The Right Gloves

December 1, 2006

Frigid fingers are unpleasant. Numb wooden hands are far worse, and potentially dangerous in the chilly backcountry. Prevent the fingertip blues this season and keep your dexterity, enjoyment, and digits intact with these handy tips.

IF THE GLOVE FITS In a properly fitting glove, your fingers should almost, but not quite, touch the tips. The goal is to maintain a tiny air pocket around your fingertips to trap warmth. The glove should otherwise fit snugly across your palm without restricting motion and should not pinch the webbing between your fingers. Every manufacturer uses a different hand model for their glove designs, and fit is often surprisingly consistent across any given brand’s product line. Try on a variety to determine which manufacturer creates gloves that match your hand shape. Note that women’s gloves feature a smaller palm and longer fingers than men’s.

WARM BUTTERFINGERS Thick gloves are warmer than thin ones, but you’ll pay for the extra heat with a loss of dexterity. For casual around-town use, go for the thickest gloves that still allow you to function normally. (Try tying your shoes or pulling an item from your wallet.) If it’s blustery, they must also be windproof or air movement will strip warmth away from your fingers, no matter how thick the gloves are. Leather, nylon, and windproof fleece all do the trick.

HANDY UNDERWEAR For backcountry use, use thin liner gloves underneath a heavier set of gloves or mitts. Long underwear for your hands, liner gloves add significant warmth, absorb little water, and rapidly dry out if they get damp. Liners made of polyester or Powestretch work well, but be wary of using thicker gloves as your base layer. They absorb more moisture and will rapidly freeze stiff if you take them off.

Your fingers stay much warmer if they all get to hang out together. Mittens are easy to put on and take off, and because they have fewer seams, can be sealed to create truly waterproof handwear. (Few waterproof gloves exist; there are just too many seams.) Dexterity suffers, but you’re wearing liner gloves underneath for tasks that require careful manipulation. You’ll still want heavy gloves, however, if you’re pursuing an activity like ice climbing that requires regular, complicated hand motions in frigid conditions.

GLOVE LOVE Eliminate gaps around your wrist by selecting styles that feature a longer cuff, or gauntlet, that extends over your jacket sleeve. Otherwise your wrists will be exposed and snow will infiltrate your gloves and jacket. The cuffs should seal with elastic cord or Velcro, and you should be able to easily manipulate the closure with a gloved or mittened hand. Gloves that feature grippy material on the palm, fingers, and thumb are nice; leather provides the best grip but is more expensive and becomes saturated with use. Some mittens and gloves have removable liners, which make them easier to dry and allow you to use only the shells during periods of high exertion.

HELL IN A HANDBASKET Fleece gloves attract snow like Velcro, and rapidly become wet and cold as a consequence; avoid using them in the snowy backcountry. Thick gloves usually become difficult to put on or remove once they become damp from sweat or trapped snow. Often the lining in the fingers will jumble up or pull out like an inverted sausage, a maddening situation in cold weather. If you have any trouble putting them on in the store, your frustration will be magnified tenfold once they’re wet and you’re cold.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.