Learning to ride my bike in the winter was a “trial and error” experience for me (mainly error). Over the years as I bought better winter gear I wanted to spend more time riding in the snow—which usually meant buying more gear. Some winter gear can be very expensive, but one of the most useful products I’ve ever bought for winter cycling is also the cheapest—chemical hand, foot and body warmers.
Chemical warmers are made by several companies, such as HotHands and Grabber. Though the exact ingredients in these warmers vary depending on the manufacturer, they all basically have the same ingredients: Iron powder, salt, water, activated charcoal and vermiculite (or cellulose). To activate these chemical warmers all you have to do is expose them to air by removing them for their packaging (sometimes you have to shake the packs for a few seconds). Once out of the package these products warm up in 15 to 30 minutes and can stay warm for four or five hours. These products are almost always advertised as being good for seven or eight hours, and under ideal circumstances they might, but that has not been my experience with most of them.
In this article we will discuss the three main types of chemical warmers available and give a few suggestions for uses that you might not have thought about before.
Chemical hand warmers are the most common type of warmer you will see at Walmart, Target and sporting good stores. They come in packages of two and each warmer measures about 2″x3″. The easiest way to use them is to just put one in the palm of your hand and make a fist. However, you won’t get very far on your bike like this! Some winter gloves, such as the North Face Montana HyVent Gloves, have a zippered stash pocket on the back of the glove where you can insert a chemical hand warmer. These gloves are designed with snow skiers in mind, but mountain bikers and commuters could also benefit from them. During the winter I always put a pair of these chemical hand warmers inside my Revelate Designs Gas Tank (a top tube bag) to get my energy bars and gels warm (a frozen Cliff Bar is pretty hard to eat).
Chemical toe warmers stick to the bottom of your socks with self-adhesive tape and they are so thin that you will probably never even know they are there (but you will benefit from them). A decent alternative to chemical toe warmers is a pair of Neoprene Tip Toe Covers by the Gator Sports—these toe covers go inside of your socks and work extremely well (are they only cost about $10 a pair). To keep the bottom of my feet warm I put 3M Thinsulate Thermal Insoles inside of all my winter cycling shoes and boots.
Chemical body warmers are larger than hand warmers—they measure 4″x5.5″, and the Super HotHands Body Warmer keeps working for up to 18 hours! During the winter I layer the clothing on my upper body—I start with a simple Under Armour compression shirt, then a lightweight fleece layer, followed by a thin outer shell, like the Showers Pass Touring Jacket. Since this jacket has two side pockets I can put the larger chemical body warmers in them when the temperature is really cold, and as an added benefit they keep my energy gels and bars warm at the same time!
Once you find a chemical hand, foot or body warmer you like you will find the best way to buy them is from Amazon.com. I buy (and use) large quantities of these warmers and Amazon.com sells them for about half the price you will find at your local store.