Raynaud's Syndrome - How to manage symptoms and enjoy cold climates
Raynaud’s Syndrome is a condition which causes a person’s fingers and toes to go numb in response to cold weather and anxiety. It’s not just a case of ‘poor circulation’, it’s the nervous system over-reacting to changes in temperature and stress, trying to protect the body and send blood to the heart. The blood vessels constrict and stop blood from flowing into the extremities, turning the person’s fingers white (I like to call this ‘Corpse Hand’).
I was diagnosed with Raynaud’s when I was 16 years old and have spent years explaining to people that my Raynaud’s doesn’t just cause a loss of sensation, it hurts A LOT. And it’s not just cold weather that triggers it, it’s the rain, wind, stress, anxiety and a rapid change in temperature. So even when I’m wrapped up warm, if I suddenly head outside into minus temperatures my body over-reacts to this huge change in temperature and my hands and feet turn white and become numb. The return of blood is usually very slow and will turn my fingers and toes a lovely shade of green, then blue and eventually purple, before returning to normal. I also occasionally get chilblains (where the blood comes back too quickly in response to hot temperatures), and this is excruciatingly painful. HOWEVER… I try not to let my Raynaud’s stop me from going on outdoor adventures and I’m going to explain how I cope below!
There are ways to manage Raynaud’s Syndrome and to prevent attacks from occurring, but most of the advice out there focuses on day-to-day life and will tell you to avoid prolonged periods outside in the cold. Well this advice doesn’t suit me at all! What about Winter hikes, mountain expeditions, or kayaking in cold water? To read more about the general advice for managing Raynaud’s Syndrome, I’d recommend checking out the Scleroderma and Raynaud’s UK’s website, but for more practical advice that’ll help you manage on adventures then check out my tips below:
Wear trekking socks with thick padding.
Wool tends to be quite warm, but you may want a thin sock liners underneath your thicker socks as well.
If the ground is wet or snowy and you’re going to be out hiking for a long time, using a plastic bag as a waterproof layer between your socks and walking boots can help keep your feet dry.
Gaiters are also a great way to keep snow and moisture from coming in the top of your boots.
Ski gloves are really good as they’re waterproof and insulated. I also love waterproof insulated mittens as they allow my fingers to share warmth, but these aren’t very good if you need to use your hands.
Layer up - wear several long-sleeved thin layers underneath a fleece and don’t be scared to add another jumper if you need to! Leggings under your trousers will help to keep your legs warm. Don’t forget your scarf and hat!
If it’s windy I tend to hike with my hood up over my hat as this protects my ears and keeps the wind off my face a bit. Snoods are good as scarves, as you can pull them up over your mouth and nose.
Always keep a few layers dry in your backpack too, so you can change into these once you stop walking. It’s really important to have a spare fleece and insulated jacket to change into at the end in case your layers are all sweaty and damp.
As soon as you’ve stop hiking for the day, get changed into dry clothes. Damp clothes will get cold quickly, which will trigger a Raynaud’s attack.
Spend money on a decent sleeping bag that has a comfort rating of a much lower temperature than you are planning on camping in.
Same applies for your sleeping pad; the more insulated the better. The ground will be extremely cold over night, so you’ll need to insulate yourself from the floor. Spare blankets are better underneath you than on top of you.
If you get cold in the night and you don’t have a blanket, place any of your spare clothes or towels etc underneath your sleeping pad.
Lining the bottom of your tent with a silver emergency blanket is a great way to insulate your tent more.
Having a tent with an inner compartment and separate outer fly is better as this provides an extra layer against the wind.
If the wind is blowing up around the bottom of your outer fly sheet, try making a wind break out of logs, leaves or anything else you can find around the tent.
If possible, set up your camp area as quickly as possible so you can get into your sleeping bag before you lose too much body heat.
Sleep in lots of layers, including loose socks, gloves and a hat.
Do not wear anything damp to bed and do not put your damp boots in your sleeping bag (some people recommend this as a way to dry your boots a little overnight); it will not dry them enough for the cold restless night to be worthwhile!
Managing at altitude
The advice will be the same as for Winter hikes, no matter what time of year you go. At altitude your body will have difficulty pumping enough oxygenated blood to your extremities, so chances of Raynaud’s attacks are high.
Look out for frost nip and early warning signs of frost bite, as this risk is much greater for someone with Raynaud’s Syndrome.
Take several hand warmers and emergency blankets in case you need them.
The general advice for managing at altitude is to drink lots of water and eat more calories than you usually need. For someone with Raynaud’s this is particularly important, but try keeping your water warm by using an insulated flask. Cold water will lower your core temperature and could trigger an attack.
When hiking at altitude, people are advised to take regular breaks. If you have Raynaud’s, make sure you don’t allow yourself to cool down too much in your breaks. Keep moving your limbs to keep them warm and start hiking again if you feel yourself getting colder. Take it easy by slowing your pace.
Personally, I can’t climb outside in the Winter. Climbing shoes are very tight and tend to cut off the blood supply to my big toes anyway; this is not good outdoors in Winter for my Raynaud’s. The main difficulty though, is that I need my hands to function fully and if I don’t wear gloves my hands will be too stiff and weak. Climbing in gloves is not good as you won’t get a very good grip and it’s not particularly safe. So in Winter, I stick to indoor climbing/bouldering.
If you do climb outside in Winter, bouldering may be easier so you can have regular breaks to warm up in between climbs. You can wear socks in your climbing shoes, but you’ll need a slightly bigger size than usual so you can still get them on! Take hand warmers, thick socks and insulated layers to put on each time you rest so you maintain body heat.
Indoor climbing/bouldering gyms tend to be really cold, so make sure you climb with a jumper or jacket on initially until you have warmed up sufficiently. You can keep your hat on if you are feeling really chilly; this is pretty fashionable within the climbing World so no-one will judge you for it!
Keep an insulated jacket to hand, so you can put this on when you’re taking breaks.
Before putting on tight climbing shoes, make sure your toes are warm so you can get your feet into your shoes more easily. I tend to jump up and down a bit and rub my feet to warm them up.
Between routes, take your shoes off to let the blood come back into your toes.
Drink a hot drink if you’re having a longer rest, it’ll keep you warm until you are ready to climb again.
Cold Water Activities
Don’t be ashamed to wear a wet suit, even if you’re the only one!
Keep moving when you’re in the water (or on it if kayaking, paddle boarding etc) to keep yourself warm.
The minute you get out of the water, take your wet suit off and put dry clothes on. Sitting around having lunch in a damp wet suit will get cold really quickly, even with a towel or blanket.
If you’re just having a quick break before getting back in the water, keep moving, drink a hot drink and find somewhere sheltered out of the wind. The moment you start shivering, jump up and down to warm up, or get changed into dry clothes. Hypothermia is a risk, so take care to keep warm!
Raynaud’s Syndrome can be frustrating and difficult to manage at times, but it shouldn’t stop you from doing the things you love. If you’re like me and love the outdoors, then get out there and enjoy it! With a bit of forward planning, a few precautions and the ability to take notice to your body, you can learn to love cold climates and have some amazing adventures. Let us know what you think of this advice and feel free to ask questions! I’m not a Doctor, but I am a registered Occupational Therapist and have spent many years learning how to manage my symptoms and adapt activities so I can still enjoy them in adverse conditions. Do you have any advice of your own? Please share in the comments below!
If you like this post, please share and pin it!