Use Yellow Mustard for Muscle Cramps When Hiking

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Believe it or not, the simple remedy of yellow mustard can effectively alleviate muscle cramps while hiking. Although it may sound peculiar, weird, or even unscientific, there is genuine evidence supporting its effectiveness. Continue reading to discover the reasons behind the efficacy of yellow mustard for muscle cramps.

backpacker with their leg being rubbed for a muscle cramp


Have you ever been hiking or backpacking and had a muscle cramp, or Charley horse as they are commonly referred to?

A Charley horse is caused by a sudden, intense, uncontrollable muscle cramp or spasm.  It happens whenever fibers in the muscle contract randomly.

They most often occur in the calf, thigh, or foot during sleep.  However, any muscle in the body can experience one. Muscle cramps normally last but a few seconds or minutes.

Although short-lived, muscle cramps are both painful and totally out of your control.

They may interfere with both sleep and daily activities.

Hikers most often experience Charley horses or nighttime leg cramps while sleeping. The affected muscle may be sore the next day, making hiking difficult.

woman hiking in the mountains with hiking poles

In addition, muscle cramping can also happen during the day. Scrambling up boulders may trigger a Charley horse in the leg.

It should be noted that the leg does the bulk of the work in lifting the body up to the next level. Both rock climbers and backpackers are aware of the leg strength required.

Not only leg cramps, but the Geez has even had his stomach muscles cramp while getting up from a low-to-the-ground backpacking chair.

Clearly, the little extra strain from getting up after a long day of hiking is more than the stomach muscles can take.

 What Causes Muscle Cramps While Hiking?

The most common causes of a charley horse are:

  • Poor blood flow to the muscles
  • Injury to a muscle
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Stress, especially in the neck muscles
  • Not warming up before exercises
  • Imbalance of sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium levels
  • Dehydration

So, what causes cramping muscles while hiking and backpacking? Muscle cramps, or Charley horses, are thought to be caused by several factors.

Lack of adequate hydration contributes to muscle spasms. In addition, a loss of electrolytes, which creates an imbalance of minerals like magnesium and potassium, is thought to contribute to muscle cramping.

Both risk factors, inadequate hydration, and electrolyte depletion, are made worse by this outdoor activity. Strenuous activity causes the body to sweat. Water and salts are lost through this process and must be replenished.

Another probable cause is overworked muscles. Current research suggests muscle cramps may be due to muscle fatigue and nerve dysfunction.

Adventurous outdoor activities tax your muscles. Going to the gym and working out for an hour doesn’t come close to hiking for hours on end, up and down hilly terrain.

Coupled with that, carrying the extra weight of a backpack increases the amount of work your muscles must do, leading to muscle fatigue.

Prevailing wisdom suggests that hikers and backpackers maintain proper hydration.

Drink water not only when you are thirsty but also in between times to stay properly hydrated.  In addition, use electrolytes in tablet or liquid form to replenish salts and minerals lost by sweating.

Stretching is another tactic useful for preventing muscle cramps. Prior to a strenuous day of hiking, it is worthwhile to stretch your leg muscles.

This not only warms up your muscles but prepares them for the long day ahead. Clearly tight ligaments and cold muscles are not your friend when hiking and backpacking.

Related Article: What Muscle Groups Does Hiking Workout


How to relieve muscle cramping instantly

So, what do you do when you get an inevitable cramp?

Ironically, the first thing to do is nothing. Most Charley horses go away by themselves within a minute or two.

Although painful, they last only a short time. Normally once the spasm has subsided there is no lasting pain. Possibly a sore muscle, but no pain.

Individuals who get a sudden spasm while hiking or backpacking should immediately stop and begin to stretch and massage the area. Continue this until the cramp subsides.

In addition to this, it is recommended that heat or cold be applied to the affected muscle.

Unfortunately, unless hiking in winter, finding snow or ice is not obtainable. However, many outdoor enthusiasts carry HOTHANDS® hand warmers. They may be used to apply heat to the area.

But how do you relieve a muscle spasm quickly if it doesn’t immediately subside? The usual approach has been to stretch and massage the affected muscle.

Another common method for leg cramps is to pull back on the foot until the cramp goes away. This can be done by placing a towel under the foot near the toes and pulling back on the towel. Alternatively, you can stand up and lean forward to stretch the muscles.

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Packets of Mustard for Muscle Cramps

But my all-time favorite method is to eat a teaspoon or so of mustard for muscle cramps.

Yes, that is the same yellow mustard that you spread on a hot dog. My brother-in-law turned me on to this trick a while back.

JD is an avid rock climber and swears by this from personal experience.

He said, “There is nothing more terrifying than being 100 feet up a rock wall, trying to jam my shoe into the next foothold, and getting a leg cramp”.

Especially when there is no way to stretch or massage the muscle.

He said, “I keep a packet of mustard from a fast-food joint in my front pocket and squeeze it into my mouth. The leg cramp vanishes within seconds.”

Obviously, I had a hard time believing that this would work until I tried it.

After a strenuous five-day backpacking trip in the high Sierras, three of which were bushwacking off trail, I got a severe nighttime leg cramp.

I tried the usual pulling back on my foot to stretch my leg muscle.

That didn’t work and it hurt like H… So, being ever so skeptical I opened a packet of mustard I had in my first aid kit and squeezed it into my mouth.

After swallowing It took less than fifteen seconds and the cramp was gone! Nada, zilch, zero! So, mustard for cramping muscles for the win.

Why does mustard help muscle cramps?

You may wonder like I did if this was real or if it was just a placebo effect. Did the cramping go away on its own? Is there any scientific evidence backing this up?

Well, come to find out there is real evidence backing this up.

Two neurobiologists, Nobel Prize winner, Rod MacKinnon, MD, and his colleague Bruce Bean, Ph.D., researched muscle cramps and came up with a scientific explanation.

This research was prompted by severe muscle cramps in both of Rod Mackinnon’s arms while kayaking in 2006.

Their research suggested that rather than a muscle glitch, cramps may be triggered by a nerve malfunction.

Furthermore, by inducing muscle cramps in the laboratory they demonstrated that stimulating sensory neurons can interrupt the muscle contractions responsible for cramps.

By overwhelming sensory neurons in the mouth, throat, and stomach with strong flavors, they were able to quickly reverse many muscle cramps.

See the July 11, 2016, edition of the Wall Street Journal

How does mustard relieve muscle cramps?

TRP (transient receptor potential) channels located in the mouth are activated by a variety of different stimuli. Yellow mustard stimulates these TRP channels, overwhelming the sensory neurons. This is thought to be why mustard reverses muscle cramps.

Therefore, it explains why swallowing a teaspoonful of yellow mustard for muscle cramps is so effective for so many in such a short period of time.

Whether relief of muscle cramps is due to the mustard, vinegar, or turmeric that gives mustard its yellow color, is not known. It might be all three.

Other Natural Methods for Relieving Muscle Cramps


  • Pickle juice contains minerals like potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium. Leg cramps are thought to be due to a deficiency in these electrolytes. Drinking small amounts of pickle juice helps in restoring their levels.
  • Apple Cider Vinegar is high in potassium and several other nutrients. Raw and unfiltered apple cider vinegar helps relieve muscle cramps. Low potassium is thought to be one of the common causes of frequent muscle cramps.
  • Black Strap Molasses is a good source of calcium and potassium, and thus it can help to maintain strong muscles and prevent cramps. If muscle cramps are linked to a calcium and potassium deficiency, then blackstrap molasses is a great remedy for you.
  • Rosemary has anti-inflammatory properties that can help calm inflamed muscle tissue and reduce pain and soreness. A tea made from rosemary leaves has a warming effect that promotes relaxation.

Whether you are hiking or backpacking, chances are at some point in time you will experience a Charley horse. You undoubtedly minimize the risk by staying well hydrated and consuming electrolytes to maintain proper blood chemistry.

If you do get a muscle cramp, try one of the common methods such as stretching or massaging to relieve it. However, if that fails to relieve the cramp, eat a teaspoon of yellow mustard for muscle cramps. Yes, I know it doesn’t taste the best. But what have you got to lose, other than a painful muscle cramp?



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