How to keep your hands warm

It’s a truism that there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. We stock clothing that supports riding in town every day year round. Including gloves: a few kinds, none of them sporty. But if you ask me which is best, I’ll give you my opinion. Go ahead. OK, here’s the deal: there is no one best glove for cold weather riding here in rainy Portland. But there is a best system, same as for any other part of your body: layers.


80% of the time, all you need from November to April are mid-weight wool gloves. Not too hot, but insulating even when a bit wet. You can even wring them out if soaked to restore some warmth. They will usually dry overnight if left in a warm spot, say over a stove or heating register. Currently we stock Ibex brand lambswool-nylon ones in black and “hand signal” red, with rubberized dots on the fingers and palms. These are much softer and lighter, and dry faster, than common rag wool types, yet seem to wear just as well.

For the other 20% of the time, whether it’s bitter cold or pouring, you need windproof, water-resistant shells over the wool. Not insulated! Just shells. What’s wrong with insulated gloves? Apart from the fact that they will be too warm 80% of the time, on a bike in the rain, the insulation will get wet sooner or later, whether from the rain directly working its way in, or if truly waterproof, then from your own perspiration. (It happens even if you’re not “sweating.”) The latter is worse from an odor/gross-out factor POV. Either way, it takes much longer for any all-in-one super warm glove to dry than a separate shell/liner system. Swampy or gym-sock odors will take hold. Unless you want to run a dryer every night, you’ll need several pair of insulated gloves to match the convenience and comfort of a single quick-drying, two-part system.

What kind of shells? For years I used light, simple synthetic waterproof shells. Then one day I nicked one on a knuckle, and it seemed like all the water gravitated toward the hole, soaking the wool quickly. I tried to order replacements, using my privileged insider status as a poor bike shop owner to get some at wholesale, but you know what? I couldn’t find a source of said simple shells that had less than several-thousand-dollar seasonal minimum order. I guess if you’re REI…

In my search for a replacement, I considered the nick that doomed the thin shell, as well as my preferences for natural materials and local manufacture. I bought unlined deerskin motorcycle gloves. That was two years ago, and there’s no looking back. Let’s face it: there’s a whole lot more investment at a societal level behind the idea of motorcycles as practical transportation than bicycles, and some of the functional requirements cold-weather clothing-wise are similar. The gear is evolved. Among motorcyclists, deerskin is considered the best glove material, as it remains buttery supple after repeated wettings, is slightly elastic to avoid binding, totally windproof, strong and exceptionally abrasion-resistant, and comes from a natural resource in superabundance since we drove wolves nearly to extinction in this country.

IMG_0542Deerskin also will protect the skin of your hands better than a thin shell when your number comes up to suffer a “traumatic event” on your bike, say going down on wet leaves or steel street elements.

We now stock Churchill unlined whitetail deerskin “biker” gloves, sewn in Centralia, Washington. They look and feel great! They’re water-resistant as is, but slather in Obenauf’s leather preservative to proof them, along with your Brooks and your boots, and you’re ready for anything. Get them “too big” to accommodate a wool liner, or regular size to use plain on warmer days.

I did disclaim that this was my opinion? Other opinions here are that all-in-one gloves are fine because it’s easier to keep track of two gloves than four. Touché! But I counter that four are better than two because you can afford to lose 2 before you have none at all... Anyway we have all kinds of gloves.

6 thoughts on “How to keep your hands warm”

  • Esther

    I agree 100%, though I haven't tried the deerskin yet (still on the 'shell' glove phase). I stumbled upon it becuase my fingers were too cold in shell gloves so I started wearing the cheapie nylon liner gloves from Andy and Bax...then my sweetie gave me Smartwool glove liners and I never looked back. I will add though, that during our usual December dry-cold snap, I do wear insulated skiing type gloves to keep my hands warm, since then I don't have to worry about wet, and I seem to have poor circulation in my hands (and toes).

  • David Backeberg

    I second everything said about the benefits of a wool inner, and leather outer shell as superior to a one-piece glove. One more great perk is you can buy multiple pairs of the wool liners, and if you're spending a long time outside you could switch to the dry pair half-way through your ride, or for the ride home if you're a commuter.

    One thing I didn't see addressed is considering mittens versus gloves.

    I tried a wool / leather mitten combination, and discovered that I don't miss the dexterity of having my individual fingers available. I also think it's slightly warmer than a glove because my fingers get to be together to warm each other. I usually ride a grip-shift commuter bike in winter months, so I'm just shifting with the grip of my thumb and index finger.

  • Todd (admin)

    Agreed that mittens are warmest of all. In Portland, it's that cold (<20F) so infrequently that it's not always clearly the best choice. Got a source for uninsulated shells?

  • David Backeberg

    I agree that most days the leather shell is overkill. On all but the coldest days I just use the liners without the shell. I can't remember my source on the shell for certain, but they were made in Vermont. I bought them in Vermont when I was there for a trip.

    The manufacturers were from either Vermont or New Hampshire, but I can't find the website and don't remember the brand. I remember that it was a simple black and white label with a small-business appearance.

    The actual retailer was Farmway in Bradford, VT.
    They have much much more in the store than what they put on the website.

    If you have a WA source of deerskin leather gloves, they could probably also make a mitten. Less stitching and a simpler template to cut.

  • AllanF

    +1 on the deerskin mittens, if you could get them for say $30. Though, for some reason it's hard to look like a serious adult wearing mittens. If they could address that, I'd even go as high as $40.

  • Logan

    Great post! Terrific information here. I think the key phrase for searching out a source for unlined deerskin mittens is "chopper mitt" as in wood chopper. I remember seeing a few examples of the mittens being described above on JRC glove and LL Bean, however I think your price is right on for a quality product like the one you are selling. :)


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