MITTENS AND GLOVES, I — General Requirements for Warm Hands

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At the Wheel of Arctic Tern in a Cold Rain

Joining Les and Ali on Arctic Tern for the this year’s Northwest Passage ticked several Figure 8 boxes, one being the testing of high latitude gear for my own solo attempt. In the next several articles I’ll review the gear I carried, what worked and didn’t work, and what I learned, starting with mittens and gloves…

Keeping hands warm and functional in high latitudes is a challenge; hands do too many things and the weather varies too much for there to be a one-size-fits-all solution. At best one gets a compromise, some middle point between comfort and usefulness, and even that requires experimentation.

First, to set the stage:

This Year’s Conditions

Average temperatures during the two months of the passage above the Arctic Circle were 3 – 6 degrees Celsius (37 – 42 degrees Fahrenheit) with many days at zero degrees and below. The lowest temperature measured was -8C (17F). It rained frequently and snowed or hailed on several occasions, usually when winds were strongest. Winds averaged 10 to 25 knots on deck with many days of calms and several of 35 knots plus. See this article for more on general conditions. Given what I’ve read and heard from others, I’d rate the summer weather we experienced as fairly mild.

The crew of Arctic Tern stood 3 hour watches. If the weather was particularly rough or particularly cold, the person on deck would be given a short break after an hour or so. Still, it was not unusual to be on deck for the entirety of one’s watch.

Defining Warm

I found that in the colder weather no piece of kit, be it hat, boot, or glove, would keep me warm indefinitely, and under most circumstances, life on deck was within a range most would define as convincingly chilly. Very crudely the perception of being cold in the body’s extremities passed through three stages: 1) simple cold; 2) aching cold; 3) numbing cold. The first was a natural state of working in the Arctic; the second, a frequent result of spending time on deck, but the third was to be avoided at all costs. After some weeks, I began to judge a piece of kit’s ability to keep me warm by how long I could be on deck during a single watch without passing into stage three coldness.

Mittens vs. Gloves

Much of one’s time on deck is inactive, where hands are concerned; for example, holding on while standing watch, gripping the wheel, etc., requires too little energy to pump much warm blood to the extremities. Under such circumstances gloves can be cold comfort as, in my experience, separating digits into their own compartments makes them incapable of warming themselves. For such times nothing beats a pair of loose fitting mittens. Conversely, I found active hands can be kept warm in gloves even in very cold situations, like working with freezing anchor chain or reefing an icy sail.

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Hand Coverings for Different Situations

Bare Hands

An acquaintance of mine who has gone twice through the Northwest Passage told me he uses bare hands when working on deck. He is a skilled photographer, among many other things, and gloves make operating small equipment difficult. I worked the foredeck with bare hands in very cold conditions many times, but found that unless my excursions from the cockpit were short, my fingers soon became too cold to be useful. On one occasion I returned to the cockpit after muscling a reef into the main barehanded only to find that my fingers were too “brittle” to undo the clip on my safety harness. I had to be helped out of my own gear! So, unless the situation demanded urgent action, I usually opted for gloves.

Three Requirements

Each piece of kit I took, whether a mitt or a glove, had to be

  1. Waterproof.
  2. Easy to put on/take off.
  3. Easily dried, especially inside.

The first of these is a base-line requirement as wetness, on a high latitude boat, is everywhere. Precipitation, spray, condensation, wet material like lines and sails mean that a porous mitt or glove will lead to wet, and thus cold, hands much sooner than later.  The second is driven by the many requirements of hands. Mittens may be great for steering, but what happens when one jumps forward to make a sail change or below for a cup of coffee? Being able to get into and out of hand coverings without thinking about it is a premium quality. The third requirement is a result of the first two. No matter the care that is taken, the insides will get wet eventually and must be of a material that is easy to disassemble and open to the air. In this way, gloves and mittens whose inner insulation is a separate piece are preferred.

Given those requirements, my assessments of the mitts and gloves I used on this year’s Northwest Passage are in the next few posts…

5 Comments on “MITTENS AND GLOVES, I — General Requirements for Warm Hands

    • Funny. I love this line: “With only one pair of Digitsole all your shoes can now be connected.” I was unaware my shoes had any such desire.

  1. So little time… so much to learn…. lol Its great to be able to learn from the digital world but remember there is a favorite called vaporware which promises without delivering… so I’m sticking with two-pairs of 1/2″ felt insoles – one pair is always out of the boots drying. I can say my feet have never been cold when using thick felt insoles inside Xtratuf boots so I don’t see a need to change now – works for me… for the hands my favorite solution are fleece windproof hunting/angling gloves with easy trigger-index-finger and thumb pull-outs when I need dexterity then on really cold days I tuck the fleece gloves inside a waterproof Arctic extreme mitten with long storm cuffs/draw-cords. I’ve tried mittens with pockets for heat packs – over heats then seems to collect moisture which turns cold quick. Don’t forget a mitten with a soft chamois nose wipe on the thumb… wait until you have a leaky facet – its real handy…. lol Ski gloves? Most are not waterproof and soon become cold. Make sure you can remove the inside liner or turn inside-out for drying… poly fleece is always going to be my choice over down or spun nylon which crushes. Try before you leave home. I recommend going snow shoeing and overnight in a snow cave in the winter. You are betting your life on how good your kit is going to protect! Practice does make it better! And I bet you will have a fun time testing it all out…

    • Yes, hard to imagine high-tech electronics IN A BOOT is going to be successful for long. Also a fan of Xtratuffs and use the same soles you do, though feet still got cold. More on that in next review. Don’t know hunting/angling gloves: will explore. My few experiences of heat packs also sub optimal–too hot for a time and then, as you say, cold. And having one go cold on you at 3 in the morning on the Washington coast is nothing so miserable. Nose wipe! Genius! Should be standard equipment. Except for the Outdoor Research mittens, I’ve avoided ski and sailing specific gear. Usually seems too delicate for hard, continuous use or shockingly expensive. I tend to favor the commercial fishermen’s gear, which is at least unquestionably waterproof. It also lacks breath-ability, but I find this of questionable value in lots of gear on a sailboat.

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