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Winter Hiking and Mountaineering Glove Systems

Winter Hiking Gloves AdvicePicking 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. 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 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.

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.

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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  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.

  3. Hestra Fält Guides are phenomenal. Bring and extra will liner and switch out if one feels damp and put the moist set on your pack to dry.

    Treat the leather and they work for a multitude of scenarious.

    Goretex and other membranes are meh in gloves and more times than not a synthetic shell which will give up the ghost not if but when.

  4. Phil – I want to thank you again for all your research and reviews of the hiking items. I have purchased many items based on what you have recommended with great success. You are a great resource!

    On Tecumseh summit yesterday and my hands became quite cold while hanging out at the top using a Swany Artic Mitt. So, today I am researching options for the times when I am not moving or needing much dexterity…

    Have you ever used a combination of something like Outdoor Research Transcendent Down Mitten under a something like a Marmot PreCip Shell Mitt? Or do you stick with synthetic/wool for the insulating layer?

    I am weighing this against something like the Outdoor Research Women’s Alti Mitts or the Black Diamond Mercury Mitts.

    Thank you again!

    • If my hands are really cold I use a shell mitt from OR with one of their primaloft gloves (for dexterity) from another really warm pair I own. I would stay away from down as an insulating inner layer because it won’t be able to lift under a shell mitt. OR makes the best gloves, so I would start there. If you want to save money go to Ragged Mountain on RT 16 outside of North Conway and check out their fleece Tuckermitts and shells. Much less expensive and super warm.

  5. Nice article. I lost the battle to cold hands BAD this past weekend in the Adirondacks. With temperatures below zero, I brought 2 pairs of synthetic liners, a pair of fleece, and OR Alti gloves (my “oh crap” gloves). Long story short, the fleece gloves froze due to all the snow and my OR’s froze up as well (I assume from a little sweat when I wore them earlier in the day). I eventually had to shove some warmers into the gloves to try to thaw them, stick my hands down my pants for a little while to gain mobility, and wait until I could get my hands back into the OR Alti’s with the warmers. I had to finish the hike with my hands balled up inside the gloves with hand warmers. It was not ideal.

    I’m thinking I need to invest in some good mitt’s for this scenario, and next time I’ll bring a few extra liners to change them out more often to prevent freezing.

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