When I was diagnosed with hEDS in 2018, I thought my hiking days were behind me. After a year of physical therapy, building up my stamina with short walks, and lots of experimenting, I was able to make hiking a regular part of my life. In fact, I hike way more now than I did before my body gave out on me. 

The reason I hike more now is that it’s become a crucial part of managing my pain and my depression. And I wholeheartedly believe it can help your pain, too. Don’t take my word for it, listen to the experts! This study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) compiles research on the proven effectiveness of managing chronic pain with exercise. Check out the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for a handy infographic about using exercise to prevent chronic disease. 

While exercise is indeed helpful for managing my pain, I’ve never been a fan of the gym. Hiking is different. Not only do I get exercise, I get sunshine and the gorgeous sights of the Bay Area. I bring my corgi Vincent with me, and her delight in running around outside adds to mine. If you have a dog, bring them along! You can motivate each other.

Of course, hiking is often more difficult when you have a chronic illness and/or disability. You may need a little extra support to stay safe on the trail. Chronically ill folks have to plan ahead to make sure they are equipped with the necessary resources to prevent disaster (or deal with disaster if it hits). Here are some products I love that help to keep my body and pain stable while I hike.

  1. Compression Ankle Braces: These affordable braces have been a godsend for my wobbly ankles. The last time I dared to hike without them, I rolled an ankle (and was two miles away from my car). Now I always make sure these are on my ankles when I hike. The snug braces feature built-in silicone pads that help stabilize your ankles. These braces make it nearly impossible for your ankle to turn over. The compression also helps circulation and reduces swelling.

Pros: Great for stabilizing ankles & reducing foot swelling.

Cons: Can make feet sweaty; braces get smelly quickly (wash them regularly!).

Price: $19.99 for two braces

Where to buy: Amazon

  1. Compression Socks: Compression socks are a game changer for circulation issues and leg pain relief. The compression helps increase blood flow to your upper body, which is especially helpful for POTS sufferers, who often suffer from blood pooling in their feet. The compression helps support and soothe sore muscles. Since hiking takes a lot of calf strength, these are an especially great option on the trails. 

Pros: Good for circulation issues, POTS, reducing leg pain.

Cons: Can make you sweaty/hot, especially in warm weather.

Price: $50 (But the site below has tons of sales & coupons)

Where to buy: Pro Compression 

  1. KT Tape: This handy tape is great for reducing inflammation and supporting aching joints. Their website claims the tape can lift the skin when applied correctly, which decompresses the fascia, and eases buildup of lymphatic fluid that can cause inflammation and/or swelling. KT Tape can also be used to help “brace” and support unstable joints, like knees, shoulders, and ankles. This blog post from KT Tape’s official website gives a great rundown on using KT Tape during exercise (like hiking!). 

Pros: Multiple options for support/bracing

Cons: Some folks react to adhesive, can be annoying when bathing.

Price: $12.99-$19.99

Where to buy: KT Tape Official Website, Amazon, your local drugstore

  1. Car Cushion Heating Pad: I am a heating pad aficionado. If I’m in bed or on the couch, I’m usually lying on my heating pad. When I’m in the car, I use this nifty heated seat cushion. It plugs into your car outlet and provides heat from your neck to your thighs. I have had mine for over two years, and use it every time I drive. After your hike, your muscles will likely be sore, and this heating pad will immediately give you some warming relief for that pain. 

Pros: Instant pain relief after a hike.

Cons: Only works in the car.

Price: $25.86

Where to buy: Amazon

  1. Lightweight Water Bottle: I love this lightweight Contigo water bottle that holds 24 fluid ounces of water. The built-in straw makes it safe for necks that are hypermobile or otherwise painful. It also features a built-in clip, so you can hook it onto your bag or belt loop. Any lightweight water bottle will help reduce extra weight on your joints, this is just the one I’ve used and loved for the past couple years.

Pros: Helps maintain hydration & prevent overheating

Cons: Water is heavy, no matter how light the bottle. Sometimes leaks if tipped over, even with the lock on.

Price: $11.99

Where to buy: Target

  1. SPF Shirts: Did you know that if you hold a piece of clothing up to the light, and you can see light through it, it is not protecting you from the sun? I didn’t know that until very recently myself! The sun can not only burn your skin, but increase your risk for melanoma and other skin cancers (yes, even if you have darker skin!). Sunscreen can be expensive and applying it to your whole body is time-consuming. Wear an SPF shirt (or any SPF clothing) and you won’t have to put sunscreen on the areas the shirt covers.

Pros: Save money and time on applying sunscreen.

Cons: Thicker material may make you sweat more, a little pricey.

Price: $14.93-$90

Where to buy: REI (Women’s link & men’s link)

  1. FitBit: I love my FitBit; it only leaves my wrist when it needs to charge. It was invaluable to me when I started my journey of building up my hiking stamina. It’s a great tool for pacing: start with 500-1,000 steps a day and slowly increase your steps each week, until you are walking 5,000-10,00 steps a day (or whatever your personal goal is). 

Pros: Know exactly how much ground you’re covering.

Cons: Can cause rashes on sensitive skin

Price: $26.99 (knockoff); $69.95-$169.95 (official FitBits)

Where to buy: FitBit website; Cheaper knockoff version at Amazon

Honorable mentions (helpful gear I’ve written about before):

I also highly recommend the following products for hiking: Teva Tirra Sandals, compression pants, and compression shirts. I wrote about these products here and here. Click on through to read more details about them! 

Stuff to keep in mind:

  • Sun protection: Make sure you protect your skin from the sun. Use sunscreen (& reapply every two hours) on your skin. You should definitely cover your exposed skin, but unless you’re wearing an SPF shirt (see above), you should also sunscreen the skin under your clothes. Protect your eyes, face, and scalp with sunglasses and/or hats.
  • Safety: Always tell a trusted friend when and where you will be hiking. Set a check-in time, like “I’m hiking at [your local trail] right now. If you don’t hear from me in two hours, please contact [park rangers, local authorities, etc].” If the worst happens and you are lost or injured, you will be rescued much faster if someone knows immediately that you are missing. 
  • Back to Basics: Food and water! Do not hike on an empty stomach, and do not hike without hydration. 

SOURCES:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5461882/
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/physical-activity.htm