Gloves or Mitts – or Nothing at All?

Best for Dexterity – Bare Hands

Here are a couple of tricks to keep your hands toasty warm without using gloves at all:

Just Rubbing

Let your hands get very cold, then rub them vigorously until they warm up. They will soon get cold again, so rub them again. You may need to repeat this a third time but then something wonderful happens and your hands will start to heat up into little furnaces – well mine do. I use this technique for the winter in England, it probably wouldn’t work in Polar regions!

Ski Poling

You don’t need ski’s to do this. I was told about this method by a military fitness instructor, and it seems to work well although it has the potential to make you look like a bit of a weirdo. Stand with bent knees as if you are skiing and vigorously swing your arms as if you are using ski poles to push yourself along. Repeat rapidly about 40 times and your hands should get toasty warm. Make sure you have plenty of space or you will probably whack something, or someone, which will simply alter your main concern from cold hands to bleeding ones.

Blow into them

Cup your hands and blow hot air into them. They will soon warm up.

Stick them under your armpits

Your armpits are generally warm so this is a good place to warm up your hands. Not so good when you are helming though, although the tiller stuck between the legs works for me.

Eat Ginger

Or better still, drink it. Ginger naturally heats up your body but even if that doesn’t work, the hot cup in your hands should do the trick. Stops sea sickness too!

OK now I give up! If you are still suffering from cold hands and these tricks don’t work for you, then you will need to wear something, but what?

Best for Sheer Warmth

Firstly we must decide whether it is to be Gloves or Mitts?

I reckon mitts win hands down in the warmth stakes, but of course there are a limited number of tasks you can perform whilst wearing mittens. However, I still prefer to wear mittens and just tear them off when I need some dexterity. They are generally easy to don and remove, unlike fiddly gloves. I also find that I can’t do much with gloves on in any case, so I may as well wear mittens. It seems that each finger helps out it’s buddy, they all work together as a team to keep warm.

The bees-knees in sheer warmth

Although these leather mittens are probably not the perfect sailing mittens, these are definitely the bees-knees for keeping your hands toasty warmth. I would be very confident that these would keep my hands warm at minus 30C partly because I have tested them in Arctic Sweden at those temperatures. They were given to me by my good friends Charlotte and Svarte, and they are one of my prized possessions, if only it ever got cold enough to wear them!

My hands are sweating just thinking about them.

Best for Helming – or just sitting in the cockpit watching the waves

If your hand is just lying on the tiller or on a wheel – if you are unfortunate enough not have a tiller, then it is definitely mitts for me. The same goes for just sitting in the cockpit gazing at the world going by.

My thick felted Devold Wool Mittens with a whipping twine darn!

For environmental reasons I now try to avoid buying products made with polyester fleece and stick to good old wool.

These felted wool mitts from Devold are great. Even when they get wet, they will still keep your hands really warm. They are quick to whip off if you need to actually do something which is rare on the Good Ship Sumara. If you are lucky enough to be on a boat with a stove which is kept alight at sea then you should be able to dry them between watches, otherwise just get two pairs!

These lovely wool mitts made by Jannicke will be going to Greenland with me this year. Note the extra long sleeves to keep your wrists warm too. I can feel a puppet show coming on!

If you heed advice from the locals, then here is a tip from the Greenlanders – four thumbs are better than two! Just tuck in the thumb that you are not using, and it acts as a bit of extra padding for when you are rowing ashore (well I still row ashore!). Because they are twin thumbed, and therefore double sided, you can turn them over if the top side gets wet and of course they will last twice as long! They are not easy to find so you are probably best to knit them yourself if you have the skills, or in my case get them knitted for you. Thanks Jannicke!

These old double thumbed mitts were knitted by an Icelander. Sadly the moths have had a go at them.
I’ll need to get darning but they will be handy spares.
Here is a pair of felted double thumbed mitts from the Husavik Museum. They could do with a bit of padding but you get the idea!
I think these are at the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge

Mitts are a bit like socks, it’s always good to have another dry and clean pair. That pleasure of finding a new pair of woolly socks in the bottom of your kit bag is hard to beat on a cold tough voyage. So don’t leave your old mitts in the cupboard but squash them into a small pouch and take them along.

Talking about spares, gloves and mitts can easily blow away so if you are halfway up a mountain and your mitt rolls down a crevasse, you, or your partner, could be put in real danger. A spare pair in your rucksack could save a life or at least a few fingers. It is a good idea to work out a lanyard system too, if you are climbing in remote areas.

Gortex over mitts by Musto. Note the drawstring in an attempt to stop water pouring in the top
The Gortex over-mitts above came with these polyester fleece liners.
I prefer to use one of my pure wool mitts.

If it is wet and windy you may want to consider a pair of pull-over mittens. These ones are in Gortex by Musto and can be used combined with the Devold woollen mittens. As usual with good kit, they don’t seem to make them anymore, but Hestra do them in Nylon which would be fine, who cares about a bit of sweat when it’s blowing a gale. The Hestra over-mitts cost about £50.00.

A much cheaper alternative to all the mitts shown are the rather wonderful Guy Cotten BN30 Gloves shown further down this post.

Best for Climbing and Ski Touring (nothing too extreme here!)

These Sealskin gloves seem to have decayed thumbs. Not sure why?
These Gortex mitts seem to have worn better. I can’t work out who made them but you get the idea

If you are climbing with poles or axes, you will probably require mitts that are both waterproof and insulated. Choose them to suit the type of temperature you that are liable to encounter on your trip. If you can afford it, buy a spare pair for your rucksack in case one gets blown away. If you are also going to use them onboard it is probably best to avoid anything with natural down as it doesn’t like getting wet. Try to choose a pair with Primaloft Gold insulation if you can find them.

Best for Rigging

The Gill gloves on the left are wearing out more quickly than the Harken ones
The Harken gloves are older but in better condition

I never wear “Sailing Gloves” on my boat because I simply don’t need to pull that hard on the lines, but I do need to wear them when I am splicing braided ropes. The trick with sailing gloves is to go for maximum “grippyness”. The more grippy they are, the less effort you need to exert. They also need to fit well and be comfortable. This is a rare case when a tight fit is good. If you need gloves to keep you warm, loose is good. For these reasons I wouldn’t recommend buying sailing gloves online. You need to visit a boat show or a decent sized chandler and try them on for a good fit and then wander over to the rope rack and give them a go on some rope similar to the types the you use on your boat. When I was selling gloves in a shop, it was surprising how often someone looking like they had plenty of spare cash would buy a cheaper pair simply because they felt the most comfortable. I am only familiar with Harken and Gill sailing gloves and because my pairs are really old I can’t judge the difference in “grippyness” any more. The Harken ones seem to last longer. So make the effort, visit a real shop and try them on. My preference is for short fingers.

Best for Hauling up the Anchor

Guy Cotten BN30 Gloves

These fisherpersons thermal gloves are designed for handling fish and nets in the North Sea. They have a decent grip, are super tough and are thermally lined with knitted wool/acrylic. They are perfect for hauling galvanized and cold chain but they are also very suitable for helming in driving rain. I would imagine the brilliant Highland Industrial Stores in Inverness probably have a whole aisle of similar gloves. Otherwise, Guy Cotten sell them for about £10.00 a pair.

Best for Sanding

I think these are Puggy gloves. In any case, they look the same!

For years I would sand my boat with ungloved hands but one year, after a long session with wet-and-dry paper, I saw that my fingers had started to bleed. Henry, working on a nearby boat, kindly gave me a pair of Puggy Gloves and I have never looked back since. They are so comfortable that you forget that you are wearing them. The extra grip makes sanding easier too. Cheap to buy, comfy, grippy and long lasting. Highly recommended. Of course if your boat is made of osmosis then you may not understand the concept of “sanding” which is one of the great pleasures reserved for those owning a boat made from trees.

Best for Outdoor Exercise (just)

These Sealskinz gloves are next to useless, although placed over a bottle of beer I reckon it would be chilled in a jiffy. Tilman, get out of the way!

To be honest I find these Sealskinz gloves actually make my hands colder! However, I very occasionally wear them when there is very thick frost or snow on the ground and I am attending one of the excellent Military Outdoor Fitness training sessions. When doing press ups in the snow these gloves do make a very minor improvement on being ungloved. Otherwise my hands get warmer as soon as I take them off. They are theoretically waterproof, but my hands are waterproof too, so I’m not sure how that helps. Other than for press ups in the frost, I find them totally useless.

I think the problem with my Sealskinz gloves is that even the big sizes are tight on my hands and I think the trick with keeping warm is to keep everything loose. Other people rave about them so maybe its just me.

Best for Antifouling

Marigold Type gloves – useless unless worn!

The trick with antifouling gloves is to put them on before you get your hands covered in paint. That means before you even open the can. Any old Marigolds seem to do the trick.

Best for not giving up

These cheapo gloves just go on and on!

I called in to Brighton Marina one autumn about twenty years ago. It turned suddenly very cold and I hadn’t got any gloves on board so I bought these polyester fleece gloves from Asda for a fiver. It was in the days before I was aware of the damage micro-fibres cause to the environment. The damn things just won’t wear out so they certainly win the “Cheap as Chips” award, and sadly they work rather well.

To summarize

  • Firstly try no gloves at all – you might be surprised!
  • Mitts are warmer than gloves
  • Loose is better than tight (except with riggers gloves)
  • Go for Primaloft Gold insulation rather than down if you are sailing
  • Look at industrial workwear to save money
  • Wool is warm even when it is wet
  • If you are climbing, secure your mitts with a lanyard and take a spare pair in case someone needs them
  • Four thumbs beat two thumbs
  • Go for long sleeves on your gloves or mitts if you can

Arctic Test 2023

I have just completed a couple of months sailing the North West Passage. The temperatures excluding wind chill were between freezing and 8 degrees C. I wore the Devold heavy wool mittens for the majority of the time. I put on the Musto Over-Mitts once but I am not sure they helped. When the temperature rose to 4 degrees C gloves were not really needed. The blue thermo gloves were used for wet work in the dinghy or as work gloves for cleaning. I saved my twin thumbed gloves for trips ashore – but there weren’t many of those!

4 responses to “Gloves or Mitts – or Nothing at All?”

  1. Definitely mittens every time. I’ve knitted a Merino pair which seem to be doing a good job.

    1. Yes, wool mittens are my favourites. Wish I could knit them!

  2. […] Ray, who is sailing with me to Greenland, has gone to the extreme length of giving up alcohol – one step too far for me! He is also weight training, which will be handy for hauling up that 15 kg anchor as there is no windlass on Sumara – just a pair of grippy Guy Cotten gloves […]

  3. […] We exchange sketches of boat parts, freshly baked brioche and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk for the gloves and wave goodbye. The gloves, like mine, were double thumbed mittens knitted for him, so they were precious possessions. (Link to my thoughts on gloves) […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.