool off, and elevate your feet
- Try to cool down the affected area with water (if you have an extra bandana, cooling towel, etc., use it to apply cool water to the area, or if you have access to a stream or lake, try to soak your legs)
- If you happen to have a hiking first aid kit on you (and you should always carry one with you on hikes as part of the 10 hiking essentials) that includes anti itch ointment or cream, apply it
- Do not scratch the inflamed skin
- Cover your legs if possible
The bottom line about hikers rash is that, yes, it can be incredibly irritating and annoying. But keep in mind that it is relatively harmless. If however, you have additional symptoms, such as fever, or your hikers rash does not resolve or gets worse, you should seek professional medical help. This article is not intended as medical advice. Always seek a medical care professional for your own health concerns regarding hikers rash treatment.
One last fun tidbit about hikers rash – know why hikers rash is also referred to as Disney rash? Because people at theme parks spend long days standing in line and walking the parks, and may become prone to hikers rash!
***Hikers aren’t the only ones who can get hikers rash. Know any marathon or ultra runners? If you are a runner looking for tips on dealing with heat, check out these 10 tips for running in hot weather!
Recap on Recommended Purchases for Dealing with Hikers Rash:
- Hiking Pants
- Compression Socks
- Water Hydration Bladder
- Cooling Towels for Hiking
- Hiking First Aid Kit
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