Proper Layering, Part 4: Hand Protection

Proper Layering, Part 4: Hand Protection

The hands are pretty easy to monitor and layer up because they are usually the first to feel the effects of cold temperatures. However, if in the past you have had frost nip or frostbite to your digits, they are more susceptible to cold issues in the future. It is unfortunate, but a large number of winter enthusiasts suffer from the ill effects of cold injuries. I am one of hem. I attribute that to not having the right gear early on in my snowshoeing and mountaineering career.

Hang out

Hand wear is one of those products that every company in the outdoor industry produces, so there are different styles, colors, comfort, uses, and number of finger holes. Some look great but that's as far as they go, and their function isn't quite up to par, but that doesn't stop shoppers from grabbing those first. Don't shop for style, shop for fit and function. After all, most are black, and black goes with everything. With hand protection, it's like the old cliché says, "You get what you pay for." Handwear is also the first piece to get wet, and while many stay somewhat warm when wet they soon become uncomfortable and freeze quickly, especially when removed from the warm layer of your skin. Hand wear is relatively light and takes up minimal space, so there is no reason to not carry extra in your pack.

Gloves and mitts might seem like a very small part of the big picture, but if you have ever fought the effects and pain of fingers thawing, you might change your tune. They can be a vital part of enjoying a safe winter experience. If you lose the use of your hands and fingers you won't have the ability to tie your shoes, start a fire, zip up your coat, call for help, and so much more that you might normally take for granted. Protect your hands and they will surely return the favor.

Be happy on an open summit with warm hands

Achieving the perfect Fit

The fit is very important when buying hand wear and you cannot say "this is good enough." Like most clothing items, you do not want a tight or loose fit. If the fit is too loose you'll have extra space to warm up, which can create cold spots on really cold days, not to mention the probability they can come off at inopportune times. Your dexterity will also be hindered.

If the fit is too tight you can cut off circulation to your fingers, which will cause your hands to get cold and numb much quicker, increasing the chance of a cold-weather injury. A tight fit also eliminates the opportunity to wear a liner for additional comfort and warmth. A tight fit gets even tighter when gripping poles, causing a quicker reaction to the cold.

Outer gloves

An outer glove is the glove layer that is exposed to the elements. These gloves can be lined or not lined and used as a shell. Outer gloves are the most important part of your hand protection, working as a barrier to the elements. There are several levels of insulation from light to expedition weight. It's good to have a couple of options to choose from in your closet or in your pack. The outer glove should also be waterproof or at least highly water resistant. Some companies water-resistant properties fall short under extreme conditions and, unfortunately, it's a trial and error step on your part to see what works best for you. A warm winter day when the snow is melting is the perfect example of the need for waterproof properties. Go online and read gear reviews, or maybe ask a friend or relative about their choices and why they work so well for them. If you buy a pair of gloves from a reputable company you know the quality you are getting is high and you can depend on its overall function and durability.


Glove liners

Liners are a must for any winter/cold weather sport enthusiast. I swear by them and recommend them to everyone. Liners are a light, non-waterproof glove that fits against the skin under the outer glove. Liners come in a couple of different weights depending on the company you choose. Wool liners tend to be much heavier and warmer than synthetic versions. The liner is an important piece for adding warmth to an outer glove that isn't quite adequate for the conditions. Secondly, it can add a comfort layer to a pair of gloves that might be slightly too big. Also, they can be a standalone piece that can be used on warm days or during high activity levels, where getting them wet is less probable or not a concern. They also work great for taking pictures. For example, when you take off that outer glove to take a picture; you will still have some protection from the elements. That protection will keep your hands from quickly getting cold while you catch that memory. These liners are light enough to work a camera and a cell phone. Some liners even come with the ability to use a touch screen on a phone or GPS. Extras of these are almost necessary for long days in the winter woods.


Everyone should have a pair of mitts in their pack, if for no other reason than for emergency purposes. Mitts are the warmest handwear out there. With mitts you have the opportunity for your fingers to be closer together, creating more heat. They're kind of like a sleeping bag for your fingers. Mitts come in many levels of warmth, from light weight to expedition weight; somewhere in the middle is a great place to start. Mitts work wonders with glove liners.

The biggest downfall of mitts is the lack of dexterity. It's slightly harder to grip a pole and do the minuscule tasks that fingers are so important for, but you will get used to it.

An example of mitten shells

Shell mitts

Shell mitts are unlined mitts that fit over a pair of glove or mitten liners but provide no warmth. They are typically sized slightly big so they can fit over a heavier glove if needed. Shell mitts work wonders with a mid to heavy weight fleece glove. When paired with a glove, this system is unstoppable for warmth in cold conditions. The shell does trap heat, so while they have no warmth value they do trap body heat.

One brand of handwarmers, about 99 cents a pair

Hand warmers

Hand warmers are chemical inserts that go inside gloves or mitts. I typically place them on the top of my hand or in my palm if I'm wearing gloves. Placed in the palm they sometimes hinder grip and dexterity. In mitts they go best at the tip of your fingers. When using a glove or mitt with a liner, place the warmer between the layers for best warmth and comfort. These chemical warmers can go directly on the skin, but in some cases they might be too warm for children or on delicate and sensitive skin types. I use them immediately when I hit the trail. They last 8 to 12 hours, and I can go all day without the worry of having to thaw the digits.

With the proper hand gear you can do what you want

All ready cold?

If your hands are already cold and you are trying to warm them up, try swinging your arms in a circle to get the blood circulation back up. You can also clap your covered hands, but not too hard. Other quick warm-up methods are to tuck an uncovered hand between your legs or armpits, directly against the skin if you can. 

Still have questions about handwear or layering? Swing into a local gear shop for answers to your questions. Want to have an introduction to winter mountaineering, snowshoeing, or skiing? Find a local guide service and they can set it up.



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