Gloves & Mittens 101

Last November, I got a message asking me to talk about gloves and mittens, help break down the components, and make her feel more confident making purchases. Do I remember who asked? No. Can I find the message? Also no. But I know it’s been on my to do list for months, and I really hope someone hasn’t been suffering all season with cold, soggy gloves waiting for an answer. Let’s dive right in so you’re not waiting any longer.

So first, the age-old question: Do women really need women’s gloves? Yes and no. They exist for a reason. Women’s hands are lower volume (like they’re thinner from the palm to the back of your hand). If you’re working with ropes, pro, or ice tools, a well-fitting glove helps a ton with dexterity, and you may find an improvement with a women’s glove. If you’re just holding ski poles or keeping your hands warm on a hike, you may be more willing to use a men’s or unisex glove. But the brands that make women’s-specific mitts aren’t trying to force us into girly colors or pink tax us – it’s a specialized product that might benefit women customers that not every brand invests in.

From there, how do the line plans work? Gloves and mitts vary with the following features:

  • Amount and type of insulation
  • Type of weather membrane
  • Type of face fabric
  • Number of seams
  • Type of liner fabric
  • Bonus features

Brands mix and match the options in each category and build out all their mitt options (up to 72 in some brands) to cater to different uses and environments.

Insulation

Insulation ranges from around 100g of polyfill per square meter (gsm) to 540gsm. Insulation isn’t the only factor that dictates warmth, but it’s the biggest factor. The 100-200gsm range works well for most ski days above 15-20 Fahrenheit. The ~300gsm ballpark works for single digit days, and the 500gsm range is geared towards 8000m peaks and negative temps.

Not all synthetic insulation is made equally. Branded insulation like Primaloft Gold or Thinsulate are highly engineered synthetics with better warmth-for-weight performance and more durable synthetic fill. Lower tier insulation will have brand-specific branding.

Weather Membranes

As to be expected, gloves that are windproof or waterproof are more expensive that gloves that are not. But not every membrane performs the same, nor do they all cost the same. Proprietary membranes (i.e. branded weatherproofing like Black Diamond B.Dry or Outdoor Research Ventia) tend to be made of polyurethane. PU can either be thick and highly waterproof, but not breathable, or vice versa. But Gore-Tex uses a mix of PU and a thinner material called ePTFE where there’s not quite the same trade-off. Gore-Tex carries a hefty licensing fee and additional requirements that brands need to meet, so you’ll pay an upcharge for those.

Face Fabric

The 3 main fabric options for gloves are polyester, nylon, bonded leather, and leather. Polyester’s the cheapest fabric of the three. It’s affordable, but it’s not as strong as nylon when it comes to tearing and abrasion. Nylon improves durability but maintains the thinness and dexterity of a synthetic face fabric.

Leather is my personal preference when it comes to glove materials. Think about the differences between leather and canvas shoes: better water resistance, better durability, traps more heat – all those hold true for leather mittens as well. But it’s hard to get the same level of dexterity with leather, and it isn’t as light and packable. So that’s why Black Diamond makes 2 gloves with similar amounts of insulation. The mountaineering-oriented Glissade only has leather on the palms, while the ski-oriented Spark is almost completely leather except for the gauntlets.

If you mostly ski tour, a lighter, thinner woven face fabric will pack down easier and still provide the same amount of warmth when it’s time to put on your “downhill gloves.” And if you’re an inbound skier, you’re wearing your downhill gloves all day, where the leather will hold up better against general wear and tear or getting shredded by your resort’s rope tow. And if you work at the resort, you’ve probably been wearing leather Kinco work gloves since before it was cool.

But then there’s bonded leather and polyurethane leather. Bonded leather is the chicken nugget of the leather world. When leather gets cut for other garments, the waste product is sold off, chopped up, mixed with adhesives, and made into fabric. Polyurethane leather is just fake, synthetic leather. Both of these options are more affordable than normal leather, but they don’t provide “rope tow” levels of durability.

Seam Work

So if leather is durable and weather resistant, and wovens are durable, how do we get the best of both worlds? Intricate seam work.

Below are the 2 gloves I picked out for my partner’s mitt quiver this season. The left is a 170gsm Black Diamond Guide Glove and the right is a 300gsm Mercury Mitt. Both are a mix of leather and nylon and use Primaloft Gold insulation.

Seems contradictory, but the warmer mittens were actually cheaper – by a whole $60. Part of that is due to a membrane upgrade, but part of it is the amount of cutting and sewing involved in each option. The Mercury Mitts are a basic “all mountain” mitten with a few seams for dexterity on the palms and fabric on the back of the hand, which offers a good compromise between packability, durability, and dexterity. On the other hand, the seam work on the Guide Gloves is much more intricate. On each finger, they put leather on the MCP knuckles and fingertips (high wear areas), but they put fabric over the mid-finger PIP knuckles for more dexterity. Likewise, the palms are reinforced with a second layer of leather, but there’s a little triangle cutout to let you grip more easily. All these intricate pieces have to be cut and sewn in production, so there’s more labor involved in the Guide Gloves.

Liner Fabric

Our hands are kinda sweaty spots on the body, and moisture management has a huge impact on our warmth in cold temperatures. Good liner fabrics wick away moisture when we get nervous, sweaty palms and dry quickly once we take them off.

Brands rarely tell us much about liner fabrics, and it’s rare to see them invest in licensed, highly engineered fabric for the lining. But within my own trial and error, I’ve found that you generally get what you pay for; nicer gloves tend to have a liner that’s more effective at wicking. A few premium gloves use wool linings. Wool still insulates fairly well when wet, so it’s a nice lining for activities with big temperature swings.

Bonus Features

Every extra feature adds cost: gauntlets (especially long ones), leashes, nose wiper patches, and modular layers (like an outer shell and inner insulation mitt).

Are heated gloves a good idea?

Heated gloves are a game changer for many people get outside, especially those that have medical conditions that make them run cold. But I’d try to find a conventional mitten that works for you first. If you’re out longer than expected or run into an emergency situation, you might run into issues with your battery life. Insulation doesn’t run out of power.

If you do decide to add a heated glove, I strongly recommend the ones from Outdoor Research due to their lifetime guarantee. Heated clothing is relatively new, and the wiring is far from perfect. When you move your hands, the wires bend back and forth and can break off and stop working. Some competitors may cost less, but some warranty periods only last for 30 days from purchase.  

What’s in my mitten quiver?

  • Heavyweight mittens: Outdoor Research Alti Mitts. I bought these intending to wear them on Rainier, but I ended up with unseasonably warm weather. They still come in handy for days in the single digits.
  • Medium weight “downhill” gloves: Black Diamond Spark Gloves. I can’t hype this line enough. I went through 1 pair of gloves a year when I was going for $60-70 mittens from Dakine and Burton before I stole a pair of Spark Mitts from my boyfriend. For an extra ~$20, Black Diamond made a glove that lasted through 3 seasons of heavy use, and even then, only the insulation started to pack out. (I’ve repurposed them as an “uphill weight” mitten). They wick well, the B.Dry membrane and leather combo hasn’t ever wet out on me (even with a few nights of rain skiing), and they invest the cost completely into fabrics, not a bunch of extra clips, pockets, or features.
  • Mediumlight “uphill” insulated glove: That old pair of packed out Spark mittens. Repurposing gear costs free.99. But I’ve also used a pair of Kinco 1927KWs (under $25) and a pair of Gordini Swagger softshell gloves.
  • Lightest weight “liner” with no weather protection: Burton Touch N Go Liner.
  • Down “emergency” mitten: Outdoor Research Transcendent Down Mittens. These mitts aren’t high performance; they’re not durable and there’s no weatherproofing, and down doesn’t do jack when it’s wet. But these do pack down considerably and weigh almost nothing. I am pretty useless when my Reynaud’s is in full swing, so stashing these in my pack ensures I’ve got extra arsenal to keep my hands warm and dry.

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