Features April 1, 2003 Issue

Hand Warmers

Cold hands and feet can be debilitating and dangerous when you're trying to get things done at the beginning or the end of the sailing season. Here are a few items to lay alongside your digits. We like the Grabber Mycoal pouches, but the other brand names work well, too.

Quite a few of us are in the boatyard at the first hint of spring, even if the frost has not turned to dew. There's prepping and commissioning, and the motorsail to the marina. But, pushing the envelope often means standing in pools of cold water with wet feet and hands while sanding a bottom, or taking a shift at the tiller wearing multiple layers of fleece and heavy gloves. 

We put the hand warmers inside a couple of medium-dark colored Patagonia fleece jackets, hung them out in the weather, and took temperatures. The Grabber Mycoal did best there, as well as in our human-hand experiments.

As invigorating as these activities are, they are less fun when our extremities—hands, feet, and ears— are cold. Enter the pocket-sized hand, toe and body warmers. We've learned on chilly days that these pouches can convert stiff fingers and toes to functioning parts of the anatomy.

How They Work
Unlike the products of the '90s, which came in one size, warmers are now designed for use in jacket or pant packets, and inside socks and boots.

But they operate in the same manner: removal of packaging exposes the pouches to oxygen, stimulating a chemical reaction that produces heat. Older products required shaking, but chemicals are now well-blended so that's not necessary. However, shaking the pouch may accelerate the process.

Though manufacturers will not disclose the specific formulations of their products, the common denominators are iron powder, water, vermiculite, activated carbon, cellulose, potassium chloride, and salt. Newer products developed for use inside boots allow more oxygen into the pouch, producing the same 120-140° temperatures. (Interestingly, the same materials produce oxidation.) Since the components are naturally occurring compounds, not chemicals, they are environmentally friendly. When disposed of, the contents of the pouches are non-toxic and biodegradable.

Manufacturers have recently developed a long list of ancillary products; headbands and gloves with pockets, and orthotic footbeds with warmers. Some are constructed with adhesive backing that sticks to a sock, others may be enclosed in pockets in wool socks—an improvement over socks with batteries and coils designed to accomplish the same thing.

The downside is that, in a boating environment, when you get the ingredients wet, you impair their ability to take in the oxygen necessary to operate. They'll still function when damp, but not as well, and something tells us we shouldn't allow that mixture of elements to turn into primordial soup inside our boots.

What We Tested
The three major producers of warmers in the US are Grabber Performance Group, Heat Max, Inc., and the Heat Factory, Inc. The first two companies account for 80% of total sporting industry and retail sales. Their brightly colored packets are found on shelves and at checkout counters of chandleries, sporting goods and major discount stores, as well as camping and skiing shops. Most will be packaged in orange cellophane, a standard set by Heat Factory, Inc., which pioneered the US market in 1980.

However, appearances are deceiving. Many smaller companies are producing lookalikes that don't meet the same scientific or performance standards set by Japanese manufacturers, who invented the processes, or those in the US. The knockoffs are typically not found on the shelves of major retailers; more likely, they're at mini-marts and service stations.

The Big Three are now printing age-dating on each pouch, and offer guaranteed shelf life of 4-6 years. We tested two products manufactured by the low-cost alternatives that were one year old. Neither reached 98.6°.

A medical caution: in general, the warmers should not be used by persons with diabetes, circulatory problems or skin abnormalities. They should not be placed directly on skin, instep, ankle, or top of a foot.

How We Tested
We tested products from the Big Three in conditions that represent a hard-case scenario (winter in Montana). We hung two identical (actually, one red, one blue) sailing jackets in 22° temperature on a cloudy day. We inserted handwarmers in pockets, zipped them closed and left them to hang for four hours.

After 15 minutes in 22° temperature, all of the warmers were activated and radiated warmth. At one hour, temperatures varied between 105° and 138°. At the three-hour mark we donned the jackets and wore them around outside (thereby giving the warmers a human assist). The Grabber Mycoal temperature remained constant in the mid-120s. The Heat Factory 12-Hour Warmers went up to 130° by hour six, and the HeatMax Hot-Hands2 were at 135° by that time.

Our take is that all three products can provide a good level of comfort on chilly days. If our chart indicates the performance of these products pouch-to-pouch and batch-to-batch, which we doubt, then you could pick the Grabber Mycoal for its fast starting power and moderate staying power (that would be our choice) or the Heat Max for its... max heat. Just don't buy the knock-offs.

In all cases, larger pouches produce better results over a larger surface area, and may warm more quickly. Prices range from $1.50 to $3.00, depending upon pouch size, manufacturer, and retailer. This is a small price to pay for nimble, pain-free digits when you need them.


Also With This Article
Click here to view product testing results.

Heat Factory, 800/993-4328, www.heatfactory.com
HeatMax, 800/748-9080, www.heatmax.com
Grabber Performance Group, 800/423-1233, www.grabberwarmers.com

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