Warm Hands in the Deep Cold

Frozen fingers are a common complaint in the northwoods, and with Winter continuing to hang on this year, a reader recently asked us about the best way to keep hands warm in frigid temperatures.

When I was younger, I suffered from cold hands all the time. Now, it's rarely an issue. Well, rarely an issue for more than a moment or two. The reason? I've learned the basics of dressing and staying warm in Winter, and I know what works for my body and activities.

 

How do You Keep Your Hands Warm in Winter?

First, keep your body warm!

1.  Insulate Your Core.

Take a hard look at your core Winter wearas in, what's covering your core. If your innards aren't warm, your hands don't stand a chance. Your brain works to protect vital organs and will divert warming blood flow to your core when your vitals are feeling chilled. This "core-shell" shunting process takes blood away from your legs, feet, arms, and handsmaking those extremities feel even colder. Make sure your clothing isn't too restrictive, too. You want loose layers to allow for good blood flow and to trap heat. So, before you go shopping for new hand gear, first evaluate your overall Winter dress.

2.  Fuel Your Internal Fire.

Cold days out on the Winter trail are not the time to be cutting calories. Proper fuel and hydration are extremely important for maintaining warmth. Fats and simple carbs help your body build an internal fire. So, don't be shy about digging in at meal time (or snack time) and stoke that internal furnace with a double helping of bacon and bannock! It's a good idea to keep extra snacks in your pockets, in case of emergency hunger. 

Dehydration can be a bigger problem in the Winter than in the Summer, and being low on fluids can lead to heat loss. Many Winter travelers keep a water bottle in a pouch around their neck and close to their body so they can keep it from freezing and have it ready to drink whenever they need it. Packing a full Thermos is also a great idea.  

3.  Get Active!

Ok, your core is insulated, you've gorged on some amazing bacon-covered pork dipped in dark chocolate, and your hands are still cold. Now what? Start moving. Good blood flow will really help warm up your hands, and the activity can get your metabolism up. There is a tendency for those who are cold to get quiet and shrivel up into a miserable ball, hunched over, chin buried in their jacket, hands stuffed in their pockets. Time for action! In camp, grab a shovel or saw and get to work. Dig out the fire pit, build a snow kitchen, or pile up snow for a quinzee or snow wall. Stock up on firewood with the saw (I don't advise chopping or splitting with an axe when you are really chilled because you need full concentration, motor skills, and technique to safely work with an axe). If camp is completely set up, go for walk or hike and take in the incredible outdoor world around you. This isn't a neighborhood stroll either—you need to get moving. Not so much that you sweat, but enough to warm up. You can also vigorously swing your arms in circles to drive blood into your hands and fingers. If you're in an area where you can safely do it, a night hike before bed is a great idea. This is a regular activity when we're Winter camping in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Shuffling through the deep snow on top of several feet of lake ice offers a brilliant night sky and a warm trip into bed. Walking around in the dark on a mountain side or in the deep woods probably isn't a good idea though.  


Now, the Matter at Hand

Okay, you've covered the basics of warmth, but what should you put on your hands?  

  • Layers

In general, I find that the same layering principle you use for the main part of your body also works very well on your hands. The basic layering system: A wicking liner layer, warmth layer(s), and a wind layer. 

Moisture management is one of the keys to living comfortably for extended periods in the cold. Your clothing system should be able to deal with sweat from the inside, as well as wetness from the outside environment. Regarding their hands, this seems to a foreign concept to many people. They just want to know, "What gloves will keep my hands warm?" Most people don't think they should actually be wearing two or three layers in the cold! The multi-layer system works not only because it breaks the external wind, traps pockets of warm air, and allows you to easily adjust the level of insulation needed on your hands, but also because it allows you to more easily dry or swap out your insulating hand layers. Walk into most outdoor shops today, and you'll see racks of modern, nylon, one-piece insulated gloves and mittens. These types of gloves and mittens are typically quite difficult to dry in the field, limiting their usefulness to one day, or less. With multiple layers, adjust the amount of your insulation to control sweat, and you can rotate out your damp pieces and dry them against your body, in the sun, or near a heat source for multiple days of warmth and comfort.

People also underestimate how much thickness is needed to provide adequate insulation while out for extended periods of time in cold temperatures. They want slim-cut, form-fitting mittens or gloves. Forget it! If you need more proof, just take a look at what mushers, northern trappers, and people standing on top of mountains in Winter conditions wear: thick, heat-trapping clothing of all kinds, including hand gear. For extreme cold, you need some big mitts, there's just no warm way around it. 

  • Active or sitting around?
Towing my toboggan in Maine. I was so warm, I didn't need mittens.

Towing my toboggan in Maine. I was so warm, I didn't need mittens.

Your choice of hand gear also depends, in part, on your outdoor activities.

If you're cross country skiing or towing a toboggan, you might be able to get away with light gloves or nothing at all.  

For stationary activities, especially if the temperatures are below 10F, I find gloves are inadequate. Mittens are much warmer with your fingers next to each other and able to share heat. So, when the mercury plunges, or if I know I'm going to be standing out at night while winter camping, I rely on thick mittens to keep my hands warm.

NOTE: As a safety procedure, I pack an extra pair of mittens even if I expect to be active, just in case I get stuck somewhere in the woods. 

  • Dexterity needed?

One of the biggest challenges on a Winter outdoor adventure is handling tasks that require fine motor skills in the cold. Tying knots, adjusting bindings, pumping a stove, carving shavings to light a fire, taking a picture, or pulling a trigger are pretty tough to accomplish with thick hand gear. Some people try to get along with insulated gloves, but I've found these types of gloves typically only offer modest warmth and mediocre dexterity. I prefer to wear either thin liner gloves inside my mittens or gloves with the fingertips cut off (sometimes I wear both) inside mittens. That way, when I need to use my hands, they aren't completely exposed and can then go back into warm mittens. There's nothing that says you have to wear the same thing on each hand either. When I'm hunting in the cold, I'll wear a leather mitten with wool liner on my left stabilizing hand, and a thin glove on my right hand, which spends most its time riding in my pants pocket.  

  • Material matters
Gore-Tex mittens with fleece liners.

Gore-Tex mittens with fleece liners.

Ideally, you'll be able to match the materials you choose in your hand wear not only to environmental conditions, but also to the work they'll encounter. For instance, if fire is a big part of your Winter adventure, you'll want to wear wool and leather mittens, so when the sparks fly, your mittens won't melt. I've seen several pairs of expensive nylon ski gloves or snowmobile mittens ruined from a campfire. Leather shells hold up much better against the rough bark you'll be handling if you're going to be feeding the wood stove or fire all night, and leather also gives you a better grip on wood-handled axes, shovels, and ice chisels. Gore-Tex and nylon shells, by comparison, slip and are potentially dangerous on wood handles, plus they wear out quickly with rough and abrasive use. Some of my favorite mitten shells are partially cotton. While you certainly don't want cotton in your inner layers, cotton wind layers will not kill you.  It is excellent in dry-cold conditions, offering great breathability. The wool and leather combo is a favorite of mine and works very well for my typical northwoods, dry cold (temperatures more or less constantly below 15F), Winter action where I know I'll have a fire or wood stove heated tent to dry them out. 

For wet cold conditions (typically 15F or warmer), however—especially if you're digging snow shelters—you'll want a synthetic, water-resistant shell, such as Gore-Tex, to keep your insulating layers dry. When I'm leading Winter camping trips with the Boy Scouts, where snow shelters are emphasized and fire is not, I'll bring at least one pair of synthetic mitts. (NOTE: Gore-Tex struggles to pass water vapor quickly enough in sub-zero conditions, often causing frost build-up inside the shell. So if you want a synthetic shell to use in consistently dry cold conditions, uncoated Cordura, Supplex, or nylon may be a better choice than Gore-Tex.)

Down-filled mittens.

Down-filled mittens.

Mittens with down or other lofted synthetic fills are a common option today as well. They can be warm, and some can be found with removable inserts to aid in drying, but most don't have this feature. If space and weight are a primary concern (and money isn't'!) because you're mountaineering or winter backpacking, these types of mittens can be a light and warm option. There are many warm skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling models that fall into this category, but without the ability to easily field dry them, I skip over them for winter camping.

NOTE: If you're using a liquid gas camp stove, you should consider wearing an insulated rubber glove when refilling your stove. People have suffered horrible contact burns from super-chilled gas (which does not freeze until way, way, below 32F).

 

Here's the low-down on hand gear I've put to the test

For temperatures down to about -10F, the shells I like to wear:

1.  Moose Hide "Choppers." 

The standard northern tradition, I love my choppers! If you don't want to shell out the money for thick moose hide, buckskin is much more common and a cheaper option. With a good liner (seems to me wool is the only way to go with these icons), choppers are warm, durable, somewhat breathable, and keep me warm. 

Choppers, Swedish M90 shells, double-thick wool mitts, and USGI wool liners.

Choppers, Swedish M90 shells, double-thick wool mitts, and USGI wool liners.

2. Military Surplus Store Mittens.

 Not only will these mittens keep you warm in frigid temperatures, but you can usually find them at a great price: 

  • U.S. government issue ("USGI") M65 “Trigger Finger Mitts” or “Lobster Claws” with the standard issue wool insert are good to about 0F. With the way they are cut and the trigger finger, they offer good dexterity and allow you to perform many tasks which other mittens wouldn't. If you buy them at a size slightly larger than you need, you can fit extra USGI wool liner gloves inside for double thickness, which makes them significantly warmer (good to -10F to -15F).

  • Swedish army M90 surplus shells and liners are a fantastic value (I've found them for $5!), and they work very well. With their standard thin wool liners, they provide a bit of warmth; but, they can easily accommodate another liner glove, which makes them very warm.  
Lobster Claws. Live long and prosper.

Lobster Claws. Live long and prosper.

3.  Gore-Tex Shell Mittens 

They're very light, dry easily, and are warm with wool or fleece liners.  

 

Layers For Warmth

The mittens mentioned above are essentially shells that trap air and protect against wind and abrasion. The serious insulation you want in your hand gear comes from the liners worn inside the shells mentioned above. For moderate temperatures I often skip the mico-thin wicking layer, but make sure I have several medium thick warmth layers packed along, such as those listed below, to rotate through.  A thin merino wool, silk, or polypropylene liner helps with moisture transfer, and adds a modicum of warmth.  Here are a few liner options that I know and trust:

  • USGI wool insert liners. These are my "go-to" option. They are cheap, durable, and fairly warm. They typically come in green or black, a range of sizes, and can be found in glove, fingerless glove, mitten, and trigger finger mitten (the standard liner for the M65 Lobster Claws) forms. These liner gloves are all that I typically wear around town all Winter, and I keep extra pairs of them stuffed in all my jacket pockets.
  • Fox River wool gloves and mitts. Reasonably priced with options. There's a "glomitt" configuration, which consists of fingerless gloves with a fold-over mitten top. I like those quite a bit. I also really like their double ragg mitten for cold temperatures (it works very well in the Swedish Army shells mentioned above).
  • Polar Fleece liner mittens. I've used various types and have found them to be warm. They're also a good option if you won't be able to dry your gear with fire or wood stove heat—they can be dried with your body heat, inside your jacket or sleeping bag.

For extreme cold with temperatures below -25F, I break out the big dogs: 

N-4B Bear Paw mittens.

N-4B Bear Paw mittens.

1.  USGI N-4B ("Bear Paw" or “Monkey Feet”) Extreme Cold Arctic Mittens.

These big military surplus mitts are very warm with their wool or synthetic inserts, a fuzzy faux fur backing, high-quality leather palms, high gauntlet tops, wrist adjustments, and rings for attaching a keeper strap. With the leather paw and cotton backing on the rest of the mittens, all the military models mentioned breathe well when worn with wool liners.

With my pair, I have absolutely no dexterity, but again, if you need to keep your hands warm, these are a great "bang for the buck" option (usually around $40). With thin liner gloves and a keeper strap around your neck, you can quickly shuck them off for random tasks, then dive back into them for warmth without losing them along the way if things get hairy. 

The only drawback is that I have large hands and the thumbs on my Bear Paws aren't quite deep enough for me. They feel like they're always on the verge of sliding off. 

2.  Down/Primaloft Two Layer Expedition Mittens.

Eddie Bauer's Down & Primaloft Expedition mittens.

Eddie Bauer's Down & Primaloft Expedition mittens.

I have a pair of Eddie Bauer mountaineering mittens from their First Ascent line. I have a few First Ascent items and it seems that Eddie Bauer is making a serious effort with this gear. Most of it is excellent, and it is offered at a somewhat more palatable price point than other fancy mountain shop brands (some of the First Ascent gear almost reaches bargain prices during the end of season sale in Eddie Bauer's online shop). Although these mittens are a few multiples up on the price tag compared to Bear Paws, they're a fraction of the weight and bulk, offer better dexterity, and roughly similar warmth. I ran into one issue with them on a Boundary Waters trip. They were very warm the first day, but it seemed that with the accumulated moisture from my hands, they weren't nearly as warm the second day.

3. Untested Options.

There are a few other options that I haven't been able to field test, but have heard great things about:

Handmade seal fur mittens from Kuujjuaq Nunavik.  Property of Jeff Butler, Northwoods Survival

Handmade seal fur mittens from Kuujjuaq Nunavik.  Property of Jeff Butler, Northwoods Survival

  • Fur mittens. Kevin Slater, a veteran musher and Master Maine Guide who has a lot of Winter experience in the far north, told me to "watch the Arctic natives, even the ones who've adopted modern dress, will wear fur on their head, hands, and feet when it's really cold." What's really cold? According to Kevin, really cold is anything below -40F. Kevin and his partner, Polly Mahoney, bring along extra beaver fur mittens on their guided dog sled trips. They say they've never had anyone suffer with cold hands after putting them on!
  • Empire Canvas True North and Big Mitts. The Kinneys, based in Minnesota, are well known for their superb wool and canvas gear, and from what I hear, their mittens are no exception. People tell me these mittens are just the thing for a hot tenting trip deep into the northwoods.
  • Canadian Military Surplus. The Canadian Army issue mitts are supposed to be excellent.  I'm not surprised!
  • Northern Outfitters' foam mitt. I'd heard of Northern Outfitters foam Winter gear for quite awhile, but finally got a chance to check out a pair in person when an experienced instructor from the Army Arctic Warfare Center in Alaska had a pair on hand during a recent trip in Ely, MN. They look substantial with their thick Vaetrex foam insulation.
  • Wiggy's Mittens. I have a pair of Wiggy's pack boots and a lightweight over bag. They're both very well made pieces of gear. As far as their mittens are concerned, I haven't used them, and I'm not sure Wiggy's Lamilite insulation is truly as magical as it's touted. If you enjoy internet drama, just Google "Wiggy's" and see what both fans and skeptics have to say.
  • Homemade! If you are crafty, or looking to save a buck, you can always make your own mittens. I camped with a couple of guys this Winter who'd made their own fleece mittens and thought they worked perfectly (check out the photos below). 
  • Dachstein boiled wool mittens. People who've used these thick wool mittens rave about their warmth and how the tightly shrunken weave becomes it's own protective shell.
  • Lovikka mittens. Traditional Scandinavian knitted mittens. Paul Kirtley out of the UK speaks very highly of them.
Mitten patterns for homemade mittens. From Wildwood Wisdom by Ellsworth Jaeger

Mitten patterns for homemade mittens. From Wildwood Wisdom by Ellsworth Jaeger

Homemade polar fleece mittens made from the Jaeger "Labrador" pattern on the left.

Homemade polar fleece mittens made from the Jaeger "Labrador" pattern on the left.


Gloves: Accessory in extreme cold

Hestra Guide Glove | www.BullMoosePatrol.com

Unless I'm working hard, gloves just don't cut it subzero. At least, not for very long. I'll bring leather work gloves for working with tools or fire, but don't rely on them for warmth. Cheap insulated work gloves, such as those from Kinco, can be useful, as well as their high-end counterparts, Hestra Guide Gloves.


Additional Tips from the Trail

Here are a few additional trail tested tips to help you keep your hands warm:

Swany mittens designed to hold hand warmers.

Swany mittens designed to hold hand warmers.

  • Bring your cold hands into your body. Stick them in your arm pits, on your stomach, or even in your groin. Those body parts are reliably warm and can help warm your hands within seconds. If you're getting into trouble with frost nip or frostbite, this is a good immediate action.
  • Use a Snow Seal on the palms of your leather hand gear. This will help protect against water leaking through, but still allow breathability on the back. Oiled leather feels colder, but Snow Seal is a beeswax mixture that doesn't feel cold and protects the leather.
  • Wristlets. These add warmth to both your arms and hands. If you don't want to buy wristlets, cut off the ends of old socks. It's simple, cheap, and can make a difference in extreme cold.
  • Extras! Carry extra liners. I always carry at least one extra complete set of hand wear in really cold temps.
  • Handwarmers. I don't advise relying on them, but chemical hand warmers, or pocket burners, such as the Jon-E-Warmer, can really help if you have chronically cold hands. Linda has Reynaud's disease, and she has a difficult time keeping her hands warm even in the Summer months, so she uses a pair of Swamy mittens with built-in pockets designed specifically to hold chemical hand warmers. She won't leave the house without them on our Winter outdoor trips. 

Never forget: It's easier to stay warm than to get warm! Start out with a strong dress system, so your outdoor adventure isn't cut short due to frozen fingers.

This is what has worked for me winter camping in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine. How about you? Any tips from the far north? Let us know in the comments below or send us an email!