Hot Hands: A Layering Approach to Handwear

DSC_0187.jpgThe thing that happens when you can’t find a decent pair of mittens…

You would think that a guy who has worked in the Outdoor Industry for over 25 years could find a decent pair of winter mittens. The last pair I bought worked great. That was back in the early Nineties, but things can’t have changed that much, can they?

Old reliable. These DIY mitts have been my go-to winter mitts for over a decade. Time for an upgrade.

Back in ’93 or ’94 I bought a pair of Patagonia insulated shell mitts with removable pile liners. I still have the liners and they are still going strong. They’re heavy polyester pile on the outside with a wicking polyester Capilene mesh on the inside. Super warm and VERY durable. Unfortunately, somewhere along the road I lost the shells. Not sure when or how. For the past ten years or so I’ve been getting by with some leather chopper mitts that I sewed a DIY cuff onto. These are great, but they’re slow to dry if they get wet, so they aren’t as versatile as a lighter, waterproof mitt might be.


Surplus mitts. Old School. Warm, but slow to dry.

Last winter I took a pair of heavy, insulated Army surplus arctic mitts on my winter snowshoe trip. These mitts are insulated with a removable synthetic polyester fiber fill liner and are roomy enough to layer a couple pair of pile or fleece mittens inside. They’re truly warm mitts when layered up like this, but like the chopper mitts, they aren’t waterproof. A plunge into icy water at the head of Angleworm Lake soaked them pretty thoroughly and I’m glad the temperatures were warm because, even with my woodstove, I wasn’t able to fully dry them for a couple days.

After that trip I decided it was time for some new, high tech winter mitts. I knew exactly what I was looking for. My new mitts must have a waterproof shell, ideally Gore-Tex. A removable liner was also a must. I wanted to be able to swap damp liners for dry ones in the field. The right mitts would have a grippy palm (leather would be nice), and would be roomy enough to layer a second thin mitten or Power Stretch glove inside if the temps really dropped. I was helping out at the local REI for the holiday season and figured I would be able to find some mitts on the shelf that would do the trick. I was wrong.

I found plenty of mittens, but none of them was exactly right. Some were Gore-Tex but didn’t have removable liners. Some had removable liners with a “trigger finger” shape that would preclude layering a second fleece mitt inside. In short order I gave up on what I could find in the store and started looking at manufacturers’ websites in hope of finding what I was looking for.

Shuksan Mitts layered over my Patagonia pile liner mitts.

After a few hours of research, I settled on the Outdoor Research Shuksan Mitts. A couple weeks later I had them in my hand and realized that I had stumbled onto the perfect shell mitt to build into a winter handwear layering system.

The Shuksans are fully waterproof, seam-taped shell mitts with a slightly oversized fit. They are pre-curved and cut on a pattern that minimizes bulk at the inside of the hand when holding ski poles, and have a grippy palm made of a material OR calls AlpenGrip. I was happy to learn that I could easily layer my Patagonia pile mitts inside the Shuksans. What’s more, I had enough room inside the mitts for a second thin fleece mitten or a pair of Power Stretch liner gloves. Perfect.

I’ve had layering systems on the brain for the past 10 months or so, ever since starting my series on a Simple Outdoor Clothing System, so I immediately started thinking about how I might use these mitts to create a system that would keep my hands warm and comfortable in all conditions. To round things out I would need some gloves.

Mountain Hardwear Torsion Gloves and Power Stretch Liner Gloves. Power Stretch Gloves layer inside Torsion Gloves, which fit inside Shuksan Shell Mitts if fully waterproof protection is needed.

Mittens are best if you want warm hands, but there are times when its nice to have a pair of gloves. In warmer winter temps, gloves are comfortable for holding ski poles and are handy for manipulating boot buckles or pack straps. I’ve had a pair of Mountain Hardwear Torsion Gloves for over a decade and they’re the perfect for nordic skiing and general winter use. They’re also tough as nails. The Torsion Glove is a fully breathable soft shell glove with a water resistant leather palm. The leather palm is grippy when swinging an axe and offers some heat resistance when handling hot woodstove parts. Torsion Gloves aren’t particularly warm, so I sized mine up. That way I can layer a thin Power Stretch glove under them if I need a little extra insulation.

I’ve tested the Torsion Glove/Power Stretch combo side-by-side against a pair of lightly insulated Swix Nordic gloves that are my favorite for groomed cross-country skiing. The Torsion Gloves with liners are equally warm and offer better dexterity. I can easily zip zippers and adjust cuffs without removing the Torsions and Power Stretch–something I can’t say for the bulkier Swix gloves. The Torsions are also quicker to dry when you separate them from the Power Stretch liners. This makes them a better choice for backcountry use.

Once I started playing around with my new shell mitts I discovered that the Torsion Glove/Power Stretch combo fits perfectly inside the Shuksans. Which means that, in mild winter weather, I can ski in my gloves and keep the shell mitts handy if I need full waterproof protection, say for digging a snow shelter. The mitts also increase the warmth of the gloves by completely blocking the wind, and the gloves-inside-shell-mitts combo offers more dexterity than mittens liners inside a mitten shell.

Both liner mitts can be layered inside the Shuksan Mitts for extreme cold.

Since my fleece and pile mittens are virtually weightless, there isn’t really a good reason to leave them at home. By taking both pairs of mitten liners I have a spare set should one need to dry. In truly cold weather I can layer both liner mitts inside the shells, or in more moderate cold I can layer the pile mitts and shells over the top of my Power Stretch liners.

In more moderate cold conditions a Power Stretch liner glove can be worn inside the pile mitt.

The whole system is versatile enough to work in a full range of cold conditions. Cold weather isn’t always cold and dry. Sometimes its wet and freezing. I just took my dog around the block in 40 degree rain and wind wearing just Power Stretch liners under the Shuksan mitts. The combination kept my hands warm and dry. Pedro, on the other hand, did not fare as well.

Versatile Handwear Layering System left to right: Powerstretch liner glove, Mountain Hardwear Torsion Glove, Lowe Alpine fleece mitten, Patagonia pile mitten, Outdoor Research Shuksan Mitt. Total weight: 14 oz.

The entire system weighs 14 ounces. This is less than the Army surplus arctic mitts weigh on their own. The Shuksans are 3 ounces lighter than my old choppers, which happens to be where the Torsion Gloves tip the scale. The upshot is that I can throw this entire system into my pack and hit the trail with a rig that is both lighter and more versatile than what I’ve carried in the past.

I’m hoping to get out this winter for some ski tours with my new hot tent rig. Most likely are a few short weekends or overnights in Northern Wisconsin or the UP.  After those trips I’ll update this post with anything I learn by putting the system to the test.

UPDATE January 20, 2019
The past few days here have been fairly cold. On this morning’s dog walk it was -3 Fahrenheit and I wore Power Stretch gloves under pile mittens inside the Shuksans. Toasty hands. I’m very happy with the hand layering system so far.

One thing that I noticed in many of the reviews of the Shuksans is a complaint about the size of the gauntlet cuff. After using the mittens for a few weeks I agree that the cuffs could be slightly bigger. They fit snugly over my forearms when wearing a couple layers of fleece and my soft shell jacket. There’s no room to put your mittened fingers inside the cuff when pulling your second mitten on, so it can be tricky to get everything situated. I think I can solve this issue by sewing a small tab onto the edge of the cuff that I can grab with my mittened hand. That will make it easier to pull the cuffs over the top of my winter layers.

In all I really like the Shuksans and I so think they are the perfect solution for a winter shell mitt. I just wish the gauntlet cuff was a little bigger.

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