Coping With Cold Hands While Backpacking, Hiking, and Camping

Cold hands and numb fingers can freeze the fun out of an otherwise lovely backcountry experience. Whether you’re officially coping with Reynaud’s Disease or your fingers just seem to get cold easily, the end result is the same: uncomfortably frigid digits.

I would know! My hands are always cold. I’ve spent many a chilly evening or morning battling numbness and sometimes even the “screaming barfies,” a technical mountaineering term for that feeling when your frozen hands start to thaw and it hurts so much you want to scream and barf. Fun! 🤪

But I feel most alive in the great outdoors, cold hands be damned. So I’ve tried everything under the sun and moon to keep my fingers from freezing when I hike, camp, bikepack, and more.

If you also struggle with cold hands while backpacking and camping, here are my tried and tested tips for keeping hands warmer while adventuring outdoors in cold weather.

Cold backpacker in bivy sack with frost on top
So cold 🙁

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Keep Your Core Warm

Our bodies smartly prioritize core over extremities when there isn’t enough heat to go around. This helps keep us alive – a good thing – but also leads to chilled hands and feet. To combat this, make sure your core has all the warmth it needs. Here’s how:

  • Pack appropriate layers for warmth and rain.
  • Wear a warm hat. A surprising amount of warmth is lost from the head.
  • Add layers quickly when needed, before you get too cold.
  • Stay dry, because wet clothing is extra-chilly. Put on your rain gear before you get soaked. Remove any clothing that’s damp from rain or sweat as soon as you get to camp.
  • Generate your own warmth when needed. It’s amazing how a set of pushups, jumping jacks, or a jog around camp can make your world warmer. Just don’t overdo it and get too sweaty (see “stay dry” above).

Often a warm core is enough to keep your fingers happy at camp. In really chilly weather or if your hands run cold, try the following tips to keep your fingers warm while hiking and camping.

All bundled up to keep my core, and therefore my hands, warm while bikepacking in some unexpected snow.

Wear Mittens Instead of Gloves

Gloves are an obvious first line of defense for cold hands while backpacking or camping. You have many options to suit the conditions, from light fleece (I like these from REI) to full-on ski gloves. But if you struggle with numb fingers even when wearing gloves, it’s time to try mittens.

Mittens keep your hands warmer by allowing your fingers to team up and share heat. If you don’t need to use your hands for a while, slide your lonely thumbs in with the others so they too can share the warmth. Boiled wool mittens are quite warm for their weight and one of my personal favorites.

The obvious downside to mittens is lack of dexterity. Your campmates might tire of your fumbling around while trying to pitch the tent or prepare dinner. A good compromise is to wear a light pair of liner gloves beneath your mittens and remove the mittens briefly, as needed, to get things done.

Pulling on a pair of boiled wool mittens before a chilly winter hike in Death Valley.

Use a Vapor Barrier

We think of thick insulation as the best provider of warmth, but a thin waterproof layer is surprisingly helpful too. Especially in the wind! Vapor barriers work by preventing evaporative cooling, and they also keep you dry if it’s wet outside.

This is why I love adding a waterproof rain mitten over my insulating layer if it’s really cold out, even if it’s not raining. It’s the same principle as layering a rain jacket on top of your puffy for extra warmth when you’re already wearing all your insulating layers. It helps keep your body heat close to your body, and takes the edge off windchill.

Cheap hack: a pair of nitrile gloves or rubber dishwashing gloves works as a vapor barrier. Stretch an extra-large size over fleece gloves, or even layer them inside your mittens in a pinch. Your hands will get sweaty, but since the moisture can’t evaporate they won’t feel cold.

Cold hiker eats oatmeal with mittens on
Windproof or waterproof mittens are a great way to add warmth without much extra weight or bulk.

Volunteer For Hand-Warming Camp Chores

For those of us with chronically chilly hands, there are two types of tasks in the world: hand-warming tasks and hand-cooling tasks. Scooping water from a steam to filter for drinking: hand-cooling. Cooking dinner with a camp stove: hand-warming. Pitching the tent (and touching those cold metal poles): hand cooling.

If you’re solo of course you’ll have to do everything yourself. In that case I like to alternate cooling and warming tasks. With a group, try volunteering for the hand warming tasks and see if any of your campmates, presumably those less prone to cold hands while camping, will help out with the hand-cooling chores.

Hand is holding a Smartwater bottle in a stream to fill it up
Filling water from a cold stream is a hand-cooling task. Persuade your warmer-handed campmates to take it on.

Warm Your Hands Effectively

When you picture someone trying to warm cold hands, you might imagine them huffing hot air onto their fingers, rubbing their palms together, and stuffing their hands under their armpits or into pockets. This can be better than nothing, but in my experience there are better ways.

To warm your hands quickly, remove gloves or mittens and hold your bare hands against the bare skin of your abdomen, under your waistband. That’s right, stuff your hands down your pants. It looks a bit awkward, but this is the best way I’ve found to transfer warmth quickly from core to frigid fingers.

Another effective technique is to windmill your arms, encouraging blood to move outward to your hands via centrifugal force. You can hold both arms out to the side and rotate your torso back and forth, or swing each arm in a big circle, anything that gets your hands moving fast while your arm muscles are relaxed. This can be done without removing gloves or mittens, and it can even be done while hiking or biking (one arm at a time).

It can be tough to keep hands warm and use hiking poles at the same time. I transfer both poles into one hand and swing the other arm to get some blood flowing, then alternate.

Take Frequent Hand Warming Breaks

In my experience, cold hands have a “point of no return” where they become much more uncomfortable and take longer to warm up. I’ve learned to pause what I’m doing, whether it’s hiking or camp chores, and take the edge off before my fingers get to this point.

In practice this can mean pausing mid-way through pitching the tent to hold my hands against my abdomen for a minute. Sometimes it’s stopping mid-hike to put my trekking poles aside and windmill my arms. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my fingers just warm enough to not go numb, so I don’t have to deal with the painful thaw.

Hot Drinks and Warm Meals

If your hands are cold while camping, don’t underestimate the value of a warm meal or hot drink. Cup your hands around the mug or bowl to warm them while you eat. On a cold morning you may want to break camp before having hot coffee, so your hands have a chance to warm back up before you hit the trail.

Woman in bivy sack drinking coffee on bikepacking trip
Warming my hands on a mug of hot coffee during breakfast on a bikepacking trip.

Active Heating

If you’ve tried all the above and your hands are still cold, it’s time for active heating. My outdoor adventures often last for days or weeks so it’s not feasible for me to carry these items, but on a shorter trip they are a lovely luxury.

Chemical hand warmers: These small packets are affordable, air-activated, and provide hours of warmth. They’re hard to use while doing things with your hands, but you can pop them into your mittens or pockets for an extra boost of warmth whenever you don’t need your hands. I sometimes pack a few for emergencies if I know the weather will be cold during my hike.

Heated glove liners: I’ve used these battery-powered heated gloves for skiing, and they work well for a few hours but the battery life is not very long. They won’t be useful if you’re backpacking or camping for multiple days, but for some people with severe Reynaud’s on a short trip they might be just the thing.

Hand warmers (and toe warmers – similar idea except they stick to your socks) can boost warmth on the coldest of days.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

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6 thoughts on “Coping With Cold Hands While Backpacking, Hiking, and Camping”

  1. These are great tips! My fingers go numb when the temps are still relatively warm, in the 50s. Your point about mittens vs. gloves is spot-on. I am going backpacking this weekend and you reminded me to throw my mittens in my pack. I also agree with your statement about shedding the sweaty or wet layers immediately once you stop hiking and reach camp. Another tip if you get to camp later in the day or if it’s particularly chilly – I immediately boil water and make a cup of tea. Thanks for the advice!

    Reply
  2. Zippo makes reusable hand warmers that use (lighter fuel – I think). I saw them the other day at Wallmart for about $15-$16.

    Reply
    • They’re called Camp Windmit’n, but they’ve been discontinued for many years. These days I use the eVent Rain Mitts from Mountain Laurel Designs, which I like even better because they are fully waterproof.

      Reply

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