How to Keep Your Hands Warm on a Winter Hike

One of the best times of the year to take in the scenery and beauty of nature is during the winter. There is nothing more relaxing than taking a stroll through the wilderness with the snow glimmering on the trees and the quiet of the sleeping forest surrounding you.

The best part is that the trails are almost always empty!

Although winter time offers an amazing environment to unwind in, sub-zero temperatures and gusty winds can chill you to the bone and pose a serious risk for frostbite and hypothermia.

gloves on trekking polesCreative Commons

Why do your hands get cold before other parts of your body?

Even though you produce body heat, your hands become victim of the cold much quicker than the rest of your body. It may seem strange to you, but this is your body’s natural reaction to surviving cold temperatures.

When cold air hits your skin, your blood vessels in your extremities constrict to limit circulation. By doing this, the majority of your warm blood stays near your vital organs which are responsible for keeping you alive. This comes at the expense of your body’s extremities.

How To Use Layers Your Hands

Just as you’d use different layers of clothing on your core to keep warm, you can also use layers to keep your hands warm. Since your hands and feet are more likely to become cold quicker than your core and are especially prone to frostbite, you will want to focus first on having them layered correctly.

Your body uses about 2.6 million sweat glands to regulate body heat when it’s moving. Any amount of physical activity will create more sweat than it would if you are sitting still. When your skin is moist with sweat and the air temperatures are freezing, the moisture on your skin pulls the cold in faster.

Even if you don’t sweat much naturally, chances are you will create trace amounts that you don’t feel unless you are not wearing layers.

The Basics

It can be pretty tricky to get layering right, especially with your hands. The key is in correctly layering your clothing so that sweat dries efficiently yet allows you to have enough insulation to keep you warm. You will need:

  • Base Layer: A thin and breathable layer that fits closest to the skin between your fingers and hand. This layer works to wick sweat away from your skin, and would preferably fit your hand closely while allowing movement.
  • Insulation Layer: A heavy insulating layer that goes over the base layer. It serves to hold the majority of your body heat in and is preferably of thick, cushiony materials.
  • Shell Layer: A durable and waterproof layer that goes over the insulation layer and functions by keeping snow, rain or wind out of the inner layers. This layer may be built over an insulated glove and may preferably come with drawstrings near the wrist.

Layer Options

Base Layers: Merino Wool gloves, charged-cotton liners, or fleece liners are great choices for the base layer. They perform well removing and absorbing the sweat from your hands while allowing your body heat to breathe through to the insulation.

Insulation Layers: You can use heavy-cotton winter gloves or mittens, although mittens will be your best option because they keep all the heat in one area instead of in each individual finger.

Some include drawstrings to lock the heat in at the wrist but you should also use the cuff of your winter jacket to divert escaping heat up into your coat.

Shell Layers: Most often this layer is already built into an insulated heavy-cotton glove or mitten as a type of nylon or rubber. If your glove or mitten does not include a shell or waterproof layer, you can also use thin over mitts or gloves.

These are nice to have on hand in multiples in case the initial layers aren’t keeping your hands warm enough or if any snow gets on the gloves and makes them wet.

Hand Warmers

A great choice to improve your layering system is to include hand warmers which are little packets that can slip into your gloves or boots and provide lasting heat for a set period of time.

These air-activated pouches are composed of chemicals like iron powder, activated charcoal, sodium chloride and vermiculite which provide heat up to 1 or 2 hours. Assuming you don’t hike too far during the winter, the heat will last an almost perfect amount of time.

It’s nice to bring several hand warmers with you on a hike because they can provide instant heat for you whenever you need it. Once they wear out, you can easily slip them into your pocket and dispose of them later.

You don’t want to solely rely on hand warmers though. Just like body heat, you need the insulation and sweat-wicking layers to keep the heat inside or else it renders them useless.

Bonus tip: Hand warmers in mittens will warm up your hands very quickly!

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Recognizing Warning Signs of Frostbite

You need to remember that the most discomfort or even danger you may experience during a winter hike is the grueling cold.

Frostbite is damage that is caused to your skin which is very painful and can be permanent. This damage can become so extreme that small limbs like fingers can fall off completely. Some signs of frostbite include:

  • Cold and prickly feeling on the skin
  • Numbness
  • Red, white, blue or yellow-colored skin
  • Hard, waxy or cracked-appearing skin
  • Difficult to move joints or muscle stiffness

Frostbite has been known to occur even when having gloves on and can be especially difficult to detect when your skin is already numb. That is why it’s important that you keep your hands warm and dry.

Don’t stay out much longer than you need to if you do notice signs of frostbite. You should also seek medical attention if you suspect you have frostbite or severe pain from the cold.

Wrapping Up

During this time of the year, hiking can be a wonderful experience but can also become dangerous if you’re not prepared and dressed warmly. When focusing on having proper layers for your hands, you can count on your hiking trip to be comfortable and enjoyable. Don’t forget to pack backup layers or hand warmers and if the basic layers aren’t enough.

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