Winter mountain days can change your perspective on local landscapes, reveal new flora and fauna, and allow you to push your hillwalking and mountaineering capabilities to new heights. But, believe it or not, they can also be rather cold. The obvious aside, you wouldn’t think twice about layering up for sub-zero temperatures in the hills when it comes to base layers, fleeces, insulated jackets and waterproofs – so why not hand warmers for hiking to protect your extremities, too?

As you find yourself clutching at icy ridges, reaching for the thermos of summit soup or pulling your smartphone out to snap a picture of hoar frost, your hands are often the most vulnerable to those biting winter winds. While a good pair of winter gloves are an absolute must for any winter walker, the different types of hand warmers for hiking can offer a handy – excuse the pun – and cost-effective boost of warmth. Your own little hug in a glove, if you will.

Words: Francesca Donovan | Main image: Evan Velez Saxer

Features to look for in hand warmers

As with any of your outdoor gear, the features of your hand warmers for hiking must fit the adventures. If you’re backpacking, you’re going to want a lightweight solution that you can reuse so as to not be burdened with multiple pieces of extra kit in your pack. Conversely, a quick jaunt up a scrambly ridge with your sights set on the pub for lunch? Something small and non-intrusive to your dexterity is going to be vital, but you can compromise on the length of heat provided in such cases.

A man without hand warmers for hiking or gloves in the cold

Credit: Cottonbro Studio

Likewise, although they are small, hand warmers must still fit the adventurer; in other words, you! Ensure the hand warmers you select are ergonomic to your own hand shape. Equally, make sure you know your body and its circulation. For example, there are specially designed products on the market for those with Raynaud’s. Choose not what your fellow hikers say works for them, but what works for you, or you’ll end up with irritation and discomfort that will have you whipping off your gloves to remove the hand warmers responsible, anyway – hardly likely to help you hold heat.

What are the different types?

Air-activated chemical hand warmers

These hand warmers work by emitting heat upon a chemical reaction with the air itself. All you have to do is take them out of their packaging and give them a quick shake. Generally encased in lightweight material, the simple, compact design is easy to use in the elements and very flexible in the hand, offering good dexterity.

They’re also a cheaper option in comparison to reusable models. But, while some offer heat for up to 18 hours, you’ll only get one use out of them. So, you’d have to carry a few over longer expeditions, creating more waste to dispose of and thus, making these the least environmentally-friendly type of hand warmer.

Solution-based chemical hand warmers

Unlike their air-activated counterparts, solution-based hand warmers are reusable and thus a more eco-conscious option.

These nifty little pouches contain a super-saturated solution of sodium acetate, water and a tiny metal strip – a trifecta that emits heat when they react. Simply bend the internal strip in the palm of your hand until you hear a little clicking noise and you’ve sparked the reaction, crystallising the solution. Once the reaction has slowly run its course (generally generating just under an hour of warmth), the heat will dissipate. Then, you can easily reset the hand warmer in boiling water, reliquifying the solution, until you snap the reaction into play again.

So, while they come with a higher price tag, they can be taken out on the hills over and over again and you’ll only need one in your pack on multi-day missions on which you’ve likely got a stove with you. They’re not the most durable type of hand warmer, however, due to their flexible, fallible material. While this soft outer shell does provide good dexterity, you shouldn’t expect these to last for a lifetime of adventure.

Catalytic hand warmers

The traditionalist’s option, catalytic hand warmers use an old-school method to transfer heat to your cold meat hooks: fire. But don’t panic. A good catalytic hand warmer is a straightforward and hardy bit of kit, if sometimes a bit bulky or heavier than other options. For these reasons, they are occasionally favoured by bushcrafters and wild campers.

Iona Andean warming her hands by the bothy fire.Credit: Jessie Leong

Iona Andean warming her hands by the bothy fire.
Credit: Jessie Leong

To use, you light a flammable substance (some produce flame, others don’t) and pop it into a metal casing inside which a lot of heat will be produced. The casing is wrapped in a protective pouch and after minutes can be used, keeping your hands free from burns. It’s simple and the best models can provide up to 12 hours of heat. One downside is that, like chemical hand warmers, they don’t emit heat immediately, you’re unable to ‘switch them off’ once activated and you can’t control the heat levels. And these do get – and stay – hot which can be a good or bad thing depending on your needs.

Of course, this method requires firstly, a flame, and secondly, a supply of fuel – this mostly comes in the form of fire sticks, flammable liquids, or charcoal and isn’t a particularly eco-conscious option. They also range widely in price, with basic models costing as little as £5 (excluding fuel) and high-end options costing upwards of £40.

Electronic hand warmers

A good electronic hand warmer should last the distance and be used over and over on your winter walks, thus making it the most environment-friendly type of hand warmer on this list. Some recharge via USB, while others have additional battery pack options. These are great for day trips or even overnighters in hostels or bunkhouses where power isn’t in short supply. Other pros include the duration of heat offered and the speed at which they warm up, with some models able to emit up to 12 hours of heat on various different settings in a matter of seconds. If you feel warm at the thought of spending more money on sophisticated tech, these are for you.

But you’re unlikely to want to use your precious power pack juice on recharging a bulky hand warmer on multi-day hikes, so if that sounds like you, perhaps look to the more ‘rudimentary’ – read: fun – options above. Likewise, all this tech isn’t exactly lightweight or compact – and often isn’t waterproof. There are many different shapes and sizes of electronic hand warmer, some more ergonomic and compact than others. Some may just squeeze into looser winter gloves but it’s worth trying a few models out for size as many are designed to be popped into a pocket and keep you toasty from there.

Heated Gloves

Now, the wild card option for those suffering from especially cold extremities.

Battery-powered or rechargeable gloves can offer a solution to your winter woes – albeit a heavyweight and bulky one. With the flick of a button, some of the models on the market can heat up in just minutes for quick-acting and effective warming. But they don’t come cheap and dexterity is, of course, limited. If you’re moving slowly across flatter snowscapes, and don’t need to be nimble on ascents or to travel fast and light, perhaps this tech-lovers’ option would be worth its weight (literally) in gold.