The NOLS Blog

Do Hot Drinks Really Warm You Up?

Posted by Molly Herber on 1/11/16 11:22 AM

Making Hot Drinks Photo by Charlotte Klein.

One thing I love about cold weather is drinking hot drinks. When I’m cold, it seems like all I can think about is holding that steaming cup, and as soon as I start sipping I feel an instant shot of heat to my chilly bones.

But does that cup of tea, coffee or backcountry cocoa actually make me warmer?

The answer is: it depends. 

How Hot Drinks Work

Drinking hot yerba mate tea Photo courtesy of Alex Chang - Cornell Leadership Expedition in Patagonia

Adding a hot liquid to your body does increase your body temperature, but the warming effect on your body is minimal. Humans are 70 percent water. A 170-pound person contains about 15 gallons of water. Imagine adding eight ounces of warm water to 15 gallons of warm water—the temperature won't really change that much.

On the other hand, some scientists have observed that, in certain circumstances, drinking a hot liquid can actually make your brain think that your body is hot and kick start some of your cooling systems, like sweating, in an attempt to cool you down.

At the end of the day, these different effects tell us that human temperature regulation is complex. We constantly respond to many different central and peripheral receptors, and all of these affect our temperature regulation as well as other body processes.

So, How Does a Hot Drink Actually Warm You Up?

Hot Coffee Photo by Alex Holt.

Even though hot drinks don't greatly affect your internal body temperature, they serve several very important purposes.

Your chilly fingers touching the hot cup or water bottle gain a little superficial warming, and the steam is a nice way to warm your face (carefully). Hot drinks, especially with extra sugar or butter, are also a very effective way to stay hydrated and to give your body some calories to burn, which is how your body heats itself.

Finally, hot drinks have the wonderful psychological effect of making you feel much, much happier. Never underestimate how dramatically your emotional well-being affects your ability to get stuff done, particularly in the backcountry.

Besides, happy campers with hot drinks are nicer than grumpy folks with ice chunks in their water bottle.

Happy winter travels!

Learn to travel responsibly in the backcountry on a NOLS winter course.

Note: We edited this blog on 1/12/16 to better explain the effects of a hot drink on the human body. Thanks to our readers for their comments!


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Topics: Behind the Scenes, backcountry, leadership