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Winter Hiking Glove and Mitten Layering

Winter Hiking Glove and Mitten Systems

Winter hikers carry several pairs of gloves and mittens and layer them in different combinations for warmth, wind protection, increased dexterity, and moisture management. No one pair of handwear can satisfy all of these needs, so it’s best to carry of collection of different gloves and mittens that you can switch between and actively layer, just like your winter hiking clothes.

Winter Glove and Mitten Layering

Many winter hikers base their glove and mitten selection around a three-tier layering system that includes:

  1. Highly breathable, lightweight fleece gloves, glove liners, softshell gloves, or mittens
  2. Waterproof shell mittens that can be layered over fleece gloves, liners, softshell gloves or mittens
  3. Warmer, waterproof high dexterity gloves that are good for tool use

Let’s examine each of these in more detail.

1. Highly breathable, lightweight gloves or mittens

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 and moisture. 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, lightweight liner gloves or mitts that have smooth, tightly knit exteriors are a good option because you can easily brush off snow that falls on them. You need 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 and still keeps your hands warm.

Fuzzy fleece gloves or mittens are also a good option. While they’re warmer, they are considerably more breathable than tightly knit ones, so your body heat can help dissipate perspiration buildup. But they can be snow magnets and wet out quickly if they come in contact with powdery snow. I prefer them, but I’m not kidding when I say you have to be vigilant about keeping snow off them. Otherwise, they’ll get wet and your hands will get cold.

Here’s a list of the lightweight gloves I keep in my glove drawer. I typically bring 2 pairs of these gloves on an all-day winter hike, one pair for the morning and one pair for the afternoon, although I can get by with one pair on some days. When backpacking, I’ll bring a third pair, mainly for use in camp.

Note: While these lightweight liner 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 becoming chilled when wearing them, it helps to layer a waterproof/breathable mitten over them to block the wind.

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 or car. 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, which is extremely unpleasant. You always want to avoid damp hands in cold wind.

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. Mittens aren’t a good option for this layer.

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 the trailhead.

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

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 can be a good option too, as long as they’re moderately warm. I like gloves that have wrist gauntlets because they will keep your hands warmer by preventing heat loss around your wrists. They can also be cinched tight over the ends of hard shell sleeves to prevent cold wind from blowing up your arms.

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 a very cold metal 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. Buy them at a retailer with a liberal used-gear return policy like REI. 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 is waterproof and that it has the appropriate level of dexterity required for tool use. This can be a good option if you have particularly cold hands or you suffer from Raynaud’s Disease. 

3. Waterproof/breathable shell mitts or gloves w/liners

The last tier of gloves or mittens are intended for more extreme conditions on cold mountaintops 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 highly breathable liners, even if they’re wet or damp, and still provide wind protection 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.

These 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 (also called idiot cords) will keep the shells from blowing off a windy summit and into the next county if you need to take them off. Don’t laugh. I’ve had it happen.

None of the Gore-tex shell gloves or mitts that I use provide much dexterity, but they are waterproof and surprisingly breathable. Whether you choose gloves or mittens is a matter of personal preference. I prefer using uninsulated mitten shells and combine them with a fleece liner from category 1 above. But I’ll also carry warmer Primaloft liners, like the ones that are sold with many shell mittens, if temperatures warrant. I decide this when checking the weather forecast before a summit bid.

Here are some shell mittens that I recommend:

A final caution. It’s very tempting to buy a super warm modular mitten like the Mt Baker Mitts listed above that are designed for serious high-altitude mountaineering even though they are too warm to use in the lower 48. Some people need the extra warmth for physiological reasons, but they can be way too hot to wear. In addition, remember that you can just use the outer shell glove layered with a thinner liner glove or mitten and not both components as sold (shell and liner) in warmer conditions.

Winter Backpacking Adjustments

The same three-part glove and mitten system works well for multi-day winter backpacking trips as long as you take care to dry out your lightweight insulated gloves or 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.

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  1. Good timing. I need a new glove/mitten system. Down to about 0F (occasionally less).

    You have made recommendations for each layer, but I’m not sure they are going to work together. I could really use a recommendation for the whole system. I had been considering that Outdoor Research Mt. Baker combo because it is a system, until you waved us off of it.

    The Gear Shop is no help; only light gloves and a couple of uninsulated rain mitts. Most other reviews are the same.

    I don’t have a good store nearby, so I have to order everything and try it. That’s fine if I only have to try one thing, but if I have to order 10 of each layer that’s gonna add up quickly.

    I have large-ish hands. They measure 9.25″ circumference, which doesn’t seem too large when looking at size charts, but the charts are mostly wrong. In a store, I cannot even get my hand inside of half of the XL gloves. And that’s with a bare hand… no way they will fit with a layer or two underneath.

    The outer shell has to be big enough to fit over the insulated glove. I’m not at all sure that’s going to be easy to find. I don’t see anything like 3xl anywhere.

    So what’s a good system that actually fits over each layer?

    Am I back to the Mt Baker’s? Or is there another alternative?

    (I do have a pair of Showa Temres 282-02’s coming in 2xl, but they reportedly run small. If they are large enough to fit over a pair of liners, then that will give me 2 layers; maybe good for freezing weather. If I could find INSULATED overmitts that will fit over them, then I might be in good shape. That’s the part where I don’t find 3xl’s anywhere. Or shell mitts large enough to fit over ski gloves. Do such things exist?)

    • A few suggestions:

      -Try pogies – look at what bar mitts makes. Pacer pole also makes neoprene over mitts that attach to their poles. You wear gloves inside them.
      -Ragged Mountain Equipment in NH – they make serious overmitts and will do custom work
      -Wiggy’s – Alaska based. Might do custom.
      -Look at gear for construction workers and road crews
      -Call Joel at Forty Below and ask his advice. He works with high altitude mountaineers
      -Make your own or get someone too. Mitten shells aren’t rocket science.

  2. Interesting ideas, thanks.

    Pogies: I do like the idea of mitts attached to my poles. PacerPoles are currently out of production. Will pogies work with normal poles? (I see that Bar Mitts has a product for trekking poles.)

    MYOG: I thought about that. Mark Young has a vid on YouTube with detailed instructions. His mittens were cut from a wool blanket, but fleece and Tyvek should work as well. Gotta learn to use a sewing machine first.

    Construction/Road Crew: OK… but why would they have any better (or larger) gear than, say, Outdoor Research?

    Which brings me back to that Mt Baker glove/mitt system. Although expensive, the system is reasonable compared to individual items from other companies. Most of the cost is in the GoreTex shell. How bad can they be?

    • Pacer pole is having supply chain issues getting materials. It’s a shame. I’ve also used bar mitts on poles and they work really well.

      Here’s a picture:

      Construction gloves – I just suspect they’ll be larger. That’s the issue you’re having – Size. For example, I just got a pair of Alti II mittens from OR in a size large and they’re too small.

      Look at the Ragged Mountain Equipment Mitts – really. I use a lot of their clothing. Call them with questions.

      Wiggy’s also also available in a size XXXL

      • That’s a good pic of bar mitts. Looks promising. Would have to work correctly with pole straps to be a real solution.

        I definitely intend to try PacerPoles (and Pogies) when they become available again (having some carpal tunnel that may be pole-related, despite putting my weight on the straps).

        Can you wear a ski glove under the bar mitt?

        I did check out all of your suggestions before posting my questions (of course). Ragged Mountain does have size 10 mitten shells, which isn’t my primary problem. I will call them if I need shells.

        Wiggy’s shows 3x on their size chart, but don’t SELL anything larger than xl.

        I did check Lowe’s and Home Depot before posting here. They don’t have anything warmer than ski gloves, and no large sizes. Same when I look for construction gloves on Amazon or Google for reviews of construction gloves. I could be missing some specialty suppliers, but don’t know where else to look.

        Size is one of my issues for sure, although I’m really looking for a system that works together. That said, an insulated 3x mitten might be part of the solution.

        I see that Give’r has 3x mittens, although they appear to think that 9.5 inch is 3x, so maybe not a generous 3x. Also they are leather, which is overkill for my purposes. Still, it could be one of my limited options.

        What did you think of the Alti 2’s? Is the shell insulated, or is it just a GoreTex shell over an insulated mitten liner?

        Alti 2 looks similar to the Mt Baker, but with a mitten liner instead of a glove liner, yes? Not sure which I would prefer. From experience I know that mittens are warmer, but I do find them slightly awkward with my pole straps. Not sure whether Mt Baker’s glove liners would be an improvement?

        • Sorry – many people don’t research, so I often assume they haven’t.

          Can you wear a ski glove under the bar mitt?

          Depends on how big the ski glove is, I guess. They have plenty of room inside for a handlebar….

          Alti 2’s – review in the pipeline. The external shell has its own insulation and a huge leather palm. I haven’t used pole straps for a decade (pacer poles don’t require them). I like wearing a glove inside a mitt for dexterity. Can’t layer/delayer or eat/drink in winter without taking off mittens….

      • OK, bar mitts ordered. Your link to Amazon sealed the deal; at least they have bullet-proof returns if they don’t work with the straps.

        PacerPoles+Pogies, check (when available). They were on my list before you posted this article. :)

        Gonna try the Showa gloves with bar mitts or a shell mitten. (And my trusty glove liner/convertibles if they fit).

        If all fail, then Mt Bakers as backup plan.

        PS: Thanks for *all* of your reviews. You’re a voice of reason in a field of clutter. Much appreciated.

  3. Is it good to have a waterproof breathable or windproof membrane, in the gloves for category-2? Is that your preference in general? The “Rab Baltoro Gloves” seems to be the odd one out in your recommendations for this category. These don’t have any membrane, but come with a softshell fabric which seems to be fairly wind-resistant given the fabric weight and breathability specs.

    • I can’t remember the last time my category 2 gloves got wet, if ever. It’s winter and most of the precipitation is frozen. But if you winter hike in warmer conditions or it’s raining or it’s a concern, get a waterproof/breathable glove. Softshell fabric is virtually windproof. For example, I used Montane Tigertooth Pro softshell gloves for years as my category 2 glove. Worked fine. I’m currently using OR Highcamps without the liner.

      • I just went through your review of the Montane Tigertooth Pro gloves that you mentioned. They have Polartec Power Shield Pro which is a waterproof breathable membrane, so I personally wouldn’t consider them to be softshell gloves. My preference in general is to go for softshell gloves (no membrane of any kind) as they breath better and dry faster. The fast drying property would be useful for winter backpacking. I’ll consider the “Rab Baltoro Gloves” that you mentioned as they fit my needs.

  4. Great title Philip! Glove SYSTEMS is what is needed for cold weather. For a few decades Ihave used Gore-Tex shells over fleece of even heavier pile liners. And when camping I carried an extra liner so I always had a dry one.
    ->Now I have a pair of wool Norwegian Knut and Knut gloves that I had purposely bought in Extra Large and boiled them to Size Large and Dachstein density. They are definitely my warmest glove liners.

  5. Philip, your glove layering proves you a true outdoorsman. For our -20F weather, the Hestra puffy liner mitt works great for my carpal-tunnel-fixed hands (from rough cycling). Alas Hestra no longer makes them and no one has taken up the gauntlet. It’s a gap in the system at this latitude!

    • Oh, wow! Hestra has size 11 — that’s like 3xl or 4xl. And a full array of liners and shells designed to work together. That’s exactly what I have been searching for. Thanks for the tip!

      (also thanks to Stephen Hobbs for same tip.)

    • Hestra still sells the Primaloft Extreme Liner, which is what I believe you are describing. Remember to size up if you want to wear a mid widht liner underneath.

  6. Great article, always looking for the perfect glove – which of course does not exist – have to adapt to the conditions. The following describes my current system. Key driver is the need for touch sensitive inner gloves to work my phone, which is my navigation system. The shells I have had for years. Added Hestra wrist straps with a little sewing. The white liners are Hestra. The black inner touch sensitive gloves are widely available by a number of providers. With this system I never need to expose hands, always keep the inner liners on. I take spare inner liners. Important to spray waterproof the inner liner gloves. I just dangle the shells / white liner gloves when I am using phone or doing something that needs a lot of dexterity – like installing crampons. They are bulky; so need to set the ski pole loops looser. Would not work with serious climbing tools; but okay if just climbing moderate snow fields with an ice axe.

  7. Oh, wow! Hestra has size 11 — that’s like 3xl or 4xl. And a full array of liners and shells designed to work together. That’s exactly what I have been searching for. Thanks for the tip!

    (also thanks to Stephen Hobbs for same tip.)

  8. Hello! Great article. My issue is I have “paws”. I generally take an XL glove to begin with. Some of the glove/ mitten systems I have max out at 2XL. Which leaves me few options.
    I have a pair of buffalo wool gloves with a buffalo hide 2XL outer mitten. there’s an insulated layer of fleece within a bison hide mitten. It’s the best I’ve found thus far. I’ve done some winter treks in the Adirondacks with this system. Mittens have little dexterity for starters. These have far less. The bison leather buffalo will combo has proven itself. I’d like some waterproof/ wind proof options.
    Any suggestions?
    Thank you for the great articles!

  9. I have owned a pair of rbh designs ultra light mitts for many years …find them excellent and have often been comfortable (over liners) down below -10 F. Very much worth having.

  10. Mt Baker: Good to maybe 20F. Mittens are warmer. The shells are heavy, bulky, uninsulated, unimpressive, and fiercely expensive. The liners are nice; like an ultralight variant of a ski glove. But not super warm.

    If Outdoor Research made the Alti mittens in 2xl, then that would be my next try. They don’t, so I’m not sure where to go next. Maybe a fleece or boiled wool mitten with an MYOG shell? Military surplus?

    Bar Mitts: The mitts you show in your picture look huge; the Bar Mitts designed for poles are not large enough for poles. Not nearly large enough for poles and hands and straps.

  11. Dunno why I never thought of mix/matching different gloves, liners and mittens but today I did and it worked great. Thx for the suggestion.

  12. Success: Outdoor Research Firebrand (in generous military 2x). The insulated shell fits over ski mittens AND thin liners. If it is too cold for that combo, then I might take the day off and après-ski around the fireplace.

    OR MGS (Modular Glove System) is also available in military 2x. Those are some big-ass gloves. Big enough for medium-weight fleece liners. Still, mittens are warmer.

    The Firebrands even fit over insulated Showa Temres 282-02 gloves. Combined with thin liners, that’s probably the most versatile performance-per-ounce combo.

    Thanks for the article and suggestions, which eventually led me to a good solution for my wide hands.

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