As much of the U.S. broiled through 90-plus degree days this month, a cardboard box arrived on my desk marked “CAUTION.” Inside was a black spandex outfit laced with 120 feet of medical-grade tubing, along with a backpack, ice packs, a pump and a lithium-ion battery. Also included were a drainage tube—and an invoice for $1,911.15.
In the name of climate reporting, I had ordered a dozen different items that promised to keep me cool outside of my air-conditioned office. (The companies agreed to send samples, which I returned after trying.) I had important questions to answer: Do these things work? Are they practical? Would I look like a walking edition of SkyMall?
As global warming pushes summer temperatures in some places to the edge of what humans can tolerate, personal cooling products may soon go from gimmick to necessity. Already this year, flights were grounded in Phoenix because air temperatures exceeded 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Celsius). It hit 134 degrees in Death Valley—but that’s a dry heat. By comparison, the soggy 96 degrees in Washington last week may sound mild, but to this Toronto native it called for some technological intervention.
I started with Cool on the Go ($50), a battery-powered fan that hangs on a lanyard around your neck, blowing air at your chin. This is not quite as silly as it sounds. The effect is similar to an ocean breeze from a few blocks away, or passing the open doors to an air-conditioned mall on the other side of a busy sidewalk.
There are drawbacks. When turned to full force, which is the only way to get any real cooling effect, the fan’s motor is surprisingly loud—less desk fan than dust-buster. The cooling was easily overwhelmed by the actual air currents of a downtown Washington street at midday, such as the exhaust from a passing city bus. And wearing something that evokes a mini Starship Enterprise may not be swankiest thing for that Hamptons brunch.
For those who prefer discretion, a number of companies offer relatively innocuous neckwear that cools when wet. One such company is Mission, whose instructions for the HydroActive Fitness Multi-Cool Neck Gaiter and Headband ($18) could have been written by the Wizard of Oz: “SOAK in water, WRING it out and SNAP three times.”
I tried wearing the gaiter around my neck, between my skin and the open collar of my shirt; sure enough, the fabric felt cooler, longer, than regular wet cloth. If anything, it was too cold—after about 20 minutes, I started to get an achy, flu-like sensation. The aesthetics didn't help: Tucked into my collar, the gaiter looked like an ill-applied cravat.
The company also makes the HydroActive MAX Towel ($20), which can go around the neck or over the head. When I soaked the towel in water, a sticky soapy film bubbled out, which caused me to move to the next item in the pile.
A better neckwear option for work clothing is from Nano-Ice, a Boston company whose founder, Sam White, raised money through Kickstarter. Its cooling scarf ($49) was less chilly than Mission’s product, but still enough to blunt the heat index. If a summer scarf isn’t your thing, the product is also available as a necklace.
If you’re looking for something more dramatic, another option is to simply attach an ice pack to the top of your head. That’s the gist of the Cool58 Baseball Cap ($31), made by Ohio-based Polar Products Inc. Under the dome of the cap is a circular pocket, inside of which is tucked a frozen cooling pack. The way the hat is constructed, the ice sits directly on your scalp.
This leads to a number of interesting effects. First, the hat sits oddly high, giving the impression you're hiding something under it, which of course you are. Second, having an ice pack against your skull reproduces the symptoms of an ice-cream headache, without the fun ice cream part. And for all that, the hat’s chilling effect doesn’t spread to the rest of the body, so that the wearer is still hot but now has a migraine as well.
The company’s Fashion Cooling Vest ($138-$205) works far better: Internal pockets along the front and back of the vest hold ice packs, which sit close enough to the skin to cool without causing discomfort. The company sent me a women’s vest, which a colleague gamely agreed to wear around the block. She said it wasn’t exactly fashion aesthetic she would wear regularly, but she’d be happy to wear it on a hike.
But if summers keep getting hotter, spending time outside might require something more than a scarf or vest. That brings us back to the box marked “CAUTION” and the battery-powered, ice-water-cooled compression suit. Its manufacturer, Coolshirt Systems, in Stockbridge, Georgia, makes wearable cooling equipment for racecar drivers, film crews, firefighters and surgeons. The professional orientation is apparent: I had to call the company to ask which nozzles inserted where.
But for those willing to invest the money and time, the suit’s effect is exhilarating—for a while. The push of a button generates a faint whirring noise, as the battery-powered pump in the backpack ($640) begins moving chilled water through the tubing. After a few seconds, that water races through the shirt ($247), for a cooling effect unnerving in its suddenness. A few seconds later, the flow hits the tubes in the shorts ($223), creating the sensation of being submerged in water.
I tested the outfit by going for a midday run; the temperature was 90 degrees, and for the first 10 minutes I barely noticed. But after 15 minutes the water lost some of its chill; within half an hour, all cooling effect had stopped. At that point, I was stuck two miles from my office, running in the heat in black spandex.
I would have tried the suit again, to experiment with a different mixture of water, ice and icepack in the backpack, if not for another drawback: The shirt proved impossible to take off on my own, its network of tubes making difficult to bend. Only with the assistance of my editor could I wiggle free.
Jay Buckalew, Coolshirt’s chief executive officer, said his company’s revenue is on track to double from last year, to $5 million, partly thanks to people trying to stay comfortable doing everyday activities—attending a football game or mowing the lawn—amid warming temperatures.
What will it take for cooling devices to make their way into the average person’s summertime routines? Zachary Schlader, a professor at the University of Buffalo who focuses on thermal stress, said people are slow to change their habits; if you've survived hot summers before without assistance, you'll probably resist starting now.
But for people in the warmest areas who can’t or won’t spend their entire summer hiding indoors, without some sort of icy hat or tube-filled shirt, “it’s going to get so hot that we’re not able to cope.”
—with assistance from Chloe Whiteaker.