I’m no stranger to the cold. I grew up in Alaska, where winter extremes were similar to the deep freeze that recently hit thousands of people across the South, Northeast, and Midwest.
During one especially frigid February in the mid-80s, I went to school with slightly damp hair and accidentally broke off my bangs when I tried to sweep the icy spikes out of my eyes. They just snapped right off. True story.
Back then, we basically had wool. Itchy, scratchy – prone to getting slightly damp and staying that way – wool to keep us warm. Today, a new line of relatively inexpensive gadgets, a myriad of high-tech heated outerwear, and some far-out “just-right” tech tools promise to keep us safe, comfortable, and even powered up when the deep freeze settles in.
But what really works as temperatures plunge, streets and sidewalks turn into skating rinks, and power goes – and stays – out? To find out, we turned to the people who live, work, play, survive – and thrive – in epic-freezing cold weather.
Body Basics: Base Layers, Hats, Gloves, Warmers
You learn a lot about keeping your hands and feet warm when you routinely work in temperatures lower than what registers on an outdoor thermometer.
“I’ve worked in minus 70°,” says 43-year-old Dave Ashcraft, who’s employed along the northernmost regions of the Alaska pipeline near Prudhoe Bay. “Our work’s all outside,” he tells me over direct message. “All exposed skin freezes quickly, so it has to be covered. Even your eyes will freeze.”
Ashcraft says he’s tried almost everything, and his top picks today include the No Fog neoprene mask ($45), 313 RefrigiWear gloves ($21.50), and an extra outer layer made especially for going over his boots.
“No matter what kind of boots I’ve tried, it’s never enough when it’s that cold and windy. So I wear Neos insulated over-boots, and use foot warmers if needed. The Neos are a real lifesaver, and it wouldn’t be possible to stay outside long enough to do the work without them,” he says. (Neos are around $150, and HotHands warmer packs are $30 for a pack of 16).
Strap-on spikes are another necessity in the ice and snow – kind of like tire chains for your shoes. I have a pair of Kahtoola NANOspikes ($50) for running that are lightweight and easy to pull on over most shoes. For more extreme ice, snow, or even those tailbone-breaking, black-ice-coated front steps, a pair of Yaktrax Diamond Grip ICEtrekkers ($55) might be a better fit.
“When you walk outside and get blasted with negative 50° degrees and wind pushes it lower than minus 70°, it doesn’t matter how many layers I have on; it just cuts through,” says North Slope worker Gaylynn Mertz.
In a series of DM’s, the 48-year-old Alaskan touts the benefits of heat packs and high-tech base layers. “If the wind (blows) hard enough to pick up any snow, it’s a lot like getting sandblasted in your face (with a fire hose).”
Balaclava’s – or face coverings, goggles, and high-tech base layers work well for such extremes. A few top picks include:
The Seirus Wind Pro X-Treme ($40) hood keeps your head, ears, and chin extra warm and claims to offer four times more wind resistance than regular fleece.
ActionHeat’s 5V battery-heated fleece ($100) face cover has small electrical coils embedded on both sides near your ears. Push a thumbprint-sized button to turn it on to get three heat levels.
I’ve tried several balaclavas from Outdoor Research, Patagonia, North Face, REI, and many others that also keep frost nip at bay in extreme cold.
“Of course, the main thing for cold weather is layers, layers, layers,” ultra-endurance athlete and adventurer Frank Fumich adds.
The 55-year-old father of twins from McLean, Virginia, recently skied to the South Pole. He’s also summited Denali – the tallest peak in North America –and run a 350-mile foot race through the Arctic Circle at the tip-top of Canada.
“. Lots of layers enable you to take off and put on [clothing] as you do various levels of activity, which is the key to moderating a good body temperature and level of comfort,” he says.
Fumich starts with a “Cool-Lite Merino wool or something similar.”
Icebreaker makes sets for men and women that do a stellar job keeping you comfy when you’re active – wicking away sweat and moisture – but then keep you toasty and warm when you stop, too. Both the men’s/women’s BodyfitZone Merino 260 Zone Long Sleeve Crewe tops and men’s/women’s BodyfitZone Merino 260 Zone Leggings are on sale for $91, from $140.
Another set I’m practically living in right now is the Helly Hansen Lifa Merino midweight half-zip top ($110) and Lifa Active baser layer leggings ($55).
My husband gave me these just this past Christmas for running and riding (horses and bikes) outdoors in the Pacific Northwest. I can’t believe how warm they keep me.
Do beanies keep you warm?
Heated beanies are all the rage right now, though not among the North Slope workers or extreme adventure athletes – because it’s too hard to keep them charged. But for those of us who have regular access to a power outlet, a few get high marks from verified buyers on Amazon, including;
The SVPRO battery heated beanie ($63). It stays charged for up to seven hours and has the most four-star+ ratings (nearly 200) on Amazon.
Sun Will’s ($60) heated fleece topper also lasts up to eight hours on low heat or three to four hours on high, and also gets high marks from reviewers on Amazon.
Rechargeable hand warmers are great go-to’s, especially if they can also charge your other gadgets. My top picks include:
Celestron Elements FireCel+ ($60) because it fits in my palm and can recharge another gadget while warming up my frosty fingers. It stays heated for more than seven hours of continual use on a single charge. One thing I don’t like about it – it takes six hours to charge back up again. That’s a long time between ski runs.
Ocoopa’s ($35) HO1 10,000mAh rechargeable hand warmer has three levels of heat, and can stay charged for up to 15 hours at a time. I also like Ocoopa’s UT2 MagTwin ($43) model, which is basically two warmers/chargers that you can use as one device or as two separate warmer/charger combos.
I’ve used HotHands quite a few times in biting cold. These are great for warming up small areas such as hands or feet, but don’t cover much territory overall.
Touchscreen gloves are another modern must-have. A few solid sets include
Moshi Digits ($30) touchscreen gloves
and the Black Diamond HeavyWeight ScreenTap ($50) fleece gloves.
Whether you live, work, or play in a crazy-cold climate, or get smacked with that “once in a lifetime” winter storm, cold drains batteries – period.
“I sleep with my phone and batteries inside my -40F rated sleeping back, and often jammed under my long underwear, up against the skin to keep them warm and charged,” said Fumich, who also carries a backup charger on adventures.
It’s a great idea to keep a few of these charged up in your home and car emergency kits as well. Some top picks:
Zendure’s palm-sized Powerbank Supermini ($46). This was my hands-down favorite during a trip to the UK last fall. It’s small and light enough to fit into the palm of your hand yet, can recharge a smartphone up to 50% in less than 30 minutes. It can also power up laptops, tablets, and a couple of phones at the same time.
I also really like the Einova by Eggtronic 63W Ultra Fast Power Bank ($70). This one weighs in at just under a pound and charges up to three devices simultaneously, including a laptop, tablet, smartphone, and most gaming devices.
Solar chargers can also come in handy – even in winter. I like the Hilucky 26800mAH solar charger ($26). It can power-up an iPhone eight times on a single charge and double as an LED flashlight.
We touched on portable back-up generators in a column last month, but now’s a great time for a reminder on these emergency must-have’s too.
I’ve reviewed several over the years, including large backup devices from Geneverse, Jackery and Ecoflow. We keep at least four of these charged all year round, so they’re ready to go in an emergency.
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A few other tech tools to have on hand
When storms knock the power out – as it did recently for more than 400,000 people in Texas – emergency lanterns that can also charge other gadgets great to have on hand.
Past storm coverage favorites that I still use include:
LuminAID’s PackLite Max 2-in-1 emergency lantern with charger (starts at $50).
When it comes to long-lasting bright light, nothing I’ve tried holds a candle to the UST 60-day Duro lantern ($100). It shines a soft, glow-y light for up to two months straight on six D batteries.
Download this Emergency App
Zello is a free app that turns your smartphone into a sort of hybrid walkie-talkie/police scanner. If you have a cellular network or WiFi connection, you can use Zello like a two-way radio to keep in contact with a pre-set group of people. It’s not as good as a satellite phone, but it’s free, easy, and can be a great way to check in on elderly relatives.
And just because…
I’ve used a credit card to scrape ice off my windshield in a total pinch, but for true digging-out and de-icing of the future, check out Yarbo’s S1 Snow Blower, available for pre-order now for $3,839. The autonomous snow-blowing bot embraces the brrr to clear heavy snow and ice – and shoot it as far as 40 feet away. It won’t hit the market until next winter (October 2023), but it gives us all something to save up for and dream of as we weather this latest storm.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stay warm in cold weather: Tips, tools to help survive freezing temps