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These Packets of Wonder Will Rescue You From January

Packet of hand warmers
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HotHands.

I discovered my latest pandemic necessity, HotHands, too late to recommend them for holiday gift-giving, but as we gaze into the cheerless void of a long and isolated stretch of winter, January seems like an even more appropriate time to wax evangelical about them. Right now a fresh 40-pack of these chill-killing marvels sits open on a shelf in the entryway to my apartment, ready for me to grab on my way out the door for an icy walk to the store or a chat with a friend on the front stoop, where we’ll sit staggered a few steps apart, warming one hand with a hot drink and the other with a … HotHand.

HotHands are, to quote from the product’s no-nonsense website, “rectangular shaped single-use air-activated heat packs”: index card–size envelopes of woven polymer, filled with a fine-ground powder made up of iron, activated charcoal, salt, and a mineral called vermiculite that serves to regulate the mixture’s heat-creating properties. When you open up the safety-orange outer wrapping and expose the packet to air, the iron undergoes an exothermic reaction caused by oxygen; essentially, it rusts at an accelerated rate, creating heat in the process. The instructions say to shake the envelope to start that process, but as with a developing Polaroid, the shaking is mainly to make the user feel useful while waiting for what’s about to happen anyway. Shaken or not, over the course of 15 to 30 minutes, these little bundles of wonder will slowly reach the toasty temperature of around 140 degrees; not hot enough to burn skin (although they’re not recommended for infants or others who might be extra sensitive to heat), but hot enough to provide a radiating source of private warmth when tucked into in a shirt pocket or slipped into a glove.

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The company’s claim that these babies give off 10 hours of heat is no exaggeration: I recently took one out with me around 5:30 p.m. when I walked the dog, and it was still warm enough to provide a nice lower-back heating pad while I read in bed until the unhealthy hour of 2:30 a.m. (The instructions recommend not sleeping with one in your bed, so I reluctantly put it aside when I turned out the light.)

In a winter when the only safe way to socialize is outdoors, there is something comforting about walking around whatever limited portion of the world you now inhabit with your own personal mini-furnace, the mass-produced equivalent of the baked potatoes Ma Ingalls would give Laura and Mary to warm their hands on the long, snowy walk to school. And there’s no nicer feeling than sending a friend on their way after a too-short outdoor visit with a pocketful of coziness you know will last them the rest of the day.

Warning: When disposing of your HotHands, make sure they’re safely out of the reach of pets, since the material inside can be toxic if eaten by dogs.

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