Most winter hikers carry several pairs of gloves and switch between as their needs for breathability, dexterity, wind resistance, waterproofing, or warmth change during the day. No one pair of gloves can satisfy all of these needs, so it’s best to carry of collection of different gloves or mittens that you can switch between and actively layer, just like your winter hiking clothes.
Winter Glove Layering System
Most winter hikers base their glove selection around a three-level glove system that includes:
- Highly breathable, lightweight fleece gloves, glove liners, or softshell gloves
- Waterproof, warm but high dexterity gloves that are good for tool use
- Waterproof shell mitts or gloves that can be worn with or without liners or layered over other gloves and mittens
Let’s examine each of these in more detail.
1. Highly breathable, lightweight gloves
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.
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, the best liner gloves or mitts (which you prefer is a matter of personal preference) have a smooth, tightly knit exterior that is easy to brush snow off of. You want 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. Fuzzy fleece gloves can also work, but snow adheres to them and they quickly get soaking wet.
Here are some of the lightweight, highly breathable gloves I use. I’ll typically bring 2-3 pairs for an all-day hike.
Note: While these lightweight line 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 being chilled wearing them, it can help to put a waterproof/breathable over mitt on top from category 3 below, waterproof/breathable shell mitts or gloves with liners. For example, an uninsulated over mitt will prevent the wind from chilling your hands, while still letting moisture evaporate.
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. 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.
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.
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 your car.
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 are usually a good option, as long as they’re moderately warm.
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 an 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. 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 has the appropriate level of dexterity required for tool use.
3. Waterproof/breathable shell mitts or gloves w/liners
The last tier of gloves are your “oh shit” gloves or mittens which are typically worn in very cold conditions on a summit 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 higher breathability gloves, even if they’re wet or damp, and still provide wind protection for your hands.
Your 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 will keep the shells from blowing off a windy summit and into the next county if you need to take them off briefly. Don’t laugh. I’ve had it happen.
None of the shell gloves or mitts that I use provide much dexterity, but they are quite warm and waterproof. Which you choose, gloves or mittens is a matter of personal preference.
One trick I use is to use a fingered liner (the red glove above) in the waterproof/breathable mitt to give me a little extra dexterity so I can easily slip the mitt off for a moment to adjust something.
Winter Backpacking Adjustments
The same glove system also works well for multi-day winter backpacking trips as long as you take care to dry out your lightweight insulated gloves or glove 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, which is a vapor barrier technique that is useful on multi-day winter treks.
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