In normal situations, cold hands mean it’s time to head in and warm up. But, when creature comfort isn’t available, cold hands can signal the beginning of dire circumstances.
Why do our hands get cold so easily? Like ear tips and feet, there’s much less fatty tissue in hands than the rest of the body. The blood vessels in our hands are also very close to the surface. So, blood circulating through the vessels in the back of the hand conducts heat away from the body instead of warming a layer of insulating, fatty tissue.
Combine easy heat loss with the high density of nerves in our hands, and it becomes clear why cold hands are painful; and painful hands lead to problems.
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Lead guide for EXUM Mountain Guides, Brenton Reagan leads multiday technical winter mountaineering trips in the Teton mountain range. He’s been guiding since 2001 and has seen how a simple thing, such as cold hands, can initiate a series of cascading events that could lead to disaster.
“Cold hands reduce the safety margin in everything we do in the mountains,” he says. “Closing locking carabineers, tying knots, properly securing gear … these are all easy things that become difficult with numb hands.”
Aside from hindering dexterity, Reagan warns cold hands lead to distracted performance, frustration, and, ultimately, they can compromise one’s ability to make smart and safe decisions.
The Best Defense
The best defense against cold hands is handwear that never has to come off, says Reagan. “Every time you have to take a glove off to do something in the snow,” says Reagan, “you’re making it harder to rewarm your hands.”
Finding handwear that can keep your hands warm isn’t so hard. But, finding gloves or mittens that provide just enough warmth while offering the dexterity needed to manipulate the tools or objects you’ll encounter in the cold is the trick. We spoke with Ben Martin, the handwear product developer at Black Diamond Equipment to find out how an expert looks at all the choices and trade-offs when it comes to handwear.
Gloves vs. Mitts
Your first decision is glove or mitten. There’s no controversy when it comes to warmth. Mittens win. Hands down. Martin says combining your fingers into one mass of mutually warming blood vessels instead of separating them in the fingers of a glove is the most efficient way to retain heat.
But, gloves are the only way to go if you’re working with tools. There are a couple of alternatives if you want more warmth, but still need to use your fingers. Glove liners inside a pair of mittens are a viable option if pulling your lightly insulated hands out of mittens for brief periods is practical. Finger mitts are another option. These are mittens with a separate trigger finger allowing you to use the thumb and index finger, but retreat to a balled-up fist when things get tingly.
Some mitts have inner gloves that separate your fingers. This might reduce thermal efficiency a bit, but it adds dexterity. The fingerways help the glove move with your fingers, so when you’re making a fist in one of these mitts the finger end moves more easily; whereas, in a regular mitt, you can ball up your fingers (or give someone the bird) and the shell will remain unmoved.
Whether gloves or mitts, long gauntlet handwear provides more warmth and easier donning on doffing. On the other hand (can you believe we waited this long to use that pun?) big gauntlets takes up more room in a pack, add a little weight and act as water funnels, catching the runoff from your arms during any hands-down activity.
Goldilocks is the rule, here. Too big and you’ve got no dexterity, not to mention your handwear could fall off. Go too tight and you’re restricting your hand’s range of motion while crushing the insulation, which compromises its ability to loft and contain warm air.
Martin says panels sewn to fit the shape of an anticipated posture, also called articulation, contributes to the fit of handwear. “With prebent fingers there’s less material to move when using your hands,” says Martin, “and articulation also helps a glove last longer by taking the stress off of areas that are naturally, and constantly, articulated during normal wear and use.” Gloves with straight fingers will always have material bunched up under the front side of the knuckle and palm. That material creases and wears while getting in the way of efficient movement.
Martin says to check out the seams in the fingertips of gloves. The way they’re sewn plays a role in the comfort and dexterity a glove affords. Big seams that extend all the way to the fingertip leave a bunch of material clogging up the tip of the finger, inhibiting touch and compressing insulation. It’s similar to a big, nasty, annoying seam at the end of a sock, except instead of one, you’ve got five in a glove, one in a mitten and two in a finger mitt.
Dry hands are warm hands. And, sweat counts as much as snow and rain in this consideration. Martin reminds us that handwear that’s too warm for a given environment will eventually wet out from sweat and cause cold hands. The same goes for handwear that doesn’t breathe. Trash bags on your hands might keep them dry from rain, but they’ll be soaked on the inside from sweat and freezing in no time.
Technical fabrics, such as Gore-Tex, OutDry, and eVent are effective for moving humid air and sweat away from the body where they will chill you, but these branded fabrics add to the price of handwear. Other ways to keep your hands dry include silicone impregnation and waxed finishes on leather and natural fabrics.
The outer or shell of a glove has to be durable, pliable, and provide a good gripping surface. Nothing will feel better than a broken-in leather glove or mitt. Leather is also more durable than nearly any fabric because it’s not made of yarns that can pull or break. It also kicks ass when it comes to gripping things. It falls down when it comes to water resistance, though. Waterlogged leather is about as bad as it gets. Leather can be treated for waterproofness, though. The downside is that nearly all leather treatments have to be reapplied.
Martin explains that all leather is not equal. He says cowhide is the least supple of leathers. It also gets crunchy and shrinks when it dries after it’s wetted out. Goat leather has naturally occurring lanolin, making it more supple, stronger, and better at dealing with moisture than cow leather. It’s also thinner. Kangaroo hide is very thin and very strong, but it’s very expensive and usually only used in gloves where feel is paramount, say in a purpose-built driving, golfing, or shooting glove.
Nylon shells are lighter than leather, take up less room in a pack, and don’t absorb nearly as much water. But without the addition of grippy material on the palm and finger pads, you’re never going to hold anything securely.
We can divide insulations into high-loft and low-loft varieties. Down and Primaloft, respectively, are examples of natural and synthetic high-loft insulations. Wool and Polartec fleece are examples of low-loft natural and synthetic insulations.
High-loft insulation is great on the back of the hand, but it doesn’t work in the palm. It doesn’t insulate when it’s compressed, and it adds bulk between your hand and whatever you’re gripping. Low-loft insulation in the palm and fingers retains less warmth, but has less of an effect on dexterity. Look for handwear with insulation in places that make sense for your use.
Natural down is the gold standard when it comes to high-loft insulation. Nothing is warmer for its weight, but it’s expensive, ineffective when wet, and its slippery and superfine nature make it difficult to retain in fabric shells. Down treated with silicone and other modifiers help it maintain its loft when wet, but the coatings reduce down’s thermal effectiveness, and they wear off over time.
High-loft synthetics create air spaces that trap air using a wild matrix of polyester fibers to create a lofty structure. They insulate nearly as well as down, cost less, and aren’t compromised by moisture.
Low-loft insulations use finer fibers to create tighter air-trapping structures than high-lofting materials. Low loft doesn’t provide as much warmth as high loft, but its density offers warmth with less bulk.
None of the materials on their own are a silver bullet solution for keeping your hands warm and dry. Good handwear combines materials to provide the best compromise between protection and dexterity for the area of the hand it’s on. Things to look for: Leather palms or textured panels for good grip; reinforcement panels in high wear areas; high-loft insulation on the back of the hand; thin, non-shearing insulation in the palm; gauntlets that seal the handwear effectively, retain heat, and repel water without getting in the way.
We did some informal heat retention testing of all the handwear in this guide to get a baseline for comparison. We put a solid hunk of oven-hardened, room-temperature clay, roughly the size of a baby’s fist in each piece of handwear and put them all in a 0 degree F freezer, taking temperature readings at 20 and 60 minutes. This gave us an idea how much heat each piece gave up and how quickly. Keep in mind this is only one highly artificial metric, and it doesn’t reflect the handwear’s ability to handle snow, rain, or wind. But it does help us sort the gloves in terms of pure insulating value.
We did find something interesting in the freezer test. When evaluating the insulating abilities of the Mammut Cover Mitten, an uninsulated fabric cover meant to bless any handwear with wind and water-resistant properties, we were surprised to find it added 30 degrees of warmth on its own. This tells us that wrapping your hands in dead leaves or sandwich bags may help stave off frostbite in a dire situation.
All of the considerations mentioned above affect the cost of a glove, and glove prices are all over the place. Time spent cutting, sewing, and sealing seams is a primary driver in the cost of a glove. Highly articulated forms mean more fabric panels, and more panels mean more seams to stitch and seal. Also, consider insulating ability as the primary, but not the only factor that determines how well a given set of handwear will work for you.
Whether an emergency forces you into a great white expanse, you’re working or playing out in the cold, or you’re just looking for something to keep your hands warm while scraping the ice off your windshield, there are a ton of great options. We’ve gathered an array of gloves and mittens that we’d consider getting a hold of.
A Guide To Keeping Cold at Arm’s Length