Proper glove choice is critical to comfortably enjoying your time outside in the winter. Frostbite is a drag, as I learned firsthand climbing Denali's Cassin Ridge in a brutal and unexpected eight-day storm. (To see more about that adventure, feel free to check out my trip report on Mojagear.com.) Even if you're not heading out into such extreme conditions with extreme consequences, you don't want your day cut short by frozen hands.
Finding the hand protection that's going to keep your hands happy is not easy; there are a lot of factors to consider, such as temperature (below 0? In the 30s?), your level of output (always moving, or more stop-and-start?), whether there's precipitation involved, and your general tolerance for cold, which seems to differ greatly from one person to another. Below are a few things to consider as you peruse your choices.
Extreme Cold: Skiing, Snowboarding, Ice Climbing, High-Alpine Expeditions
This category covers most of what people usually think of when they think of 'winter gloves.' Conditions below freezing, stop-and-start activities, and exposure to snow. Within this category, you'll need to consider a few things:
Gloves vs. Mittens
Which do you prefer? The superior warmth of a mitten, or the versatility and dexterity of a glove? Mittens often enable more consistent warmth, since they allow fingers to feed off of each others' warmth. But gloves allow for more dexterity, which can translate to less on and off and less time wasted fumbling with zippers, lip balm, phone, bindings and buckles, etc. For skiing and snowboarding, it may be that there is no single answer. Some people prefer gloves no matter what, while many will keep mittens in reserve for the coldest days on the slopes.
Technical climbing such as mixed rock and ice climbing requires a solid grip around a technical tool, necessitating gloves in order to feel and function securely. Belay mittens are a popular supplement to technical winter climbing, however, in order to let soaked gloves dry and mitigate the screaming barfies. I generally bring two pairs of waterproof gloves in case one gets soaked and frozen.
You can also opt for what many feel is the best of both worlds: the 3-finger 'lobster claw' design that lets most of your hand enjoy the warmth of a mitten design, but frees up your index finger for essential dexterity.
Gauntlet vs Undercuff
This is a choice that will usually come up around choosing ski or snowboard gloves. Picking a cuff style is may seem like a small feature in the grand scheme of things, but don't overlook it. Keeping snow out of your jacket, and therefore off of your hands, is key to staying warm.
A gauntlet cuff is longer and extends past your sleeve's cuff and usually cinches at the top to seal out snow. Before you decide on this type of cuff, be sure to check the adjustability of your jacket's sleeves. If the sleeves are wide or the jacket cuffs are bulky, it might be difficult to stuff them underneath the gauntlet cuff.
Gloves with an undercuff style, which is arguably more popular fashion-wise at the moment, are shorter in length and will usually end at the base of the wrist. This leaves a good bit more mobility than an over-the-cuff option, but might let in snow if the jacket closure is not reliable. If you're looking at an under-the-cuff option, be sure your jacket's sleeves can open up wide enough to accommodate the glove, and are equipped with adjustable tabs so you can cinch the jacket's sleeve cuff over the glove.
Materials and Waterproofing
If you're on the hill during the spring, a waterproof option with less insulation is your best bet. But in the dead of winter, you'll need warmer gloves or mittens. Shell material, waterproofing, breathability, and lining are just a few things to consider when choosing the most suitable option. Standard shell materials include leather or synthetic fabrics, each of which offers their own benefits and potential drawbacks.
In most (not all) cases, leather is more durable but less dexterous. Naturally water-resistant, it's the classic go-to for gloves and mittens, and will often last for many years if treated well. Leather gloves can be windproof, waterproof, and therefore quite warm. They'll stretch to fit like a, well, glove, but can start out extremely stiff and less functional. You'll get much less movement out of a leather glove at the start, and break-in takes patience, whereas gloves with synthetic fabric shells tend to be more pliable and easier to manipulate from the start. Leather is naturally pretty grippy, but you'll often find rubberized or dotted palm material in technical winter or dry-tooling climbing gloves, as they provide a more secure grip. Added grip can provide key confidence-boosting and functionality to finish a pitch despite being pumped. Also, you want to be sure to treat your leather gloves right from the start with a waterproofing treatment like Nikwax.
Gloves with shells made of synthetic materials, generally nylon or polyester, use waterproof fabric that still allows the hand to breathe. These gloves are a great option for anyone who doesn't want to spend too much on gloves, but still requires great protection and warmth. Most often, fabric gloves will have leather or synthetic leather patches in high-friction areas, like between the thumb and pointer finger, as to ensure long-lasting use.
Waterproof construction in gloves usually consists of an outer shell material that's usually treated with DWR for extra water repellency, a waterproof breathable membrane (Gore-Tex, OutDry, eVent, or another proprietary technology), a layer of synthetic insulation, and then a liner material.
Insulation and Breathability
Microfiber, fleece, and wool linings inside of gloves and mittens allow moisture, i.e. sweat, to wick away, keeping hands dry and warm. Synthetic insulation (like PrimaLoft and Thinsulate) is what you'll usually find in gloves and mittens, as it insulates in both wet and dry conditions. Mittens can usually fit in more insulation than gloves, making them better for extreme conditions. Some gloves (and mittens, too) boost warmth a little by packing more insulation into the back of the glove, with less in the palm where dexterity is needed.
Hand warmer pockets: If your hands are generally very cold, regardless of your product's insulation properties, you might consider a pair of gloves or mittens with pockets for hand warmers. These little pockets can usually be found on the tops of gloves, so that mobility isn't compromised. The pockets can also serve as vents during warmer days.
Removable liners: Great for extra warmth and helping them dry out faster (which helps control stink). Liner gloves may come with gloves/mittens, or can be bought separately. You just want to be careful about adding liners to your ski gloves; you don't want to make it too crowded in there, will cut off circulation if they're too tight. You generally won't have to worry about this with mittens.
Touchscreen compatibility: Usually you'll find this on lighter-weight gloves, but there are a few ski/snowboard gloves out there with this feature. It wouldn't work too well for typing out messages because of the thickness of the glove, but for simple operations, it's nice to not have to take the glove off.
Leashes: If you're often taking your gloves or mittens off while on the lift, or are just on the go in general, get a pair with leashes or wrist cords attached. Not having to worry about dropped gloves is great, give it a try.
Battery-powered heat: For those cold-weather explorers who love to adventure, but whose hands hate the cold, there are also heated gloves and mittens. Yes, heated! Battery-powered mittens and gloves are a great option for those whose fingers just can't keep comfortable in cold weather. While more expensive than their non-heated counterparts, electric mittens can be a great choice.
As mentioned earlier, liners are perfect for an added layer of warmth under ski and snowboard gloves or mittens. These sleek, close-fitting gloves minimize the risk of bare skin being exposed and allow extra versatility: use them alone for warmer temperatures or higher-output scenarios. With backcountry ski touring, for instance, liners may be ideal for skinning up while the waterproof protection and warmth of the shell is necessary to comfortably ski down.
Because they're light by design, liners are also great for running errands during the seasonal change from winter to spring. They manage moisture well, wicking perspiration away if used for moderate activity, while still maintaining a thin, barely-there feel. And today, lots of these gloves are also touch-screen compatible.
Moderate Cold, High-Output Activities: Cross-Country Skiing & Cold-Weather Running
High-output activities like running or cross-country skiing generate large amounts of body heat. Accordingly, gloves for these activities should more breathable, more flexible, and less insulated than a downhill ski or snowboard glove, since you are constantly moving. Just as you should 'dress cold' for these activities, you'll probably want a glove that feels like it's not quite enough when you start out, but ends up being perfect as you begin to warm up.
Preferred materials for this kind of glove (and they'll usually be gloves, not mittens) include WindStopper or a softshell with DWR rather than Gore-Tex. They therefore often do not have the same level of waterproofing as downhill ski gloves, but will be more breathable. That being said, you might consider going with more insulation for slower cross-country touring than for high energy skate skiing. Grip is also important, as having a solid connection to your poles is key.
Everyday Gloves and Mittens
Your choices here really run the gamut, from relatively waterproof insulated models you'd pull on to clear the snow from the driveway or build a snowman with the kids, to lightweight knit or fleece models that aren't at all waterproof but offer light protection against the cold, to elegant deerskin leather drivers that class up any winter ensemble. It really depends on where and when you'll be using them, and how much protection you need. Look for features in lifestyle gloves and mittens like touchscreen-compatible fingertips, fingerless gloves with flip-over mittens, and a huge variety of styles.
Don't forget, you can always contact me or any of Backcountry's Gearheads for assistance with your gloves or mittens selection. Stay warm out there!