A fair amount of people ask what to wear on the hands for cool and cold weather hiking. Here’s my take.
Updated December 2018.
Keeping your hands warm during cool and cold weather activity can be difficult.
The body naturally wants to keep the core and the brain the warmest and concentrating less on our extremities. Unlike our feet, our hands are often exposed to the elements and required to perform many different functions where dexterity is needed.
Wear too bulky of a glove or mitten, and it is hard to rig up a shelter, start a stove, fish out some trail mix and other needed functions. Expose your hands and your hands can even get cold or frost bit.
Being able to perform needed tasks while keeping hands warm AND dry is something even experienced outdoors people can have a difficult time achieving.
Most people, myself included, started by using one glove or mitten for all tasks. Be it winter or three season use.
So the hands get cold. They get wet. A miserable time is often had outdoors.
So, what to do? How to thrive and even enjoy the various elements Ma Nature throws at you?
The simple solution is to LAYER.
Layering provides much versatility. You can fetch your thermos of hot chocolate easily. Walk through the wet and cold Appalachians in early spring. Not overheat and soak the insulation layer on your hand. You ultimately enjoy the time spent outdoors and not bail out into town as easily.
Rather than one bulky glove or mitten, you have a system.
So what system to use?
Here’s what I find works for me:
Base Layer – Liner Glove
I should start off saying a truism about mittens and gloves: Gloves allow more versatility; mittens are warmer. I bring them both. 😉
The first layer I wear on my hands is a liner glove. I wear liner gloves in all four seasons.
A thin glove provides moderate warmth when stationary and often plenty of warmth when moving in cool to cold and dry weather.
On cold days, my hands aren’t as exposed when I need to take off my other hand layers to perform tasks such as taking photos, grabbing food in my pack and so on.
There are many choices to choose from available. The choices range from thin Smartwool liners to polypro liners to very thin spandex liners that many runners prefer.
My preference is for surplus wool liner gloves.
Reasonably durable, a nice compromise between being thick enough to be warm but thin enough to allow dexterity with fingers and they are inexpensive. Being wool, I find the wool liners to be more breathable than synthetics and more forgiving of sweating and moisture due to wool’s ability to be warm when damp. All in all, a good choice for a base layer in my opinion. (Note: I wear a size 5 in these gloves and wear a size XL for town gloves. Seems the rough equivalent of sizing is that 6=XXL, 5=XL, 4=L, 3=M and 2 is small)
For three season backpacking, I often wear them by themselves. On warm and sunny winter days, esp when moving, they are often worn by themselves, too.
For all four seasons, I also bring a shell mitten of some sort.
On unusually cold or windy days, a mitten over a base layer helps retain heat. When it is snowing or raining out, the shell layer helps keep my inner layers dry.
What shell to take?
Again, many options.
I prefer a simple and lighter mitt for three season use. I am mainly keeping out the rain and not performing tasks that require a more durable mitten.
Outdoor Research (OR) used to make some rain mitts that were about perfect. I have a pair and love them. REI makes some along those lines but not quite.
For winter, I prefer mittens that are a bit longer in length and gauntlet style in addition to being “beefier” than my three season shell mittens.
Handling edges of skis, grasping poles, handling an avy shovel and just wearing them almost constantly while skiing means I beat on the mittens more in winter. So something a little more durable for a shell mitten is my preference.
I find the longer “gauntlet” style mittens also helps keep the warmth in a bit a better, too.
As with the rain mitts, there are many to choose from and different types. And, quite honestly, they are not that functionally different among the different makes and models.
Try to find one that is a bit larger than your normal glove size so as to layer comfortably and for dexterity so you can avoid exposing your base layer gloves as much as possible. You will want a moderately loose fit. Too tight, and your hands are constricted and actually have less warmth. Too loose and there is more cold air to heat up in the mitten and it will not be efficient.
Also, do not buy a shell with a liner. A lined mitten is less versatile, can make your hands warmer and sweat. Your liners and mid-layer will become soaked.
With the liner glove and shell mitt system, I have been comfortable in temps below zero when moving while ski touring in Colorado and while in the cold and wet weather in the southeast Appalachians.
So what to do when it is particularly cold, you are in camp and can’t seem to generate enough heat? You need a mid-layer.
Mid-Layer: Thicker Mitten
I again prefer a mitten versus a glove because they are warmer. If you are at the point where you need a warm mid-layer than a mitten is going to be far more efficient and warmer than a glove.
So what mitten to get?
Again, many choices.
For the absolute warmest, most bomber layer, you can’t beat boiled wool mittens. Boiled wool mittens (also known as felted mittens) are simply wool mittens sewn very large and then boiled to shrink down to a reasonable size. The weave of the wool becomes very dense. The result is a very warm and very weatherproof mitten. Wind and moisture have a difficult time getting through. These mittens essentially function softshell mittens and may substitute for a shell layer in colder and drier climates.
They are bulky if packed, probably a bit too warm for much above 20F and some brands can be stiffer and less pliable.
But if you are looking for the absolute warmest layer mittens outside of down mitts, these are the mitts to buy.
Finding boiled wool mittens is easier than in past years due to the proliferation of online retailers. They are typically availed online as “felted mittens” on Etsy and Dachstein sells their classic mittens directly on Amazon.
Another popular, if even bulkier choice, are the Foxx River Double Ragg Mittens.
Very warm but not as weather resistant. The Foxx River mitts are not as stiff as the boiled wool above and are less expensive. They make an excellent layer with a shell for many people. I wore them for many years when I used to snowshoe, and they were effective.
As my liner gloves are already a bit thicker, I find a mid-layer that is not as thick as the above types of mittens to be perfect.
Ortovox used to make boiled wool mittens that were not as thick as the above mittens, but alas I wore mine out, and Ortovox does not appear to make them anymore.
Since my hands are somewhat large, finding a mid-layer mitten that fits well with liner gloves and a shell mitt is a challenge. Men’s extra-large gloves are easy to find. Mittens? Not so much for some reason.
I would avoid any mid-layer mittens that claim to have a water-resistant and windproof membrane.T hey tend to not breathe well. (Town use is another story).
Also, some like glomitts for their versatility and ease of use. I find them to not be as warm and sometimes let in the snow easier. Again, YMMV.
If I am out multiple days or even on a long day ski tour, I’ll pack some nitrile or kitchen gloves as a poor person’s VBL glove. These gloves assist in keeping my base layer glove drier and not soaked with sweat.
And, as mentioned, on particularly dry and frigid days, the Dachstein Boiled Wool mittens get broken out for their fantastic cold weather properties.
For more social oriented trip (guiding comes to mind) or dispersed car camping where there are camp chores, I’ll take leather work gloves or leather mittens treated with SnoSeal. Leather work gloves and mitts are surprisingly warm and weather resistant when treated with SnoSeal. They work better I find than shell mitts for shoveling, cooking, or the rare campfire.
As with other pieces of outdoor clothing, layering is key. It is better to layer your hands than to rely on one bulky mitten or glove. The combo of a base layer glove with a mid-layer mitten and shell mitten over both is warm, good for all weather conditions, versatile and is favored by many experienced outdoors people for solid reasons.
The specifics of the system will vary from person to person. Some like one brand over another. Some prefer fleece or polypro to wool. But the liner/mid-layer/shell mitt combo works. And it works well.