Glove Systems for Alpine Climbing
Gloves, like clothing, should be thought of as a system. Different parts of the system can be worn or not worn depending on the application and the type of weather you are dealing with. Each glove category has specific benefits based on how much dexterity, warmth, and level of waterproofing you need for the type of activity that you are doing.
The Full System
Liner gloves are the base of a glove system. They are generally made from fleece or synthetic fibers and are meant to fit your hand snugly allowing for great dexterity. Liners are available in different thicknesses or weights. Having a thin (base weight) and a mid-weight (100 weight) thickness is generally good for most applications. If you are going to be in colder conditions a thicker 150 weight liner would be appropriate. Finding liner gloves with tacky fingertips and palms will make dealing with carabiners and other tasks that require dexterity a bit easier.
Liners will generally be worn alone when the temperatures are above 25F (-4C), and moisture from rain or snow is not an issue. When temperatures drop, or moisture becomes a concern liners can be used inside other gloves to provide additional insulation. It is typical to carry at least two pairs of liners for multi-day trips. Because they are thin and made from quick drying synthetics, damp liner gloves can be placed in a jacket pocket during the day, or your sleeping bag overnight to be dried out.
- Snug fit, but not too tight
- Fleece or comparable synthetic material
- Two pairs (differing weights) to always have a dry set and versatility with other handwear.
Mid-Weight "Work" Gloves
Work gloves are generally worn alone, and will provide more warmth than a liner glove and are best suited when temperatures are between 15F and 30F (-9C and -1C) and you are actively using your hands. Generally, you will want the fit to be comfortable so that there is not too much space at the tips of the fingers to ensure dexterity and not too tight across the back of the hand and palm. Belaying, rappelling, ice climbing and other grip intensive activities are where work gloves are used.
Softshell materials, fleece, synthetic insulation and leather are typical materials that make up work gloves. The combination of these fabrics provide great breathability, a good level of insulation and are durable. There are some gloves in this category that have a waterproof, or windproof membrane. You may consider a work glove with a membrane for shorter trips when drying them out is not as much of a concern as a membrane does slow the drying process if they do get wet. If you are considering a lightweight pair of work gloves that have only a little insulation, you may want to make sure that you can wear a liner glove comfortably in the event that you need to add more warmth.
- Enough dexterity to do work (Belay, rappel, tie knots, etc.)
- Durable palms. Leather or durable synthetic
- Level of insulation based on activity and temperatures.
Insulated Waterproof "Shell" Gloves
Shell gloves are the waterproof / breathable and warm part of the glove system that is used when conditions are wet, or cold (0F to 30F, -18C to -1C). Shells gloves should be modular, meaning that liner gloves should easily fit inside to provide warmth and help wick moisture away from the hands. Some come with removable liners and some do not. Removable liners are highly preferable as they can be dried out of the glove and swapped with fresh liners if they got damp. You will want to find shell gloves that have some type of waterproof breathable membrane to help prevent moisture from entering the glove. These gloves should have a wrist gauntlet to prevent snow, rain or cold air from entering the glove or jacket sleeves.
Shell gloves are generally built from nylon and have leather or durable rubberized palms. Most have some insulation on the back of the hand to provide some warmth if you decide to use them without a liner glove.
Because shell gloves are thicker and warmer than work gloves, some dexterity will be lost. You will want to find shell gloves that still give you enough dexterity to manipulate carabiners, tie into ropes and belay without too much trouble. The best fit is one where your fingers come close to the end of the glove, but not quite touching the end.
- Needs to be a modular system. Good fit with different fleece / liner gloves.
- Enough dexterity to use carabiners, tie knots, belay / rappel and use and ice axe.
- Needs to be waterproof & breathable
Expedition Weight Gloves
Expedition weight gloves will be the warmest fingered hand-wear. You will want to use an expedition weight glove when temperatures will be near or below 0F (-18C). They will certainly be modular and have insulated removable liners. Generally, the liners in expedition weight gloves will be made of a light nylon filled with a synthetic insulation, or a high-loft pile fleece. The outer shell will also have a good amount of insulation as well. You will find a mix of expedition weight gloves with and without waterproof membranes. If you will be climbing in a cold dry location a waterproof membrane is less important than if you will be in cold and damp conditions. These gloves should have a wrist gauntlet to prevent snow or cold air from entering the glove or jacket sleeves.
Because of the thickness of this type of glove, dexterity is going to be somewhat limited. Typically if you need to perform a task where a higher level of dexterity is needed, you will slide the liner out of the outer shell, perform the task wearing the insulated liner and then place your hand back into the shell once the task is complete. Basic operations such as holding an ice axe, clipping a carabiner, or operating a jumar should still be doable without removing the liner from the outer shell.
To fit expedition weight gloves, you want to make sure that the liner fits so that fingers come close to the end of the liner and that there are not tight or constricting areas that could reduce blood flow. The ability to fit a 100 weight fleece liner glove in the expedition weight glove with its insulated liner will provide more warmth, and allows you to keep your hands protected if you need to remove the outer shell and insulated liner for a short time in cold conditions. If climbing at altitude, hands can swell some, so plan for that if needed. Generally, if you can get a good fit using the liner, the outer shell should fit well too.
- Good fit with and without fleece / liner gloves.
- Enough dexterity to use ice axe, jumar, clip carabiners and belay.
- Must have a removable liner with a high level of insulation.
Expedition weight mittens are the warmest hand-wear available. These will be used when temperatures can be expected to be colder than -15F (-26C). Mittens provide more warmth than gloves because all of your fingers remain grouped together heating one space rather than being isolated from one another.
Mitten liners will be either a nylon liner filled with synthetic insulation or a high-loft pile fleece liner. The liners may be in the form of a fingered glove, mitten, or mitten with a trigger finger. The outer glove will also have synthetic insulation or a high-loft pile. The materials for the outer glove are generally nylon across the back of the hand, and a full leather or rubberized palm to provide grip. These mittens should have a wrist gauntlet to prevent snow or cold air from entering the glove or jacket sleeves.
Generally, only the most basic tasks such as carrying an ice axe or using a jumar can be carried out while wearing the mitten. If there will be a need for dexterity an expedition weight mitten with a fingered liner, or at least a trigger finger is preferred.
Just like the expedition gloves, there are a mix of waterproof and non-waterproof mittens on the market. Non-waterproof mittens are acceptable for cold and dry climates. If you are climbing in a cold damp environment a mitten with a waterproof membrane is recommended.
- Both outer shell and liner glove must provide a substantial level of insulation.
- Mitten liners with fingers are more dexterous but less warm. Trigger finger or full mitten liners are warmest but less dexterous.
- Good fit with and without fleece / liner gloves.
-It may be worth looking into heated gloves, such as those from Outdoor Research found here.