Having just finished snow camping and ice climbing in New Hampshire, I’ll be posting up a short series on winter travel and camping skills. For the first installment, I have a few things to say about keeping your hands warm. I have fairly poor circulation and I’ve got a lanky build to compound the problem, so keeping my extremities warm is always something of a challenge for me. This is especially problematic since things like lighting a stove and placing an ice screw require a fair amount of dexterity. What follows is a sharing of my experience on how to keep your hands warm and your fingers working when the mercury dips below freezing (or even below zero).
First, some basic principles. Warm hands and feet are a direct result of proper thermoregulation as a whole. In general, if your hands are cold, it is likely the result of low core warmth and not a direct result of poor hand insulation. This is the reason for the saying, “if your feet are cold, put on a hat.” The warmer you keep your body on the whole, the easier it is to keep your extremities warm.
This is accomplished by the intelligent layering of clothing appropriate for the conditions and activities. The goal is to have enough layers to stay warm without ever actually sweating. If you start overheating from exertion, it’s time to take off a layer. If you’ve stopped to take a break, put a layer on right when you stop, before you have a chance to get cold. This system gives you the best odds of staying dry, which helps you stay warm. The same principle applies to a handwear system—keep your gloves dry and layer appropriately.
Handwear should be selected based on the anticipated level of exertion, environmental conditions, and dexterity needs. The handwear system appropriate for skiing differs from one for hunting. There are a few options for systems, but there’s only a few possible components: liner gloves, uninsulated gloves, insulated gloves, and mitts.
Liner gloves are useful when extra insulation is needed below another glove layer, when dexterity is at a premium, or when conditions are mild enough or exertion high enough that other handwear is actually too warm. Liners by themselves might be a good choice for a cold weather run or a high-output ice or mixed climb, where other gloves would just get soaked with sweat. Liners are also good for use under a lightly insulated glove to provide extra insulation and a layering option, depending on conditions. Finally, they can be used underneath a mitt for very cold conditions when dexterity is only necessary occasionally and for short periods. In short, liners are an important piece of handwear. Cold weather running or high-output ice climbing are ideal applications for liners alone.
Uninsulated gloves are a good choice when there will be lots of handwork, but the output is not great enough or the conditions mild enough to get away with using a liner instead. Often, this can take the form of a relatively cheap leather work glove that you might find at a hardware store. Fleece-brushed leather gloves are nice if you can find them, or you can pair the leather glove with a liner. Consistent application of mink oil keeps the gloves supple, sticky, and waterproof. Uninsulated gloves are a good choice for moderate-output ice climbing, high output skiing, and construction.
Insulated gloves are standard fare for mild to moderate conditions, moderate output activity, and moderate dexterity. Insulated gloves will generally work for most tasks, but will not necessarily shine in any particular category. They make a good all-around selection and when paired with a liner can work for most tasks. Insulated gloves with a liner are great for most skiing, ice climbing, and winter hiking.
Mitts are reserved for when dexterity is not required, output is particularly low (lots of standing around), or conditions are harsh. A good mitt paired with a liner or lightweight glove offers a reasonable system for staying warm but allowing for short periods of dexterity-intensive activity in which only the liners are worn. A mitt system is suited for use at camp, hunting, or any other pursuit with ample amounts of inactivity. They can also be used for particularly brutal conditions while mountaineering.
System management is crucial for the success of your handwear. First and foremost, gloves should never touch the ground. They will instantly become cold and wet, and therefore much less useful to you. Unused gloves should live in your pack, or better yet, inside your jacket, where they will stay warm and dry out if you have sweat in them or otherwise gotten them wet.
Just as important as keeping your gloves off the ground is keeping them dry. The biggest problem here usually comes from sweat, not the environment. Avoid sweating through gloves by choosing the lightest gloves possible for the task. Carry multiple gloves or lines so you can change them out when they become wet. Make sure you start the day with warm, dry gloves. They should be hanging in a warm place at home the night before your outing, or staying with you in your sleeping bag if you are camping.
Finally, if your handwear doesn’t seem to be up to snuff, you can always “cheat” and use hand warmers (though I feel that avoiding frostbite is hardly cheating). If you go this route, I recommend using Hot Hands brand hand warmers over the Grabber brand. Hot Hands last longer, get hotter, and stay warm more consistently. Many gloves have hand warmer pouches on the back of the hand to accommodate warmers. These are great if you need to use your hands. However, if you don’t need as much dexterity, I find that my hands stay warmer placing the hand warmer in the palm of the glove instead of on the back of the hand.