This is the first time Backpacking Light has tackled the subject of handwear in any depth - for good reason. The volume and diversity of handwear on the market is mind-boggling! We decided to tackle the handwear category at Outdoor Retailer Winter 2008 to try to make some sense of it and to highlight newer products that should be of interest to our readers. Please keep in mind that this is an Outdoor Retailer Show dispatch, and not a comprehensive article.
The best way to describe the handwear category is: you name it, it’s out there! Handwear exists in a myriad of styles, fabrics, insulations, weights, and intended uses - by a multitude of manufacturers. This category almost defies taxonomy, but our objective in this article is not to organize it. Rather, we simply want to identify the types of handwear that we believe will be of interest for lightweight outdoor pursuits, and highlight some products and technologies that we believe our readers will be interested in. This short article is not intended to be comprehensive; it’s just a primer to delve into the topic, and hopefully generate some contributions from readers in the attached forum.
Conventional gloves and mitts are an integration of fabrics and technologies. By “integrated” I mean the layers are inseparable - you buy and use the package. When you walk into an outdoor store, you see racks of them - thick and thin, waterproof or not, windproof or not, insulated or not, long gauntlet or elastic wrist closure, leather or gripper palms, etc. Many are intended for snow sports or climbing, so they are overkill for simple backpacking. The lighter ones are usually made of Powerstretch fleece or softshell fabrics with a fleece lining. A pigskin leather palm or silicon gripper palm is a good feature if you use trekking poles a lot.
Most conventional handwear does in fact follow the layering system, which consists of a baselayer, insulation layer, and outside shell layer. They consist of two or more layers of materials selected to provide combinations of warmth, waterproofness, wind resistance, breathability, durability, and dexterity. Most handwear manufacturers have a wide array of products - so many that it often becomes difficult to make a selection. If the layers are what you want, the weight is reasonable, and they are targeted to your intended activity, this is a good way to go. We will cover some of these products.
The downside of integrated handwear is you wear them as they are - they’re a unit, you can’t separate the layers - so they’re less versatile. Many “waterproof/breathable” gloves and mitts trap moisture from perspiration inside, and are slow to dry out, so when they get damp (and cold) you have to take them off, put them in your pack, and put something else on.
We personally like to select and wear the individual layers we want (usually a liner and a shell) so we can match the type and thickness of layers to the conditions. To us, donning separate layers is a more versatile approach because it gives numerous combinations we can use.
The separate layer approach allows you to use the layers individually or combine them (e.g., a Gore-Tex or eVENT shell with a liner glove). This creates lots of options. You can choose an appropriate liner for the conditions and wear it alone. Without a WP/B membrane, it readily transports moisture away from your hands and expels it, and dries out faster if it gets damp. When you need more warmth, you can switch to a thicker liner; when you need a waterproof layer, you can add a shell; if a liner gets damp from sweat, you can exchange it for a dry one. We will cover some of the more interesting new products to illustrate this approach.
We personally prefer a mitt shell because it’s warmer and roomier, but there are also several glove shells on the market. When buying a shell, it’s important to size up to allow plenty of room to wear thicker liners inside. Although it wasn’t at the OR Show, the lightest shell we know of is the Mountain Laurel Designs eVENT Rain Mitt at 0.90 ounce/pair. Interestingly, only the top of the mitts are made of 2-layer eVENT, the palm side is made of more durable 3-layer Gore-Tex XCR, giving them the distinction as the only product we know of that combines these two rival technologies. Because of their thin materials, these mitts have limited durability and longevity. With reasonable care they could last several years.
The Mountain Laurel Designs eVENT Rain Mitt ($45) comes in medium and large sizes and weighs just 0.90 ounce per pair. They have a long gauntlet with an anchored drawcord. The mitts are sized to fit over thin and medium weight liners. Available now.
At the summer 2007 OR Show we found the Etowah Outfitters Frogtog Over Mittens, made of the same fabric used in FroggToggs rainwear, which is a membrane sandwiched between layers of spun polypropylene. These mitts have an elastic wrist band and minimal gauntlet. Based on our previous experience with FroggToggs, the fabric tends to fray with use, absorbs water in the face fabric, and the membrane eventually splits. If these mitts are reserved to be worn only while hiking in the rain, they will last awhile. Otherwise, especially when hiking with trekking poles, we would not expect them to last long.
The Etowah Outfitters Frogtog Over Mittens (1.3 oz/pair, $18) are made of the same “fabric” as FroggTogg rainwear. They’re waterproof but not very durable. They are also available from Ultralight Adventure Equipment (ULA), and are available now from both companies.
For a more durable shell mitt, the Outdoor Research Endeavor Mitt is constructed of 70 denier Gore-Tex PacLite fabric. These mitts feature a gripper palm and long gauntlet with drawcord. This is our favorite shell for snow sports and other situations where there is more contact with snow (like snow cave and igloo building) and where more durability is required. A variety of other shells with removable liners is also available. Although the manufacturer intends these shells for use in wet, moderate weather, they can be matched with a wide range of liners to achieve comfort in cold wet conditions.
The Outdoor Research Endeavor Mitt (3.9 oz/pr, $69) is constructed of 70 denier Gore-Tex PacLite with taped seams. Available now.
Shell gloves are less common because the numerous seams in a glove make it is more challenging to make them waterproof. A standout is the Mountain Hardwear Lightspeed Glove (7 ounces/pair with a 200 weight fleece liner, $135). Available now.
The lightest hand wind shell to be found anywhere is the C.A.M.P. Windmt’n at 0.5 ounce/pair, $25. These featherlight windmitts are made of plain nylon with no DWR treatment. Available fall 2008.
There are zillions of liner gloves and mitts available. Most handwear manufacturers have an assortment of liner gloves, made of a wide array of fabrics and different thicknesses. You can find liners made of simple polyester fleece, wool, or silk, as well as more high tech fabrics like WindPro, Outlast, PowerDry, Coolmax, and WindStopper (to name a few). These high tech gloves or liners are targeted to higher aerobic activities where wind resistance, moisture transport, and high breathability are desired. If you look around, you can also find liners insulated with Primaloft, Thinsulate, and down (although down is usually found only in expedition grade handwear).
Liner mitts and gloves abound; every handwear manufacturer has them in a variety of fabrics and weights.
Plain polyester fleece liners give the most warmth for the weight. They generally come in 100, 200, and 300 weights. Liner mitts with finger slots inside and a flip-open feature to expose the fingers are really handy to provide both warmth and dexterity. Some liners have a silicon-coated palm for more durability and grip, which is handy for use with trekking poles.
Plain fleece liners, such as the Manzella Tahoe Glove (4 ounces/pair, $15), give the most warmth for the weight. Fleece gloves generally come in 100, 200, and 300 weights.
Ibex presently has a very nice 150 gram wool liner glove (1.4 ounces/pair, $25), and will introduce a heavier 230 gram wool liner in fall 2008. They also have another model with silicon palms for better durability and grip.
Pure silk liners are the lightest to be found, like these from Terramar (0.6 ounces/pair, $12). Available now.
A final general comment on liners: remember that the more water resistant or waterproof a glove is, the less breathable it will be. Our preference is to avoid waterproof gloves or liners for aerobic activities; plain liners breathe much better and we can don a waterproof shell over them when it’s actually needed.
Fold back mittens like the Heat Factory Pop Top (4.6 ounces/pair, $20) provide warmth and finger dexterity, and work well as a liner inside a shell. This one is Thinsulate insulated and has a built-in pocket to insert a chemical hand warmer packet (0.8 ounce/glove). Available now.
Integrated Gloves and Mitts
When choosing from the vast array of conventional handwear products, we go for mitts instead of gloves. Mitts are warmer than gloves because they have room inside to rub your fingers together to keep them warm, and its easier to wear a liner inside. Our preference is a simple lined mitt with a removable fleece liner. However, it’s hard to find a conventional winter glove or mitt that does not have a WP/B liner. A simple trick we use with conventional gloves and mitts is to create a vapor barrier by wearing a liner glove plus a disposable plastic glove inside the mitt (this works best with a mitt). This system retains moisture from sweat in the liner, preventing it from going into the mitt. When the liners get damp and chilly, simply exchange them for a dry pair.
The Kombi Insulator Mitt (8.8 ounces/pair, $45) has some built-in insulation, a WP/B membrane, a fleece lining, and a fleece liner glove. The backside has a zippered pocket for a chemical hand warmer packet.
An interesting new glove technology is the Komperdell “seamless bonding,” which is a welding technique where the fabric pieces are butted together and heat + pressure bonded with a narrow tape and adhesive. Their proprietary fabric used in a range of gloves is a four-layer softshell consisting of a nylon face, waterproof/breathable membrane, an insulating layer, and a merino wool mix inner surface. The fabric has four-way stretch and most models have a gripper palm.
Various models of the Komperdell range of seamless gloves (about 4 ounces/pair, $80) using “seamless bonding,” in which the seams are secured with tape and adhesive, not sewn. The four-layer fabric provides all functions (four-way stretch, waterproof, breathable, comfort next to skin, outside durability) in one unit. Available now.
In waterproof/breathable handwear, Gore-Tex and proprietary polyurethane laminates dominate the market. One important thing to remember about “waterproof/breathable” is they keep the water out, but they also keep the water in - their Water Vapor Transmission Rate (WVTM) is not enough to keep up with the perspiration produced by steady hiking. The result is trapped sweat inside, which makes them feel damp and cold after a couple hours (or less) of hiking. In our opinion, it’s better to wear a lightweight liner-type glove, and add a waterproof/breathable shell when actually needed for rain or snow protection.
For some reason, eVENT lined gloves are rare. The only ones we could find are the Rab Latok and Ice Gauntlet gloves. The Latok Glove has a softshell back for breathability and a silicon coated palm for grip.
The Rab Latok Glove (5.5 ounces/pair, $50) is one of the few gloves available with a waterproof/breathable eVENT lining. The palm side has a silicon coating for durability and gripability. Available now.
Manzella has a solution to the trapped moisture issue when using insulated gloves for aerobic activities - they put core vents in them. The Neo Ventilation Glove (7 ounces/pair, $40), to be introduced in fall 2008, has zippers on the side and wrist to expose a mesh lining and (hopefully) exhaust excess moisture. Note that they can also vent around the wrist. The pockets can also be used for chemical hand warmers. Available fall 2008.
Finally, we asked ultra thru-hiker Andrew Skurka what he uses for cold weather handwear, and his answer was “vapor barriers for everything.” Though they were not exhibited at the show, his favorites are vapor barrier mitts from RBH Designs, such as the Vapor Mitt (9 ounces/pair, $145) and the Hybrid VaprThrm Mitt Liner (5 ounces/pair, $60). RBH Designs previously offered a vapor barrier glove, but they are no longer available.
RBH Designs Vapor Mitt (9 ounces/pair, $145) and Hybrid VaprThrm Mitt Liner (5 ounces/pair, $60) have a built-in vapor barrier.
This is only a short foray into the subject of lightweight handwear. Overall, this category is daunting when you consider the vast array of conventional gloves on the market. While these products are well designed and constructed, our opinion is they perform best for less aerobic activities in cold weather (like downhill skiing and snowboarding). For backpacking and other higher aerobic activities, we recommend a more simplistic approach to handwear - lightweight handwear systems consisting of a liner and a waterproof/breathable shell. This approach is much more versatile because you can match the type and warmth of a liner to your intended activity and conditions, and you can don a waterproof shell over them when it’s actually needed. Liners are light weight, and you can take several liners along so you can exchange them when they get damp or conditions change. You can also experiment with vapor barriers by wearing a liner and disposable plastic glove inside a WP/B shell.