How to keep your hands warm this winter
09 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
Whether it’s ice or mixed climbing, mountaineering, winter rock or just making snowballs with the kids, getting cold hands and hot aches just isn’t fun. On hard climbs were tools are used leashless, or when you’re forced to crimp and jam with your fingertips, having dull blocks of ice attached to the ends of your arms can make these things feel impossible and terrifying, and on exposed faces and summits frozen hands and fingers may never thaw out, and once they stop working you’re really in trouble! So how do you avoid getting frozen hands? Well the simple answer is to sit in an nice comfy chair beside a big fire, and cradle a cup of warm milk in them. Is that solution not good enough? Have you got routes that need slaying, artic climbs you want to do, winter ascents begging to be deflowered? Well if that’s the case you need to understand one thing:-
A few years ago I made the first winter ascent of the East Face of Mermoz in Patagonia, one of the coldest routes I ever did. On it I wore a pair of Black Diamond Drytool gloves under a pair of Lowe Alpine fleece mitts – the ones you could flip your fingers out off. This combination allowed me to hold my tools well, jam and grab, and place gear without dropping it down the crag. On such a route you really needed big down or synthetic filled mitts, but these were out of the question on such a technical climb. A few months later someone was asking me about climbing in such conditions and they said “How do you keep your hands warm” to which I answered “my hands are always in agony – it’s when they stop hurting that I get worried”. This leads us onto:-
The most important thing when climbing in cold conditions is that you never ignore your hands – if you do you may lose them. This means that you need to be constantly moving them, rubbing them, warming them up, replacing frozen gloves – anything that will stop them from freezing. If you feel your tips going dangerously numb mid crux, hang on some pro and sort them out. Flesh can freeze very quickly if it’s cold, windy and your gloves are damp. The problem is that this ability to know what your fingers can take only comes with experience, so when starting out use caution. Personally I always have a pair of super warm mitts in reserve, so that if I find that no matter how I try to squeeze some heat into my hands they stay cold, them I can bang on my mitts and warm them up.
Anyway I thought perhaps I’d just give a long list of random ideas that have worked for me over the years and you can see what works for you.
Having thick warm mitts in the top pocket of a pack is no good if retreaving them’s a chore – meaning you’re likely to forgoe the hassle. Having mitts clipped to the back of a harness, or stashed in a bum bag, means when you get to the belay you can quickly replace those skimpy gloves by instantly driving your hands into your mitts, meaning they warm up and are ready for the next lead. The most important thing when clipping mitts to yourself is that they can’t fill with snow – which they will do if clipped conventionally, even if you cinch them shut (spindrift WILL get through). The only option is to hang them upside side, with the fingers pointing skywards, by having a loop sewn in at the finger end (either factory or self sewn), or by folding the mitts in half and securing them so that snow can’t get in. Carrying a bum bag is another option, and this can also contain food, water etc (stow all other items in a small stuff sack secured to the bum bag so when you pull out your mitts everything fall out!).
They’re cheap and can make a big difference, easily placed inside mitts, or inside gloves, or even in the wrist of a jacket in order to warm the blood going into your hands. Personally I don’t use hand warmers because over dependence will cost you money over time, and if things are that bad, and you can’t do anything without them – them maybe you should take up surfing.
Loved by fisherman and painters – these old school hand warmers feature a two part slim metal body that accepts charcoal sticks that are lit and then slowly burn – giving hours of heat. These of course can’t be placed inside your gloves, but they can be placed in pockets to warm fingers, or in mitts (not if they’re hanging from your harness) so you have toasty mitts straight off. These burners can also be used on cold bivys, placed between the legs to warm up your feet and kick off the bags warmth.
Having an auto locking belay plate like a Petzl Reverso means you can warm your hands up while the second’s coming up, giving you chance to warm them rather than having them clamped to the rope.
I find that repeatedly warming your hands can get them through a cold stretch, perhaps climbing a cold pitch of rock with out gloves. This can mean a quick reheat between moves, warming your fingers just enough to feel what you’re holding. One thing I avoid is breathing on my hands, as this increases evaporative heat loss (via the dampness in your breath). A better solution is place your fingers on your neck, in your hair, or under an arm pit. Just hold it for a few seconds then carry on. Another option is to keep rubbing them hard, which not only increases blood flow, but also helps to reduce evaporate heat loss – as you tend t wipe moisture off as you do so. Also don’t forget the child hood trick up just pulling your hands up into your sleeves.
This will constrict your blood vessels. Save the parting for the evening.
Try not to get too hyped up as being tense will make your hands cold. Think about other things – probably warm things.
Your wrists are a major source of heat loss, so you need to keep them covered – either by wearing garments that feature thumb loops in the sleeve, or by buying/making wrist-overs, that extend down over the wrist. This can be easily made from a pair of socks and work well with or without a thumb loop.
If you’re dehydrated you blood flow will decrease to your extremities, meaning cold fingers and toes. Also eating some fat will boost your warmth – so maybe take along a bit of sausage!
Rotate the shoulders forward up and back in a circular motion for about 30 seconds, then rotate the wrists in both directions for the same length of time. Another option is to make a fist without bending your fingers (The final joint of your fingers is not bent.)
Having your hands above your head is a great way to get cold hands – so having the ability to shake them out is vital, meaning either leashless tools or tools with clipper leashes. A tight leash will also restrict circulation.
If your hands are cold stick on another hat!
If your gloves are very thin, then it means they probably won’t be be able to trap trap much dead air when wet - meaning they won’t give you a ‘wet warmth’. This means continuing to wear them when damp could result in colder rather than warmer hands. Try to get gloves that hold enough air when Wet (or still water) so that you can get a ‘wetsuit’ warmth going.