My friend’s husband is recovering from a stroke in a long-term care facility. Because of Covid restrictions, when we go to visit him, we have to trudge around the perimeter of the building and stand outside his window to talk to him. I only do this for an hour or so once a week, but winter here in the Pacific Northwest serves plenty of cold, wet weather with a side of soggy and miserable. I learned pretty quickly I had to make different choices if I wanted to keep my hands and feet warm on my weekly visits.
Guiding those choices was the overarching principle that it’s better and easier to keep warm than to get warm. If you have to get warm, you’re already behind the curve. So, let’s talk about how to be ahead of the curve and stay there.It’s better and easier to keep warm than to get warm. Timeless tips for keeping hands and feet warm in cold weather. Click To Tweet
Warm hands and feet begin with your core
But wait, you say, I want to know how to keep my hands and feet warm, not how to keep my core warm.
Ah, but toasty hands and feet begin with your core.
A cold core performs as designed and pulls warmth from your extremities—your hands and feet—to warm vital organs. Keep your core content, and it will gladly leave your limbs alone. To help me maintain a happy little core (apologies to Bob Rossi,) this article upped my layering game along with this one by prepper expert, Jim Cobb.
With properly protected vital organs, I could turn my attention to keeping my hands and feet warm.
How to warm your hands
Whoever thought of the fluffy platitude ‘Cold hands, warm heart’ is a nincompoop. Cold hands equal miserableness, period. Fortunately, good options abound these days.
Chemical hand warmers
Is there any survival kit out there that doesn’t contain a few chemical hand warmers? Requiring no special equipment to use and providing warmth upwards of eight hours or more, they’re great for personal heat on demand. Put them in mittens and gloves or in pockets; one woman living through Texas’ recent mini ice age even put them in her bra.*
These aren’t reusable, though, so if you only need heat for a couple of hours, then a lot of their heat energy is wasted. Catalytic chemical hand warmers offer a refillable variation, but you’ll need to keep fuel on hand.
Electric hand warmers
Electric hand warmers have been game-changers for me for daily use. I frequently need heat-on-demand but, as in visiting my friend’s husband, only for short amounts of time. These USB-rechargeable devices have variable heat settings and double as power banks. Depending on battery life and heat setting, they can heat for as little as two to four hours before recharging.
These aren’t the best choice if you need to be able to use your hands, but for other situations, I now use an electric handwarmer and save the chemical warmers for long-term use or for when they need to be rotated.
If you want to be able to use your hands AND have control over the length of time you have heat, then electric gloves might be your jam. Differences in insulation, heat time, battery types, water and windproofing, and touch screen compatibility offer plenty of options. Prices range from the cost of a few fancy coffees to as high as your eldest child plus a kidney, so you’ll want to think carefully about your desired features to get the best value.
Mittens vs. gloves
Generally speaking, properly fitted mittens, which allow your fingers to share warmth, keep your hands warmer than properly fitted gloves. But for dexterity, go for the gloves, again fitted properly. Both mittens and gloves are available with pockets designed to hold chemical hand warmers for an extra boost of warmth if needed.
Liners for added warmth
For both mittens and gloves, liners can add another layer to your warm hands’ strategy, especially if you are sans a chemical or electric warming option. They also keep your hands from exposure if you need to remove your shell layer to perform tasks requiring more fine muscle coordination. Look for touch screen compatibility if you want to use them with electronic devices.
Muffs got a reboot and returned to their roots, sort of. Worn like a fanny pack with an adjustable strap, these are another good option if you don’t need to use your hands frequently, or if you need warmth in between activities requiring dexterity. Hunters, especially, seem to like them. They also come with rechargeable battery packs or built-in pockets for chemical warmers.
How to warm your feet
Due to conductive cooling, my feet were the first place I felt cold while standing in one spot outside my friend’s window at the care facility. Despite a bit of dancing from foot to foot, the cold ground sucked body heat out the soles of my feet like a Harry Potter Dementor. Being a Muggle with zero magic at my disposal, I had to find other options. (For more info about foot care in general, read this.)
Chemical foot and toe warmers
If you don’t already have a foot or toe version in your survival kits along with the hand variety, I highly recommend them as the quickest way to warm your feet. Despite the pre-set heat time, I find I wear these until their heat energy is spent, without becoming too hot, even indoors. However, if you want reusability, consider other options.
Thermal and electric insoles
If you want to save the chemical insoles for emergencies only, then thermal insoles might be the ticket. Thermal insoles rely on insulating materials to help keep feet warmer at a lower price point. However, if you need to turn up the heat, rechargeable varieties, some with remote control operation, are available.
Although they do add another layer to your feet, one of the best reasons for adding sock liners to your cold-weather arsenal is for their moisture-wicking ability. By transporting sweat away from feet to the outer sock to evaporate, feet stay warmer. Pay attention to overall thickness when you start adding layers to your feet, though. Too much bulk and your shoes become too tight, restricting blood flow, and causing the very coldness you’re trying to prevent.
Thermal and electric socks
Sleep eludes me if my feet are cold, so I wear thermal socks to bed. While the particular pair I wear are wonderful for this purpose, they’re far too chunky to wear comfortably with any shoes I own, so they’re no good for lengthy visits outside long-term care facility windows. At some point I’ll pick up a thinner pair to try; if they work as well as my nighttime version, they’ll be brilliant.
Electric socks also sit at the top of my wish list. Available with regular replaceable batteries or rechargeable ones, they offer similar features as electric insoles, including the option of remote control.
Fit and fiber are also important for warm hands and feet
In all your choices, the fit is important. Too tight and your circulation is impaired which will lead to chill. Too loose and the layers fail to properly insulate.
Equally important, though, is to remember that moisture is an enemy of warmth. Water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, so the material of gear is key. Think about how easily you get cold, what your expected activity level will be, and what the conditions will be, and then choose materials accordingly. Wool, silk, and synthetics are good choices. Avoid cotton. It absorbs and traps 27 times its weight in water (including sweat), losing its insulating properties.
How I kept my feet and hands warm
My head-to-toe light, breathable layers work well for hiking, but not so much for standing still in cold temperatures. I either started entertaining my friends and the rest of the care facility with jumping jacks and burpees, or I adjusted my gear for the activity level. Although laughter is good for the soul, I chose to focus on my clothing rather than exercising.
Since sweat wasn’t an issue, I swapped for some warmer fabrics and added liners to my mittens. Thermal insoles combined with chemical toe warmers in my shoes addressed the effects of conductive cooling.
Hopefully, my friend’s husband will be discharged soon, but until then, my updated strategy to keep my hands and feet warm while visiting appears to be working. My fickle fingers and toes are behaving themselves.
P.S. Find out how The Survival Mom stayed warm while traveling in Iceland (brrr!) in this article!
*Package directions warn against placing warmers directly against the skin.
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