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The Icing on Winter Fun: Warmth

The key to staying comfortable in really cold weather is being prepared. Advanced clothing technology and some clever manufacturing ideas have made staying toasty easier to achieve. Following are several warmth-enhancing items, plus one that adds a massage in the bargain. Products also may be available at local stores. Prices do not include shipping and handling.

Hot and soothing car seat: Hammacher-Schlemmer’s nifty heated car seat not only keeps your back warm, but adds a massage on the go--a nice touch during long road trips or after vigorous winter sports. Operated from a hand-held control wand, the vibrating massager can be set to massage the upper or lower back or both at once. Vibration settings can be low or high, and heat can be set from 86 degrees to 103 degrees. A button control inflates an air pouch in the seat from increased lumbar support. The car seat plugs into the cigarette lighter. My test drive was supposed to be a short hop around the block--but it felt so good I kept on going.

Heat and Massage Car Seat (item 45968W) is $119.95 from Hammacher-Schlemmer; telephone (800) 543-3366. Finger-free mittens: Several years ago I discovered an ingenious glove called the Fingermit that solves a common cold-weather problem: what to do when the temperature is so frigid that you dare not go gloveless, but need to free your fingers to operate a camera or grab a cup of coffee?

The Fingermit is a thick wool five-fingered tipless glove with a Thinsulite-lined mitten flap and thumb cover that envelope the fingers for regular wear, then flip back when dexterity is required, attaching to the back of the mitten by Velcro. The gloves have a leather suede palm, thumb and knuckle patches for grip.

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The wool base keeps hands warm, the blood circulating, even with fingertips exposed for a reasonable period, and you avoid having to take the gloves on and off to handle equipment, even when the temperature warms up a bit. For extra warmth when fingertips are exposed, you might want to get a thin glove liner to wear under the Fingermit.

Fingermits are great for skiing, since you can quickly free your fingers to grab a hot drink or check a trail map without having to remove the gloves and stuff them into a spare pocket, running the risk of losing them.

The Fingermit ($28) comes in green heather and gray rag wool in two sizes. Supplies are limited. To order, contact Photak; tel. (800) 723-9876.

Warding off wind chill: Sometimes the wind, rather than the temperature, is the culprit. Polartec, a manufacturer of soft, lightweight polyester fleece used in the making of jackets, sweaters and thermal underwear, has now introduced the Polartec Windbloc Series for just such occasions. Two layers of fleece are bonded by a thin breathable/flexible windproof barrier, then treated with a water-repellent finish to shed light rain and snow.

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Unlike wool, polyester fleece dries quickly and is machine washable without losing its shape.

Several distributors of outdoor clothing offer top-notch jackets made from the new Polartec Windbloc. Among the best are models sold by REI and L.L. Bean, which differ from each other mainly in styling. Both have full-length front zippers, which I prefer to pullover anorak models, because zipper fronts are more versatile in situations where the temperature can vary from cold to warm at different times of the day. Both also have Spandex at the hem and cuffs to further seal out wind and cold, as well as zippered hand-warmer front pockets and high collars for keeping the neck toasty too.

The REI version also has two large inside patch pockets. The jacket comes in plum with black trim or black. L.L. Bean’s jacket, which has a bit more flourishes in the stitching, is offered in women’s sizes in magenta, charcoal, navy and spruce, each with contrasting lining and trim. The men’s version comes in all of the above colors except magenta.

I tested both jackets on blustery mornings while on safari in Botswana’s Kalahari desert and was impressed with their ability to beat windchill. For colder climes, I’d layer with a sweater under the jacket (Polartec fleece sweaters in a variety of weights are available from both REI and L.L. Bean) and perhaps a Gortex outer parka (also sold by both stores).

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REI Polartec Windbloc Unisex Zippered Jacket (item E144-121) is $115; tel. (800) 426-4840. L.L. Bean Polartec Windbloc Zippered Jacket for men (item KE14271) is $83 regular; $83 long; women’s jacket (item KE14272) is $83; tel. (800) 221-4221.

Boot heaters: No matter how many socks I wear or how insulated my boots, my toes always get cold outdoors in frigid weather. Extreme Comfort, an Oregon manufacturer, has created a battery-operated boot heater that can keep feet warm for up to six hours. A small control unit, which operates on two, AA batteries (alkaline or rechargeable), can be set on low for maintaining body heat or high for extra heat. The unit straps around the boot top or leg via a stretchable neoprene strap. A slim conducting cord connects the unit to thin heating elements attached to insoles that can be trimmed to fit the foot and transferred from one shoe to another.

I tried out my boot heaters on a cold day and found they were both comfortable and efficient. The heater worked well for nearly six hours on the low setting, but only about 1 1/2 hours on high. However, an extra pair of batteries heated them up again for a second go-round.

Boot heaters are $54.95 a pair from Extreme Comfort, tel. (800) 460-4328, or Hammacher-Schlemmer (item 28462); tel. (800) 543-3366. A similar system for gloves is $69.95 from either outlet.

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Skier’s map holder: Skier Sleeve is a see-through plastic trail-map holder that wraps around the arm via Velcro strips. A trail map (or other document) can be inserted into the clear plastic sleeve for ready reference to cross-country routes or downhill runs of varying difficulty. Armed with this hands-free accouterment, you won’t have to remove your gloves to search through pockets for trail maps, and the plastic keeps the paper high and dry.

Skier Sleeve is $14.99 from the Launch Corporation; tel. (800) 322-2930.

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Gear & Gadgets appears the first week of every month.

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