Cold Hands? The Torture Cure

Post by blogger | March 30, 2007      

Do your hands get cold and numb too easily? Years ago I learned of a treatment that can make hands more resistant to the chill. The idea is that since hands react to cold by shutting off blood supply (capillary shunt), one could short circuit that process by shocking the nerves with alternating hot and cold water treatments. Try this at your own risk and don’t do it if you have a medical condition such as Raynauds, but it worked for me and now my son is giving it a go.

Hand treatment for cold weather.
The treatment in process.

The process is simple. Fill one bucket full of ice cubes and water, and another with water so hot you can barely stand placing your hands in it, but not so hot it would scald you. Alternate placing your hands in each bucket. Leave your hands in each plunge long enough to “shock” them, but not long enough to get used to the temperature or damage your hands in the case of the ice water. At most a couple of minutes in each plunge. Multiple sessions are required — end each session when the hot water cools down enough to be lukewarm and comfortable, or after a half hour or so. A DVD player or VCR is useful as well (smile).

(It’s worth adding that caffeine is a vaso constrictor. If your hands and feet easily get cold, consider cutting down your caffeine intake or giving it up entirely. Same with smoking.)

That’s it, Friday’s gear tip — in this case the gear is your hands.

This process probably works for some people and not for others. Use moderation and prudence if you give it a go — this is not a machismo test. As always, while the authors and editors of the information on this website make every effort to present useful information, due to human error the information, text and images contained within this website may be inaccurate, false, or out-of-date. By using, reading or viewing the information provided on this website, you agree to absolve the owners of of any liability for injuries or losses incurred while using such information, and waive its owners and contributors of any liability.


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21 Responses to “Cold Hands? The Torture Cure”

  1. Sky March 30th, 2007 12:54 pm

    It’s really not fair that you fail to mention:
    Alcohol helps the blood flow by thinning it. Don’t forget your whiskey!

  2. Lou March 30th, 2007 2:35 pm

    Sky, point taken (grin), but the effect alcohol has is not from thinning blood but rather from it being a vaso dilator. As well as plenty of experience with wine or beer (and sometime a sip of whiskey) while out in the cold during winter camping and such, I’ve tried small amounts medicinal alcohol in the morning before climbs to try and dilate my hand and foot capillaries. This seemed to have an effect, but I was always concerned about what even small amounts of alcohol would to my coordination for difficult and frequently dangerous activities, so I quit that routine sooner rather than later.

    A better safer vaso dilator is probably a bit of niacin. But the hot/cold treatment worked well for me and my hands have always done well in the cold.

  3. Sky March 30th, 2007 2:39 pm

    I meant that in jest as much as anything. Although I do frequently take a bit of whiskey with me on long trips. It also has a nice pain-relieving effect.

    I’m sure your technique could be very useful to people with problems in the cold. I remember reading about Hermann Buhl putting his hands in the snow.

  4. Lou March 30th, 2007 2:56 pm

    Oh, I chuckled but had to spout of a serious answer. Just my nature (grin).

  5. barry March 30th, 2007 4:39 pm

    I might give this a try. I have a cold reaction problem as a result of many years of exposure to cold water. For those wanting a more humane solution I would recommend vapour barrier liner gloves from a company called RBH Designs I have a pair and I swear by them.

  6. riprater April 1st, 2007 12:14 am

    Is this a one time technique or something that needs to be repeated every month, season…?

  7. Lou April 1st, 2007 8:03 am

    As far as I can tell it needs to be done a number of times over a couple of weeks, and that’s it. So in a sense it’s a “one time” deal but needs to be done in multiple sessions.

    If a person does it and it works, and they loose the effect after time goes by, then they could always do the treatment again.

  8. Michael Kennedy April 2nd, 2007 5:42 am

    I can’t believe you’ve revealed this secret, Lou. I remember doing this with you back in the 1970s (74/75?). It worked.

    I’ve described this “treatment” to a number of climbing/skiing friends, none of whom have used it to my knowledge. They’ve all looked at me like I was crazy. It will be interesting to see if you get some takers.

    Re. Barry’s comment on the VBL gloves, I used neoprene socks as VBLs for my feet for 20+ years of alpine climbing. Light liner sock + neoprene + heavy wool sock over the neoprene. At night you turn the neoprene inside out, dry that and the liner socks in your sleeping bag, and wear the heavy wool sock. Make sure the neoprene sock fits big enough to not constrict your foot. This system is very warm, but more importantly, it keeps your boots dry on multi-day climbs and ski tours.

  9. Lou April 2nd, 2007 6:30 am

    MK, gotta show we still have a few tricks up our tattered old sleeves…

  10. Sky April 2nd, 2007 9:28 am

    Hey MK:
    I’ve never needed more than one sock, but I can imagine how colder climes would call for it. Do you use this three-sock system skiing without sock-bunching problems and attendant hot spots? Any tricks to keep all that sock in order?

  11. Jamie December 3rd, 2007 7:36 am

    Would this same technique work for cold feet?

  12. Lou December 3rd, 2007 8:02 am

    Jamie, it could indeed work. Feet are a tougher proposition because often the cause of cold feet is poor blood flow from constricted footwear, and no amount of hot-cold treatment will make any difference with that.

  13. Sam Fox December 3rd, 2007 12:19 pm

    Sounds promising Lou. I’ve had a circulation problem in my right hand since to the loss of my ulnar artery (the smaller of two that supply the hand).

    I tried mitts for a while but found them cumbersome and went back to gloves. The best for me is usually getting the HR up and swinging my hands. Over seven years as a pro-patroller I guess I’ve adapted but still have a cold hand from time to time.

    Anyway, the reason I post is that way back when, one of my EMT instructors was an air force PJ who told us about a treatment for raynauds that the military developed that can also just boost extremity circulation. This treatment is equally, if not more sadistic than yours.

    It entails sitting outside in the cold in your underwear with hands and feet in buckets of hot water. This trains your vasculature to react to cold by increasing circulation to the extremities, the opposite of the normal “mammalian dive” reflex.

    Haven’t actually tried it but it also sounds promising.

  14. Lou December 3rd, 2007 2:37 pm

    We’ll, perhaps that proves that our method has some validity, or does it show we need to get more radical? Can I wear a speedo instead of my underwear (g)?

  15. Tuck October 17th, 2013 9:11 am

    So a few years later… Do you still train your hands this way, or have you found that the effect lingers?

  16. Lou Dawson 2 July 2nd, 2016 6:55 am

    In my experience the effect lingers, though it doesn’t hurt to redo once in a while. Lou

  17. Ila May 23rd, 2017 6:27 am

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve had cold hands and feet for year. Both a reachtiin to cold-windy environments or emotionally super excited and all the blood retracts and I start to shake.
    Being a one day espresso drinker – looks like I need to cut it out.

    I’m challenging my mind and health and vagus nerve by wanting to swim in cold water. Starting with a 3K in two weeks.
    Yet the cold hands (I’ve created heat in my feet already in these environments) cramped this past weekend when I gave myself hypothermia.

    So to be clear with this cold-hot treatment.

    Two containers
    1- ice water: stay there long enough to not damage yourself

    2- hot water: presculding hot

    Alternate back and forth a few min in each enough to shoke they and the system yet short enough to not damage them. close in hot water for 30min (play music or movie to pass the time)

    Thank you ?

  18. Lou Dawson 2 May 23rd, 2017 7:22 am

    That’s the process, use at own risk, it probably doesn’t work for everyone and could cause permanent nerve damage.

  19. See May 23rd, 2017 7:50 am

    Unlike Lou, I’m no expert on this subject, but there is no substitute for insulation in my opinion. Warm mitts, boot covers or even electric heaters seem like a higher percentage proposition. I’m reminded of something I read recently in an interview with the late Ueli Steck about how the “Sherpa are never cold.” It was reported that Steck was climbing alone when he fell to his death because his partner was suffering from severe frostbite.

  20. Lou Dawson 2 May 23rd, 2017 8:31 am

    My understanding is that the electric heated gloves now available are a viable solution, with care of course. Lou

  21. See May 23rd, 2017 9:08 am

    I guess electric heat elements would be a substitute for insulation until the batteries run out. But in my experience, just changing to thicker liners or a mitten shell can make a big difference. Short of really extreme conditions, aren’t the warmest offering from BD or OR (e.g.) sufficient for most people?

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