Winter Hiking and Mountaineering Glove Systems

Winter Hiking Gloves AdviceMost 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.

Winter Glove Layering System

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 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. I *don’t* recommend fuzzy fleece gloves. 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 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 ax 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.

None of the shell gloves or mitts that I use 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 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.

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  1. Important topic. Many people do not understand the need for glove/mitten SYSTEMS but instead buy handler with non-removable insulation and barely room for a thin liner glove.
    Most of my glove and mitten SYSTEMS are the waterproof (GTX) shells with fleece liner gloves of various thickness. I like OR’s shells best. Durable and reasonably priced.

    I do own windproof fleece gloves from Duluth Trading Co. Very well made with reinforced palms. I have sprayed then thoroughly with Revivex DWR. Wear them in temps down to 15 F. when active.

  2. Comment on gloves (including lobster claws) vs mittens. I think this is a key distinction, many people just assume gloves and don’t look back. Personally I experimented with both, with a variety of liners, ultimately settling on a mitten system. My primarily use is winter hiking in the White Mtns of NH. The advice to carry some extra liners is also spot on; after a few hours they are usually wet from perspiration and exposure (like accidental brushing against a branch), so being able to swap out the liners for a dry set is really helpful. My system comprises Icebreaker Sierra mitts (thin 200 wt merino wool) underneath Outdoor Research Alti mitts. Though I’ve found with the Alti mitts, which have very substantial waterproof/insulated “liners”, plus a bombproof overmitt, that in 95% of cases I am actually just using the Alti liners over my Sierra mitts – the overmitt stays at home except on the coldest, windiest hikes.

  3. A component that I really like is a boiled wool mitten (such as Dachstein under a shell mitt (such as OR Revel). I frequently switch back and forth between this and a light glove for warmer weather or when climbing and sweating.

  4. On cold days, I have been wearing Nitril exam gloves under all of my other gloves. Since I sweat alot, this prevents the gloves wetting out. The moisture layer against my skin seems to maintain a constant level and my hands stay much warmer.

  5. So helpful! This is exactly what I was hoping the salesperson at REI would tell me but they didn’t have a clue — thank you! :)

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