Monday, February 28, 2011

Winter Gloves for Backpacking

There is no gear choice more agonizing to backpackers than choosing gloves. Most backpackers end up with many pair, none of which is totally satisfactory to them.  I've recently changed my glove strategy and so far I'm cautiously optimistic.

My previous pair of gloves were glove/mittens that I picked up for cheap somewhere.  Mittens are warmer than gloves but don't allow you to do anything that requires much dexterity.  The idea of this system is that you get the best of both worlds.  You can fold back the part of the mitten that covers your fingers. Velcro on the back of the glove holds this top part in place.  When in glove mode they are fingerless.
My Old Glove/Mittens

This seems like a great idea. The problem here was that the execution wasn't that great. Notice that in either mode your thumb is still encased. It turns out to be surprisingly hard to do things like use a lighter or tie a knot while your thumb is covered.

The other weakness of this is that it isn't waterproof. The material doesn't absorb water but snow or water can easily get under the flap.

SealSkinz Waterproof Gloves

I have a pair waterproof gloves also. They are SealSkinz gloves. These gloves are completely waterproof but the inner membrane is one-way breathable. I think they are probably designed for fisherman or paddlers rather than hikers. However they are nice for spring hikes when there might be cold rain or you might have to mop the frost off your tarp in the morning. They are windproof as well of course so they keep the chill off a bit. But there is no insulating layer so if it gets down near freezing your hands will be cold.

Backpackers tend to prefer a layering system with a waterproof outer mitten and an insulating liner glove inside. If you get too warm you can use either the liner by itself or the mitt by itself. I've looked at many such models and finally found one which I think will do well: Outdoor Research Meteor Mitts. Initially I had trouble finding these because REI's site has these under women's gloves. However if you start searching for Outdoor Research mittens and then select Unisex then you find these.

Meteor Mitt liners
What's cool about these is that the liner is a glove/mitten, like my old ones.  In fact these are much better because the thumb can be uncovered also.  The fingers are not separated underneath like my old gloves but that was kind of a useless feature.  This provides so much dexterity that I really can tie knots without getting down to bare hands.
Liners with digits exposed

The covers for fingers and thumb have little magnets in them that stick to tiny magnets on the back of the gloves to keep them out of the way.  Nice touch I think.  Since the liner is fleece velcro would be a pain.

The outer mitts are well designed also.  The gauntlets come up quite far on your arm and can be cinched down to keep out snow.  I've held them under running water and they seem to be highly water-resistant.

Meteor Mitt Shells

At the bottom of the picture the the left you can see part of a long loop of cord with a simple cord-lock.  This puzzled me at first and then I realized that if I put this around my wrist I could take the mitt off and let it dangle without worrying about losing it.  This means you can take off the outer layer without stopping to undo your pack.  Very nice.
My one gripe -- velcro which makes the shell difficult to remove

After using these gloves on two outings this winter I have concluded there is one minor design error.  The mitt and the liner stay attached to eachother due to matching strips of velcro.  This makes is surprisingly hard to get the mitt off.  I found myself just removing the whole thing when I needed to use my fingers.  I think I'll remove this velcro.  I imagine the idea was to keep you from losing the liner.  But the difficulty it imposes partly negates the advantage of having a liner which allows for finger dexterity.  This is an easy modification so I don't mind having to do it.

I've used these gloves in very cold temps and I would say these gloves are good down to 10 F (-12 Celcius).  Below this temperature I found my fingers getting cold if I were standing still.  While walking I could keep my fingers warm down to somewhere around 0 F.  If you are going to spend significant time below 10 F then I would recommend something like the Black Diamond Mercury Mitten. I considered these initially but decided they were overkill for my purposes and would provide only minor dexterity.


Anonymous said...

Those OR mittens look great, I've had my eyes open for some mittens with foldback fingers and foldback thumb, which turns out to be rare as hell. Currently I'm using fingerless, thumbless gloves with some heavy wool Swedish army mittens, but the mittens feel like they're a kilo each, lots of leather and canvas. I don't think the Swedish army were into ultralight at all.

Heber said...

Yes it is surprisingly hard to find fingerless, thumbless gloves. Haven't see the Swedish army mittens. But my experience with army clothing is that it is effective and durable -- but not lightweight.

Philip Werner said...

I have given up trying to optimize the number of gloves and mittens I bring on winter hikes. I now bring 4-5 pairs, some with removable liners. I know that's absurd, but I sweat them out fairly quickly. I guess it's time to try rubbing antiperspirant into my hands.