Backpacking Glove Layering Systems

I carry a multi-part glove and mitten layering system on day hikes and backpacking trips (mainly in spring and autumn) to keep my hands warm when it’s cold, windy, or raining. The “glove layering system” I use combines fingered gloves for dexterity with a waterproof/windproof mitten shell to trap warmth. The combination lets me remove the outer shell layer when I need more dexterity or when it’s too warm to use, but weighs next to nothing so there’s little weight penalty for carrying it. I use a similar system in winter, but with heavier components for more warmth retention.

As a rule of thumb, I avoid buying hiking garments that try to do “too-much” in terms of their functionality and stick to one-layer, one-function style layering components because they’re much more flexible than layers that build multiple functions into a single layer. For example, I prefer wearing a fleece hoodie and a rain shell, instead of a single insulated synthetic jacket because it’s easier to fine-tune my warmth level in changing weather. The same holds for gloves.

Fleece Liner Gloves

Fleece gloves are a great baselayer glove because they stay warm when wet and because your body heat can dry the perspiration that accumulates in them while you are hiking. Thin gloves also help preserve your manual dexterity, allowing you to open zippers, take photos with your camera, and even cook if you are careful to avoid flames. They’re also quite inexpensive. I usually buy several pairs at a time, so I can swap in a replacement when I lose one. The Decathlon Fleece Gloves I currently use are dirt cheap and quite thin, which is good for dexterity. If I need a little more warmth, I swap in a thicker pair of inexpensive REI fleece gloves for more warmth.

Rain Mitts with Long Gauntlets are Invaluable
Rain Mitts or Gloves are Desirable in Heavy Spring Rain

Rain Mitts

Rain mitts act as a wind barrier and help retain more warmth than waterproof/breathable gloves, even though they cut down on manual dexterity. That’s not as big a deal as it sounds, because my REI rain mitts are made with a thin shell material that is far more malleable that the heavy shell fabric you find in winter glove shells. If I need more dexterity, I can take them off briefly and still keep my fleece glove layer on.

I have tried many different pairs of waterproof shell gloves and mitts over the years including Mountain Laurel Designs Rain Mitts and Yama Mountain Gear’s Rain Pogies, but they require seam-sealing which is a messy process and I find them clumsy to wear. REI’s rain mitts are seam-taped and made with waterproof/breathable 3-layer Gore-tex which breaths surprisingly pretty well. I think they’re a good value, they have a much better fit, and you can return them if they don’t work out.

Backpacking Glove Layering Systems

A backpacking glove system, as I described above, can provide an important level of protection and comfort if you hike in cold weather, or in bone-chilling wind, mist, or rain. While may choose to use different components in your hiking or backpacking glove system, the ability to combine them or use them separately is an advantage that usually outweighs the overhead of carrying separate gloves and mittens.

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  1. I spent 40 years working in the outdoors. Keeping my hands warm and dry was always an issue.
    Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll get over to REI today
    I’m also a distance runner. So warm fingers are important during a run.
    Layers work well and dexterity is important when trying to write, make an adjustment to an instrument, unlock a gate,
    Open a snack etc ….

  2. Hey Philip. That was a super description of a glove system. I have such wussie wrists, I take great care to layer properly in the same fashion.

  3. Hi Philip, I’m a retired US Marine with extensive experience training and operating in arctic and mountain environments. I now enjoy backpacking as a hobby… read… I have practiced being miserable and perfected it and don’t need to ever do it again!
    I really enjoyed your article recommendations on a layering system. I have also used several different combinations of liners, gloves and mitten shells and insulated mittens. Readers may want to consider military liners called USMC Gunner Green Shooting Gloves. Made in the USA with either a wool and nylon blend or theromlite lycra material. I can’t be more specific on the material because brief research shoes both types.
    These are less than $15 per pair and the palms and fingers have a rubber dot matrix added to improve dexterity and touch screen use.

  4. In the early 90s as a bike messenger in Montreal, I went through a lot of cycling and cross country ski gloves, which would usually last a month. Then I read an article about then Iditarod cyclist, John Stamstead, who said he wore polypropylene glove liners, fleece mitts and mitt shells. I figured if it was good enough for a bike race across Alaska then it’d be good enough for me. I found it was the warmest, least expensive and most durable set up ever and I rarely needed the outer shells (except for serious cold or sleet/rain). I’ve never looked back and I still use a similar combo for winter cycling, running, hiking and everything else. I live in Nova Scotia, usually milder than Montreal but it does get as cold and is wetter. My updated combo is polypropylene or fleece gloves, merino wool mitts and if needed Salomon or old Serratus waterproof shell mitts. I agree that the 2-3 layer mitt over glove combo is the best. I’ve been eying the Black Diamond over mitts and I’ll now check out the REI mitts you mentioned. Great article and thanks for articulating why it’s a great combo.

  5. CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

    Great article, Phillip. I carry the Outdoor Research pair, that I bought on a post-season sale, for my Thru-hike attempt. I like them, as they came with the Liner….and they fold up/bunch up so small, they fit in a zippered pocket built into “backhand” of the fingered glove. Like your recommended item from REI, the fingered gloves are “textured” for screen use.

  6. Phillip, thanks for this important topic. Many don’t think layers when they think of buying winter gloves.h ABSOLUTELY wear GTX shell gloves over various thickness fleece or wool liners, depending on temperatures.
    My absolute warmest liners are thick boiled wool Knut & Knut gloves, similar to Austrian Dachstein boiled wool mittens.

  7. Hey Philip, I have a rather dumb question. Are shell mitts like these feasible for holding an ice axe in the winter time? I went through your winter glove systems article where you mention the need for a warmer high dexterity glove for such a purpose. I’m just wondering if the shell mitts can serve that purpose with warmer fleece layers underneath.

    • No. You need fingers to hold an axe in the ready position. I’ll be updating that winter article soon with some updated suggestions, but you need an insulated glove without a separate liner to hold an ice axe. otherwise its just too bulky. It’s actually surprisingly hard to find ones that work, especially if you have a small pick/adze on an ultralight axe.

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