We’ve all been there: waiting for the perfect shot in freezing temps as bitterly cold wind whips through the mountains. The drill is always the same: hop up and down, jog in place, blow warm air down your glove in hopes of bringing some feeling back to your poor, weathered fingertips. We know this dilemma so well that we have spent years creating solutions for photographers who love winter but suffer from cold hands.

We know that when the temps drop, we start to lose feeling in our fingers and toes but what is actually going on in the body? Our body is a masterpiece of machinery and it has a series of coping mechanisms to keep the body alive even when the odds are stacked against us. 

Ready to nerd out on some cold-weather science? Let’s go! Here’s what happens when your body starts to get cold.

photographer in front of alpine lake

Your blood vessels constrict

Your body likes to keep itself at 37 degrees Celsius but when the temperatures start to drop, the skin is the first thing to start sending signals to the brain that it’s getting cold. The brain’s response is to stop sending out all of the precious blood to the extremities, such as your fingers, feet and toes. 

Your skin is heated by thousands of tiny blood vessels that carry warm blood and keep things nice and evenly warm but when your brain starts to get cold signals, it starts constricting blood vessels which makes it harder for blood to pass through the body and reach the extremities. Your brain starts shutting off blood supply to the skin for two reasons: 1) it helps keep essential blood circulating to our vital organs, mostly in your core and 2) you lose heat through your skin so if your brain can shut off the heat, the body has a better chance of holding on to the precious heat. 

This is one reason why if you tend to get cold fingers and toes, a good first step is to put more layers on your body. All too often, people get cold hands and feet and put on socks or gloves but forget about the body. If you have any hope of getting heat back into your extremities, you need to start by laying up your torso.

We have a great article talking about how to layer for winter weather but in short, you need to have a moisture-wicking base layer close to the skin (not cotton!), an insulating mid-layer (like fleece or heavier wool) and a water/windproof top layer to keep the wind and elements out whilst keeping your heat in. Once your core starts to warm up again, your body will automatically start relaxing the blood vessels and sending blood back to your feet and hands. 

photographer in arctic conditionsPhoto by Lorraine Turci.

You may start to shiver

Shivering is your body’s next line of defence to keep your body warm. After it has restricted blood supply to your extremities, your brain starts signalling your muscles to contract quickly which we’ve come to know as shivering. One of the byproducts of muscle contraction is heat generation, in fact, If you get cold enough to enter into mild hypothermia, you can produce 400 to 600 watts of heat through shivering. 

woman wearing gloves taking a photo

You start to lose dexterity in your fingers and hands

Research has shown that cold temperatures can impair hand performance, reduce sensitivity, reducing tracking performance and lead to increased accidents. So why does this happen?

The muscles that control our fingers are in the forearms but the touch receptors are located in the fingers. This means that the brain can signal to our muscles in our forearm just fine but the feedback through the cold nerve in the fingers is impaired. The brain needs this constant feedback to know if an action has had a desired effect but when the cold temperatures numb the exposed nerves in our hands, the brain doesn’t get that feedback it needs which is why you may suddenly feel clumsier than normal. 

The best way to combat this is to keep your skin warm. You can start by keeping the core warm and then focus on warming up your forearms and fingers. Just like layering your clothes, a good glove layering system will significantly increase your ability to stay warm and continue functioning your camera. 

photographer wearing gloves with a pocket

We have gloves for every type of temperature here at Vallerret. For the coldest days, we recommend starting with a base layer glove (like the PowerStretch Pro Liner) with an insulated glove on top (such as the Ipsoot or Markhof Pro 2.0). For Arctic temps, we recommend the Altas which act as a warm safe haven for your hands. You can take them off to shoot and let them hang by the harness or unzip at the palm to access your camera. 

Keeping your body and your hands warm is hands down (ha!) the best way to make sure you have full dexterity of our equipment. The last thing you want to do when you’re out in the cold is to lose some functionality in your hands and accidentally drop a camera or lens. Having the right layers and the right gloves is the best step to take to ensure you can access all of your camera dials and settings with ease. 


2 Responses

Dave DeMarco
Dave DeMarco

January 21, 2021

As a self declared nerd (PhD in Chemistry), I really enjoyed the article. It is great to understand the “why” our fingers get cold and what we can do about it. Thank you for this!

Volker Dreyer
Volker Dreyer

January 21, 2021

Hi Vallerret team, the issue is usefully and understandably explained. Thanks and have a great day. Greetings from Germany

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