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Winter Hiking and Mountaineering Glove Systems

Choosing the right combination of gloves for winter hiking and mountaineering can be a frustrating process.
Choosing the right combination of gloves for winter hiking and mountaineering can be a frustrating process. No one pair can satisfy all of your needs, so it’s best to carry several pairs for different functions and conditions.

Picking the right gloves or mittens for winter hiking or mountaineering can be a very frustrating hit or miss process. Here are some tip and tricks to help you dial in the right glove system for your needs and avoid wasting a lot of money on gloves and mittens that don’t work.

Winter Glove Systems

Most winter hikers carry several pairs of gloves on winter hiking and backpacking trips and switch between as their need for breathability, dexterity, wind resistance, waterproofing, or warmth changes 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.

Most winter hikers base their glove selection around a three level glove system that includes:

  1. Highly breathable, lightweight fleece gloves, glove liners, or softshell gloves
  2. Waterproof, high dexterity gloves that are good for tool use
  3. 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.

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 to take off layer 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, the best liner gloves or mitts (which you prefer is 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.

Here are some of the lightweight, highly breathable gloves I use. I’ll typically bring two pairs for an all day hike.

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 axe 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 highly exposed conditions where I’m moving slower, perspiring much less, and need more warmth for my hands.

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

There are a wide variety of gloves that will work for this including many ski gloves. For warmth, I recommend getting gloves that have wrist gauntlets to keep the blood in your wrist that flows close to your skin warmer and an elastic adjustment system to seal the gauntlet shut.

Gloves in this class typically have a sewn-in lining and a leather or synthetic palm that provides durability and thermal protection when handling cold tools. They can be completely waterproof or be made of a thick softshell which is highly water-resistant. The key is to maintain a functional level of dexterity, even though it won’t be perfect, while providing more warmth than the glove liners and thinner gloves that you use for more vigorous hiking or climbing.

Here are the high dexterity, warmer gloves that I use (shown above). I typically bring a single pair for an all day hike:

Waterproof shell mitts or gloves w/liners

The last tier of gloves are your “oh shit” gloves or mittens that typically get 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 over-sized, 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 insulation 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.

Your shell gloves or mittens should have wrist gauntlets to keep your wrists warm were the blood flows close to your skin. Idiot cords are also very useful, so you can take the shell off but keep the inner glove on if you need to make an adjustment that requires more dexterity. When looped around your wrist, the idiot cords will keep the shells from blowing off a windy summit and into the next county if you need to take them off briefly.

The shell gloves I use above aren’t made by Outdoor Research anymore, but these newer models are equivalent. Neither provide much dexterity, but they are quite warm and waterproof. 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 three-tier winter glove system I’ve described works great for day hiking and mountaineering in winter and I’ve been using it for many years in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where the winters are quite harsh.

The same glove system also works well for multi-day winter backpacking trips as long as you take care to dry out your 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. It can also help to hedge your bets by bringing several more pairs of highly breathable glove liners with you on multi-day trips, so that you have extras if you can’t get the previous day’s dry in one night.

Disclosure: The author has received sample gloves from several brands mentioned in this article at one time or another including Montane, Outdoor Research, CAMP USA, and Sealskins. The rest were purchased with the author’s own funds. 

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11 comments

  1. I usually just put together 2-3 pairs of fleece gloves for hiking in winter. It’s more comfortable, I think. Tried to combine it with waterproof mittens once, for the outer layer but it was too warm for me. My hands ended up all sweaty. If it is wetter on the trail, I simply bring more for spare.

  2. One excellent trick I use in cold weather is to wear nitrile gloves as a base layer. They are essentially a vapor barrier layer for your hands and allow gloves to stay dry and actually work quite well on their own in pretty cold temps as long as you’re working/moving. They also provide maximum dexterity for doing stuff too when you take your gloves or mittens off and really slow down the chill factor versus exposed bare skin. They can make your hands clammy and pruned though if you sweat too much or it’s too warm out. For a single day hike it is usually no big deal. Eliminates the need to have numerous pairs of gloves that serve the same function. Stumbled on this idea working in a cold machine shop and thought it might work hiking. Asked on a local hiking forum and was surprised to see that many people do this.

    • I’ve experimented extensively with vapor barrier gloves and don’t recommend them for the following reasons:

      1) wearing nitrile gloves (or other VBLs) is really only good in extremely cold temperatures because it’s just too sweaty and uncomfortable over 10-20 degrees fahrenheit.
      2) you can’t ever take the gloves off until you’re in a warm room without experiencing a painful flash off when all the moisture evaporates at once and your hands get REALLY cold.

      But if they work for you, go ahead and use them. I think they’re just too gross and uncomfortable in practice to use except in an emergency or an arctic expedition.

      The simple reality is that you can put a damp or soaking wet fleece glove inside a waterproof/breathable outer mitt and your hands will remain toasty for the rest of the day without having to resort to using plastic gloves.

  3. Phillip the waterproof high dexterity gloves having a sewn in liner do you find them hard to dry out after the day ?

    • They’re both quite breathable and I make a point not to sweat in them. If I’m that warm, I switch to a lighter weight (less warm) pair of gloves. The Camp Softshell gloves I use are thick enough that I could use them with an ice axe if I was running hot. Gloves are no different from any winter layer – you need to actively and consciously manage your layers, especially if you go on multi-day hikes.

      But to answer your question. I put my gloves on top of a steam radiator or on top of the water heater after a day hike and they dry out very quickly. Same with wet boots.

  4. ZPacks sells PossumDown gloves for $22

  5. Kinco pigskin work gloves with “Heatkeep” lining, properly treated with Sno-seal, are so good. I wear these doing all manner of winter activities including XC ski touring. The Sno-seal keeps them waterproof and they are surprisingly warm.

  6. I think 2-3 pairs of liner gloves are essential , but then I only bring big mittens , the only way to really keep your hands warm. If you bring mid- weight gloves you will be tempted to use them and end up with cold hands! I taught winter mountaineering for 12 years for ADK and still go winter camping. Mike

    • I’ve taught it to. But it’s impossible to use big mittens with tools like an ice axe because you can’t get a firm grip on the pick. Or do you have a solution to that doesn’t require an over-glove and provides enough insulation so you don’t get frostbite holding an ice cold axe?

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