Cold Feet at 4,000 meters — or 8,000? Here’s a Solution

Post by blogger | December 18, 2014      

Shop for Thermacell ProFlex here

Editor’s note: Mike Marlot owns 8Kpeak. Normally we don’t encourage our advertising partners and others on the business side to write about their products. Yet we do make exceptions. With so many people battling cold feet, we figured getting Mike’s take published ASAP is appropriate reader service. Note we’ve not yet tested these foot warmers ourselves, but we’ve heard good feedback so we’re comfortable with this mostly positive take.

Temperature about --50 with 100mph winds.  At one point I looked back and with a full pack, my brother Steve was cartwheeling across the lower face in the wind.

Temperature about –50 with 100mph winds. At one point I looked back and with a full pack, my brother Steve was cartwheeling across the lower face in the wind.

At 28,000 feet, climbing in unusually cold weather and without supplemental oxygen, I came to my limit. My feet became totally numb, and I had to turn around. I did not freeze my toes, but they were numb for the better part of a year and unfortunately have never totally recovered.

Lucky I decided to turn around that night back in 2007, otherwise I might not have made it back home. But my passion for high altitude mountaineering was still well in place, and the objectives were only getting more extreme. I had to find a solution. My quest led to something that historically has not been included in haul bags for major backcountry ski expeditions: electrically heated insoles.

By the early 1990’s, we where honing our cold weather climbing in Alaska and Canada in the beastly peaks of the Denali and Wrangell ranges. We managed to climb and ski in extremely cold conditions, struggling at times with keeping our feet warm. The thought of heated insoles never came to mind.

The technology was definitely in development and until several years later, it was not conducive nor practical for expedition application. A main reason was solar technology for expeditions had not been developed to any practical extent.

Mustagh Atta winter 2014.  So cold you have to approach base camp with altitude boots.  Temps on the platuea were -20.  On the upper slopes, without wind chill, temps were -95 to -100.

Mustagh Atta winter 2014. So cold you have to approach base camp with altitude boots. Temps on the plateau were –20. On the upper slopes, without wind chill, temps were –95 to –100.

So despite the –30 and even –40 temperatures, heated foot gear was not imagined. We relied on vapor barrier socks, closed cell liners, and over-boots to allow us to head into the hills. By using all the tricks we kept our feet warm, barely.

By 1997, however, we graduated into major league mountaineering with an expedition to the 12th highest peak in the world, Broad Peak at 8,051 meters / 26,414 feet. For the first time, I experienced the debilitating effects of extreme cold and altitude, and at 25,000 feet, I had severely cold and numb feet. I was able to warm my feet with the usual leg swinging, but cold feet are miserable and dangerous. I vowed to figure out alternatives.

We researched the technology and in 2000 we were introduced to the “state of the art” with a product called Hotronics. We used them locally for training, and when they worked, they worked well. The issues was that it was primarily a ski boot product and the friction from climbing in AT boots destroyed the battery wires. We did our best to protect the wires, and despite the weight and cumbersome aspect of big battery packs hanging off our boots we headed to another 8,000 meter peak, Shishapangma.

By the time we made the trek to our advance base camp, the wire issue was moderately resolved, but now the issue was that the batteries being subjected to round the clock cold in our bags rendered them completely useless. The batteries were standard Nicad which loses power in the cold, and they would not even turn on. Once again, this time at over 26,000 feet, I found myself with numb toes.

After Shish, it became evident the technology was simply not up to snuff. From 2003 to 2007 we had messed around with improved versions of Hotronics, but still had the same issues rendering them incompatible for our objectives.

We tried other heated insoles and just could not find anything that worked. In 2012, once again, we considered Hotronics. They had made significant improvements to their product with better materials, lighter more efficient battery packs, but still had not been able to convert to the use of Lithium batteries.

Lithium is critical in that it actually provides electricity in cold temperatures. For example, if you’re using a camera in cold temperatures it is the only solution.

Despite the lack of lithium batteries with the Hotronics, we tried to insulate the nicad batteries for a winter expedition to a peak in northern China where we knew the temperatures would be in the negative triple digits. Sadly, the battery packs froze before we could even get them on our boots. We attempted the peak with overboots on our AT boots but the cold was too intense. We turned around and vowed to return.

Upon returning home, I was catching up on work at my office and I came across an email for a remote controlled heated insole that used an integrated lithium battery: Thermacell Heated Insoles. I was skeptical at best, but it got my attention. I ordered a pair — I had nothing to lose.

I charged them up, put them in my boots and tested them during a week of –20 degree days. They worked! I continued to test them for the rest of that season and by the end of the year made a call to the company, Schwabel Technologies, excited to tell them what I had been up to.

I inquired first for a sponsorship and we worked out the details for another expedition and film. It was an incredible scenario. As we climbed and skied with warm feet and brain stormed the idea of bringing the product to our demographic of climbers and skiers. Next trip we flew to Boston to meet with their team.

In Boston, we made a pitch to sell the product. In our 25 years of mountaineering, half of which included sponsorships for virtually all our gear, we never thought to actually sell what we used. Thermacell however worked so well we decided to take our story of this “golden widget” and see what we could do. We ordered a large amount of inventory and sold them all.

Thermacell had no wires to break, no battery packs hanging off our boots, and with a switch akin to an automobile door lock, we could generate two levels of heat, medium and high. It was a dream product for what we needed.

The original product did have some limitations. Charging required taking it out of the boot to plug it it, and it was a bit stiff and thick for normal ski boots.

ThermaCELL Heated Insoles ProFLEX

ThermaCELL Heated Insoles ProFLEX

We talked to the manufacturer, and the evolution produced the Thermacell ProFlex. This model was flexible, slightly thinner, but also had a replaceable battery pack that could be taken out and charged on a USB port or wall socket. But it had another immensely valuable aspect. The fact that the batteries could be replaced allowed for on the fly new batteries. On high, we were getting 3-4 hours of continues heat, but with this added aspect, we could simply pull our foot out, change the battery, and in a few seconds, have another 3-4 hours of heat. (Note, to change batteries you do have to take your foot out of the boot, which can of course be problematic to say the least. Planning ahead is essential, and battery power conservation can be important.)

The batteries are about the size of a match book so weight is not much of an issue. With that, 8kpeak was born. We started a blog and small store front that sold the gear we used “that worked.”

The ProFlex is selling. We will be taking the product with us on our next winter Himalayan expedition in January knowing that the technology has finally reached viable standards.

As with any product, there’s still room for improvement. The insoles are a bit thicker than the standard insole that comes in a boot so that is an issue. For people with tight fitting ski boots, the product will not work. For high level on-mountain skiers, the thickness can be an issue. It also will not work over an orthotic. For the future, we are exploring some type of orthotic interface, but for now the ProFlex is a stand along insole. But for most AT boots which people fit on the large size for warmth, it works.

For me and my team the product is a total game changer for mountaineering and skiing in general, and we hope to continue to meet the demands of all cold weather activities from climbing and skiing the highest and coldest peaks in the world, to walking the dogs on a chilly morning.

Steve Marolt winter on Mustagh Atta, extreme cold.

Steve Marolt winter on Mustagh Atta, extreme cold.

Shop for Thermacell ProFlex here


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37 Responses to “Cold Feet at 4,000 meters — or 8,000? Here’s a Solution”

  1. Sam Hansen December 18th, 2014 9:43 am

    I am just armchair quarterbacking this, but these things seem like a gimmick. The author is sponsored and essentially “paid” to promote the product, meaning he is no longer capable of writing an unbiased review. There are several obvious problems with this. These have to be fairly thick insole to house a battery compartment, this changes sizing and fit etc. both of which are probably equally important as the boot warmer itself to keeping warm feet. When the author says they are “light” that is very relative, we’ve known for a very long time that lighter weight gear is very important to success. Adding 1 unit of weight to your foot is the equivalent of adding 3x that on your back, not to mention the spare batteries and solar panel already in there. Next, although lithium batteries are more resistant to cold than alkaline or other battery types, they are still not resilient to it. Last and most important, these last 4-5 hrs in a best case scenario. Having to take your boot off in negative temperatures to change batteries is idiotic to say the least, your foot will freeze before you get a new battery in anyways. Not to mention you probably have to take your gloves off as well.

  2. John December 18th, 2014 11:11 am

    I like the sound of where this technology is headed…..keep us posted on this!!!

  3. CalebfromMT December 18th, 2014 12:53 pm

    +1 for John. My thoughts are the author covered Sam’s concerns. I think he did a good job talking about the positives and negatives. Anyone serious enough to climb in those conditions is probably also serious enough to purchase a size up shell. That and a good intuition molded along with the thick insole would solve the fit issue. As for the battery change that can be practiced and become efficient. No different than lighting a white gas stove in a storm (but of course you don’t need to use your feet for that 😉 Just my 2 cents.

  4. Lou Dawson 2 December 18th, 2014 12:58 pm

    Sam, all your points are valid. We went for it and published the seller’s review, we won ‘t do that often but we’ll still do it once in a while. A couple of things we can do to help. First, we are on the case with testing these things and will be sure to add to the review. Second, we did take quite a bit of care with our editing and will continue to do so. For example, we did make sure the short battery life and thickness were pointed out. As for the cold on the batteries, that’s indeed a factor and perhaps should have been pointed out more. Third, I know Mike personally and he has the high altitude cold weather mountaineering chops to speak with authority.

    In any case, thanks for calling it like you see it!

  5. Lou Dawson 2 December 18th, 2014 1:01 pm

    P.S., I’d agree the weak point in all this is the boot removal thing. That could indeed be totally impractical at the time it’s most needed. Key would probably be conserving battery life by only using when needed, and boots would still need to be upsized and fitted correctly for arctic conditions. Perhaps Mike will chime in and let us know what it’s like to take his boots off when it’s negative 40 F and blowing (grin). Lou

  6. MattD December 18th, 2014 1:34 pm

    I think I’ll keep my orthotics with the little dremeled out spots with heating elements glued into them along with the wires that run up to the replaceable battery packs that I can shove or clip wherever I want want and swap out on the fly without taking my boots off… for now.

    Obviously that solution comes with it’s own problems, and really what I need is a new leg with less metal and better circulation… or more metal and no circulation.

    Also, I feel like having batteries inside my boots, under my feet is probably not a good idea… especially considering the sorts of things that happen after I jum… er… fall off of things… but, maybe they 100% solved the exploding battery in confined spaces / impact problem, I mean Apple and Samsung haven’t, but… maybe?

    Sounds like there is a lot to like, and probably good things to come, but those are my concerns.

  7. Mike Marolt December 18th, 2014 1:43 pm

    Sam points well taken. I will try to respond on some of your points.

    First regarding my relationship, the point of the story is to share my experience looking for the best possible technology over the span of a decade plus. We have tried literally everything. This was a product that I was totally skeptical about without question if only because nothing worked to the point I tried them. But because it is only a half an ounce heavier than my former insole, the benefit of the heat in my view is a no brainer. It only takes nearly freezing your feet to know keeping them warm is far more important that weight. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the weight of over boots when they are needed, and these are a fraction of the weight of over boots and for me has eliminated the use of over boots on a few climbs. Keep in mind from the story that my incentive was not to get into the insole business. That happened because I found something I was looking for and it worked well enough to then give me an incentive to sell it. I was just fine with other career mentally and financially to not have to do this. IE I want to share this product and saw an opportunity to make a few bucks.

    It’s not applicable for all applications in all ski boots. But again, my story suggests that it is viable. I use the product. But you are correct, it is thicker than a standard insole so that is an issue. As for the thickness being an insulator, yes again. The sole is made from high value insulating foam to add to efficiency. One other point, for people that have to use orthotics for medical reasons or even if they just like orthotics, this is not going to work in that scenario.

    As for the time limit on the battery, while I would not condone taking your foot out of your boot in extremely cold temps either, in some cases, I have changed on the fly with success. Contrary to what you may believe, even in -90, your hand or foot won’t freeze instantly so the disparity of on the fly use is a matter of common sense. Not in -90, but -10 or even -20, definitely possible. In my case, at the end of the day with feet not freezing but bats out of juice, the few seconds it took to replace the battery was not an issue and the heat once on was justified totally. If it’s so cold that you are freezing, you need to head down, in, and out and I would never take my foot out in that and most cases. But if you are skiing side country or doing laps from a pilot camp or even your car, this ability to change is super. For on mountain skiing, at lunch, change them. But also, just because it lasts 3-4 hours, doesn’t mean you have to use it that long. On one expedition, I turned mine on for 15 minutes in the tent while brewing up and I didn’t have to use them the rest of the day. It was about as cold as it can get. At one point “spot” heating on medium, I was able to get over a month out of mine. It’s not all or nothing, but with replaceable batteries, you can easily get all day heat if you need to in some circumstances. With closed cell liners, you don’t have to use them continuously even in extremely cold temps. At least I don’t.

    Regarding the lithium batteries, they are not hanging outside but are in the boot under your foot. So they really are not exposed, even in – triple digits to cold that will debilitate efficiency.

    So hope that helps clear a few of your points. It is a bit of a gimmick given the technology in this area is so thin, but the product has a half a million units on the market with less than 2% return, so it’s a gimmick that honestly works. Not for everyone as I mentioned, but for many. It perked my attention to try them, and they worked out well for me on many levels.

  8. Mike Marolt December 18th, 2014 2:27 pm

    MattD, great point on impact / battery issue. The battery in the product is all SATRA certified. SATRA is the world leader in research and development and certification of products for market. For anything “lithium” it’s nearly impossible to bring something to market without their stamp of approval. They tested the product inside and out and it’s fully certified as safe for the intended application.

    In the hundreds of thousands of units out there, the manufacturer does have one case where a battery bent. However, no harm resulted in that the technology is required to have an auto shut off which worked in this isolated case. Apparently the user was in a soft shoe and jumped just right on a sharp rock. So life can happen, but the chances of this product resulting in harm has not been an issue. As for damaging the product after purchasing it, I am not aware of any issues so far. I have skied very hard for two years and frankly it’s not an issue at all, but it is a concern out there so thanks for bringing it up.

    But thanks for bringing that up.

  9. Mike Marolt December 18th, 2014 2:45 pm

    Caleb from Mt, I do use the insole in an Intuition liner and the combination is super. The ability to mold the liner around makes fit issues better. The insole is not a super dynamic design as it is for the mass, but the moldable liner really helps. The biggest advantage is that Intuition is so warm on it’s own that when you add a bit of heat from an insole, it pretty much eliminates cold feet. The intuition is also extremely light so it has been a great combination for me.

  10. Mike Marolt December 18th, 2014 2:49 pm

    Lou, I have never taken my foot out of my boot in -40 degree temps, but I have dropped my drawers in -60 for the only reason you would ever have to. Not sure the readers want the details, but suffice to say, it was not pleasant, and borderline disastrous. haha.

  11. scott December 18th, 2014 2:51 pm

    Just today pick up a set of therm-ic 950 for my ski boots. I fought cold feet too long. This product sounds interesting too. Looking forward to more analysis.

  12. Bill B December 18th, 2014 5:49 pm

    I find that after 4 hours I need to change socks anyhow.
    So no big deal on the battery change.
    My wife has Raynauds and this looks like the ticket for her.
    You want to suffer, just get her cold.

  13. Rod December 18th, 2014 6:22 pm

    Lou, didn’t know where to post this question so…
    I’m trying to replace the climbing post on the refusal ft, do I unscrew the top plate?

  14. Rod December 18th, 2014 6:24 pm

    Sorry, meant radical ft, my phone thinks it knows better what I want to say.

  15. Kristian December 18th, 2014 6:42 pm

    Great stuff. And surprisingly, many still do not know that the first line of defense against cold feet is to keep your torso and especially your neck and head well insulated. That means full balaclava topped with a windstopper hat and a down hood adjusted correctly. Even having your wind shell’s hood up will conserve a great deal of warmth. And like everything else, you have to actively regulate and anticipate insulation needs.

  16. Lou Dawson 2 December 18th, 2014 6:56 pm

    Refusal FT, the latest!

    Rod, not sure what you’re asking. If you have a replacement part then sure, you’d unbolt whatever matches and replace with the new… did you get a new part from Dynafit?


  17. Rod December 18th, 2014 7:37 pm

    I just have the aluminum climbing bars and by looking, it seems that to replace them, I nerf to take of f the black top plate, is this right?

  18. See December 18th, 2014 8:07 pm

    Interesting post. Doesn’t strike me as marketing hype.

    Put a lithium battery at the top of the boot and you’re done? The wiring challenge seems pretty manageable.

  19. Lou Dawson 2 December 19th, 2014 7:12 am

    See, that’s what I’ve been thinking. It seems if an industrial designer just turned their attention to this whole issue (warmers in AT boots) the whole thing could be integrated into a nearly perfect system with about 10 minutes of design work. One thing, however, is the batteries do need to be in a location where they get some body warmth, that way you get a lot more performance out of even the lithium. I’m not enamored to the idea of taking boots off to change batteries. On the other hand, like I’ve mentioned a few times, I think this system as presented by Mike is viable when used with smart care. We’re on it. Lou

  20. Lou Dawson 2 December 19th, 2014 7:29 am

    All, we’re having some false positives in our comment spam filtering, and we went out skiing without checking the moderation tank, apologies for your comments getting held up. Am looking at the issue, probably has to do with a few stop words I added recently to the blocklist. Lou

  21. Bill B December 19th, 2014 7:45 am

    With heated gloves I found that the wiring to the battery was
    the big issue. It would flex, fatigue, and then break.
    This made them unreliable. With the integrated battery used in this footbed
    that takes away what I see as the biggest problem with heated clothing.
    External wiring may work in some applications, but for touring use as compared to a more static use as with lift skiing I cannot see it holding up.

  22. Ralph December 19th, 2014 8:58 am

    I dunno, Lou- it seems to me there should be a way to harvest the movement energy of each step and skip the battery entirely, or at least the recharging. A quick google shows there’s at least one patent out there:

  23. Mike Marolt December 19th, 2014 9:51 am

    BillB, we will have gloves with the same wireless technology next year. We will be testing in January so will let WS how that goes.

  24. See December 19th, 2014 10:44 am

    Hi Bill. I’ve never used electric gloves or insoles, but I think the same thing could be said about fan goggles— the wiring isn’t very robust. In my opinion, this is probably a consequence of having to design for a certain price point, not because the engineering challenge is so formidable.

  25. Mike Marolt December 19th, 2014 11:00 am

    On heated technology in general, the manufacturer has this technology down to a T. Just a short story behind the technology. The owner of the company worked for Gillette. Decades back they formed a division to produce heating elements for curling irons. That didn’t work as they were more a men’s company. The owner of Thermacell purchased that division. He had great success using the elements in insect repellant products that vaporized with the heat the substances used to repel insects. I believe Schabell is the world’s largest manufacture of this type of product. Afterward, he decided the technology could be used for heating anything. So this is multiple decades of research and development in the technology that has been implemented into ProFlex heated insoles. The market is right for other heated products for cold weather activities so the future is looking bright….and a lot warmer. Point being, this is not a new technology but rather a new application. The beauty for us at 8kpeak is we have the manufacturer’s ear to really develop the products for what we all do, climb and ski. The improvements from last year to this year are massive. That trend will continue. What the future holds for heated gear is really exciting, and to be working with Thermacell / Schwabell is very exciting.

  26. John December 19th, 2014 8:28 pm

    always thought it would be smart if someone came out with a moldable liner with integrated heating elements.

  27. See December 19th, 2014 8:48 pm

    Lange did it back in the 1980’s.

  28. toasty December 20th, 2014 6:23 pm

    Lou, you should have a look at Lenz heated socks. You can use orthotics with them and in any boot – or even in your sleeping bag. The electronics are woven into the sock. The element heats the ball of the foot to the tip of the toes.

    You can have multiple battery packs that are swappable without taking your foot out of the boot – and you can get up to 10 -14 hours on the lowest heat setting (42 Celsius) on one pack – each 1200mAh pack weigh 86g (one for each sock). Only possible issue is durability. They aren’t intended to be your everyday sock but something to use on the really cold outings. You can buy additional battery packs and socks separately.

    Lenz also makes heated gloves and the more common wired heated footbeds.

    (disclosure – I work for a retailer that carries Lenz heated socks).

  29. Bill B December 21st, 2014 10:37 pm

    The heated gloves I worked with was for my wife. The wiring coming out of the battery was coaxial rather than parallel. It put a lot of stress on the outer wire. The outer wire was quick to fatigue. I sent the gloves back at least 3 times in the first year and since then have re-soldered the wires myself along with wrapping the batteries to try to limit flex.
    I just feel it was a bad design. When you look at it though touring or climbing puts a lot more stress on these items with constant flexing as compared to resort skiing or standing around.
    That is why I think 8kpeaks design is much better for climbing and touring than having wires that will flex while in use.

  30. Andy Mason December 23rd, 2014 1:34 pm

    I haven’t used them for AT, but I do have Therm-ic boot heaters that seem to have pretty solid wiring. They’ve had Li-Ion batteries for a few years now (that I can’t afford and don’t need), and have an extendo-wire so you can keep the batteries wherever. So other than testing whether the wire holds up for AT, what part of this solution have you tested and found lacking?

  31. Kenneth Nordstrom December 29th, 2014 8:57 am

    To my mind one problem with batteries inside the soles (in addition to the resulting thickness of the sole) is the physical limit on battery capacity that this entails (at least currently). Tried to find info about the battery capacity on the 8kpeak webpage with no success. Will probably stick to my therm-ics where you can get 1600 mAh batteries and changing batteries on the go is also easier.

  32. Lou Dawson 2 December 29th, 2014 9:25 am

    Frankly, while I like the idea of batteries in the boots, I also like the idea of batteries that can be easily accessed during the day, attached by wire. What I don’t understand is why the boot heater companies have so much trouble providing armored wire that can stand up to abuse. Though to be fair, one of the very real problems is that braided or solid copper wire is going to break eventually if flexed over and over again. That part of the problem might be insurmountable unless the wire is routed in the boot in some way that it hardly flexes at all. Thus, back to 8k’s solution… Lou

  33. Ben December 30th, 2014 5:06 am

    How about hotronics vs therm-ic vs thermacell?

    As far as I know, there is no internet review that compares hotronics vs therm-ic other than a table comparing stats.

  34. Tracee February 23rd, 2015 7:46 pm

    I agree with Ben. It would be great to compare Therm-ic vs Hotronic vs. Thermacell. My unscientific testing has show Therm-ic seem superior to Hotronic in terms of battery life but I have not done any scientific testing.

  35. J March 1st, 2015 8:05 pm

    I was examing the Hotronics today for purchase and wondered about the wiring too. I think it’s an easy solution, at least for the ski boot. The wiring can feed forward in front of the foot, feed out of the boot at first buckle by the boot toes, and the battery pack can clamp to the boot buckle…problem solved. I don’t know mountaineering boots, but maybe it can feed out by the boot tongue,

  36. kwoolley January 28th, 2017 7:58 am

    Got a pair of these for my wife for Christmas. The heavy duty battery. She has suffered from cold feet (and hands) skiing her entire life, and we had not found a satisfactory solution. She only has a handful of days with these insouls, but they are far better than any previous solution. Yesterday morning we toured Uneva peak in 0 to 10 degree temperatures, and for the first time in her life, she had to turn down the heat because her feet were too warm. A few things we have discovered that I would pass on. The key for her is to have very warm feet prior to skiing. We keep the car heater blowing full blast on her feet, with only socks on her feet in the car, she puts the boots on as we arrive at the trailhead. The second thing is that these work much better with a very thin sock. With a thicker sock she has to set the setting on high, and still feels cold, with a thin sock, medium was too hot after an hour of touring, she had to turn to low heat. We have not tried the insert in below zero fahrenheit weather yet. But I would count us as two people who are very satisfied with the result. I only wish they made a similar glove. Is there any such thing in the works?

  37. kwoolley January 28th, 2017 8:04 am

    Also the volume of the insoles are a little more than superfeet, so I would test for fit before purchase for an existing boot to be sure you have space. But we love them! And would definitely buy a glove if it existed.

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