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Sunday, May 12, 2024

My Quest to Survive Quarantine—in Heated Clothes

Cold weather sucks. It sucks all the time, no matter what cheerful lies winter sports enthusiasts and/or Scandinavians might tell you. It especially sucks during a pandemic, when the safest option for socializing requires staying outdoors, exposed to the foul elements. Last weekend, even though it was hovering just above freezing in New York, a few friends came over to hang out on my porch. Despite the chilly conditions, we sat 6 feet apart and talked for several hours, ignoring our visible breath and the fact that being outside when it’s 35 degrees is objectively worse than being inside. This was partly because we’d been starved for human contact, and partly because I pulled out my secret weapons: an arsenal of heated clothing.


Heated clothing is exactly what it sounds like: battery or electricity-powered garments with warming elements woven throughout. Since this fall, any time the temperature has dipped, I’ve bundled up with an assortment of heated gear to make spending time outside more enjoyable. I put on a heated vest and hopped on a moped to run errands on the first truly chilly day in November. On New Year’s Eve I wore heated glove liners and held our puppy's paws—impromptu paw warmers!—while we drank afternoon beers at a microbrewery picnic table. (Full disclosure: All of these garments were review units loaned out to me by three companies: Ororo, Venture Heat, and the Warming Store.) 

Heated clothing looks like regular clothing, save for the power buttons, which glow red when on full-blast. They emanate a level of warmth akin to an electric blanket, which is as delightful as it sounds, and most have a few different temperature options. When I take the dog for a walk, the heated clothes are unusual enough to elicit questions from strangers—usually, What are those? and Where can I get them?—but I dream of a world where heated gear is a household staple rather than a novelty. It rules.

It’s also got a longer history than one might expect—one that dates back to another global pandemic. During World War I, the French military developed rudimentary electrically heated flight suits; the United States built its own prototypes based on these models. It was a revolutionary idea, but the execution left something to be desired. “The ‘Electric Suits’ of 1918 consisted primarily of a wire ‘harness’ attached to the suits and connected both to copper heating pads on the knees, shoulders, etc.,” military historian C. G. Sweeting wrote in his 1984 book Combat Flying Clothing: Army Air Forces Clothing During World War II. These suits were notoriously unreliable and would often short out mid-flight, leaving pilots to shiver. By the Second World War, General Electric was manufacturing more sophisticated heated flight suits.

But while warming garb originated in military aviation, the versions you can buy today have their roots in the motorcycle world. “Heated clothing as we know it was invented in the mid-’70s in Washington by a fellow by the name of Gordon Gerbing,” says Justin Silverman, cofounder of the Warming Store. Although Gerbing didn’t ride a motorcycle himself, he worked at an aeronautics machine shop with a large number of motorcyclist employees. After he noticed how cold they were after riding to work, he rigged up a prototype by deconstructing a heated blanket and hardwiring it through a jacket and into a motorcycle. Gerbing was so pleased with his results, he created a side business crafting coats for local bikers, launching the modern warming-wear marketplace into existence as a passion project.

By the 1980s, Gerbing was selling his gear full-time at motorcycle rallies, where it proved extremely popular. “Pretty much every motorcyclist has heard of heated gear,” says Andria Yu, a motorcycle coach and the communications director for the Motorcycle Industry Council. “It’s certainly changed the game.” Gerbing is still one of the most well-known heated clothing brands, although the Gerbing family is no longer involved. Instead, they operate another heated clothing brand called Gordon’s Family Clothing and have made a point to emphasize that Gerbing is no longer a family business. (If anyone has additional information about the internecine conflicts of the heated clothing world, please reach out.)

Most of the early motorcycle-specific heated clothing worked by hooking up to the bike. But over the past decade, battery technology has improved tremendously, and battery-powered gear has developed in tandem. “Now you can run a heated vest for up to eight or 10 hours,” Silverman says. “Which means you can actually use it all day if you’re skiing or working construction or just in any sort of cold environment.”


Yes, in addition to being popular in the motorcycle world, heated attire has caught on in a big way for people who do construction in cold climates, and it’s gaining some traction in the sports world as well. Steve Faulkner, a senior lecturer in sports engineering and physiology at the Speed Lab at Nottingham Trent University, has studied the potential benefits of heated clothing for athletes for years. A decade ago, he began working on heated warm-ups—which the BBC dubbed “hot pants”—for the British track cycling team in the 2012 London Olympics. Although research indicated that the pants did confer performance benefits and the team did well, they didn’t take off as quickly as Faulkner had hoped—in part, he suspects, because the batteries necessary to sufficiently warm the garments were too cumbersome. “It’s only recently that technology has been able to catch up,” he says. Faulkner is currently working with two UK-based companies, Vulcan Sportswear and Huub Design, on their own lines of heated apparel.

I’m not the only person jumping on the heated-clothing bandwagon—Silverman says the Warming Store’s site traffic and sales are both up between 200 and 300 percent. “It’s definitely spiking,” he says. During the pandemic, sales of winter and outdoor gear in general are booming, and the rise in interest in heated apparel corresponds to this increased interest in braving the elements. It probably helps that most heated products are reasonably priced; an Ororo vest, for example, can go for $100, while ActionHeat’s long puffer jacket retails for around $220, and functions as a warm winter coat even when it’s not turned on.

This doesn’t mean that heated clothing makes sense to wear in any cold-climate scenario. If you’re looking for gear for vigorous outdoor exercise like winter running, it will be too warm for someone in constant motion, in the same way that winter runners don’t wear Canada Goose parkas. And not all heated clothing is created equal. Some products are markedly better than others—while it’s easy to find a pair of heated gloves that work wonderfully, I haven’t found a pair of heated socks that properly warms my toes, for example. Another drawback: Embracing heated clothing means dealing with another slew of batteries to charge.

But with months of winter still ahead, heated attire is a practical and strangely unsung solution to the problem of how to embrace the outdoors at its least lovable and most likely to induce frostbite. Figuring out how to behave is hard enough at a normal body temperature. Heated clothing can make a bad situation just a little bit cozier.

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