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How to Winterize your Toes and Fingers

Thermal convection from hand to the surrounding still atmosphere Photo By Gary Settles via Wiki Commons
Thermal heat loss from the hand to the surrounding atmosphere. Photo: Gary Settles [Wiki Commons]

Despite covering your hands and feet during frigid weather, you still find yourself suffering from icy toes and fingers. There are a couple of reasons why this happens. Your extremities are the furthest point from your torso (core), which is generating heat. If you do not have enough insulation covering your torso, your hands and toes will get colder. When the core is cold, blood is pulled away from the extremities, which makes the feet and toes feel colder. Sometimes an extra mid-layer shirt or a warm hat will do more to keep the extremities warm than adding layers on the hands or feet. Also, drinking warm fluids will help warm up your core temperature quickly. Once your core is warm, excess heat is distributed to the extremities.

What else can you do? Additional protection for your hands and feet may be warranted. We’ll start with the toes.

Toes tend to get the brunt of the cold and numbness. That is because

  • Feet are subject to conductive cooling through the soles of your shoes.
  • Feet sweat a lot. Shoes hold in moisture, and remember, wetness robs heat – a rate up to 25 times more.
  • Tight fitting shoes which constrict blood flow – often caused by extra thick socks or tightly laced boots.

felt insoles

1. Thick Shoe Soles

Make sure your shoes have a thick sole to prevent heat loss when the sole contacts the ground. Sometimes replacing (or supplementing) worn out insoles is all that is necessary. If you are replacing the inner sole, try wool or acrylic felt/fleece for the most warmth.

2. Sock Liners

Another option is to add sock liners underneath your insulating socks. Liners are thin socks made of a wicking material, such as polyester or nylon. Black dress socks are almost always polyester and will save you the money of purchasing “thermal” sock liners. Make sure the liner is very thin and fits tight so that it does not add any bulk or cut off circulation. You should be able to wiggle your toes freely inside your shoes with both the liner and sock. Wearing sock liners will keep your toes warmer because the added layer will insulate and keep the feet drier by wicking away moisture. Make sure your socks are the correct size. An oversized sock will bunch up and lead to blisters.

3. Toe Covers

Neoprene shoe covers intended for cycling

If you still have cold toes after following these steps, try toe covers. Windchill is a factor for activity taking place at higher speeds, such as cycling or skiing. Cover shoes by adding a windproof material, such as neoprene, over footwear.

An inexpensive and simple short-term fix to keep your feet dry in snow and rain, and to protect from the wind, is to use plastic bags. Find two long plastic bags that will fit over your shoes or between 2 layers of socks. If you put the bag over your liner sock, it is less likely to get holes while walking around. Your shoes will still get wet, but your feet won’t. The elongated Subway sandwich bags or bread bags work well for this purpose. Just don’t use the bags long-term.  Eventually, your feet will perspire, and the bag will prevent air to circulate.

4. Warming Inserts

Another option is foot warmer inserts. You are probably already familiar with the disposable chemical inserts. An eco-friendly option is a battery operated foot warmer insole system made by Hotronic.

Keeping the fingers warm

Obviously, the first defense for keeping fingers warm is to cover them by wearing either gloves or mittens. Looks for those that have adjustable cuffs to keep out snow and insulate the wrist – an area of high heat loss. The cuff should be high enough to cover your wrist and allow you to adjust it for a snug fit.

All things being equal (the type of fabric and insulation), mittens are the most effective way for keeping hands and fingers warm. Mittens trap body heat by keeping your fingers together and reducing evaporative heat loss. The downside of mittens is that they offer the least amount of dexterity and grip. A good compromise for cycling is the 3-finger lobster-claw style gloves. These offer more dexterity than mittens, but also keep fingers warmer because each finger does not have a seam for cold air to escape to.

If you prefer gloves, try the layering trick. Wear a tight fitting silk or polyester liner followed by a larger outer glove (or mitten) lined with a warm fleece and a weatherproof exterior shell, such as neoprene. Like clothing, a layered system for the hands is the proven method for keeping fingers warm.

campire drying socksDrying Socks & Gloves

Feet sweat more than any other part of the body, and you might think of using a campfire or the heat generated from your camp stove to dry your wet gloves or socks. This is not a good idea. Synthetic materials can melt if placed too close to heat or fire. Place your wet socks or gloves inside your sleeping bag instead. They’ll be warm and dry from your body heat by morning.

Do you have any tips that you use to keep your fingers and toes warm?

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