Battery-operated clothes are the secret to staying warm this winter

Battery-operated clothes are the secret to staying warm this winter

As a diabetic, Matthew Krier of White Bear Lake suffers poor circulation in his extremities when he’s out in the cold. So when an online ad introduced him to the concept of battery-heated gloves, he bought a pair.

Though Krier joked that the rechargeable gloves may require him to turn in his “Minnesota card,” he prefers them to the disposable hard-warmers he regularly relied on.

Electrically heated clothing first warmed high-altitude fliers a century ago, but the concept has only recently gone mainstream. Improvements in technology have expanded the number of warming products available, so cold-dwellers can now stay cozy from their battery-powered boot insoles to their heated balaclavas.

As the pandemic has sparked interest in outdoor activities, local heated-gear retailers have seen the products’ popularity rise. While the technology is pricey (most heated gloves cost at least $100), it provides several hours of warmth during cold-weather pursuits, from hunting and skiing, to dog-walking and tailgating.

Similar to heated blankets and car seats, the clothing uses thin metal wires or fibers that create heat as an electric current passes through. With modern models, after connecting a rechargeable battery and pressing a button, the gear will warm up in less than a minute.

The idea of heat-generating apparel was initially conceived to warm pilots’ flight suits. In 1930, Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, set a record for transcontinental flight wearing matching heated jackets, and the gear was used throughout World War II.

Soon pro baseball pitchers were wearing self-warming jackets to keep their arms in condition. (“Just plug ’em in with a light cord and let the juice do the rest,” one sportswriter gushed.)

It was possible to find heated clothing at military surplus stores. But because large battery packs required for portable power were impractical, self-warming gear was mostly worn by motorcyclists and snowmobilers, who could plug right into their vehicles.

By the 2010s, the arrival of small, powerful rechargeable batteries spurred tool companies such as DeWalt and Milwaukee and skiwear makers including Columbia to start making heated jackets.

Those early models tended to be pricey (jackets Columbia introduced a decade ago retailed in the $1,000 range) and had technical issues. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued recalls for some items due to the burn risk posed by overheating electrical components.

The current generation of heated clothing has more affordable options and improved reliability and safety. (For those concerned about mixing electricity and moisture, the voltage of batteries used in heated apparel is too low for hazardous shocks.)

Hot trend

Jim Rauscher, who co-owns Joe’s Sporting Goods in Maplewood, grew up in the family business (“I was dishing minnows at 8 years old and selling ski boots at 12,” he quips) and witnessed the evolution of heated apparel firsthand.

Back in the late 1980s, heated socks were powered by D-cell batteries, attached to the calf, which would drag the sock down. “Those wouldn’t hold the charge very long and you couldn’t control the temperature well,” he said.

Up until five or 10 years ago, Rauscher said, hassles related to poor battery function (and pricey 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. Calibrating temperature is more precise, too. “Nowadays some items you can control it with a device like a key fob for your car, or hook it up via Bluetooth to your cellphone,” he said.

Gloves and socks are the store’s best sellers — “your extremities are always what’s cold,” Rauscher explained. And vests have proved more popular than jackets, due to their versatility for layering. “And you feel the heat quicker on a vest that’s closer to your body,” he added.

At Bemidji-based Up North Sports, one of the country’s largest snowmobile apparel retailers, heated-gear sales follow weather, said co-owner Mike Fogelson. “When the temperatures dip like they did this year, all of a sudden it’s heated everything and you can’t keep enough of it in stock,” he said.

The category has seen huge expansion as more people become aware of it. “It’s the trend right now. You’re seeing it in everything,” he said. “Because if it’s available and it’s cold, why not use it?”

Overdone or necessary?

Heated gear has its skeptics, of course.

Stephen Regenold, Minneapolis-based founder of the outdoor review site Gear Junkie, remembers burning his toes on a pair of D-battery heated socks when he was a kid.

Regenold calls the idea of pressing a button for warmth very marketable, but challenging to execute because electrical components and fabric literally don’t mesh. There’s a reason many big outerwear brands largely abandoned heated gear, he said. “Someday, this product category will be mature and solid, but it’s not quite there yet.”

He considers heated gear as “very American” in its embrace of excess and instant gratification. “It’s like the giant overdone SUV of the outdoor clothing category,” he said. “It’s mostly unnecessary. If you add one extra layer, you probably will be as warm.”

That said, he concedes that high-quality electric gear can make sense for extreme circumstances — or for more sedentary outdoor activities such as ice fishing.

But robust sales of heated apparel suggest that for every person who finds it gratuitous, there’s another who prefers their wintry experiences to be battery-warmed — and who toasts the trend with a hot beverage sipped, of course, from a self-heating mug.