Keeping our hands warm in winter is a common topic of conversation and an area of confusion for some. The idea of needing the most expensive gloves on the market, or buying the thickest pair possible, is not necessarily the only way to go about keeping your hands warmer. I hope to share with you some tried and tested top tips.
Work from the Inside out
I know we said we were talking about hands, but one of the biggest ways to keep our extremities like hands and feet warm, is to have a warm core… the old saying 'warm heart means warm hands'.
Multiple layers in good 'wicking' materials. In winter we want to be able to keep layering up without needing to remove any of our under layers. Using wicking materials ( not cotton!) helps to keep any moisture away from the body and a variety of thickness layers, usually getting thicker the further to the exterior they are going to be. Thick synthetic jacket always goes on last.
I am a fan of keeping my legs warm. I first read about warm legs in Will Gadd's book 'Ice and mixed climbing'. He talks about wearing two pairs of thermal trousers under his shell trousers and then changing the layers on his upper body to suit the level of activity. I find this works really well as the thigh muscle is large and can loose a lot of heat when standing around. Warm legs also help to keep the feet warm. On very cold winter days I will sometimes have three layers of thermal trousers on underneath my shell trousers. It is then possible to take off upper layers for the walk in and replace them if you are standing around belaying or moving more slowly navigating.
Fuel: Keeping the fire stoked during a long day out. Starting the day on a good breakfast makes a world of difference in winter. Even with a really early start I have trained myself to take on a good protein packed breakfast. This usually has time to begin digesting on the drive, but keeps you going well into the morning. Then keep adding to this. Plenty of pocket snacks to keep the fuel topped up. I have experimented with cheese, nuts, cereal bars, small jacket potato's, home made energy balls, peanut butter and jam sandwiches. It is great to keep experimenting, something tasty to eat can be a big moral booster on a long winter day and plenty of fats and protein helps the energy to last for longer.
Fluid: Hydration is vital, it actually helps to keep our circulation running properly which in turn helps to keep our extremities like hands warm. I like to try and keep weight down on the hill to conserve energy, so usually I find 1 – 1.5 litres is enough to carry. I make sure this is warm fluid, either in a flask or well wrapped to stop it cooling too quick or freezing. Wrap a hot drinks bottle in your belay jacket to keep the drink warm and your belay jacket pre heated. Ginger is great for circulation, so I tend to put ginger cordial in my flask or chunks of fresh ginger. The fiery flavour makes you feel warmer too.
I hear you ask: how do we stay properly hydrated with just 1 litre? I try to drink a couple of litres of fluid before leaving the house and on the drive to the location. I take on the same amount when I return to the car. Be prepared with snacks and fluid in the car ready for your return and get these into your system as soon as you can. Continue to re hydrate during the evening in preparation for the next day.
Hare V Tortoise – Efficiency is more important than speed
Be bold start cold is an old favourite and it does work well. Leaving the warmth of the car can be the hardest part, but it is worth starting without too many clothes on. Once your body warms up you often find you needed a lot less clothing. What we want to avoid in winter, is getting wet. This can be a struggle just with the weather, as Scotland has a maritime climate and receives plenty of moisture. So we can help ourselves by not sweating as well. Get your layers right for the temperature and the level of activity and then stick with your pace. If you reach a rest point or a change in activity then you can re adjust the layers.
Top tips for efficiency
Being efficient is massively beneficial in winter. The less time you stop, the less you get cold and need to adjust layers or waste time which you then need to make back by walking too fast and sweating. This can become a viscous cycle making for an uncomfortable and exhausting day out. I have listed some of my top tips for being more efficient.
> Have your map and compass to hand at all times.
> Have snacks to hand at all times
> Have gloves, hats and buffs accessible easily so that you can fine tune your temperature without rummaging around in your bag.
> Slide your ice axe down the back of your rucksack when it is not needed so you can use it any time again easily. See an article here for further ice axe tips: www.ukclimbing.com/articles/skills/essential_winter_skills_walking_with_an_ice_axe-7018
> If one person needs to stop, do all your re adjusting (faffing) at the same time.
> Research and memorise your route the night before so you don't need to spend ages working it out when you are in the car park.
These are just a few top tips I find useful, we would love to find out about any of your efficiency top tips in the comments at the bottom.
Some people unfortunately struggle with poor circulation before even going out in winter, which means they need to manage their temperature even more closely. However it is easily over looked and can make a massive difference. For warm feet it is often thought more socks will help, but sometimes it does the opposite and constricts the blood flow because it is all too tight inside your boots and therefore makes the feet colder rather than warmer. Top tip number one is:
This is where having age 10 hands has come as a blessing in disguise. I have always struggled to find adult gloves that fit my hands properly and have found I generally don't struggle too badly with cold hands. There is usually some 'dead space' in the ends of each finger of my gloves. This can make handling maps, or climbing gear a bit more tricky, but with practise you get used to this and adapt. This space allows some air in the fingers of my gloves which is a good insulator and heats up to help keep my hands warm. The blood flow is also not constricted at the thumb or anywhere else. I would suggest getting slightly larger gloves and practise around the house wearing them until you can do most tasks with this extra space in the fingers.
Watch on the outside of jacket
A watch is a handy navigational tool in winter and doesn't want to be left behind. But they can be bulky and difficult to fit under layers without stopping circulation or blood flow through to your hands. So instead, when the layering has been comfortably adjusted, put your watch over your jackets, so it is easy to see and much better for your circulation. To improve this further, exchange your watch strap for a sturdy elastic strap so you can easily place it over your jacket with gloves on. Another option is to attach your watch to your rucksack instead.
If you have been managing all of these other areas but are still getting cold hands, it could be due to cold air or even snow getting in around your wrist, especially when climbing, as our arms are extended and a short sleeve will soon become too short. An easy fix for this is to recycle some old thin socks and turn them into fingerless wrist warmers, held on by the thumb. Or buy some wrist warmers. These can cover the gap between glove and jacket and keep the thin skinned area of your wrist a bit warmer so the blood travelling to your hands has a better chance of staying warm. In summer the wrist is a good place to cool, to in reducing someone's temperature. Therefore it works well to think about this in reverse and keep the wrist warm in winter.
Keeping your gloves dry
This can be tricky to achieve on a damp Scottish day where perhaps many extra pairs of gloves is wise. However there are still things we can do to help keep our gloves dry for longer.
Different gloves for different occasions.
When I am out in the mountains in winter, I carry a minimum of four pairs of gloves.
One thinner pair for the walk in to a climb or general walking around, good with poles but not great for holding an ice axe.
One medium thickness pair for all day activities (water proof).
One pair of thick gloves for when things get really chilly or the other two pairs are wet (waterproof).
One pair of Dachstein mitts or similar which usually don't get used but are there for emergency and will fit anyone.
Never put gloves on the ground
This is a rule for me which occasionally I break at the start of the season and never do again. If you put them down, they either tend to blow away, fill with snow, or get buried. All of these lead to cold, wet hands. If you need to take off your gloves, put them inside your bag, or better still, inside your jacket. They stay warm and dry here. Often when climbing I will have two pairs of gloves. One pair for climbing in, which usually get wet. One pair for belaying in, which stay dry and warm for standing around. The belaying pair always go inside my jacket while I climb.
Drying your gloves
If you are spending multiple days out in winter, with a select pair of gloves, getting your gloves dry in the evening can be a challenge. A good tip I learnt from a friend is to place your gloves on top of some empty beer bottles, on top of the radiator. The air inside the beer bottle heats and can travel inside the glove for better internal drying.
If you are staying out in a bothy or snow hole over night, you may want to try and dry your gloves over night. I find the best way, is to put them around your chest, inside your sleeping bag, over night and they are certainly warm if not dry in the morning.
Where you put your hands
You may spend quite a lot of the day with your hands on an ice axe or even two. Some ice axes come with insulation over the main handle, but is worth insulating more of the axe for a more comfortable day and better grip. It is easy to buy insulation tape which you can wrap around the axe to add better insulation from the cold metal.
Hands below heart
Walking with poles can be helpful in winter, to help stream crossings, rough ground, breaking trail in deep snow. However if the poles are too long, the hands can become elevated and the body has to work harder to pump the blood against gravity to keep them warm. So I recommend making sure your poles are slightly shorter, especially in snow, where they can end up elevated somewhat. Below heart height is a good starting place.
Hopefully this has given you some ideas on how to improve the warmth of your hands during winter and make for more enjoyable days out. If you have any of your own top tips, please get involved in the comments below, we love to hear new ideas. For more information on our range of courses, winter skills, winter mountaineering and winter climbing check out our website or email us for more details.
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