Cold hands can destroy a hike in a number of ways and are easily preventable with a great glove system. Aside from the actual walking part of hiking, you need your hands to be able to do everything else: eat, drink, zip zippers, adjust straps, take layers off and on, tie shoelaces, get things out of your pack, take photos, put microspikes on and take them off. Not to mention it’s miserable to hike with freezing cold fingertips and can easily become the only thing you think about.
I started keeping a just-in-case pair in my ten essentials kit, knowing that with the addition of just a few extra ounces I can hike to my heart’s content and not have to worry about my hands. I would suggest you do the same, even if you are one of those people who runs hot and rarely wears gloves. I keep a pair in my pack year round, because even summer nights in Washington can get mighty cold.
Like most hiking gear nowadays, we have a multitude of options available to us. The main types of gloves you’ll want to consider based on your activities, your weather, and your own personal thermostat are:
- Ultralight: Thin gloves like glove liners or runner’s gloves, these are your summer mornings or high-energy output gloves. Like your other layers, you want to be able to keep some warmth in while letting the dampness of sweat out, so if you’re going to be working really hard and the weather isn’t super cold, these are a good choice. Also great for protection with light scrambling, where you might need your hands on rock now and then. Look for power-stretch, Merino wool, or any softshell synthetic fabric.
- Fleece: For days where the temps will dip and the wind might howl but there’s no precipitation in the forecast, fleece is a perfect choice. If there is any rain or if you will be traveling on snow, fleece is a terrible choice. I keep a pair of fleece gloves in my pack all summer, and most days I don’t even take them out, but when I’ve stayed out longer than planned or taken a break near a cold river, I’ve been so glad to have them. As soon as the weather turns, I replace the fleece with a waterproof synthetic that has leather palms, and those become my winter back-up, even while I’m wearing my cold-weather gloves.
- Heavy duty gloves: For cold, wet, wintery conditions when you need enough dexterity to hold poles and unzip zippers, but don’t quite need the giant alpine oven mitts. I like these when I’m above treeline and moving a little slower than usual; they will get sweaty if I wear them when I’m moving too fast. These are often leather, suede, or a combo of synthetics and leather, waterproof, and sometimes have removable liners. Added features as the temp rating drops include longer gauntlets, often nearly to mid-forearm. Some have a small drawstring around the wrist to cinch it tight and keep air out.
- Mittens: Think of these as a parka for the hands. For winter travel, breaks, summits, or if you spend any time on glaciers, these are a necessary item that may only come out for a few minutes or be a lifesaver for a long cold day. I run cold and wear my mitts quite often in winter or at high altitudes, even when others are comfortable in a regular heavy duty glove.
- Rain gloves: Or glove covers, these are basically a thin nylon mitten that slides over your gloves for added protection against wet conditions.
- Three-fingered gloves: Made popular by skiers, these have three digit compartments (thumb, index finger, other three fingers) and give you the overall warmth of a mitten with the better dexterity of a glove, and are gaining popularity in the hiking and climbing world because mittens can be so limiting.
- Fingerless gloves: With a pouch that opens and closes to cover and uncover the fingers, these convert from fingerless gloves to mittens with the flick of a wrist. Great for taking photos, using your phone, opening food wrappers, small motor stuff without leaving your hand completely bare.
Many have special pads on the fingertips so you can still use a touchscreen with them on. Some have straps that go around the wrist to prevent dropping or losing one while you have it off for a minute. a lot of the heavy duty gloves and mitts have pockets for hand warmers.
Other hand-related accessories include hand warmers (battery operated or the little pouches that you shake to activate), gardening gloves for scrambling on lava rock, and arm sleeves. I have a friend who cuts the ends off her wool socks when they get holes in them, and pulls them over her hand/lower arm, and wears her gloves over that. Something about hating the air that sneaks in between her shirt and glove and chills her wrist. Whatever works, right?
Leather is an incredibly durable material and very protective against wind, cold, rain, and snow. You will want to use a waterproofing finish like Nikwax every now and then to make sure the leather stays impervious to moisture from the outside.
If you’re tight on funds, try your local home improvement store instead of the ski shop, as they usually carry leather, insulated, and/or waterproof gloves for construction and other outdoor jobs which are durable and built for long days in bad weather. Regardless of what gloves you get, the important thing is that your hands stay warm, because everything other than the actual walking part of hiking depends on them.
Some folks wear glove liners under their mittens or heavy duty gloves; this is a matter of preference and personal thermostat, and you’ll find what works best for you over time.
Since frostbite attacks extremities first, unless you are guaranteed great weather with zero chance of having to spend an unexpected night out there, think of gloves almost more like first aid, the eleventh essential, like a jacket for those vulnerable extremities. It might sound histrionic, but in harsh conditions, gloves can make or break the whole story and whether or not it ends well. I know someone who was recently airlifted to a trauma center after spending a night unconscious on Mt. Rainier, and I can say with some degree of confidence that his gear was the difference between life and death, or being able to keep hands or toes, and that if he hadn’t been wearing gloves, he’d either be an amputee at best or a fatal statistic at worst.
Our picks for soft shell gloves:
- Outdoor Research Women’s Versaliner
- The North Face eTip glove
- Smartwool liner glove
- Black Diamond Lightweight Fleece Gloves
- Patagonia Better Sweater (fingerless glove with flip-down mitten covering)
Our picks for heavy duty gloves:
- Black Diamond Guide Gloves
- Arc’ teryx Fission SV
- Mountain Hardwear High Exposure Women’s Glove
- Black Diamond Spark Angel Finger Mitten
- Marmot Randonee
Our picks for mittens:
- Black Diamond Women’s Mercury Mitt
- Rab Expedition 8000
- Outdoor Research Alti Women’s
- Hestra Women’s Patrol Gauntlet Mitt
- Burton GoreTex Warmest Gloves
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.