Getting a Grip on Gloves and Mittens
By Tamia Nelson
April 19, 2005
Winter's loosing its hold on canoe country at
last. The rivers are flexing their muscles. Even in the shadowy creases
between the mountains, lakes and ponds are responding to the call of the
returning sun. Ice-bound paddlers can now do more than just daydream about
canoeing or kayaking. The open water is singing. But there's always a
"but," isn't there? while the air may be warm, the chilly touch of
winter can still be felt in the snowmelt-swollen rivers. Piece of cake, right?
You just have to dress for the
water temperature. Maybe so. For some lucky folks, at any rate. But the
rest of us have a problem that won't go away: our hands.
Not that our hands are a problem in themselves. In fact, hands are mighty
handy. Cold hands, though, are something else: painful, clumsy, and
uncooperative. Very unhandy, in short. Unfortunately, I've always found it
difficult to keep my fingers from freezing during the shoulder seasons. This
dates back to my antediluvian period, when the construction of snowmen and
snow forts filled winter days after school. I can still remember the numbing
cold that turned my hands into claws, even as balls of frost accumulated on my
wet woolen mittens.
Ah, yes. Wool. The original miracle fiber. I like the feel and smell of it,
and it figures prominently in my backcountry wardrobe to this day. But wool
leaves my hands cold. Of course, there wasn't much choice back when I
abandoned snowmen for skis, snowshoes,
and crampons. The Fleece Age was in its infancy. Synthetics were costly,
scratchy, and short-lived. So I continued to clothe my hands in wool. After
all, my Grandad always wore wool mittens when he strapped on his babiche
bearpaws to take "sports"
into the Adirondacks on late-season hunting trips. If wool was good enough
for him, I figured it ought to be good enough for me.
Except that it wasn't. All the books reassured me that wet wool kept you
warm, but my fingers weren't convinced. Trunk, torso, and legs? Yes. Even my
feet seldom complained, no matter how long they stood around in sweat-soaked
wool socks. But my fingers stiffened and went numb in the wet and cold. I
gritted my teeth and endured. That, the books also assured me, was the
climbers' way, and I carried the habit over into paddling. When the rivers
ran cold, I sheathed my hands in wool and prepared to endure. Then new
problems appeared. The heavy boiled-wool Dachstein mitts that I'd used for
winter climbing proved unequal to the challenge of
whitewater. For one thing, hanging on to slippery paddle shafts with
mittened hands was almost impossible. I tightened my grip in response,
squeezing all the blood out of my fingers in the process. My cold hands got
colder still. Then my forearms went into spasm. This did nothing to improve my
technique, and after I lost my grip (and my paddle) in the floodwater-swollen
Schoharie that was the first time I'd seen cars hanging from trees
I knew I needed something better.
I rang all the combinations, looking for harmony. No joy. Leather shells
worn over Dachstein mitts? Impossibly bulky. Coated nylon shells? Slicker than
snot. Wool gloves, with and without shells? From bad to worse. Then
inspiration struck. Why not use fingerless cycling gloves over wool liners?
That worked better: the leather palms of the cycling gloves were sticky enough
to grip the paddle shaft while leaving my wool-sheathed fingers free. But it
was still no go. The foam padding in the gloves' palms was too bulky, and the
wool liners simply weren't warm enough. I kept trying. Neoprene diver's
gloves? Too thick, too clumsy, and (this was before they were available in
smaller sizes) too big. Rubber gauntlet mitts with flocked linings? I found
some on sale in a local hardware store, and I thought I'd give them a try. It
was a near miss. They fit snugly over the sleeves of my paddling jacket, but
they were stiff, better suited to hauling traps than handling a paddle. Worse
yet I was getting used to this by now the single
one-size-fits-all size didn't fit me. In the end, I made do with unlined
leather driving gloves. They were cold, but they retained just enough of my
body heat to keep my fingers semi-flexible under most conditions. Or maybe I
just got tougher. At least they clung to the paddle shaft.
Then a kayaker showed up with a pair of pogies at one of the gang's weekend
river trips. It was a Eureka! moment. I stared shamelessly at these
novel appendages. Pogies were paddling mitts in the truest sense. The paddler
didn't wear them. His paddle did, instead. He just stuck his hands into the
cosy berths when he was ready to go, gripping the shaft with his bare palms.
Admittedly, it took him a little wriggling to get the second cuff up over his
wrist, but that was what front teeth were for, wasn't it? There were a few
other problems, however. I was a canoeist, not a kayaker. (Kayaks came
later in my life.) While pogies were sold for canoe paddles, too, they
made the already fussy job of switching sides between drops fussier still. And
how could I move my hand up or down the paddle shaft? I decided pogies weren't
So I stuck with what I had. For more than two decades, leather driving
gloves were my staple paddling handwear, though in truly arctic conditions I
resorted to rubber gauntlet gloves once I found a size that fitted me
worn over wool liners.
That was then. This is now. And now is as good a time as any for me to
rethink my decision, particularly as twenty-five years of cold water immersion
are starting to take their toll, and engineered
fabrics have broadened the range of choices. Maybe it's time for me to
retire my driving gloves and move on. Let's examine the options together.
First things first, though. When your fate hangs by your paddle, there's
nothing more important than
Getting a Grip
But you don't want it to be a death grip. As I learned when I struggled to
hang on to slippery paddle shafts with equally slippery Dachstein mitts, you
can't afford to white-knuckle it. That only makes for cold, numb hands. It can
even do permanent damage. What's needed is a firm, relaxed grip, one that
allows blood to circulate freely right to your fingertips, at the same time
that the paddle is held snugly enough for complete control.
Unhappily for cold-season boaters, nothing beats bare skin on the paddle
shaft. That brings us back to pogies. They protect your hands while permitting
you to press the flesh in all the right places. But pogies ain't perfect.
Canoeists may find them a pain, as will any boaters with aluminum-shafted
paddles. (Cold aluminum defines COLD!) And what happens when it's
"when," not "if" you go for an unplanned
swim? At least one hand will have to tough it out in the cold with no
protection. Wearing a light pair of gloves under your pogies would help, of
course, but that defeats the pogie principle.
The upshot? If I'm serious about getting a grip, and if I'm not ready to
bare it all, I can't afford to lose sight of
Wool is warm but slippery. Cotton is "sticky" when wet, and so is leather,
but wet cotton isn't worth diddly as an insulator. Leather has a slight edge
here, and I've used it for years, mostly by itself, but I've got to admit that
it still leaves me cold. Synthetic fleece is wonderfully lightweight and it
keeps some of its warmth in the wet, but most synthetics slide helplessly on a
paddle shaft, and unless they incorporate some sort of membrane barrier
the wind whistles right through them. Shells beat
the wind but add bulk and fussiness, and nylon shells are as slick as ice.
What about rubber gloves? Well, they sure 'nuff hold tight, and I've worn them
on many a cold river, with or without wool liners. And the price can't be
beat. You can find suitable candidates in any hardware store or HyperMart.
Like the idea, but want something with a little more flash? Check the
outfitters' catalogs. I've seen some latex gauntlet gloves made specially for
paddlers that look pretty good. They're not exactly cheap, though. Anything
else? Yes. Neoprene. The stuff that wetsuits are made of. It's grabby and
warm, and there's been an explosion of specialty offerings in the years since
I first struggled to flex my fingers in oversize diver's gloves.
That brings up another point. You gotta have a good grip, and material
certainly matters, but perhaps the most important question of all is
Does the Glove Fit?
If it doesn't, you're in trouble. Too big and you won't hang on to your
paddle for long. Too small and you'll end up with blocks of ice at the end of
your arms. The solution? You need something that fits like
fits like a glove. A second skin, in other words. And the only way to know for
certain that a glove or mitten fits is to try it on and go through the
motions, preferably with paddle in hand. It's a lot like trying on a new pair
of boots. If the fit is right, you'll know it. If it's not, you'll know that,
too. Either way, don't waste time arguing with yourself.
A hint: Even properly fitted mittens are clumsy, and they often interfere
with your moves. But if there's ice
floating in the water you boat on, there's nothing warmer or more
welcoming, particularly if your hands have been badly frostbitten in the past.
The choice is yours. Farwell wears mittens from early fall to late spring. I
almost always wear gloves, even on sub-zero snowshoeing treks. We're both
OK. That's a brief overview of the field. With my driving gloves headed for
a well-earned retirement, I'm leaning toward neoprene, maybe with some kind of
clingy stuff on the palm for a fail-safe grip. How thick? That's a tricky one.
Neoprene gloves can be had as thin as 0.5 mm and as thick as 3 mm.
The thicker, the warmer, but thickness means bulk and bulky gloves can
restrict circulation. It doesn't do any good to add insulation to a house
without a furnace, after all. So I'll start thin and work up.
It's not an easy call. Warmth without bulk. A fit that's snug without
binding. A grip that won't let go till I want it to and then lets go
instantly. It's enough to make me throw up my hands in despair. Maybe I ought
to toss my paddle in the trash and concentrate on growing
No, I'm not serious, but I have met a boater who decided to leave
his paddle at home and headed downriver with nothing more than webbed gloves.
That's almost as good as webbed feet. I met him on the lip of a Class IV-V
falls last summer. He eddied out
right next to the granite boulder where I'd perched to study the drop.
Something about him didn't seem right. No paddle! And then I saw the webbed
hands. Shouting to make myself heard over the roar of falling water, I asked
him the obvious question. Turns out he'd broken his thumb at the beginning of
the paddling season and wasn't inclined to sit it out in a La-Z-Boy®. So
he bought a pair of webbed gloves. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't
seen it. He had no trouble keeping his hands warm in the chilly water, either.
It's an attractive idea, but I think I'll stick to my paddle. Often I want
to go somewhere the current doesn't, and webbed gloves don't do much in that
line. I can't say I haven't had second thoughts from time to time, though.
No single type of glove or mitten will suit everyone, of course, but
nowadays paddlers don't have to suffer frozen fingers in silence when the
water runs cold. There are a lot more choices than when I started out. A
little hands-on experience will show you which one is right for you.
Copyright © 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights