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Cold Rock: 10 Easy Hacks for Staying Warm at the Crag

One day, climbing in an alpine-rock area with a friend, I dropped a little chemical handwarmer in my chalk bag. I thought that was basic info, but she was editor of the then publication (RIP) Women’s Sports and Fitness, and next thing I knew I saw it on their pages and realized it might be less obvious than I thought. Anyway, it is a good trick, and I’ll add that if one handwarmer in your chalk bag is good, two are better.

 Here are more tips, gleaned both first- and second-hand. As someone with horrible circulation —Reynaud’s Disease, i.e., “white fingers,” manifesting at the slightest provocation—I’ve learned to pay attention to all the tricks. They can make the difference between going outside and getting in some pitches or throwing in the towel and heading to the gym.

1) Buy hand warmers—by the carton. It’s worth the cost, all year. Our local climbing gym keeps things cool, perfect for some but at 60 degrees chilly to me. So I’ll drop a handwarmer in my chalk bag there, or I’ve taken in a corn bag (a foot-long beanbag-type item bought at a natural foods store) and heated it in the gym microwave, then used it to warm my hands before problems. I also buy boxes of adhesive toe-warmers. You can put them on top of your clothing, on a base layer, or at the wrist. Some people swear by a body-warmer plastered to the torso—you can get pretty decorated. There are also portable rechargeable handwarmers, often used by skiers, in the range of $20–30. 

2)  Create your own warming chamber for shoes and hands: Bill Ramsey, who has been climbing hard for a long time, including in the cold and windy Virgin River Gorge, takes a chalk bucket, drops in four or five hand warmers, and puts his hands and climbing shoes in there between burns. “I’ve also had a separate chalk bag that I’ve put two or three hand warmers in, to thaw fingers at a rest, and then dropped it when I leave the rest,” he says. “I don’t like having warm chalk, which seems to negate its value, so I don’t put the hand warmers in the [main] chalk bag.” 

 3) Battery-powered gloves: Charge them the night before, and then turn them up and down throughout the day to make the juice last as you belay and move around in them. Here is a 2018 print review of the Storm Tracker Heated Gloves I use, and there are various other brands. They usually die by or around the end of a crag day, but still work as thick gloves. 

4) Heated chalk bag: Black Diamond makes a heated chalk back, the Hot Forge. I drop in a handwarmer as well, and got this further trick from my friend Jerry Willis: Keep the thing on low until right before you climb so it retains heat, then crank it to high just for when you are on the pitch. 

 5) Neck gaiters: I have two extra-long Buffs in wool, and just keep swapping them into my pack. As of last year, the company also started making its thickest model yet. Smartwool makes a merino neck gaiter as well, with all in the range of $30.

 6) Wool Socks: Wear tall wool socks—no ankle skin visible below your pant hem. I like Darn Tough—a lifetime warranty, what?!—and Smartwool, with a fondness for their thin ones with fun patterns. For Ramsey’s part, he is going for electric heated socks, worn between climbs—”keeps my toes nice and toasty, at least when I’m belaying and resting.” Ramsey likes the DOACE brand ($25), but there are various others..

7) Eat warming herbs: Ginger, cayenne, black pepper, and cinnamon have warming properties. Other options include astragalus root, peppermint, rosemary, horseradish, mustard powder, cloves, oregano, cardamom, and more. Nifedipine pills (prescription calcium-channel blockers) work a lot better, and I carry a vial in the top flap of my pack.

 8) Puffy pants or a skirt: Your best bet is something you can pull on and off over your harness—giant down pants or, yes, the down skirt. I’ve worn one (in my case the North Face 800 Pro, intended as a belay skirt), and was glad of it. It is light and packs down easily. Jack Wolfskin, Mountain Hardwear, and Outdoor Research make down skirts as well.

9) Hot drinks: I take something hot to drink every time. If I take cold water on cold days, I don’t drink it—I’ll drink more if it’s hot, and more yet by dropping in a tab of Nuun. Of course, hot chocolate is better—well, at least it’s tastier, and since it contains milk I suppose it’s a “recovery drink”! I passed the ho-cho notion to my friend Amanda Ramsay, and one winter day as we warmed up she pulled out her own flask and said tranquilly, “I’m having my recovery drink now.”

10) Physical tricks: Finally, don’t discount the physical methods for warming cold extremities, which are free (bonus!) and available any time. You can do wrist and finger flicks—as if you’re flicking off water—by the many dozen. Or you can climb up a dozen feet and freeze your fingers, then lower off and do arm swings by the score to thaw your hands before getting back on the rock. Anything that activates your big muscles and gets the blood flowing is worth a shot, too: jumping jacks, sprints, alternating highsteps, and so on.