Winter Hiking Glove and Mitten Systems

Winter Hiking Glove and Mitten Systems

Winter hikers carry several pairs of gloves and mittens and layer them in different combinations for warmth, wind protection, increased dexterity, and moisture management. No one pair of handwear can satisfy all of these needs, so it’s best to carry of collection of different gloves and mittens that you can switch between and actively layer, just like your winter hiking clothes.

Winter Glove and Mitten Layering

Most winter hikers base their glove and mitten selection around a three-tier layering system that includes:

  1. Highly breathable, lightweight fleece gloves, glove liners, softshell gloves, or mittens
  2. Warmer, waterproof high dexterity gloves that are good for tool use
  3. Waterproof shell mittens that can be layered over fleece gloves, liners, softshell gloves or mittens

Let’s examine each of these in more detail.

1. Highly breathable, lightweight gloves or mittens

When you’re hiking or snowshoeing vigorously, your metabolism generates a lot of body heat. This can lead to a buildup of perspiration in your clothing layers unless you take off layers to vent some of the heat. The best kinds of gloves or mittens to wear when you’re working hard are highly breathable fleece gloves, glove liners, or softshell gloves that will vent the excess heat. You don’t want them to be too warm to make you sweat, so keep them thin and lightweight.

Highly breathable lightweight gloves made with Powerstretch Fleece, Softshell, and Wool
Highly breathable lightweight gloves made with Powerstretch Fleece, Softshell, and Wool

Most hikers will still blow through two or three pairs of these thinner gloves on an all-day hike or snowshoeing trip when they’re overwhelmed by perspiration and get too soaked to retain any heat. They’re usually quite lightweight, so carrying multiple pairs isn’t a great burden.

In my experience, lightweight liner gloves or mitts that have smooth, tightly knit exteriors are a good option because you can easily brush off snow that falls on them. You need to be vigilant about this to keep your gloves as dry as possible for as long as possible. Powerstretch gloves, thin wool gloves, and softshell gloves are very good, but you’ll have to experiment to dial in the thickness and warmth level that minimizes perspiration buildup for you and still keeps your hands warm.

Fuzzy fleece gloves or mittens are also a good option. While they’re warmer, they are considerably more breathable than tightly knit ones, so your body heat can help dissipate perspiration buildup. But they can be snow magnets and wet out quickly if they come in contact with powdery snow. I prefer them, but it took me several years to really dial in their use.

Here’s a list of the lightweight gloves I keep in my glove drawer. I typically bring 2 pairs of these gloves on an all-day winter hike, one pair for the morning and one pair for the afternoon, although I can get by with one pair on some days. When backpacking, I’ll bring a third pair, mainly for use in camp.

Note: While these lightweight liner gloves will keep your hands warm enough if you’re out of the wind and below the treeline, they’re not windproof. If you find yourself becoming chilled when wearing them, it helps to layer a waterproof/breathable mitten over them to block the wind.

If you find that you sweat through multiple pairs of lightweight gloves on a hike and you want to reduce the number of pairs that you have to carry, you can use the Nitrile Glove Hack. If you wear nitrile examination gloves under your lightweight gloves or glove liners, you can prevent hand perspiration from making them damp. Just be careful to take the nitrile gloves off in a warm place like a tent or car. If you take them off in cold or windy weather, you’ll experience a “flash off” effect where the moisture on your hands will evaporate very quickly and make your hands very cold, potentially causing frostnip, which is extremely unpleasant. You always want to avoid damp hands in cold wind.

2. Waterproof, high-dexterity gloves

For colder, windier, or wetter conditions, it’s useful to carry a heavier-weight glove that still provides enough dexterity that you can use it with tools like a mountaineering ice ax, a whippet ski pole, or to unscrew the top of a water bottle without having to take your gloves off. Mittens aren’t a good option for this layer.

I typically wear this kind of glove above treeline in more exposed conditions where I’m moving slower, perspiring much less, and need more warmth for my hands. They’re also useful at the end of the day when you’re hiking out, you want warmer hands, and don’t care as much about sweating inside them because you’re heading back to the trailhead.

Warmer, high dexterity gloves.
Warmer, high dexterity gloves.

Gloves in this class have a sewn-in lining and leather or synthetic palms that provide durability and thermal protection when handling cold tools. Ice climbing gloves can be a good option too, as long as they’re moderately warm. I like gloves that have wrist gauntlets because they will keep your hands warmer by preventing heat loss around your wrists. They can also be cinched tight over the ends of hard shell sleeves to prevent cold wind from blowing up your arms.

The key is to maintain a functional level of dexterity while providing more warmth than the glove liners and thinner gloves that you use for more vigorous hiking or climbing. For example, you’ll want to be able to hold a very cold metal ice axe in the ready position wearing these gloves. That can be impossible with many gloves, including ski gloves because the fingers are too fat to wrap around the pick and adze.

You’ll probably need to experiment a bit with the gloves that are available to find a good fit and the warmth level you want. Buy them at a retailer with a liberal used-gear return policy like REI. Remember, you will be active and generating body heat when wearing these gloves, so they just need to be moderately warm. Here are several good warm and high-dexterity gloves to get you started. I typically bring a single pair for an all-day hike.

If you want you can also use a heated glove, although you’ll want to make sure it is waterproof and that it has the appropriate level of dexterity required for tool use. This can be a good option if you have particularly cold hands or you suffer from Raynaud’s Disease. 

3. Waterproof/breathable shell mitts or gloves w/liners

The last tier of gloves or mittens are intended for more extreme conditions on cold mountaintops or when you’re sitting around in camp melting snow for drinking water and not generating much body heat. These are oversized, usually waterproof/breathable shells, that often come with a very warm, insulated glove liner. The shells can also be worn over one of your highly breathable liners, even if they’re wet or damp, and still provide wind protection for your hands.

Oversized waterproof/breathable shell gloves and mittens with (red) Primaloft insulated inner gloves for very cold conditions.
Oversized waterproof/breathable shell gloves and mittens with (red) Primaloft insulated inner gloves for very cold conditions.

These shell gloves or mittens should have wrist gauntlets to keep your wrists warm where the blood flows close to your skin. Wrist leashes are also very useful, so you can take the shell off but keep the inner glove on if you need to make a quick adjustment that requires more dexterity. When looped around your wrist, the wrist leashes (also called idiot cords) will keep the shells from blowing off a windy summit and into the next county if you need to take them off. Don’t laugh. I’ve had it happen.

None of the Gore-tex shell gloves or mitts that I use provide much dexterity, but they are waterproof and surprisingly breathable. Whether you choose gloves or mittens is a matter of personal preference. I prefer using uninsulated mitten shells and combine them with a fleece liner from category 1 above. But I’ll also carry warmer Primaloft liners, like the ones that are sold with many shell mittens, if temperatures warrant. I decide this when checking the weather forecast before a summit bid.

Here are some shell mittens that I recommend:

A final caution. It’s very tempting to buy a super warm modular mitten like the Mt Baker Mitts listed above that are designed for serious high-altitude mountaineering even though they are too warm to use in the lower 48. Some people need the extra warmth for physiological reasons, but they can be way too hot to wear. In addition, remember that you can just use the outer shell glove layered with a thinner liner glove or mitten and not both components as sold (shell and liner) in warmer conditions.

Winter Backpacking Adjustments

The same three-part glove and mitten system works well for multi-day winter backpacking trips as long as you take care to dry out your lightweight insulated gloves or liners each night. This is best done by placing them between your baselayer and your skin (on your shoulders is ideal) and sleeping with them in your sleeping bag at night. While it’s true that some of their moisture will be absorbed by your sleep insulation, this is the only way to reliably dry your gloves at night. You can also use Nitrile Glove Hack described above.

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