Some of us are blessed with living in climates that remain warm all year, and the thought of traveling to a cold destination can be off-putting and interfere with what might otherwise be a wonderful travel experience.
Speaking as one who has enjoyed considerable time in Russia over many mid-winter seasons, the happy reality is that there are only a very few truly extreme locations in the world where extreme cold needs to be a consideration in your travel planning (and, perhaps surprisingly, Russia is not one of those few places to be worried about).
Most of Europe – at least the types of places commonly visited by tourists – seldom or never get ‘too cold’, assuming you exercise a reasonable amount of prudence with what you wear.
This issue particularly came to light when a couple cancelled off our Christmas Cruise this year, because of concerns about the weather being impossibly cold for them. I checked – the average temperatures in their home city were only 5° F (2.8° C) warmer than the truly moderate and above freezing average temperatures of the places they decided not to visit in Europe. That’s hardly a compelling reason to cancel an otherwise wondrous and reasonably mild late fall travel experience.
Perhaps that points to the first aspect of keeping warm when traveling – do some research and understand what the temperatures are actually likely to be.
How Cold Will it Actually Be?
It is either an unusually wise man – or, more commonly, a fool – who claims to be able to predict the weather more than a few days out. But we can see historical averages for most medium and larger sized cities, and while they don’t guarantee that the temperature at the same time this year will be the same as these averages, it gives us a range of temperatures to plan around.
Better weather sites tell you more than just an overly simplistic average temperature per month. They might tell you, day by day, not just the average temperature but also the range of temperatures for each day – average daily high, average daily low, and also extreme daily high and extreme daily low. Some sites even show temperature bands for different percentile ranges of temperature, giving you a huge amount of temperature information.
In addition, you might also want to know about snow and or rain – both in terms of total amount of precipitation and also the number of days on which it occurs – there’s clearly a big difference between a month with 6″ of rain, all of which occurs on one day only in a single brief massive downpour, and a month with 6″ of rain but spread over 24 days, each with an annoying ¼” of rain.
Another factor in cold weather can be wind – stronger winds make the felt temperature and cooling effect much worse than gentle or no winds, so it is helpful to understand about wind as well.
Here’s an example of a great set of data – this for Prague in December. The only possible ‘trap’ on this site is to always be aware of the chart scales – they don’t go from 0 – 100 or whatever, but tend to focus in on just a relevant section of the scale, and so you might see two similar seeming charts, but with different temperature ranges on the scale which means the results, while looking pictorially the same, are actually very different!
In addition to browsing this Weatherspark site, and in particular, loading their Dashboard, you can readily find weather information just by searching in Google for the city or region name and then something like ‘weather averages for (month)’ or ‘average temperatures for (month), or a similar phrase, for example : Prague average weather for December.
Don’t forget, also, to match this data up against similar data for your home city. You know what it feels like and what to expect, but you might be surprised at how it is reported on these sites, and this helps you better understand the ‘apples for apples’ comparison.
Fighting the Cold in General
Now, for a very important thing to ensure your comfort. Keep yourself warm and anticipate the cold. Please do not wait until you feel cold before adding another layer. If you wait until you start to feel cold, you’ve placed yourself ‘behind the eight ball’ and your body now has to both keep up and catch up – that’s a lot harder than merely needing to keep up, all the time.
So, anticipate the cold by adding extra clothing before you get cold, and leave it on until you’ve warmed up when you go into buildings or into other heated areas. Try to never start feeling cold, because once the cold sets in, it is very hard to shake it off again.
If at all possible, put your outer layers on before leaving a warm place. That way, you’re trapping warm air between your clothing layers, rather than cold air. It is easier to keep this air at its present temperature than it is to trap cold air once you get outside, and need to then expend energy warming it up.
We’re not going to discuss the types of warm clothing available to you, other than to mention three important items you might not automatically consider. Hat, scarf and gloves.
You might have heard stories about how the body loses 40% – 50% of all its heat through your head. Actually, although popularly cited, the statistic is wrong. It is true to say ‘a fully dressed in warm clothes person loses 40% of their heat through their head’ but that is different to saying that 40% of all your heat goes out your head. This article (and plenty of others) rebuts this old wives’ tale and explains how it arose back in the 1950s.
But, even so, you do lose some heat through your head and neck, and it is a very simple thing to stick a hat on top and to wrap a scarf around your neck. This will greatly improve your feeling of comfort and will reduce your overall heat loss. Neither a scarf nor a hat needs to be particularly bulky or heavy, so they are good things to be sure to travel with.
Gloves are also close to essential, both to keep you warm and also to keep your fine motor skills in your hands rather than becoming cold and clumsy (then the next thing you know, you’ve dropped your expensive camera or phone (not sure which is worse these days!) and either damaged or lost it. So do keep your hands warm and functioning well.
And now for hand warmers. They can be a great comfort on a cold day – and don’t forget there are also toe warmers and even ‘body warmers’ too. Why be unnecessarily cold when you can conveniently bring your own portable micro-heater with you, wherever you go?
There are four types of hand warmer commonly found. They are each very different to the other, so let’s consider each of them in turn.
Reusable Hand Warmers
For many people, the idea of a reusable hand warmer has an intuitive appeal, because of the ability to reuse them time and time again.
These devices typically work by means of a chemical reaction which releases heat when a substance changes from liquid to solid. A metal clicker type device inside the pack is snapped to initiate the reaction, and then for the next 15 – 60 minutes (usually in this time range) the unit gives off heat while converting from a liquid to a hard solid.
To reuse, you place the device in boiling water for 5 – 15 minutes (or sometimes even microwave it) and it converts back to a liquid.
The units can remain in their liquid form for an extended time, awaiting activation.
That’s the good news part. The not so good news is that their heat emitting properties are moderate rather than strong, and they only give out heat for 15 – 45 minutes. That’s too short for most of the situations most people would want hand warmers for. And, for many people, when traveling it may not be convenient to find a source of boiling water in which to reactivate the units.
So while these are good for ‘around the house’ type use if you’re going to pottering out in the yard for a while, they’re perhaps not as practical for people traveling away from home.
Electric Hand Warmers
Electric hand warmers are available both with rechargeable batteries or powered by single use (typically AA) batteries.
Two of the better brands for rechargeable hand warmers seem to be Sunpentown and Sanyo Eneloop. But, as best we can tell from carefully reading through a broad range of user reviews, you’ll probably get between one and three hours of moderate heat emitting from these units per charge. That is definitely better than the reusable chemical units mentioned above, but it is unlikely to be sufficient for a tourist doing a half day or longer sightseeing tour of a city somewhere.
They are also moderately expensive up front – $30 – $40 each (and of course you want two – one for each hand).
There are also some electric hand warmers that use one, two or three AA batteries (and possibly other models using AAA batteries too) to provide a source of heat. It seems these give out not much heat, and for not much more than an hour or so, at the end of which, you’ve of course drained your battery and need to put in a new one to keep the heat flowing.
Maybe that is acceptable, but in such a case, it begs the question – if you’re now using single use rather than multi use devices, why not keep it low tech and buy regular single use hand warmers instead? They’ll give you more heat, for longer and for less money than battery-powered electric warmers.
Which brings us to :
Single Use Hand Warmers
For most people, these will probably be the best approach. While it seems regrettable to use something once then throw it away, they are inexpensive and effective and present as a great solution for most people and situations.
A typical single use hand warmer is a small little fabric type packet of iron granules mixed together with several other chemicals that essentially serve to cause the iron to rust at an accelerated rate, giving off heat during its rusting process. They are kept in airtight barrier pouches, and when you open the pouch, the oxygen in the air provides the missing ingredient to enable the rust (ie oxidization) process to occur.
Different formulations provide heat output for varying amounts of time, and most commonly, you’ll find they provide 5 – 10 hours of warmth.
The little packet/pouch is usually about 1.5″ across, about 3″ long, and about 1/3rd of an inch thick. It weighs typically 0.5 – 1.0 ounces. One of the good things of these packets is because they have granules inside, they will conform to the size and shape of your hand, enabling you to clutch them tightly and get maximum heat transfer from them.
A set of two hand warmers (ie one for each hand) typically sells from 75c to $1 or so on places such as Amazon, depending on the product and the quantity you buy.
Our sense is that the best brand is the Grabbers brand, and generally we prefer their 7+ hour to their 10+ hour product, because most of the time, seven hours is enough, and our sense is that the seven hour product gives slightly more heat, which makes sense because its reaction is occurring slightly more quickly. The ten-hour warmers are also slightly more expensive.
Testing done by a reader suggested that the 7+ hour Grabber hand warmers continued to give appreciable heat for up to about 8.5 hours and possibly longer. I tested some Little Hottie units, rated at ‘Up to 8 hours’, but which dropped down to insignificant heat levels at about the 5.5 hour point. While these are subjective measurements, the enormous difference between 8.5 hours for the Grabber units and 5.5 hours for the Little Hottie means that even after allowing for the imprecision of subjective measurements, clearly the Grabber units are superior. At the same time the Grabber units were still providing heat, the Little Hotties had become inert and were cool to the touch.
Other reviews by people who have tried multiple brands tend to bear this out.
Liquid Fuel Hand Warmers
Until researching this article, I’ve sometimes encountered advertisements for the Zippo Hand Warmer, a device that looks like an oversize Zippo lighter, and rolled my eyes at the thought of putting a device with a burning flame in one’s pocket. Maybe you’ve seen the product too and thought the same.
I was mistaken. The Zippo product uses a catalytic conversion process to flamelessly and therefore safely convert its lighter fluid fuel into heat. Yes, you could say the fuel still ‘burns’ inasmuch as it oxidizes and produces heat, but it doesn’t create a dangerous/dirty flame as part of this process.
Thus corrected, I ordered one from Amazon to test. The good news – you can get long-lasting heat from the unit (up to about 12 hours), and usually the heat is greater than from any of the other types of hand warming product. Plus, it is re-usable – just add lighter fluid to recharge it, and off you go again.
So, what’s not to like? Alas, quite a lot.
The first challenge is that the unit is surprisingly big. Remember the single use sachets that measure about 1.5″ across, about 3″ long, and about 1/3rd of an inch thick? Well, the Zippo device is more like 2.6″ by 4.0″ and 0.6″ thick at its thickest part. Much more than twice the size, and while you might think ‘What’s wrong with that – more warmth to savor on a cold day’, that’s not quite the way it works in practice.
Firstly, only about half the Zippo heats up. The bottom half is its fuel reservoir and stays reasonably cool, only the top half is the burner.
Secondly, its large and solid shape doesn’t fit in most people’s hands as conveniently as the moldable packets of granules do, making for less effective heat transfer. This would particularly be an issue for women with smaller hands, not quite such an issue for men with larger hands.
Thirdly, while on the face of it, the unit should be cheaper to use than disposable hand warmers, that’s not necessarily the case. Although the upfront cost is minimal (about $12 – $15 each on Amazon) it consumes lighter fluid (just under half an ounce for about 6 hours in my testing), which, if you’re buying regular Zippo lighter fluid means about 40c per use. You also need to replace the catalyst every 70 – 80 uses, and that’s about another 12c or so per use. Which means you’re now spending about 50c per use of the Zippo, and you need two (one for each hand) which brings the cost up to a dollar, which compares quite closely to the typical 75c – $1 cost of a pair of disposable hand warmers.
Of course, the main issue here is not cost but effectiveness, and the Zippo does give off more heat, and – if you fill it all the way – will do so reliably for a longer time, although it is not as easy to ‘use’ the heat.
There are two more considerations. The first is that you are not allowed to fly with lighter fluid in either your checked or carry on baggage (although if you were to fill a perfume bottle with it and put it in your checked bag, that might slip under the TSA radar), and finding lighter fluid at your destination may prove to be a non-trivial task. Fewer people smoke, and fewer of the remaining smokers use ‘old fashioned’ lighter fluid type lighters. Furthermore, you may need quite a lot – a standard 4 ounce can of fluid will only last maybe four days, depending on how much of a fill you give your warmers each day.
The second consideration is that filling and lighting the device is slightly awkward. You need to hold a match or lighter to the unit for 15 – 30 seconds continuously in order to start the catalytic process. That’s too long for a single match, so you need a regular Zippo lighter or a disposable gas lighter or something else with you too.
Don’t get us wrong. We like the Zippo units, but they are far from a perfect solution and also have no cost benefits compared to ultra-convenient disposable single use warmers.
So for most people and most purposes, you’ll probably not get a Zippo lighter and will instead get single use Grabber products.
Using a Single Use Hand Warmer
There are several things to consider when using the single use hand warmers. The first is to check the expiry date on the hand warmer before buying it. We guess the units slowly oxidize over time anyway, and while there’s no sharp sudden end of functionality on their expiry date, the closer you get to (or beyond) its expiry, the less heat it will give, and for a shorter time period.
The units activate as soon as you open the plastic carry bags they come in. Within a minute or so they are warm, and they seem to continue producing heat at the maximum rate for at least half their rated life, then at some point beyond that, the heat output starts to gradually decline until reaching a point where they no longer provide useful heat any more.
When you first activate the units, knead them in your hand a bit to break up any clumping of the chemicals inside them. While it is generating heat, you’ll probably find an additional kneadings every hour or two will break up clumpings that seem to occur during the chemical reaction.
It is common to find people holding the hand warmers, while wearing gloves, with the hand warmers on the outside of the gloves. That is okay, but for a stronger ‘hit’ of heat, put the hand warmers into your gloves, between your palms and the glove lining. That will make a big difference.
As well as hand warmers, manufacturers also make foot/toe warmers to stick in your shoes. These can be wonderfully warming. There are also various body warmer type products, too.
In theory, once you activate a hand warmer you can’t then pause it, but we have noticed some Grabber packs come with a sealable barrier bag. In theory you can put your hand warmers into this bag, squish out as much air as possible and seal it, and so with no oxygen, the hand warmers stop generating heat, and will restart again when you take them out of the bag. That is largely true, and can be a great idea if, for example, your day comprises two or three hours mainly outdoors, then a couple of hours indoors for lunch, then two or three more hours outdoors again after lunch. By slowing the hand warmers down during the two hours indoors, that will help ensure they last all the way through your afternoon activities.
We’d not bother doing this for 15 – 30 minutes of indoor time, but for more than an hour, it may be worthwhile if later in the day, you might be approaching the end of the hand warmers’ lives.
Being cold arouses a less rational concern in some people than does being hot. The perhaps surprising reality is that in our travels we’ve seen many more people suffer from heat exhaustion and dehydration, to the point of requiring hospitalization, than we’ve seen people requiring hospitalization for the effects of cold weather. Indeed, we’ve never had or seen any experience of any severe ill effects from being too cold. Okay, so we’ve yet to journey up to the top of Mt Everest or to the North Pole – when we’ve done that, we might have to revise this claim.
Don’t let a concern about being cold interfere with your enjoyment of winter traveling. The world is a very different place in winter, with a very different beauty to that in summer.
The best supplement to warm clothing are disposable hand warmers, and the best disposable hand warmers are made by Grabber. Amazon sell them in a range of different pack sizes, for as little as 75c per two hand pair.