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In winter your hand and feet (especially toes and fingers) may get painfully cold or you may even stop feeling them. How can you warm them up?

This usually happens, when it's below 0°С or when it's slightly above 0°С and your hands/feet are wet. This can happen if you are not properly dressed/booted or you are not moving enough (e.g. sitting in a camp after a day hike).

(Question inspired by a question on warming up your boots in the morning)

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Bonus points to anyone that can answer this question for rock climbers. There's nothing worse than trying to climb on frozen fingers. –  theJollySin Dec 11 '13 at 23:28
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9 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I'm answering my own question to share some knowledge.

First, cold toes/fingers is serious. You start feeling discomfort, then a little pain, then you stop feeling them and forget about them, then you get them amputated. So you should constantly check if you can still feel toes and fingers, and if not, start to warm them up.

Second, I find most effective and easy the following method of heating:

  • To warm up toes, swing your leg back-and-forward 30-50 times. The movement is done with the whole leg (including the thigh), as wide as possible, and it should be powerful.
  • To warm up your fingers, make similar motion with your arms, except that you can go 360-degree.

Remember to make your full 30-50 swings before saying "blah, it's not working";)

What happens is you warm blood is driven by centripetal force to flow to the extreme parts of your legs/arms: toes and fingers. Normally they don't get much blood in cold conditions, because your body regulation mechanisms try to keep more warmth at the center of the body by thinning peripherial vessels (it's an overreaction).

If you weren't feeling your fingers/toes before starting this, warming up might be very painful. So it's better to do 20, small pause to let heat reach frozen tissues, a little screaming, another 20;)

Note: if you weren't feeling your toes or fingers for a long time, things may have gone beyond simple treatment. I'm not sure this method is advised in such situation, because it provides fast heating, and all recommendations for treating serious frostbites prescribe slow heating (also see this question about frostbites).

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'A little screaming' - very true, and if your fingers/toes were close to frostbite this may be a lot of screaming...but this means it is essential you get them warmed up! +1 –  Rory Alsop Mar 19 '13 at 10:07
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Adding to Steeds self-answer. Other ways to warm up fingers and toes:

  • Wiggle your fingers and toes vigorously (while walking, while sitting) - circulation is aided by muscle movement.
  • Sprint (if you have the extra energy)
  • When not using them, ball your hands up inside your gloves (remove your fingers from the glove fingers and make a fist inside the glove).
  • Hold your arms down by your side with your hands extended sideways at 90 degree angles to your arms. Vigorously shrug up and down rapidly. (Weird - but works wonders)
  • Slap your hands together, against your thighs. Kick your feet together. The sharp smack can stimulate circulation
  • Stick your bare hands in your arm-pits
  • Stick your bare feet on a friends stomach (assuming they are nice and toasty)

If you are in camp, and have the time / resources:

  • Fill a nalgene type (well sealing) water bottle with hot water and hold it in your hands
  • Place a hot water bottle between your thighs where it can warm blood traveling down your femoral artery
  • Start a fire

If you have planned ahead:

  • Hand and toe warmers (single use, chemical packets that warm up when exposed to air) are a nice emergency measure
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"Hold your arms down by your side with your hands extended sideways at 90 degree angles to your arms. Vigorously shrug up and down rapidly. (Weird - but works wonders)" -- When I was shown this one I thought I was being put on, but it actually works. –  Mr.Wizard Dec 11 '13 at 10:02
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Cold fingers - put them around your neck.

  • The neck exhibits excellent blood flow and thus, heating power
  • The neck is easily accessible area of the body, unlike armpits, thighs, stomach (with all the layers of clothing)
  • At least for me, it is not very stressful to press very cold fingers against the neck, compared to against e.g. stomach.

As for cold toes - I would probably try running, if excess energy is available.

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And that's actually very practical for a climber, given that you can't afford any of the other exercises when you're hanging –  ılǝ Dec 16 '13 at 8:02
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There's not yet a good answer that asks for the reason the fingers, toes (and nose and ears) are cold, so let me add a few points:

(I'm assuming around 0°C according to the question - of course, -40 °C is different).

Here are a couple of reasons why your fingers and toes get cold in the first place:

  • Of course, you may not yet be used to the cold temperatures. Full acclimatization will take some weeks. However, you need to know that the amound and rate of acclimatization depends on the exposure. Thus if you completely wrap yourself all the time, you hinder this acclimatization. This is no short-term (minutes) solution, though. But acclimatization can mean that you'll be able to have warm fingers in air of say -15 °C at the end of the winter, even though you always got cold fingers at +5 °C in fall.

  • Assuming your clothes are generally sensible for the weather, i.e. you have been fine before at this same day, but now fingers and toes get cold. This is usually a symptom of exhaustion, which is the underlying cause of the centralization (low blood flow to extremities to save energy). Which means in addition to the immediate measures to warm up the fingers as listed in the other answers you should eat (and possibly drink something containing sugar, such as (diluted) juice or sugared tea for immediately available energy).
    This type of cold fingers can be avoided by taking care that enough rests for eating and drinking occur over the day.
    And it is related to a vicious cycle: with the beginning exhaustion, you don't like the thought of having a rest to eat: you know you'll get cold. Also drinking the by now cold stuff in your bottle doesn't appeal because you know you'll be even colder. However, if you don't realize what is going on, this can prevent taking the only efficient remedy: eating (and get you into an accompanying dehydration). Otherwise you don't only risk frostbitten fingers/toes/nosetip/ears but also hypothermy.

  • A related issue is that you may have wet clothes/shoes/gloves, so their insulation is impaired.
    Personally, that happens to me all the time (i.e. moist socks in mountain/ski boots) but my feet stay warm until I get hungry.

  • For the extra (I assume: rock) climbing question: my guess is that only general acclimatization (i.e. higher base metabolism) really helps here. You need your fingers warm, but climbing means that you spend quite a lot of time statically (e.g. standing/sitting and securing your partner). During the climb, you cannot use bulky clothes, and the clothes cannot be very thick: otherwise you'd sweat during the climb. Climbing shoes don't help with cold, neither. Particularly as they are not meant to give your toes much freedom.

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Swinging your arms and legs to move blood to your extremities is good advice and will overcome your body's vasoconstriction response, but keep in mind you should also layer up after doing this since you are driving heat energy away from your core. If you are in camp, drinking a hot beverage (and also holding it while you drink) will warm your core and ease your body's cold response. If that doesn't work, filling a Nalgene with boiling water and getting into your sleeping bag with it is pretty sound advice, assuming you haven't gotten yourself some frostbite (tough to accomplish at 0 deg C). Best thing is to acclimate yourself to colder temperatures by slightly under-dressing in the lead-up to cold weather adventure.

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No one's mentioned this yet, so I'll throw this out there: at least for my fingers/hands, I find breathing on them helpful (not blowing on them like you would soup, but the kind of breath that you'd use to fog up glasses before cleaning them). Obviously harder to do for toes/feet, but easy for the hands, espcially if you can't swing your arms for some reason.

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I find this method quite ineffective: you transfer very little heat to your hands while wasting a lot. Plus your hands (gloves) get damp because of moisture. –  Steed Mar 30 '13 at 17:52
    
How do you figure "wasting a lot"? You have to breathe, so you're actually making use of what would otherwise be "wasted" (breathed-out) warmth. –  newenglander Mar 30 '13 at 18:07
    
right, my wording was poor. For me it just feels like this: you do powerful breathing (and inhale a lot of cold air), but transfer a relatively low amount of heat to your hands. But it's really subjective and I'm not going to insist on this point. –  Steed Apr 1 '13 at 4:47
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You can sit on your hands or cross your arms over your chest, clench a fist, and pump your muscles. Secondly heat up for core muscles (abdomen, chest, thighs). Increasing your core temp will promote better heat circulation. Inturn, gulp down near hot cup of water, eat soup, take a hot bath. Doing so will keep you warm for a good while.

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Fingers and toes cold?

Put on your hat.

Seriously: You are losing heat faster than you are generating it. Bondy compensates by reducing circulation to the extremities to keep the core warm. Head has 25% of your blood flowing through it. Reducing heat loss there, gives you more heat to send to the toes.

If this doesn't work, then add antother layer of clothing.

Watch for constrictive foot and handware. Anything that fits tighly not only reduces circulation, but you no longer have an air layer next to the skin.

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There are a couple of flaws here. In general putting on more clothing does reduce the tendency of the body to cut flow to the extremities, yes. However the idea that a disproportionate amount of heat is lost through the head is urban myth. Leg warmers for instance would achieve a much great affect than a hat, for helping the toes. –  Russell Steen Mar 27 '13 at 14:51
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There is a topic on heat loss from the head on skeptics.SO: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/2839/… Still I like the general point about putting on more clothing, it was not mentioned here before. –  Steed Mar 27 '13 at 16:23
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If your fingers are to the cold point where you cant feel them, then not much is going to help. You could breath on them yes, but at this point you are freezing internally. So I would suggest(even though it might be painful) swinging your arms and legs. The warm blood circulates from the centre of your body. It's there to protect your vital organs and keep your lungs from freezing. Get that blood to your fingers and you'll be all right.

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Welcome to Outdoors.StackExchange! It looks like that you were commenting to newenglander's answer about breathing. Than this should be a comment, not an answer. You can oress "add comment" below the answer to leave comments. Still, your advice about swinging arms and legs would be a good answer, but this just duplicates one of the already existing answers. If you want to emphasise something that was not mentioned before, please feel free to edit your answer. You can find more info about this site and its conventions here: outdoors.stackexchange.com/about –  Steed Dec 11 '13 at 7:59
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