Hiking with Fibromyalgia: Benefits, Tips, and Recommendations
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia some nine years ago. Unexplained pains, nothing on x-rays, and jumping reaction to the doctor pressing some well-chosen spots on my body. A well-known story to many who struggle with fibromyalgia and sometimes wait for years for a diagnosis.
I am lucky – my version of FM is pretty light. I could still work, take care of myself and generally, the disease did not mess too much with my life. My doctor told me about the importance of exercise and active lifestyle no matter the pain it could cause.
Around that time I also switched to a gluten-free diet as a diagnosed celiac. For most of my adult life, I was off the diet because of the misunderstanding of the nature of Celiac Disease. It proved the perfect move – going GF helped also with my fibromyalgia. My knee joint pain basically disappeared, as did the worst symptoms of the FM flare.
Hiking - my favorite activity for many reasons!
I have found that hiking, as well as other kinds of low-key activities, were the best for me. When you read some online forums, hiking is not great to everyone. Some people noticed their symptoms actually worsening.
Walking and gentle hiking is often number one advice for Fibromyalgia patients. It’s a low-impact exercise that helps the body battle FM.
Will hiking be good for you? Who knows? It might be. And it’s definitely worth trying, as the benefits are amazing. Just read this article on hiking with Fibromyalgia and my article on general hiking benefits.
Disclaimer: I’m obviously not a doctor and it’s worth discussing with your medical care provider what’s best for your health. I only wish to help fellow FM-sufferers to find their way into hiking as a possible beneficial activity.
If you are thinking about hiking, there are few things that people with fibromyalgia should consider.
Hiking with Fibromyalgia considerations: comfort and preventing pain
Most people with FB have an hypersensitivity to touch (tactile allodynia) and as such, need to take special care to make sure all hiking gear and clothing are as comfortable as possible.
Make sure your clothes are made of the most delicate fabrics. Although I am a great supporter of merino wool for hiking clothes, it might not be for everyone. You will read that merino does not cause itch because of its unique structure. Well, it does cause some itch to me.
Granted, not as much as regular wool would, but still. I need to take special care for places where the fabric is pressed by gear – like backpack’s straps or boots. I even experienced some swelling on the skin under my hip belt. It later disappeared but the first day or two might be tough.
I learned to wear non-wool liners under the wool socks. Only once I wore thinner merino wool socks directly on the skin – I had a red rash all over my feet and ankles up to the boots’ height. But when I wear cool max liners there are no issues whatsoever.
You might want to look into synthetic fabrics. Some of them are amazingly soft and delicate and feel wonderful to the skin.
Another thing worth checking out – make sure your clothes all have elastane or similar fibers to make sure the clothes are flexible and don’t restrict your movement nor create pressure on knees or other places.
I found the high-quality hiking apparel to be really comfortable even during the flare-up periods when the whole body hurts and skin is on fire. They tend to be really stretchy and minimize the pressure on the skin.
Backpack and other gear
A backpack might be the biggest problem for hikers with fibromyalgia. Depending on the severity of your pain and sensitivity, you might be able to carry only small day packs or regular multi-day packs. I found the most important thing to have proper regulation and proper weight distribution. When you don’t adjust your pack well, its weight sits all on your shoulders and we all know how painful this area can get.
When you have a well-adjusted pack with a good hip belt, the straps actually hardly touch your shoulders, they almost hover above them.
Don’t go for the ultra-light barely cushioned gear but get a pack with thick and comfortable straps. Try a pack at a store with weight packs inserted so you can get a feeling if there is too much pressure and/or pain.
Although I don't advise getting ultra-light backpack, I do recommend getting lighter gear and clothing to ensure the whole load is as light as possible to be still safe and comfortable.
Hiking boots or shoes
For me, a big problem is proper boots. My soles are extra-sensitive and I get bad pain from just walking – especially on harder surfaces or with a heavier load. I tried once the barefoot style of footwear but they were just not for me. When I was looking for proper hiking boots I got Salomon 4D Quest which were amazingly comfortable – but had not enough cushioning, so I still was getting the feet pain. This year I tried Hoka One One boots with probably the maximum amount of cushioning in any kind of hiking booth. I absolutely loved them, I finally found boots that protected my over-sensitive foot soles.
I think a good idea might be to buy special inserts to provide extra-cushioning if you also require it.
Taking care of your sleep while camping
A good night sleep is one of the biggest problems for people with fibromyalgia. We have troubles with getting deep into sleep, wake up often and generally wake up tired. Sleeping in the outdoors can help you – I found that I sleep amazingly after a long hike! One, that I’m simply tired, two – I don’t have anything else to do, so I have more time to catch the zzzz’s, and third - fewer distraction or tech screens to mess with our sleep patterns. It's also nice and quiet, the natural sounds lull us into sleep so much better than when we try to fall asleep in constantly noisy cities!
There are a few things that can help with getting some sleep while camping. First of all – forget about grabbing just a foam pad. We need cushioning or our hip bones and arms will scream from pain. I use the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir pad because it’s not only ultra-light but also very thick and comfortable. I can sleep on my side with no risk of my hips touching the hard ground.
Also, after many camps with just clothes rolled under my head, I got myself a hiking pillow and I can’t believe why I waited so long to do it! It adds much comfort while being really tiny.
Sleep warm – no one can sleep well when they are cold! Check what is the weather and temperature to expect at your destination and take a sleeping bag, which "comfortable temperature is way below that. I always have a hat, gloves and a buff to protect my extremities from cold. Read more on choosing the right sleeping bag here.
Make sure you allow yourself all the time you need for your body to recover. I sleep a lot – about 8 – 9h when I can but when I hike I easily sleep 10h. I rarely use an alarm clock to let my body sleep as long as it needs. It might also mean, that you can't hike more than one day at a time and need a few days to recover. If you can take more - don't feel bad to take "rest days" every two-four days, depending on needs. Taking a whole day of rest can make you strong enough to go hiking again for another day or more.
If you are over sensitive to sunlight, use a buff as a eye mask. It's not needed when camping during early sunset seasons but can be really helpful when hiking in summer.
Grab warm sleeping clothes (thermal underwear) and a puffy - even in the summer. People with fibromyalgia are often oversensitive to cold and have troubles with getting warm.
Things to remember as you hike with fibromyalgia
Go hiking alone or only with someone who fully understands your condition. There is nothing good coming from pushing too hard. We need to take breaks when we need them – before we are truly tired. I love hiking alone because I don’t feel any pressure to keep on moving when I feel I need to stop and rest – even if it means stopping every few minutes on harder paths.
Dealing with fibro-fog
Fibro-fog can hit at any time. It means problems with concentration or clear thinking. Choose only well-marked trails which are extremely easy to navigate. There is no sense to risk getting lost on a trail-blazing expedition! Grab gear that can help during that hard time – GPS apps on your phone, map, and compass, navigating tools on your phone, locator beacon (if you hike in a bit more remote area). Prepare as much as you can ahead of time when you feel fine so there is less to do on the actual hike.
Digestive issues while hiking
A lot of people with Fibromyalgia have some kind of digestive issues or IBS. To make sure you don’t have some serious issues while on the trail, remember to try all the food ahead of time to see how you react to it. There is no sense to do experiments while hiking! Check what works for you and can be taken on the road. I found good, home-made oatmeal is the perfect breakfast for me. You can see what else I eat as a gluten-free hiker right here.
If you have big GI issues, go for shorter hikes instead of multi-day ones. It’s hard to deal with diarrhea when out in the open.
Using trekking poles
I found that using trekking poles is an absolute must. They help with balance, take some pressure of the joints, and are the perfect support during walking. They are my biggest allies and I can't imagine walking without them. No matter the path's incline or surface - I always hike with them. I can't recommend them highly enough, especially for people who struggle with hiking.
Eating and drinking enough
As hiking might be much more tiring and exhausting for you than for other folks, you need to make sure you eat and drink enough. Take snacks and extra water to support your body in its struggles.
There are many different guides to eating with Fibromyalgia. My doctor back 9 years ago told me to eat a lot of veggies, grains, and cut on meat. But it did nothing to me. What helped me was switching to the gluten-free diet and going strictly on a low-carb diet. I felt really great! Now I don't keep such a restrictive diet although I still eat gluten-free. Be ready to experiment a bit to see what works for you.
Hypersensitivity to temperature
Many folks are hypersensitive to temperature - some to cold, some to hot, and the lucky few to both. If you know you are sensitive that way - prepare well. If you are always hot, don't go hiking in the heat of the day in warm areas. I don't do well when it's hot so I choose cool weather destination in the summer.
Scotland, Iceland or Norway - all are perfect summer destinations in Europe. In winter I try to catch some warmer temperatures by going south - Crete or Spain.
Don't copy someone's packing list too rigidly - you might need to take some extra warm clothing or a down puffy in summer. Grab a warmer sleeping bag than your friends and don't forget an extra set of gloves. If you tend to sweat when others feel cool - adjust your clothing accordingly. Dress in layers so you can change your clothes on the move.
Hiking is fantastic and I hope more people can feel they can take part of it. It does not have to be big right from the start - it might actually never get "big". But being out there is Nature works miracles to our health, mental wellness, and self-confidence. It's one of the best exercises known to humans and everyone should feel welcome there.
One of my biggest FM sensitivity is noise overload and dealing people-generated smells. When I'm in the Great Outdoors I'm freed from it all. It's calm, peaceful, and almost completely deserted. My mind can rest and relax - a rare thing when I'm back in the city.
Even if you can do only two miles a day and need stop for a rest every five meters. Who cares? You are still getting amazing benefits. I'm doing multi-day hikes and am proud of my achievements. I know other people do more mileage a day or climb higher mountains but I sincerely don't care.
I feel great when I'm hiking, I sleep better, and my body is so much stronger after such trip. I know I belong in the Outdoors - no matter how good I am at hiking. And so do you - Nature is not just for the young, strong, and healthy!
Do you struggle with fibromyalgia? Have you tried hiking? Do you have any other tips for people who would like to give the hiking a shot?