Ultimate Guide to Gloves and Mittens for Cold Protection
Having a pair of gloves on or off the trail is essential when being in cold environments. In such conditions, without gloves, your hands will stay cold which is not only painful and unpleasant but can be extremely dangerous with serious long-term consequences for everybody who underestimates the risk of frostbite. Rain and wind will exacerbate the situation further because they facilitate heat loss, which is most predominant in body extremities. This happens because, in cold conditions, fingers and toes rely mainly on blood circulation to produce heat. However, cold weather causes vasoconstriction reducing blood flow and thus precluding body extremities from getting the much-needed heat to warm them. As a result, fingers and toes are often affected by frostbite and other injuries caused by the exposure to low temperatures for prolonged periods. Thus, wearing a pair of waterproof gloves or mittens is one of your best options when being outside in cold and wet conditions.
Certainly, hand and finger performances are affected by low temperatures. The lower the temperature, the more significant is its effect on finger dexterity and sensitivity as fine finger functions are almost entirely lost when ambient temperature is lower than 4.4 C. That’s why you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the use of gloves for cold protection is not new but can be traced back to Roman times.
Gloves offer the possibility of preserving some fine finger dexterity because they cover each finger independently. Since their main function is to protect your hands and fingers from cold, gloves for cold protection are often multi-layered constructions. They often combine two or more functions such as thermal insulation and water resistance, for example.
As with other garments used for insulation, mittens and gloves must be made of fabrics that retain warmth when wet. Thus, the majority is made of wool, synthetics (such as fleece), wool-synthetics blends and leather.
Wool fiber has been used for outdoor apparel for several reasons:
- Wool is resilient thanks to the elastic nature of the fiber.
- It’s warm (thanks to the air spaces in the material) and feels soft and comfortable.
- It traps air, which makes it an excellent insulating material.
- Wool can absorb and release moisture.
Moreover, wool is an easy fiber to dye, it’s inherently fire retardant and does not burn but chars to an ash. All these make wool suitable for manufacturing gloves perfect for cold environments.
Among the various types of wool, Merino wool is the most preferred one for producing activewear since it is high-quality wool that possesses some unique properties. For example, Merino gloves are very warm and incredibly soft inside and out. One of the biggest drawbacks of Merino wool is its price, so gloves made of quality Merino are pricey. Additionally, you will rarely find waterproof gloves made of Merino.
Note that Merino gloves are rarely made of 100% Merino wool but more often they are a blend of wool and various other fibers to regulate absorption, wicking, air circulation, and insulation.
Fleece gloves are a typical representative of the gloves made of man-made materials. An important feature of windproof gloves is their thickness that varies greatly. Clearly, the thinner they are, the more dexterity they offer. Of course, it doesn’t come without drawbacks. As a rule, there is a trade-off between warmth and dexterity as thinner gloves are lighter and provide excellent dexterity, however, they aren’t as warm as the thicker ones with plush fleece or pile inside. Thick gloves are warm and can be very useful in dry and cold weather, however, this comes at a price namely reduced dexterity and breathability, feeling cold when wet added to the fact that they’re slow to dry. The latter can be avoided by wearing waterproof breathable mittens over them as the mittens will keep the fleece gloves dry. Additionally, windproof fleece gloves and mittens often come with reinforcements on the fingers and palms that make them more durable, while fleece gloves that aren’t windproof are relatively fragile. These reinforcements come in the form of a special coating that’s usually made of various polymers and elastomers. Synthetic materials such as PVC, neoprene, and rubber provide better hand protection (from abrasion, water, oil etc.) and stay relatively flexible until the temperature reaches a certain value. Above this temperature, synthetics are flexible; below this temperature, there is a sudden change in their mechanical properties as these materials become stiff and brittle.
Keep in mind that the properties of most synthetic materials vary with temperature thus you need to follow the temperature ranges and instructions given by the manufacturers when choosing appropriate gloves for particular weather conditions. Generally, at low temperatures, synthetic materials harden and crack, while at higher temperatures they either harden or become softer. The best/most reliable man-made materials for extremely cold weather are neoprene (it stays flexible down to -10 C), rubbers (down to -25 C), and thermoplastic polyurethanes (down to -50 C). What’s interesting is that rubbers gradually become harder as the temperatures drop from room temperature to -20 C. This means that a material is, generally, more resistant to cutting, puncture, tear, and abrasion at low temperatures as most materials harden in cold conditions.
Leather gloves are a popular choice among the types of gloves suitable for cold environments. This is due to the fact that leather remains flexible at low temperature, it offers good grip (leather gloves are often worn by climbers for rope handling such as rappeling or belaying) as well as it is relatively waterproof, breathable, puncture and abrasion resistant. All these make leather glove a preferred candidate for cold weather conditions, especially considering the fact that leather cracks at a temperature as low as -180 C. However, there are several drawbacks of wearing leather gloves:
- They are not waterproof gloves unless treated with some kind of water repellent.
- When wet, they either soften (at high temperatures) or harden (at low temperatures). This effect is in direct relationship with the absorbed water quantity and content.
- Mechanical properties of leather vary depending on the animal.
- Leather offers limited resistance to cutting.
- They provide no insulation when wet and they dry slowly.
Synthetic leather is also a popular material among the manufacturers of gloves. It comes in various types as each one has different properties. For example some kinds of synthetic leather aren’t affected by water (such as PVC-based synthetic leather. Main drawbacks: it’s sensitive to environmental aging added to the fact that it isn’t breathable at all); some are breathable (porometrics are half as breathable as leather), while others are more abrasion-resistant (polyurethanes).
There are several main features of gloves for cold protection:
Functionality and comfort
Functionality is among the pivotal characteristics of a pair of good gloves. Professionals in various areas know that glove dexterity is essential for the proper execution of tasks at low temperatures. Below certain temperatures, human fingers lose part of their sensitivity, which can seriously impair their ability for performing fine tasks. For example, below 19 C fingers start losing tactile sensitivity which means that their ability to feel surfaces deteriorates. This is associated with an increase in accident rate.
Dexterity is linearly correlated to the thickness of the materials used. Thick materials usually negatively impact the ability to manipulate small objects producing a loss in glove dexterity. Dexterity is also correlated to the stiffness (it increases at low temperatures) and fit as tighter gloves may restrict blood circulation in addition to the fact that they’re less flexible. On the other side, too loose gloves are not suitable for activities where high performance is required. Thus, in order to get the best performance out of your winter gloves, they need to fit properly.
Although a subjective feeling that depends mainly on fit (but also partially on the lining material/s, breathability, freedom of movement etc.), comfort is very important for your overall outdoor experience. Thus you need to consider comfort among the most important characteristics of gloves for cold protection. Generally, most people are able to identify if a glove is comfortable or not.
Warmth and thermal insulation depend on the ability of a material to trap as much air as possible within its structure. Of course, glove lining made of such kind of material will keep your hands and fingers warm, however, it will also make the glove bulky hampering its dexterity.
Typical materials for glove insulation are wool (will keep you warm even when wet), fleece, and synthetics (Primaloft is one of the best man-made materials for glove linings because it’s water-resistant as well as soft and comfortable and will keep your hands warm at very low temperatures).
There are various fibers made to ensure excellent thermal insulation without sacrificing comfort and dexterity. Among them, we should mention Thinsulate, Thermolite, polyester hollow fibers, and Kevlar. What’s common among them is that they’re dense with enough space between fibers for trapping air inside their core thus making the insulated gloves warm enough for working or walking in extremely cold environments.
The table below shows the thermal conductivities of various insulating materials.
Table 1: Thermal Conductivities of Various Insulating Materials
Source: Textiles for Cold Weather Apparel*, p.377
Though lining materials are very important for proper thermal insulation, the weather conditions also play a significant role. For example, wind and low temperatures have a huge impact on hand protection in cold environments.
Water and wind resistance
Gloves made for high performance on or off the trail must be water and wind-resistant. Some kinds of gloves contain waterproof breathable membranes that make them either partially or fully waterproof. The positive side of having a pair of waterproof gloves is that they shield off rain and snow. Ironically, this may not be enough for keeping your hands warm and dry because if the material isn’t breathable enough, moisture may build up inside the gloves, which 1) reduces their thermal insulation capacity; and 2) produces an unpleasant feeling of a damp cloth. One possible solution is to wear gloves with semipermeable membranes that provide a combination of protection against water coming from the outside and water-vapor permeability that transports moisture from the inside to the outer side of the glove. The waterproofing of the outer surface of gloves can also be increased by the application of a hydrophobic coating.
Breathability goes with water-resistance when dealing with cold conditions. It involves the ability of a material to permeate enough air (reducing the danger of overheating this way) and to transport moisture (in the form of a water vapor) out of the glove ensuring dry hands. A good pair of gloves will have the right balance between air permeability and limiting the cooling effects of cold air entry.
Layering is not typical only for clothing as this concept can be successfully applied to hand protection as well. The first layer is often a light pair of gloves - the so-called liners. Additional layers are usually mittens because though limiting dexterity, they are warmer than gloves. If you try to think a bit why it’s this way, you’ll probably easily find out the main reason - mittens, unlike gloves, allow fingers to share warmth. An effective liner should be durable, abrasion-resistant and should provide warmth and retain dexterity to tie shoes or adjust a zipper. Though wearing liner gloves can allow for doing some chores in camp, keep in mind that many synthetics can melt in the heat from a stove.
Another layered system consists of fleece gloves and waterproof gloves or mitts for shells. The main role of the former is to trap air and to provide good insulation for superior warmth, while the latter protects your inner gloves from precipitation. Some manufacturers offer these two-layer systems so you can have it directly from them without wondering if they fit together.
A third option for a layering is adopting a three-layer system consisting of liner gloves, mittens, and overmitts. Overmitts are the shell layer and as such, the overmitt cuff should overlap the insulated jacket sleeve. Hook-and-loop closures usually adjust the overmitts around your forearm.
Fingerless gloves provide an increase in skin temperature compared to bare hands, however, they more or less restrict finger flexibility. Anyway, a pair of fingerless gloves provides an increased level of fingertip sensitivity and functionality in comparison to a pair of normal gloves. The materials used are the same materials typical for gloves.
This kind of gloves is suitable for a range of outdoor activities such as rock climbing, operating cameras or using mobile phones.
Photo by Brodie Vissers
We’ve already outlined one of the typical characteristics of mittens - they allow fingers to share warmth making them much warmer than gloves. Mittens are perfect for cold weather as wearing mitts is a simple way to keep your hands warm when it’s well below freezing. Their best use is as an outer layer in a layered system with liner gloves as an inner layer. That’s why you can find waterproof and/or wind-resistant outer mitts. It is a good idea to attach security cords to mittens and outer mitts. This way, you won’t lose them while hiking or climbing and pull them off for a second to zip up or apply sunscreen. Losing a mitten or a glove in bad weather can have serious consequences and attaching loops of thin elastic cord to your mitts is a great precaution. If you don't have mittens but need to warm your hands, you can use a pair of socks instead.
Mittens don’t have separate finger compartments except for the thumb. One of their main drawbacks is related to that – they just don’t provide the same dexterity as gloves.
Hybrid between glove and mitten
Yes, it exists and is used when fine dexterity is only occasionally needed. It is a hybrid between glove and mitten, in which an additional semi-detached pouch can encapsulate the four fingers as a mitten would do or be folded back and allow individual finger movement.
Whether you hike, climb, work at low temperatures, you need a pair of gloves or mittens to protect your hands from cold. It can take considerable experience to wisely choose the mittens and gloves (or fingerless gloves) that work best for you. Just remember that, in general, there’s a trade-off between warmth and dexterity as bulk means increased warmth and reduced dexterity.
Whether to wear gloves or mittens is strictly individual and depends on how cold your hands get. Gloves allow for fine finger movement but they aren’t as warm as mittens. On the other hand, mittens are warmer but also decrease dexterity. If you need to do a lot of things with your hands, apparently gloves should be preferred. If you go to an area with sub-zero temperatures, you may prefer wearing mitts.
In really cold weather, your best option is to use the layering concept widely used for hiking and backpacking. Your layered system will consist of liner gloves, mittens and/or outer mitts. This way, the inner layer will keep your hands warm, while the outer layer will protect your hands from rain and snow. In wet and cold weather, you may wish to bet on waterproof gloves or mittens.
* In J. Williams (Ed.), Textiles for Cold Weather Apparel, 2009, Woodhead Publishing Limited