Hiking With a Cold? (Yes or No)

Got a hike scheduled for tomorrow? Feeling sort of gross, or like something bad is coming your way?

I can only speak from my experience in this article (as I am not a doctor or medical professional). But here’s what I think as an avid hiker (and as a mom).

In general, when you are feeling sick, you should not overtax your system. Your body is fighting something off, and if you take away resources from your body, you’ll likely be sicker longer.

That being said….what is an acceptable level of activity? Does this mean you have to sit on the couch any time you get a snotty nose?

Definitely not.

woman walking a dog on a leaf covered path in a forest

First, I’d determine how bad you are.

There is a major difference between hiking with a cold and hiking with the fever or the flu. In general, a “cold” is something that you can live with. You shouldn’t be struggling with a fever, shaking chills, weakness, or pain.

Do you feel aches in your joints of muscles? That’s not a cold.

Are you having to take over the counter medications (like TheraFlu, Nyquil, Tylenol, Sudafed to deal with the symptoms of your illness? Also might not be just a cold.

If you are feeling major symptoms (like the ones above), you are probably actually sick, with a virus or something. In that case, especially if you are running a fever, it is highly likely that you are contagious, and your friends or hiking buddies will start to feel like garbage not long after spending the afternoon with you.

While exercise can help people handle mild illness, if you are as bad off as all that, you are best served by crawling into bed and taking a long nap.

However, if you don’t have a fever, or chills, or any other that other nasty sounding stuff, and you feel strong when you walk around or jump around, there’s no saying that you can’t go out and get some exercise (even moderate to high intensity).

To decide whether to exercise or not, this blogger looks at whether the symptoms are above the neck or below the neck. If the symptoms go below the neck, he says that it’s more than a cold and to stay home. Above the neck is a cold and is all good, even if you feel pretty darn bad.

Hiking can help with a cold?

If you have a cold (think runny nose, cough, congestion, stuffy nose), physical activity can actually do a lot to alleviate some of those symptoms, especially stuffy nose or congestion.

While you are walking (or hiking), you will probably find (as I always do) that my nose clears up, that I have less of a sinus headache or pressure, and that my cough comes more easily.

I am able to shake off the grossness of having a cold, of sitting inside and waiting to feel better, that lingering “ugh” feeling when I am hiking.

Now, mind you, sometimes exercise can make you cough (especially if it is cold out), but that isn’t anything that should cause you major problems.

But overall (and doctors can’t really explain this), exercise (indoor and outdoor) can actually help with your symptoms and make you feel better.

woman walking, view of her shoes from behind

Second, pick a reasonable distance, and pay close attention to how you feel

In general, if you are hiking with a cold, I would be cautious about pushing yourself to the limit, or taking on hikes that would put you in a position of becoming very chilled, wet, or overheated.

The key to helping overcome your cold is making sure that you aren’t over-taxing your body. Moderate exercise isn’t going to over tax you when you have a cold, but getting to the point of sunstroke or frostbite likely will.

The same is true for doing tons and tons of mileage, carrying lots of weight. Better not to push yourself too hard unless you have no other choice.

Athletes and pros will likely feel comfortable pushing themselves much harder if all they have is a cold, but I can only speak for myself, what I have seen and what I know. And what I know is that when I have a cold, I can work out hard but not to the point of destruction.

Third, carry supplies to help with your cold

As always, it is good to be prepared any time you are out in the woods. If you have a cold, you’ll want to be extra careful about having the things you need. I’d recommend that you pack a small pack and include the following:

  • any extra layers you need to avoid becoming too hot or too cold
  • lots of fluids
  • snacks
  • phone or communication device (if something happens or you start to feel very bad)
  • if your throat is a bit sore, perhaps some lozenges

I’d also recommend hiking with someone, rather than alone, and to tell people in advance where you are planning on going and coming back so that they can watch out for you.

What you have is probably a cold….but if it takes a turn for the worse, the last thing you’d want to be is stranded far from home with an illness, and have no one even know that you are in trouble.

woman and boy sitting down looking into the camera in front of the forest

Special note about children

When my children have colds (but aren’t feverish) I always encourage them to play outside a bit, so long as the weather isn’t overly hot, cold, or wet. I notice that it seems to do dramatically positive things for their moods and can actually get rid of some of the symptoms.

I have seen some parents give kids Tylenol to bring down a fever to then take them out on the trail. I can’t get behind that. If there’s a fever, I think the child should be at home, getting the rest he/she needs. And to avoid transferring any germs to anyone else.

In general though, I’d do a shorter hike or even stick to the local parks rather than doing a challenging hike when kids have colds. Things tend to go downhill very quickly with kids (from sort of bad to bad, or from bad to much worse).

If it is a newborn or young infant with the cold, I’d just pass on the hike and wait for the baby to get better.