The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Warm Hands, Please

A while ago I wrote about how we keep our feet warm when sailing in colder climes. In this post I will address the issue of keeping our hands warm, which aren’t, unfortunately, as easy to please.

I guess it makes sense that keeping hands warm is a more difficult task than keeping feet warm, since we also expect so much more from them than from feet—everything from gross motor actions like grasping a wheel to fine motor actions like manipulating the small buttons on electronic equipment.

After many years of experimenting, we have come up with a system that uses five different types of gloves/mittens, that we take on and off depending on the task:

  • Thin ski gloves for dry, relatively warm conditions. These allow manipulation of most things except for the tiniest buttons.
  • Gill Helmsman gloves for relatively dry, somewhat colder conditions. Good for handling the helm and sheets but not much else.
  • Full-on outdoor mittens with removable liners for really cold weather. Only good for sitting there, hoping that you don’t have to move a muscle.
  • Neoprene diving gloves for cold, wet, dirty work. Used for any task requiring medium level dexterity (e.g. bringing up the anchor, reefing, etc.).
  • Fishermen’s insulated gloves (known as sewer gloves on MC because of how they smell when wet) for very wet work in cold conditions. Not good for anything finer than very gross motor tasks (e.g. dealing with the dinghy or shorefasts).

Our routine is to interchange the heavier gloves/mittens for the neoprenes when faced with a medium dexterity task. For fine work, e.g. manipulating the buttons on the electronics, we have to quickly take off the heavy glove/mitt in question, do the job, and then get that mitt/glove back on as quickly as possible!

Does anyone out there have a better solution? If so, we’re all ears (which are easy to keep warm: wind resistant fleece watchcap)! Please leave a comment.

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Jeffrey Siegel

What about gloves when using your iPhone:

It’s actually a serious consideration. Manual dexterity is a consideration – freehands, especially, has some interesting solutions that have a place in a boat.

John Harries

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for the links, all look useful, although for us iPhone use is not really an issue since non-waterproof electronics like smart phones would not last long in our open cockpit offshore.


Sewer Gloves — It’s not just a smell.
While some of that aroma comes from the materials, a significant part comes from micro-fauna that take up residence in the glove lining material. Some of those critters are as unfriendly to skin (and intestines) as the tropical kind in and around coral.

After a friend lost digits to a glove-based infection, we discussed this with a sailing medico. She recommended double gloving and force drying. There are two approaches to double gloving. Put light/medium weight very large (available through commercial fishing supply) rubber gloves on over your nominally “dry” gloves and put hospital style disposables on under your nominally wet gloves.

With dry gloves this is a problem if they are designed to transpire moisture, so we opted for motor-cyclists rain covers over the dry gloves. (When I was doing things Antarctic back in 1984 our group did essentially the same thing with unlined expedition mittens.)

Gloves used in cold situations can be left undried for quite a bit because the organisms inside grow slowly, but they still grow. Wet gloves put in a warm location need to be force dried — everted, sprayed/dusted with a bit of anti-fungal body powder and put somewhere warm enough to get them truly dry.

Our medico also suggested using a fisherman’s hand cream to reduce the drying and cracking that can lead to dermal fissures in which bad stuff can take hold. She recommended against hand sanitizer (in winter) unless followed by cream.

After looking at outdoor sports suppliers, we discovered companies supplying construction workers offer better products — less money goes into looking cool and more into staying warm and durability — the product is also more than a tad less expensive.

PS: Back when we had stylus based pen computing (yes waaay back) we discovered styli are handy little things. We made several by rounding dowels and dipping the ends in line whipping compound and hung them on the devices with buttons. We seldom ever removed a glove to push a button thereafter. Now we try very hard never to be where gloves are thermally required.

John Harries

Hi Chris,
Yikes, who knew? On the other hand (ouch), I, like thousands of fishermen, have been wearing damp smelly gloves for days on end for 20 years without ill effects. Getting gloves really dried out on an offshore passage ranges from difficult to impossible. Having said that, we do dry everything out well when we get into port—another reason to have a good forced air heating system.


John, Yep, a lot of whether things like this turn into problems is tied to immune system health, which fatigue and mild hypothermia can compromise. We had small SS pantry door baskets in our engine compartment and on top of the genset acoustic enclosure to dry stuff and to heat meals, thaw frozen foods, warm up cold socks, gloves etc.

John Harries

Now that’s a nice idea, as long as no salt water from wet stuff can drip on the engine or generator. I have the horrors about taking anything with salt water on it into the engine spaces.


Indeed! Anything we put there was toweled dry first (we now use microfiber vs terry). My wife has since suggested we use a cast off computer muffin fan to pull warm air into a drying /warming cabinet.

Victor Raymond

I have to agree with Chris about layering. I usually start with a “smartwool” type glove liner that is good for most button pushing type of activity. If necessary the next layer is a leather glove, the kind you find at a hardware store or feedstore. Then finally I have an XL waterproof mitt that goes over the other two pairs if I need water and/or wind protection.
I also have the fisherman’s with the fuzzy insulation but mine don’t stink or I don’t smell (not sure which.) Neoprene is nice to keep the hands dry and it is not too cold out. I don’t think a person can have too many gloves nor hats for that matter. It seems like one pair always is in need of drying out. Fortunately we are not limited to “government issued” products.

John Harries

Hi Victor,
Yes, layering works well and we use that when skiing. However, offshore it has never worked for me. The problem is that, sooner or later, probably sooner, I will take off the outside waterproof layer for dexterity and touch something wet with the inside layer—end of warm hands.

For me, it works better to keep nice warm dry gloves and mitts for sitting around in the cockpit and change to diver’s neoprene for reefing or anchor handling.

Victor Raymond

Hi John and Phyllis,

Here are some more tips from the skiing world:

In addition there are battery powered feet warmers for ski boots that would work fine with waterproof sailing boots too since it is just a resistive plate powered by a battery.

Keeping hands dry is harder than keeping them warm. Fortunately wet hands and wet gloves can still be warm.


I’ve been using SealSkinz socks & gloves in wet weather. The gloves are not especially warm but are definitely waterproof & offer a high degree of dexterity. The socks are great (worn over regular socks). I got both for the equivalent cost of Gore-tex socks, & they’re more durable than the Gore-tex stuff too.

John Harries

Hi Eric,
Those gloves look great. I will be particularly impressed if they stay waterproof in a water saturated cockpit over several days. To date we have never found a breathable glove that passes that test. For example, the Gills claim to be water proof, but after a single night at sea in wet conditions, if used to touch wet things, they become saturated right through and worse than useless for keeping your hands warm.

David Stanwood


I boat back and forth from the mainland and Martha’s Vineyard all winter in my 15′ V-hull whaler. It’s an open boat and I depend on wool. It’s the only fiber I know that’s warm when wet. I just wear gloves and wool pants…. they get totally wet and still feel nice and warm. They dry out nicely. My trips are short but I’m sure there’s a way to use wool in the scheme of winter sailing. Wool mittens have been used by New England fisherman for hundreds of years!

John Harries

Hi David,
Yikes, youare a tougher man than I! Having said that, I quite agree with you about the benefits of wool. We use smartwool for the bottom layer of all our cold weather clothing.


I have found the Sealskinz gloves under the Gill Helmsman glove to be warm. Even if the outer gloves get wet the inner Sealskinz keep the hands dry.

John Harries

Hi Terry,
That seems like a good combo. I think we will give it a try. Thanks.

David Stanwood

Hi John,

I always say the way to best appreciate a hot bath is after a winter crossing of Vineyard Sound in a small open boat! I looked up SmartWool… it’s ultra fine merino wool… top quality, no itch!



I can back up Eric’s comments about Sealskinz gloves. They are reasonably warm by themselves when dry. When wet they are cold, but the hands are dry. When sampling at work in cold conditions or “hard” water conditions, I’ve always worn the Sealskinz under another heavier pair of gloves. Usually it’s a pair of largish leather work gloves so I can almost literally flip them off when good dexterity is required. It’s a great combination for slimy gritty use where good gloves would get torn up or worn through. They’d also work well under the old chopper type mittens.


During one of my attempts to purge my system of the sailing virus I built log palaces for the rich and foolish in Jackson Hole Wyoming. Typical winter temperatures in Jackson are about 20 degrees f lower than coastal Antarctica, but when a financial master of the universe has watched too many cowboy movies in his youth he can’t allow progress to be held up for a mere thing like weather.

For the feet there is nothing like a pair of leather upper arctic pac’s with felt liners, and a nice Li battery powered Hotronic heater system if you are a sissy (like me). For the hands, I found that a pair of generic surgical gloves as the first layer adds about 20 degrees to the apparent comfort level. They usually end up being wet inside even at below zero, and prevent that moisture affecting the insulation of the gloves. When you need to hold a nail or do detail work with your fingers the snow stays off the skin and the outer gloves slide easily back on. And, at $12 per hundred you don’t mind going through a few per day. For cold weather sailing the problems are slightly different, but they are still my first layer.

ps. My girlfriend keeps insisting that there are places in the world where women wear bikinis even in the winter. At first I put this idea down to an extreme case of female irrationality, but then she showed me actual pictures with date stamps on them to prove it—–.


I forgot to mention the other cowboy secret if your hands develop cold cracks. Its called Udder Balm, and is loaded with Lanolin, Aloe Vera and other good stuff. Since you buy it at the vet supply instead of your favorite MD drug dealer, it costs about a tenth as much and works twice as well.


For very cold weather I wear nomex and goatskin military flight gloves under polypro mitts. They provide protection against freezing onto cold metal, allow great dexterity, don’t slip, and dry quickly enough, even in the mitts.

yves lafontaine

Hi John& Phyllis,

Kayakists in search of the very best waterproof neoprene gloves use Glacier Gloves.They are simply amazing…


Nick Kats


Glacier Gloves has several available. Which one? and can you tell me more about them?

I tried Gill diver’s gloves. They shredded badly in an hour or two, due to handling the sheets.

I’m back to old fashioned technology – long sleeve neoprenes with synthetic inner gloves – as recommended by a Maine lobsterman.




Avoid all problems with cold weather gloves by sailing the Caribbean.


Thanks Phyllis for a very interesting article and comments. I hadn’t thought of the hygiene issue (thanks Chris) but it does feel very wrong putting on smelly gloves. I also love the stylus idea for button pushing.

I use Icelandic fishermans mitts for helming and sitting around. The winter grip gloves are great for most stuff requiring dexterity. Neoprene is great for handling shore lines or dinghy work. Lots of pairs of gloves are great for always having another dry set to put on…

For more info and photos see


There is a expandable plastic ring that can be put inside any wet or used reusable gloves called the Airloop Glove Drying Ring. It Just helps keep the glove cavity open to create open space for natural air circulation. This product works great for keeping are gloves fresh and drying at a faster rate which is great when out camping and on our boat!

John Harries

Hi Arnie,

Great tip, thanks. We will definitely get some of those.

For those who are interested in doing the same, here is a link.