Our keeping Your Hands Warm guidance offers some simple digit warming ideas that might make your cold weather activities more comfortable. We hope you find them useful.
Whether you cold weather hillwalking, autumn rock climbing or heading for snowy and ice adventures. At times you will undoubtedly need to deal with cold hands and fingers. This can even happen when the rest of your body feels warm. Sometimes it can just be that your fingers get chilly. At others you might suffer the temporary agony of hot aches. It can turn a fun day’s activity into torture. We might not be able to completely solve this problem for you, but decades in the mountains have taught us some principles for keeping your hands warm that might also help you.
Why Do Hands Get Cold?
In cold weather the ambient temperature is colder than the ideal temperature of the hands. From the perspective of your hands this is a heat loss. Consequently, your hands will cool down to below their ideal temperature. The result is simple enough. You hands will feel cold. When we head out into cold weather we can’t change the surrounding temperature. We need to stop the heat loss and generate enough new heat to stay warm.
If you know your physics you’ll know that heat loss happens in various ways. For our extremities it is thermal conduction that causes us the problem. In simple terms this is the transfer of heat from the warmer to colder side. The degree of thermal conduction varies from material to material.
Metal, for example, conducts heat really well because it has high density. In some situations this is useful, but not if you are holding an ice axe or trekking pole. It may be worth adding some form of insulation to your ice axe in some situations.
Other materials don’t conduct heat so efficiently because they have lower density. Materials with a lower degree of conduction can be called insulation. Air is a very efficient insulator and humans rely on its insulation qualities in many contexts. The same is true for cold weather gloves. But, air can move freely and so for it to work we need to trap that air in place. For activities like hillwalking it may be quite simple to wrap your hands in thick insulation. However, for activities like winter climbing you also need dexterity. Similarly, for rock climbing it is usually not practical to climb in gloves. We are also touching a very cold surface. These are all factors that make it much harder to keep your hands warm.
Types Of Insulation
Down is the most effective insulator as it traps air so efficiently. When you are carrying clothing into the mountains it is also compressible and light. It has drawbacks such as its cost and the way it clumps together when wet. But, it works really well if the limitations are managed.
For that reason it is still widely used by outdoor folk for clothing and sleeping bags, but what about for hands? For expeditions to cold dry conditions down can still be a great choice for mittens. However, for activities in wetter conditions or where more dexterity is needed the drawbacks are significant.
Some of these drawbacks have also been improved by treatments that make down hydrophobic, but sometimes synthetic insulation offers a better option. There are many types of synthetic insulation available. We explain below why any insulation is less efficient when wet, but synthetics are generally better at retaining some insulating qualities when damp.
Types Of Gloves
Again, there are a huge range of gloves on the market and it’s beyond the focus of this article to discuss all the options. We plan to offer some advice on this in an upcoming advice post.
One thing we can say is there isn’t, in our opinion at least, one type of glove that will do all things. The trick is to try various makes and models and see what works for you. Over time most outdoor goers will end up with quite a glove collection. For the purpose of this article, however, we are just talking about gloves in general terms. It isn’t always as simple as thicker is warmer either. Factors such as quality of insulation and fit are important too.
Other Glove Considerations
Gloves have drawbacks. One of the biggest is the huge whole where your hand is slotted in. This can leave a gap around the wrist and allow for water, snow or wind ingress. We will discuss why having your wrists exposed is a significant problem later, but obviously water, snow and wind will also cause problems too.
Any type of insulation is less efficient when wet. This is because air trapped within the insulation is replaced by water and water is a less efficient insulator.
Also, as water evaporates it draws away body heat. This process will be accelerated by factors like your body heat or wind. When water evaporates it draws away some heat because water vapour needs a higher energy than in its liquid state. This is how sweating cools us down.
So, keeping your gloves dry is very important, Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy when you are in wet conditions or touching snow or ice. You will also generate moisture inside through sweating. Wind will also draw away heat and so gloves generally need to be windproof.
The next big factor in keeping your hands warm falls to physiology. Humans need to stay within a certain temperature range to survive and our hands are no exception. There is only one way the body maintains this temperature. Our blood delivers heat around the the body and this includes supplying heat to our hands. If there is a reduced blood supply the temperature to the limbs will drop. Eventually, it will drop to match the ambient temperature.
The amount of blood that will reach the extremities is affected by the heart rate, the blood vessel size and the core temperature. If your heart is efficiently pumping warm blood and that blood can reach the extremities, they will be warm.
Increasing the heart rate is simple. When you exercise hard the muscles crave oxygen which is delivered by blood. To deliver this the heart rate goes up. Shivering is also a body reaction against cold. When you shiver each muscle works and this signals the brain for more oxygen.
So, to keep your hands warmer you need to exercise more. Sometimes this is an easy solution, but it can certainly be difficult when tied in at a belay stance. You may still be able to move around a small amount and that will help. Shaking the arms, dancing on a stance or running on the spot will have some benefit, although not as much as slogging up a big hill. There are also other considerations at high altitude, but this is beyond the scope of this article.
The temperature of the extremities is also hugely affected by the blood vessels. In cold temperatures the human body may react by narrowing the blood vessels to the extremities. This can become a continuing cycle. Colder blood returning to the core prompts the the body to further narrow the vessels.
This is a body response and we can’t control this. It means that if your body feels cold you have little chance of having warm hands. If you want warm hands you need to keep your core warm.
When doing stop and go activities like climbing this can be a significant problem. After the blood vessels have shrunk your hands get colder and less dextrous. You can end up in a situation where your hands stay cold all day. Whenever possible, prevention is better than cure.
We are all familiar with sweating. It is an essential body mechanism to cool down the body. It is very efficient. But, if that water is getting into insulation layers it can cause problems. Once your gloves get damp they may stay cold for the rest of the day.
When we are cold it is easy to avoid dealing with the problem. This may be because we are focussed on completing the ‘mission’ and are under time pressure. It can be because we think we should just put up with it. In later stages it can be because we lose the will to address the issue. We should always address it early on. Without taking some steps it isn’t likely to sort itself out. On any day time can always be made and you’ll probably gain it back later in improved performance anyway.
Humans generate heat from food. It is an efficient heat source and all you need to do to take advantage of it is to eat and drink enough. Some foods may improve circulation and the quality of the food you eat needs to be considered. It is also important that how much food and drink you need shouldn’t be decided according to your normal intake. You will need much more when exercising hard in cold conditions.
Keeping Your Hands Warm
So, with all that in mind, how it is possible to avoid cold hands? Here’s our list of top tips gained from many winter adventures….
Keep Your Core Warm
As explained, warm hands stems from a warm core. Dress appropriately for the conditions and take time to address problems of getting too cold as you go. It is also important to sort out problems of getting too hot. If you get too hot you’ll sweat and that can become a problem as explained above. Also, stay hydrated and well fuelled as discussed above. Finally, ensure you have the fitness needed for the activities to prevent your body having to work too hard.
Keep Your Legs Warm
Just as it is vital to keep your core warm, it’s also important not to forget your legs. Just as we’ve mentioned that the wrists are susceptible to heat less, the same applies to the lower limbs and ankles. Ensure you have carefully considered leg wear, socks and boots. You can also add extra insulation with items like gaiters and over trousers.
Equip Yourself Well
Modern clothing is better than ever and there is plenty of information available on choosing and using clothing. Just be careful because some information out there is definitely more reliable than others. Again, that’s beyond the scope of this article but we have one planned for the near future.
You need suitable clothing to keep your core warm both when you are active and when you are static. This can be a challenge as some winter activities, like climbing, are very stop and go in nature.
Carefully Consider Gloves
It pays both to experiment with what works for you and also to seek advice from reputable sources. Glove technology has come on leaps and bounds, but no one glove type will be suitable for all conditions and activities. In general, as with most equipment you get what you pay for. However, we’ve used ridiculously expensive gloves that haven’t performed that well. There is an amount of trial and error needed and most cold weather adventurers end up with a collection of types in their cupboard. We also never go out for a day in winter without spare gloves (and spares of spare gloves). Even with good management gloves will get wet and your needs and conditions will change over the course of a day. The size of your gloves is also important. Don’t choose gloves that are too tight fitting as that can restrict blood flow.
As a simple guide you are likely to want thinner ones for the walk in (and walk out) and gearing up. You can often wear warmer and thicker gloves for walking, but are likely to need more dextrous gloves when climbing. For cold weather belaying a mitten may be a good choice. Liners can add versatility sometimes too. Sometimes you will want waterproof gloves and at others a soft shell or even leather glove may be suitable. Mittens are generally warmer because your fingers aren’t separated and provide an element of warmth to each other.
Don’t Grip Too Hard
Whether you are gripping an ice axe shaft or a trekking pole, don’t grip too hard. Over gripping restricts the blood flow to the hands and, as explained above, your hands will get colder as a result. One (of many) advantages of climbing leashless is that you can easily free your hand from the axe. If you are using an ice axe leash or trekking poles make sure the wrist leash isn’t restricting the circulation. It may also be worth considering taking just a single trekking pole as this allows you to periodically alternate the hands.
Keep Your Hands Low
You want good blood flow to the extremities and this isn’t helped when your arms are raised. If you are climbing technical ground it pays to periodically drop your arm to improve flow. Once dropped, give it a good shake and move your fingers around to help improve blood flow to the hands.
Protect Your Wrists
The blood vessels runs close to the surface of the skin at the wrists and so keeping your wrists warm will keep your hands warmer. If the blood vessels leading into the hand are colder then inevitably colder blood is getting to your fingers.
So, at the very least, make sure your clothing and glove layers cover your wrists. Even better, some base layers and jackets have thumb loops to keep them pulled over the wrists. We are also big fans of dedicated wrist warmers such as the ones shown in the photo. They are light and cheap. They also make a big difference.
One big design flaw with gloves is also the big hole in the end where your hand slots in. Avoid snow or water getting in to the gloves by cinching up the wrist cord and/or using the cuff of the jacket to cover the glove top.
Get Your Systems Dialled
As with all skills, the more you experiment and practice the better you will get. Practice doing simple tasks with your gloves on and it’s surprising how good you’ll get at being able to keep even fairly bulky gloves in place. It also helps to think about making any other equipment as glove friendly as possible. For example, choose carabiners that are big enough to manage with a gloved hand or add zip pullers to jackets and rucksack zips.
Along the same lines, protect your gloves when you remove them. Brush off any snow before it melts and soaks the gloves. Similarly, if you take your gloves off and lay them in the snow they are more prone to getting wet or snow blowing inside. Heat in the glove insulation also starts to be lost. A much better alternative is to tuck your gloves inside your jacket to preserve heat. Even better if it is practical to tuck them into the inner layers. It also prevents them being blown away in windy conditions.
Once you have climbed a pitch consider swapping your gloves to something more insulating. This may help to prevent the gloves you are climbing in from getting too wet if your ropes are wet. You may also need warmer gloves for belaying as you will be standing still. Obviously, this is conditions dependent and in reality we often just use the same gloves for everything.
It is also to stay efficient on the mountain. Don’t have long breaks where hands will have time to get cold. Shorter snack breaks are preferable to a long stop. Try and choose routes so you won’t be in a queue (or time it so you are first in the queue). Be organised and quick when you stop to put on crampons or remove layers.
Warming Cold Hands
Prevention is always better than cure, but if your hands and fingers do get cold then take the time to warm them. We’ve suggested a selection of ways already, but there are also hand warmers available that may be of use.
Some are disposable ones where a chemical reaction provides warmth for a certain length of time. These are compact and convenient, but we’ve found the heat doesn’t last too long. They are also single use and so create waste.
There are also reusable hand warmers where you boil them to reactivate the system. Finally, there are lots of options on the market for rechargeable battery powered hand warmers. We have used these a lot for skiing and cold weather rock climbing. Some models also have the benefit that you can use them as an emergency phone charger. Others are available as a pair and you can then use one for each hand. Some are a single unit (see photo).
If you have quite compact hand warmers you might be able to fit them inside your gloves or mittens. Alternatively, you may be able to tuck them down the wrist of your gloves to keep the blood entering your hands warm. You can also get battery heated gloves which have a heating element built in, but expect to pay a premium price!
Another way to warm up hands can be to tuck them inside your clothing and into your armpits. Alternatively, ball up your hands inside your gloves. This works well inside mittens and can work in some types of gloves providing there is space. We do this a lot and find it a great option if, for example, waiting to climb or when sat on a ski lift.
If you have the shoulder straps of your rucksack too tight it may possibly restrict the blood flow to your arms. We aren’t sure of any scientific evidence for this, but we’ve certainly had arms feeling a bit numb when shoulder straps have been tight. To avoid this try and avoid your pack being too heavy or too tightly fastened. Or, periodically loosen the shoulder straps when you can to restore circulation.
Having cold hands and fingers can really spoil a day in the mountains. Hopefully our Keeping Your Hands Warm advice offers some simple and effective ideas to avoid hot aches and keep you performing well.
We have some other articles that may also be of interest and we are trying to add more all the time. There is a related article here on Winter Equipment that we hope you will find useful. Of course, the other key way to prepare for winter adventures may be to join us on one of our winter courses. Full details can be found here.