Jouni Laaksonen 11.2.2019
There has been quite cold temperatures in many places around the world this winter. Here in Northern Finland this winter has been quite normal. The coldest temperatures never arrived this winter, but still we had a two-week spell of around –25 to –30°C in January.
So, let’s talk about what you wear on your hands when it’s cold. Especially when you spend all day outside, and possibly also evening and night, it is very important to have properly warm mittens.
This gear post is not about outdoor equipment brands. I like to buy my handwear from hardware stores.
Here we are on a midwinter expedition with my wife in Käsivarsi Wilderness Area. It’s –25°C, but my hands are so warm that I can take the thivk and roomy brown mittens off every now and then for a while to take some pics. I don’t take off my Powerstretch next-to-skin gloves, though.
If your fingers are all the time freezing, or even you feel they are constantly just on the edge of freezing, you
- don’t enjoy your time in the great winter outdoors
- are afraid to take off your thick handwear, for example to adjust your ski binding or camera
- you end up taking no pictures
- may even drift into a dangerous situation, as your fingers don’t work properly to pull a zipper closed, or to push a tent pole into the proper tunnel, or something similar
It’s not only a question of handwear. Naturally your level of activity is crucial, and also your clothing in general is important.
We once spent a night in Vuontisjärvi wilderness hut in Pallas-Yllästunturi NP. It was –35°C in the morning, and a fisherman came to check his fish nets that were trying to catch fish under the ice of Lake Vuontisjärvi. We looked how he pulled the nets out of the water. He had very thick leather mittens, but when he loosened the whitefish that had been caught, and he did it with bare hands.
He then came to chat for a while in the hut with us, and I asked yow on earth can he manage to be for a while without handwear, and even with wet hands. He laughed and said something like this: “When there’s enough warmth on your shoulders, you can manage. And the water is much warmer than the air temperature.”
And that’s true. When your body is warm, there’s warm blood to circulate to your hands and feet, too.
Naturally there are many kinds of good gloves and mittens available, but here’s a rule of thumb for what I wear:
When the winter weather is very mild, like around zero or a few minus degrees Celsius, thin leather gloves is all I need for skiing. Of course if I plan to do something more passive, I wear thicker handwear.
When it’s around –10°C, I ski with thicker gloves. Some fluffy insulation can be seen from the inside of those gloves.
When it’s –15 to –25, the black-and-white mittens are great. Mittens are much warmer than gloves, and these mittens are a bit thinner and thus more manouverable than the brown ones.
However, I never carry this many gloves/mittens on my backpacking tours. During the years I have built a strong relationship with the pair of mittens farthest to right. They are thick, and they are roomy! With them I have skied comfortably numerous times in –30 to –40°C. And the predecessors of these served me very well in conditions of under –50°C.
So, usually I end up taking the warmer pair of gloves and the warmer pair of mittens. If it’s very late in the winter, like April, I might choose the lighter ones. But I never leave for a multi-day expedition in winter without proper mittens.
Let’s see what’s inside these two pairs of mittens:
On left there is a glove-like inner mitten. The material is insulating and rather thick, but as the fingers are apart, it’s not as warm as the dark green inner mitten on right. Also there is insulation inside the brown leather mitten itself.
I really like leather gloves and leather mittens. They are not waterproof as gore-tex mittens would be, but I often make a campfire, and leather is a good material to touch hot kettles, add firewood etc.
And in addition to those shown above, I always carry a thin pair of Powerstretch gloves. If not needed, they are in my jacket pocket, ready to be dressed whenever needed.
Next to skin: Powertretch gloves, so light, thin and in no way restricting. Also thin woollen gloves are good. If not needed they pack into a small space in my jacket pocket.
One more important thing: It’s crucial to try to avoid your gloves/mittens from getting wet. When it’s really cold, the snow is not wet, and your hands do not easily sweat. When it’s close to zero, the snow is wet, so you need to avoid touching snow very much. (If you are planning to dig a snow cave, you better bring a waterproof pair of mittens for just this purpose.)
And your hands may be so warm they almost sweat. Avoid this by changing to lighter handwear early enough. Sometimes in late winter I even ski with bare hands for a while, to cool my hands. A hiker needs to actively open/close zippers, add/subtract handwear and headwear, and so on. That’s her/his air conditioning.
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I’m rather busy with several writing projects right now, but I’ll try to have time to write a post about GPX tracks for next week. If not, then the week after next.
10 thoughts on “Winter handwear”
Great article Jouni,
I’m the victim of my own impracticality. I tend to have only 1 or 2 pairs of gloves for the activities I participate in. I guess if I was a devoted hiker and sportsman like you I would have seen the sensibility in acquiring several pairs of handwear for all situations & seasons.
As it is, I tend to wear an insulated Hestra leather glove for most getting around town, our casual walks & journeys close to home. For longer exposure while working to remove snow, etc I will throw on a different pair of insulated Kombi leather gloves which keep my hands warm a bit longer.
I don’t use the Powerflex glove, but now realize I should have been using them all along as an added insurance on warmth. 🙂
I do suffer from cold finger tips on almost every journey outdoors during wintertime. It now seems I’ve failed to utilize the appropriate gear. I will remedy that! One regret I can now possibly move beyond is being forced to come in from outdoors because of cold hands (or toes)…(Hopefully, you plan to cover footwear! haha)
Having lived in a sub-tropical climate for 15yrs, has severely reduced my cold tolerance – so any extra benefits which allow me to endure and enjoy the outdoors is much appreciated!
Thank you for your comment, Kate! And yes, why wouldn’t I write about footwear some week also, thanks for the idea. 🙂
Cold tolerance is a good and important term, good that you pointed it out. Even if you are born far in the north, every winter the first days when it’s something like -10 or -15°C, the temperature feels very cold. Then you get accustomed to cold temps (and also you start to add more layers of clothes) and when it’s February or March, -15°C doesn’t feel cold at all.
Mittens (four fingers in same “room”) are not as handy when doing something that requires preciseness as gloves (all fingers separated), but they are much warmer. BTW, does word glove always refer to a handwear where fingers are separated? I’ve thought so, but I may be wrong.
I have found out that a latex glove underneath all layers (aka vapor barrier) brings magical warmth to the entire glove system. I think that palms sweat ever so slightly even in the cold, and it does not need much to lose some insulation value to the moisture.
Also, as the liner gloves are usually the ones absorbing the moisture, having latex next-to-skin eliminates the nasty feeling when one removes the outer mitten and exposes even slightly moist liners to the wind (or cold camera surface etc.). Latex glove helps this even alone as wind cannot then evaporate moisture from the skin.
At least personally I find it very hard to stop hands from sweating when doing some stop-go activity like snowshoing and then stopping for a lunch break and having your sweaty mittens cool down. Vapor barrier stops this completely, with the downside of having clammy hands forever….
Thank you for your comment, xp. This is interesting. I have never tried latex gloves under insulating handwear, and have never felt need for anything like that. Also I have never seen anyone use such a combination – but on the other hand it was just a couple of weeks ago that I bumped on some American hiking blog that recommended latex gloves.
I think there is a big difference between us hikers: some sweat much more easily than others. I may belong to the latter group, and I believe in active temperature control by adjusting your clothing, and I believe in breathable gloves/mittens. However, if your hands sweat easily and your gloves/mittens get moist because of that, then latex gloves might be a solution.
I’ll tell a true story. Just this weekend I participated in Off-track skiing championships (if you are interested in what this event is about, see https://scricfinia.wordpress.com/2018/02/05/off-track-skiing-is-fun/). We skied on Saturday for 40 kilometers rather fast, and on Sunday for 10 kilometers absolutely as fast as we could manage. The temperature was between -6 and -10C on Saturday and about -2C on Sunday. (I have taken part of this same competition for over two decades, and sometimes it has been -35C, sometimes +1C, and everything in between.)
On Saturday I wore first the gloves I marked for -5 to -15C here on this post, but as we were skiing rather fast, I changed to very thin leather gloves before my hands started to sweat. Also I opened my jacket zipper all the way, and armpit zippers, and also I took my knit cap off for a long while. My trousers have long zippers on the sides and I had them opened, too.
When we had one longer break my fingers got a bit cold and I used the thicker gloves for a while (and pulled some zippers closed, and put my knit cap on, and used my hood for a while, too). After skiing for a while like this I was warm again, and returned to thinner gloves. My hands didn’t sweat, and also my technical shirt stayed almost dry – dry enough to dry completely during the evening chores like erecting our tarp, chopping firewood etc. I usually manage to avoid sweating, but I do actively take care to change my handwear and other clothing according to my warmth level.
On Sunday we did not try to avoid sweating, as we tried to ski as fast as possible. I used the thinner pair of gloves, and skied without jacket or knit cap, but still I sweated profusely. My shirt, hair, gloves etc. got all wet. But that was intentional. 🙂 I knew there was a warm bus waiting after the goal line, and that the bus takes us to a hot sauna and shower. So it was okay to get soaking wet.
As in hiking (or life) in general, there very seldom is only one good way to achieve some goal. You try different ways and find one that works best for you. If it’s with latex gloves, that’s fine – or if it’s without, that’s fine, too! 🙂
By the way, as Kate mentioned winter footwear and xp mentioned vapor barrier, this is an interesting combination. I told my hands don’t sweat, and that’s partly because I wear breathable gloves/mittens. But my feet do sweat a lot! (And my boots are not breathable at all.)
I’ve known about vapor barrier in theory for a long time, but for some reason I haven’t tried it on my feet. Partly it’s because I never have any problems with blisters with the socks and footwear I use on winter hiking. Would that change with constantly clammy feet skin? Anyway, I have to try it some day.
Yes I think VB is more used in shoes but it also works in gloves. I have used both. Shoes are bit more tricky as just slipping a plastic bag over your liner socks (or bare skin) makes the feet slip around, plus plastic bags are not shaped like a foot and easily get torn. I have contemplated just buying commercial VB socks. But you can certainly try the idea with freezer bags, or perhaps even better would be oven bags (more durable).
To be honest I cannot be bothered very often with the latex gloves and so on, but some activities like winter biking combined with walking benefit greatly from them. It certainly is a personal issue; I tend to heat very quickly when moving and then cool down as soon as I stop moving, or start cycling slower, and this is when my fingers/feet get very cold and never seem to recover.
About barrier on bare skin vs. over a liner: I think that the common wisdom is to have a very thin liner first, then plastic/rubber. It makes the feeling less clammy, and probably also lessens the chance of skin turning into macerated white mess. For shorter outings I think just next-to-skin works ok, but for longer trips blistering might be an issue. (Interesting idea: how about trying “sticky” ArmaSkin anti-blister socks as liners for VB…?)
The funny thing with vapor barriers especially on your feet is that the clammy feeling is not much different from having a non/badly breathable winter shoe that is moist from sweat. Skin is supposed to stop sweating when the surrounding humidity gets high enough. So the result is that yes, the insides of the barrier feel a bit wet, but not much more than what you would have in the entire shoe at the end of the day without barrier. The liner sock does not get dripping wet, contrary to what you would expect.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on a vapor barrier on feet. I’ve always managed without any kind of a vapor barrier, but I think I’ll try it on my feet some day.
Great Post! In Montana, it can get to about -29°C here and while working in a hospital for a while… a lot of people either forget about gloves entirely or under estimate what is needed for adequate warmth. Lots of frostbite and it almost always starts with your fingers!
Thanks! Yep, and even if you don’t get a frostbite, it’s a pity if you have to get inside just because your fingers are freezing.
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