I have seen a few documentaries where the high altitude mountaineers constantly keep the hand-gloves ON.
Is it really because handling the metallic equipment with bare hands can cause a Frostbite? What else risk is there?

What temperature ranges are permissible at which I can afford to handle metallic equipment bare-handed? Its really difficult for someone like me who has never been very comfortable with any sort of gloves, handling life-banking metallic equipment there at the mountain will need a practice of course.

  • 1
    What kind of altitude and temperatures are we talking about here. Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 19:14
  • What is missing from the below discussion is at high altitude you are prone to poor circulation to extremities, so any loss of heat is more significant than lower altitudes.
    – user5330
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 23:37

4 Answers 4


The conductive property of the material is a critical part of this phenomenon.

It would be safe to handle many plastics at very low temperatures because energy from your hand (and the moisture on it) isn't readily conducted away, and the energy that is, takes a while to dissipate into the rest of the material so the point of contact retains the transferred energy longer. That is all to say: plastic can be a good insulator.

Metal on the other hand is a fantastic conductor of heat. It will immediately draw the heat away from your hand (and moisture between metal and hand), freezing moisture and cold-burning your hand. Unlike the plastic the heat from contact will quickly dissipate into the rest of the metal (that you're not touching) which keeps the contact point cold.

You can very easily test this by sticking a plastic handled knife or fork in the freezer for a few hours. The plastic will not feel anywhere near as cold as the metal because it won't readily conduct heat away.

The "limit" for handling metallic equipment is really fine. Seriously, you can get stuck to a big object at just a few degrees under 0°C.

  • It needs to be much colder than "a few degrees" below freezing to get stuck. Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 19:16
  • 2
    whatsisname - you can do it at 5 or 6 degrees under if you have a sweaty or wet hand.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 21:31
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    I have stuck to stuff outdoors in British winters. It's not warm here but it rarely gets as low as you're suggesting.
    – Oli
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 21:32

The Problem with metallic equipment and cold temperatures is that your hands are moist, if you touch a very cold metallic surface (or any other smooth surface), your moisture will freeze to the surface which causes the top layer of your skin to get stuck on the surface.

For Example: it's freezing cold outside and you put your tongue (which is very moist, for an extreme example) to a pole, it will immediately freeze your tongue to the pole.

  • 4
    The absolute worst you can do is to lick it!
    – Val
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 8:51
  • To remove metallic equipment stuck to your skin you can use hot tea/coffee from a flask. It will meld a thin layer of ice between skin and object, but make sure you will cover skin straight away after that to avoid it freezing.
    – Val
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 8:53
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    Not sure if at -70 degrees this will not get you more stuck to the surface, will not try it out
    – Jeredepp
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 8:58
  • I must admit to have practised hot flask trick only in -32C conditions. You must be right about -70. One must be damn desperate to even expose skin to air at that temperature!
    – Val
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 13:04

Wearing gloves constantly is quite normal in the temperatures below -10 C, and on the high altitudes, the temperatures are much lower.

Additionally, metal has high warm conductivity, which means, touching it will quickly drawn warmth from you. There are anecdotes about stupid guys tricked by mean girls to lick the axe by the low temperatures, which causes the tongue to immediately freeze to the axe.

You can try at home, cooling some metal item in the fridge, and touching it (but not with your tongue!).

But the freezing temperature is enough reason to wear gloves, even if you don't have to touch anything.

Answering your question, when to wear gloves when touching metal surfaces. It's quite dependent on the person, some people may get extreme uncomforable already at +5 C. But with temperatures below -10 C, I would in any case recommend wearing gloves, because of the freezing effect.


Gloves protect your hands from a couple of hazards:

  1. Cold (cold air, cold metal, cold rock/ice).
  2. Rain and snow, which make it even colder
  3. Sunburns
  4. Scratches and wounds

The latter is a very serious reason. With gloves off, if you stumble and fall on rocks hands first, you can easily get massive scranches or wounds. It is worse with a heavy backpack. Chances are that you will require medical attendence or get hard/unable to handle ice axe, etc. And with gloves on your hands would receive minor damage or not at all.

There are also many technical activities, that are harsh to your hands, including rope work, self-arrest, ice-climbing, handling gas stoves.

That is why in the mountains I wear gloves all the time when moving in any weather - except when strolling though really easy terrain with a light backpack.

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