The secret to staying warm outside? Tip: batteries included
As a diabetic, Matthew Krier of White Bear Lake suffers from poor circulation in his extremities when he is outside in the cold. So when an online ad introduced him to the concept of battery-powered heated gloves, he bought a pair.
Although Krier joked that the rechargeable gloves might require him to turn in his “Minnesota map,” he prefers them to the disposable hard heaters he regularly relies on.
Electrically heated clothing first warmed travelers at high altitudes a century ago, but the concept has only recently become mainstream. Technological improvements have increased the number of heated products available, so cold dwellers can now stay warm, from their battery-operated boot soles to their heated balaclavas.
As the pandemic has sparked interest in outdoor activities, local retailers of heated gear have seen the popularity of the products increase. Although the technology is expensive (most heated gloves cost at least $100), it provides several hours of warmth during cold-weather activities, from hunting and skiing to walking the dog and tailgating.
Similar to electric blankets and car seats, clothes use thin metal wires or fibers that create heat when an electric current passes through them. With modern models, after connecting a rechargeable battery and pressing a button, the material will heat up in less than a minute.
The idea of heat-generating clothing was originally conceived to warm pilots’ flight suits. In 1930, Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, set a transcontinental flight record by wearing matching heated jackets, and the equipment was used throughout World War II.
Soon professional baseball pitchers were wearing self-heating jackets to keep their arms in condition. (“Just plug them in with a power cord and let the juice do the rest,” said one sportswriter.)
It was possible to find heated clothing in military surplus stores. But because the large battery packs required for portable power were impractical, self-heating equipment was primarily worn by motorcyclists and snowmobilers, who could plug directly into their vehicles.
In the 2010s, the advent of small, powerful rechargeable batteries prompted tool companies such as DeWalt and Milwaukee and skiwear manufacturers including Columbia to start making heated jackets.
These early models tended to be expensive (jackets introduced by Columbia a decade ago and retailed in the $1,000 range) and had technical issues. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission issued recalls for certain items due to the risk of burns posed by overheating electrical components.
The current generation of heated clothing offers more affordable options and improved reliability and safety. (For those concerned about the mix of electricity and moisture, the voltage of the batteries used in heated clothing are too low for dangerous shocks.)
Jim Rauscher, co-owner Joe’s Sporting Goods in Maplewood, grew up in the family business (“I was cooking minnows at 8 and selling ski boots at 12,” he jokes) and witnessed the evolution of heated clothing.
In the late 1980s, heated socks were powered by D batteries, attached to the calf, which slid the sock down. “These wouldn’t hold a charge for very long and you wouldn’t be able to control the temperature well,” he said.
Until five or 10 years ago, Rauscher said, the hassle of battery malfunction (and expensive replacement batteries) tended to keep heated gear out of the mainstream.
But current models produced by reliable brands have lighter, more flexible and washable heating elements. Temperature calibration is also more accurate. “Nowadays you can control things with a device like a key fob for your car, or connect it via Bluetooth to your cell phone,” he said.
Gloves and socks are the store’s best sellers — “your extremities are always what’s cold,” Rauscher explained. And vests have proven more popular than jackets, due to their versatility for layering. “And you feel the heat faster on a vest closer to your body,” he added.
At Bemidji’s Northern Sports, one of the nation’s largest snowmobile apparel retailers, heated gear sales follow the weather, co-owner Mike Fogelson said. “When the temperatures drop like they have this year, all of a sudden it gets hot and you can’t keep enough in store,” he said.
The category has seen a huge expansion as more and more people become aware of it. “That’s the trend right now. You see it everywhere,” he said. “Because if it’s available and it’s cold, why not use it?”
Exaggerated or necessary?
Heated equipment has its skeptics, of course.
Stephen Regenold, founder of the Minneapolis-based outdoor rating site Addicted to equipmentremembers burning his toes with a pair of D-battery heated socks as a child.
Regenold calls the idea of pushing a button for heat very marketable, but difficult to execute because the electrical components and fabric literally don’t fit together. There’s a reason many big outerwear brands have largely ditched heated gear, he said. “One day this product category will be mature and strong, but it’s not quite there yet.”
He considers heated gear “very American” in its embrace of excess and instant gratification. “It’s like the over-the-top giant SUV of the outdoor clothing category,” he said. “It’s mostly unnecessary. If you add an extra layer, you’ll probably get hot as well.”
That said, he admits that high-quality power equipment can be useful in extreme circumstances – or for more sedentary outdoor activities such as ice fishing.
But the robust sales of heated clothing suggest that for every person who finds it free, there’s another who prefers their winter experiences to be battery-heated – and who toasts the trend with a sipping hot drink, of course. , in a self-heating mug.