Cold, Cold World – Tips for Staying Warm

To better enjoy ice climbing and other sports in the cold, not to mention ensure survival, here are some tips for staying warm.

By Kitty Calhoun | November 30th, 2016

The author all smiles despite the intemperate conditions during the first ascent of Captain Calhoun (WI 5), Kono Wall, Iceland, in 2012. Photo: Jay Smith.

This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 239 (January 2017).

I awoke shivering uncontrollably. A friend and I were on a fast-and-light winter attempt of the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire, taking only a sleeping bag, water and food. My partner had become hypothermic from the continuous cold and lack of calories. He was slightly disoriented and starting to stumble. We sought shelter on the leeward side of the closed observatory on the summit of Mount Washington. I’d decided to let him rest for a couple of hours and keep an eye on him.

But I fell asleep myself, and my own core temperature dropped. Trying to get my blood circulating, I did jumping jacks, to no avail. In desperation, I pulled a Snickers bar out of my pocket and choked it down. Within a few minutes, the sugar kicked in, and my shivering subsided. Lesson learned. In the ensuing 30 years, I have learned even more about staying warm in the cold.

Predispositions to cold are affected by the insulating qualities and quantities of fat and muscle: People with more fat tend to maintain core temperature better than those with less. A woman tends to have more body fat than a man, insulating her better, but, ironically, her extremities may be colder. In a 1998 University of Utah study, researchers found women to have “cold hands, warm heart”: higher core temperatures and colder hand temperatures than men. Women also have less insulation provided by muscle. To enjoy ice climbing and other sports in the cold, not to mention ensure survival, here are some tips:

Keep your core warm, since it heats the blood that flows to your extremities. Wear a hat (wool or fleece), but contrary to the old wisdom that we lose 50 percent of our heat through our heads, heat loss there is at the same rate as any uncovered part of your body. The neck is another easy place to lose heat since it is often partly uncovered. Bring a neck gaitor, ideally wool.

Strip off clothes before you start to sweat, and put on clothes before you start to shiver. Sweat causes you to lose heat through evaporation, while shivering burns precious calories that you’ll later need for heat production.

Wear fast-drying technical fabrics or wool, including as your innermost layers. Sport tops and sports bras can retain damp and chill for hours. Wear a technical, quick-dry or merino-wool sports bra. Also try wool underwear—meaning briefs.

Use hand/foot/body chemical warmers. Lots of them. Place a peel-and-stick toe warmer to the outside of your sports bra or put one or two in your chest pockets. Stick one to four body warmer packs anywhere.

Those with Raynauds (decreased blood flow due to spasm of the arteries, usually in the hands), which is much more prevalent in women, may take a vasodilator such as Nifedipine. Also try traditional warming herbs such as cayenne, ginger and garlic.

Stay hydrated to maintain circulation. It is easy to lose fluids unknowingly in cold, dry winter weather, since you sweat less. Many of us find that if we take cold water out on a cold day, we don’t drink it. Bring a Thermos filled with a hot drink.

Eat all day. Hypoglycemia, caused by not eating enough, can impair shivering and increase the risk for hypothermia. I bring gorp and energy bars for snacks, and eat several times during the day instead of having a large lunch.

Be fit! The fitter you are, the longer you can exercise and keep warm.



1. Find joy in chemical handwarmers, including one dropped in your chalk bag to create a warm chamber. One excellent male climber totes a big chalk pot to the crag and tosses in handfuls of handwarmers. Between burns, he tucks his climbing shoes into the pot.

2. Two pairs of pants. You layer up your torso, so do the same with your legs. You may hesitate because pants are harder than upper-body layers to swap out of harnesses, but it’s worth it.

3. Wear mid-calf (wool) socks. Even an inch of skin exposed between a hem and an ankle-height sock loses heat. One climber friend cuts the feet off old wool socks and wears the sock tops above her climbing shoes.

4. Various outdoor companies make heated gloves. While they are spendy (from $200), these can keep your hands warm when you must stand still to belay.

5. Again, a damp cami or bra chills you for hours after you sweat on an approach, more so in the more moderate temps of rock climbing than on ice approaches. Tech fabrics or wool are essential.

6. Cover your neck as well as your head.


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