Science proves that you should wear glittens

They're the mullet of cold-protective clothing. Half glove, half mitten — really, fingerless gloves with a handy mitten flip-top.

They are also fantastic.

Now, partly, this is a matter of personal opinion. But partly, it's just good science.

Before you spend your weekend outdoors, or take your next chilly commute, let's talk briefly about glittens — and the science that makes them superior hand covering.

There's really two things going on here.

First: Mittens are warmer than gloves.

I spent years feeling like I failed at gloves. Even high-quality Isotoner-type things couldn't keep my fingers warm. At least, not for very long. After 10 or 15 minutes, my fingers would start to go numb and cold. The only way I could keep them comfortable was to slide my fingers out of the finger holes and ball up my hand inside the wide part of the glove. (At which point you become Edward FloppyFingers.)

And there's a very good reason for this. It has to do with the way we get cold.

Everything wants to be the same temperature. Hot things and cold things want to match, rather than be different. At the same time, it takes energetic work to make things hot — whether that's a furnace pumping in your basement, or the sun burning in outer space, or your body metabolizing food. Without those inputs, everything is cold. (Eventually, everything will be cold. Inevitable heat death of the Universe and all that.)

So hot things are special. And when they come into contact with cold things, heat moves from the hot thing to the cold thing, and the hot thing cools down. In fact, the bigger the difference in temperature between the hot thing and the cold thing, the faster the hot thing is going to become cold.

There are several ways that this heat transfer can happen, but when we're talking about your hands and the cold air, we're talking about convection — the transfer of heat between a solid object and a fluid. (My husband, an HVAC engineer, refers to this as, "One of my three favorite kinds of heat transfer.")

Cold air moves over your hands. Your hands and the air try to become the same temperature. Your hands get cold. You can't stop this process, but you can interfere with it, and that's what hand coverings are all about. Insulation — the cloth of the glove or mitten — creates a barrier between your warm hand and the cold air.

It's not a perfect barrier. But now the thing that is most in contact with your hand is closer to the temperature of your hand. With less of a temperature difference, heat transfer slows down.

But there's another factor that affects heat transfer — surface area. The more surface area on the hot thing, the more it comes into contact with the cold thing, the faster it loses heat. Gloves put more surface area in contact with cold air than mittens do. So they won't keep your hands as warm as the same amount of insulation in a mitten will. What's more, gloves force each finger to fend for itself. In a mitten, fingers are in direct contact with other fingers. They can share heat through the solid-object-to-solid-object process of conduction and help keep each other at a relatively stable temperature.

Downside to mittens: You can't use your cellphone, or your house keys, or really anything that requires you to be more dextrous than the average 18-month-old.

Second: Glittens offer more manual dexterity than mittens.

With the science firmly established, we now get into the personal preference portion of this review. From my experience, glittens offer all the warmth of mittens, plus the manual dexterity of gloves. In fact, with their help, I've stood outside in Minneapolis at a bus stop for 30 minutes while playing with my Android phone. I had to switch hands a few times. But, overall, my hands and fingers stayed warmer, longer — even with occasional fingertip exposure to the cold air — than they do when completely covered by gloves.

In mitten mode, my fingers are better protected and they can heat up each other. In glove mode, I can work my phone's screen. It's a win-win situation. And it's all thanks to thermodynamics.

A Harvard animation by Dale Muzzey demonstrating the importance of surface area to heat transfer — and other things.

Image: IMG_6027crop, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 97793800@N00's photostream


    1.  Depends on the type you buy. I’ve been toting a pair around for about a decade. They’re sort of felt/wool-like in texture, so nothing to catch on, and both the back of the hand and the inside of the mitten bit have magnets — flip the mitten part back, and it sticks in place.

      Physics *and* pragmatic design. Total win.

      1. there is an internet joke about magnets, but I forget how it goes.

        but yes, the magnet-in-the-flip-top design is the best, for sure.

          1. The danger of mittens
            is that they rhyme with kittens
            the biggest waste baskette
            of the entire Internet.

            That being said, I would watch a video of magnet mittens worn by kittens in the presence of dancers with metal taps.

  1. There is, however, the unsolved UX problem of the thumb. Properly fingerless gloves expose half the thumb which makes things like typing and using your phone and other manual tasks much easier. But I’ve yet to see a pair of glittens that allow you to expose half a thumb. I have a pair that I love. Warm as can be, perfect for winter bike riding, but I often go for the less warm fingerless gloves. It’s all about the thumb.

        1. I bought a cheap pair, and they only had size S/M. But this made me realize that these gloves have to be really tight for them to work well. Works really well on my Android, totally different experience from yours. Suspect might be the sizing.

          1. I’ve never thrown money at the problem; I just try on different models and size in stores, and try using my device right there. Tighter gloves do seem to work better, but the reality is that I don’t need them bad enough to settle on something that doesn’t work really well.

    1. I have a pair of glittens that has a little fold-back cap that exposes the thumb. The back of the mitten part buttons to the back of the hand, but the thumb part just flaps around. It still works. Sadly, I bought them at a department store in Tokyo ten years ago. They are “Arnold Palmer” brand, and appropriately sized for a woman with small hands (so, good for me.) 

      I’ve continually searched for a similar product here, but they don’t seem to exist. I’ve got no evidence that they ever existed anywhere, other than the single pair I have from that era. It is one of the most frustrating things. 

      Still, proof that the thumb problem IS solvable.

      1. Check at a hardwear/workwear store. They have all sorts of practical and quality winter gear, including my first pair of thumbflap glittens.

    2. I got ’em. Very expensive photography version (gift) from 25 years ago. The thumb exposure is a mixed blessing. 

      Nothing is best. I like mittens for skiing. Gloves when you need your fingers. Glittens when you *really* need your fingers, ie. shooting, smart phones, money, etc. 

    3. Knitting gloves isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds, and mittens are even easier.  The part that requires a bit more experience is combining the two without an existing pattern.  
      Considering it was a whoping 1F this morning, I’m heavily contemplating starting a pair of these ill-named glittens as soon as I’m done with the baby blanket I started last weekend.  Gloves are great, but some days you really do need the extra warmth of mittens.

  2. I have a pair of touchscreen friendly glove liners. I wear them alone from about 30-40 degrees, or higher, depending on the weather. They’re very snug and give me good dexterity. When it’s colder than that I wear them with a heavier glove on top. When I need to use my phone the outer glove comes off but my skin isn’t exposed to the cold.

  3. I have bought three different pairs of glittens over the years.  None of them have lasted more than a week.  Two pairs, the edges of the fingers unraveled and on the other pair the fold over part ripped. 

    So where are you people getting glittens that aren’t garbage?  Can we get some shopping recommendations?

  4. Glittens always struck me as the worst of the three, but perhaps that speaks only of the quality of the ones I’ve owned.  As an alternative, “trigger mittens” (with only the thumb and index finger having separate sleeves), work quite well.

    1. They really are the worst of both worlds – the finger stubs are enough to restrict blood flow to your fingers, they have a gap in the palm for cold air to blow into, and they’re invariably made of loosely knit fabric (wool or otherwise) so they have no wind resistance at all.

      1. It seems like you’ve probably worn one very bad pair and decided they’re all the same. I’ve owned two pairs, one which was made of loosely knit wool, another made of something far more wind resistant. Neither had overly tight finger stubs, nor holes/gaps in the palm.

      2. I took several types of gloves on an expedition in the Arctic – Gore-Tex ski gloves, mitts, neoprene ice-climbing gloves, etc.  I tossed in a pair of REI wool glomitts at the last minute just for kicks.  All state-of-the-art sponsor gear.

        I needed dexterity for handling ropes and climbing gear, and warmth because sometimes you might belay for hours at a time, basically motionless, until someone called for more pitons out of the bag, then you had to get them on the zip line.  No fumbling – we were a long way away from the nearest gear store.  The wool glomitts were by far the best.  Mitts are just too clumsy, gloves not warm enough and if you pull them off, your hands get cold and do not get warm again.  There is no fire to get warm against later.  Unzipping to get your hands next to your pits is highly discouraged.  Spindrift would kill you.  All you get is your bodys’ warmth.

        My single pair of $15 wool glomitts were the envy of the others, and after a few days, the $100 Gore-Tex sponsor gear stayed in the bag.  You could use them to brush snow off ledges to find placements, shake off the spindrift, and they’d be good to go again.They survived 8 weeks of pretty much constant use on the ice.

        Temps were consistently around 5 F on a north-facing wall.  So they didn’t have to deal with much moisture.  And we’re not talking Alaskan/Himalayan temps or windchill here, but storms were no joke.I’m still a huge fan of them for climbing and skiing, though I’ve never found another pair as solidly made as that no-name REI pair.YMMV, as I run pretty warm, and my hands are warm when others are freezing.  On the other hand (ha!), I returned with frost-nipped toes that I still feel.  I sleep with socks on.

  5. I’m lurking boingboing but for this topic I’ve just gotta register. I’ve freezed through enough winters with gloves and know that mittens/glittens are superior.

    But don’t stop there. Please add some on glove materials and the science around it. If we buy a new phone very detailed specs are only a few clicks away. Reviews are abundant. Buying gloves feels very frustrating in comparison. A big product rack with gloves/mittens at the sports store and they have all kinds of fancy labels with bold claims about unique material properties (thermolite, thermomax, warmtex, thermo plus plus, or whatever). Are there any resources with reliable third party reviews using some systematic test method? Not mittens vs gloves tests – finger warmth comparison between products within each of those categories.

  6. You know I’ve had one beer too many when after reading the title, I carefully squinted at the picture thinking “but these mittens aren’t glittery at all”.

    1.  They look glittery in the thumbnails, then gaudy here; ideally you could make the mitten bits out of say, strip cubes and get something OK for handlebars, reverse once to get tacky, twice to get glittery. Ace on the Canadian Smoker (Andalusian Larder Chefs, whatever) tag.

      This said, how cold do phones (with LiPo, screens LCD or OLED) operate and how ’bout a suitable mirror and bluetooth in-mitt smart gloves (accelerometers and enough plastic F/O or something to call a 3-finger drag while jogging?)

  7. They’re fantastic if you live in a place that doesn’t get cold enough for you to actually need either gloves or mittens.

    If you live in a country that has a real winter, your mittens will be approximately triple the size of your  hands, and your coat will either make you look like the Michelin man (quilted option) or weight thirty pounds and reach halfway down your calves. (wool option).

      1. If I ever visit Minneapolis in winter, I will be sure to bring hand coverings that are wind resistant, don’t have a hole in the palm to get snow in, and don’t restrict blood flow to the fingers, then.

    1. When I was a child I had snow mittens.  They were made of bright red naugahyde(?) and lined with something fleecy. They were so stiff that I couldn’t make the slightest movement below the elbow.

      1. Below the elbow?  I would have counted myself lucky to be paralyzed below the elbow!  When I was a child my mittens were made of cast iron, weighed as much as I did, and held my arms firmly in place up to my shoulders.

  8. glitten-fist, Maggie.  I’ve been wearing these things exclusively for over a decade.  never heard “glittens” though.  all the ads I’ve read say “glomitt.”  at the store, I don’t think they call them anything, they just put them in with the other gloves and mittens.  which is fine.  i dislike both names.  they should be called something cool, like “tiger-hands” or something.

    Once you start with these, there’s no turning back.  you get used to them, then gloves or mittens become a frustrating ordeal.  my current pair have thumb-holes and magnets–very nice.  I didn’t think the thumb-holes would work very well at first, but boy was I ever wrong–they’re great.  my pair have lasted 2 or maybe it’s been 3 seasons of heavy use (lotsa biking) and still good.

    since Leah and Mikethegirl asked, I did a search.  doesn’t look like my exact model is offered anymore, but mine are by C9, too.  these have the awesome thumb holes and it *looks* like these have the magnets also|All|matchallpartial|all+categories

    but they have a bunch of other models, too:|All|matchallpartial|all+categories

    (full disclosure, I do not work for these TrEndyReTAilGuys anymore, but i was a cashier for them for a few months when I was 18)

  9. If I were wearing hand coverings, it would be to keep the ends of my fingers from cracking from the dry, not to keep them warm.  Do they sell the ends of the fingers separately?  Like doughnut holes.

  10. Real mutants have reprogrammed their brain to override such prehistoric needs.  My core or brain is not going to critically drop in temperature unless blood flow is restricted to my extremities, I’m wearing plenty of clothes everywhere but my hands.  I have heat to spare.  Body – resume full circulation to sectors 15 and 43.

    I believe this reprogramming is called “hunter’s hands” in some Arctic regions.

    1. What does science say about remaining in North Western Europe until we have evolved hairy webbed fingers and hands (for cooling effects in summer and warming effects in winter)? And then the universe is ours….

    2. :o) The inuit actually do have an adaptation for that.  As long as they maintain core body temperature, their bodies do not shut down peripheral circulation the way they do for most of the rest of us, allowing them to maintain full dexterity in their hands even when handling wet and frozen fish on the ice.  
      Apparently, a certain amount of it can be “learned” through long exposure, but there also appears to be some genetic or epigenetic component as well, since non tribe members who spend their entire ives on the ice never adapt quite as fully.  

  11. yeah, i’m also one of those lucky/unlucky people who just have heat to spare.  Shoes go on at 38F–as opposed to sandal– and hands stay gloveless/mittenless (but in pockets) till ~5-10F.  I do agree with Antinous above about problems with drying and cracking, but heat?  I have enough to spare.

    (so why the hell do i live in the desert nowadays?)

    1. I have my thermostat set at 82° during the day and 75° at night. I have cold to spare. My body temperature runs around 95.5°.

  12. It’s a slightly different problem, but I find my main problem is riding a moped when it’s cold (it gets down to almost -30F here). I need dexterity but I find the windchill makes my fingers hurt, even with fairly thick gloves. I have a pair of these, which are fairly loose fitting and just wear a pair of light gloves or nothing underneath (it’s not that cold once the handlebars warm up).

  13. I’ve had these for many years but never thought about what name they should be called.  I don’t think they are really that great, though.

  14. Ok, here goes.  I’ve wanted to ask this question forever.  What the HELL is the point of fingerless gloves???   In my experience, when it is cold enough outside to need gloves, the fingers are always the coldest part of my hands.  My palms and wrists are plenty warm enough, thank you.  My skinny little fingers are the parts that are hurting. 
    I see people walking around with fingerless gloves and have to wonder what’s the point?

    1. Your finger tips will still be warmer in fingerless gloves than no gloves. The fingertips are cold because they’re the furtherest point on your arm from the warm blood flowing from your heart, if that blood gets to flow through warm arms, into warm palms and along partially covered fingers the tips won’t become nearly as cold as if the entire hand is open. It’s just like the surface area point Maggie is making above.

      Then there is also the added bonus of being able to do things that require fingertip dexterity.

    2. I understood this type of hand covering to be called “smoker’s gloves” when I was growing up.  

  15. Glad science has finally proven that the gloves I wear are the best.  Not a fan of the thumb slit, though.   When I’m riding, there’s no way to stop cold air from freezing my thumb.

  16. I, too, have the “cold cracks the hands” issue.  I have some fingerless gloves that I really like and do the trick on all but the most subarctic of days.  Still, my fingertips/cuticles dry out in the cold.

    2 great products for this:  If your hands are REALLY cracked/bloody, get Eucarin cream–the nearly solid-at-room-temp stuff.

    You can even just rub a bit into your fingertips if that’s all that’s chapped.

    I also LOVE LUSH’s “Lemony Flutter Cuticle Butter” on  my hands.  Also good for feet, elbows, etc.  Smells lemony and nice.

    Note that cotton sleep gloves are also great for the most extreme cases of dry cracked winter hand. My bedroom at home growing up was below-grade, and in the winter, my hands looked like a road map. Eucarin on and these gloves over them before bed made all the difference.

  17. Quite the glove discussion here :)

    Personally, i hate fingerless gloves, though this hybrid design does improve them somewhat.

    Another hybrid design to consider is the lobster type, eg:
    binds the fingers in pairs, giving you the mitten warming effect but with some finger function too, great for cycling with (and zoidberg impressions ;) )

    For when it’s not extremely cold i stick with a very thin, but windproof, set of cycling gloves i have. They seem to keep me plenty warm as it’s the windchill that effects me the most, for this reason i’ve never seen the point of wollen gloves at all.
    added bonus for these is that they’re thin enough to operate touchscreens too :)

    1. Yeah, windproof is what I want with my nice warm gloves, and some water proof is also nice. I wore mittens as a kid, home made, and usually doubled up… but they were still cold, especially after they got wet from making snowballs, and mittens seriously restrict you. I much prefer gloves to mittens, and have had no problem finding warm gloves (the ones I have now tend to actually be a bit too warm, causing my hands to sweat, which is not a good idea when it’s cold outside). 

      I have never used glittens, mainly because I really don’t need the exposed fingers part. But my worry would be to get snow in between the mitten and glove part.

  18. But I need my gloves, not for touchscreens, but for physical books.  I read while walking home, often even to temperatures in the negative teens (C, not F), and it’s hard enough turning the pages with gloves, with glittens it’s just an extra pain.  Either I wear them top-off and my fingers freeze even more, or I wear them top-on and I can’t turn the pages! 

    And when I’m walking with your arms held down by two full bags of grocercies and a toque pulled down over my face (peeking through the natural gaps in the fabric) because it’s too cold, I need to be able to turn pages as quickly as possible, otherwise I feel silly. 

  19. Permit me to be geekily pedantic for a bit.  1) Despite the “Thermodynamics” tag on this post, this post has nothing to do with thermodynamics.  Thermodynamics is about what is possible:  Thermodynamics says that if you go outside when it is cold, it is possible that your body will cool down. It doesn’t cover anything about how fast that will happen, which is really the important part of this glittens discussion.  That is the science of (generally) kinetics and (specifically) heat transport.

    2) Everything does not want to be the same temperature. No, I’m not talking about using the word “want” and the anthropomorphization of inanimate objects. Temperature gradients need not be unstable.  Example:  when you climb a mountain the air gets colder as you go up.  If everything wanted to be the same temperature, the temperature difference at the bottom and top of the mountain would have equilibrated a long time ago.

    1. That’s not geekily pedantic, that’s just silly.  

      1..Heat transfer is a component of thermodynamics.  Distinguishing potential and actual in phyisics in this case is nothing more than sophistry.  At macro scale, and within the confines of the phenomena discussed,  there is no meaningful difference between the two, and no meaningful chance that there would be any other outcome. 

      2.  Everything does, indeed want to be the same temperature.  Stable temperature gradients are always a:  temporary and b: the result of externalities like the specific heat and insulating qualities of matter.  If no energy is added to the system, all gradients will normalize. 

      Temperature gradients on your mountain are a function of the decreasing density of the atmosphere, and a concomitant reduction in its ability to retain heat.  Energy is constantly being added to the system by radiant heat from the planet, and externally by the sun, this the denser air at ground level gains heat at a similar rate to the higher, but dissipates it at a slower rate – making for what you call a stable temperature gradient.

  20. I’m not sure I’d want to wear these if I had to put my hands in snow (would get under the flap I assume) but I know people who like them for thing that require constant switching back-and-forth for dexterity reasons.  Some people I’ve ice climbed with like them for being able to deal with knots and ice screws then going back to mittens the rest of the time.

  21. Usually I’m good with out the cap down to the low 20’s with mild or no wind. My favourites are a pair of thinsulates that cover a touch more than 1/3 of my forearm. Hockey sticky/ sports tape can be used to make them block wind through the palms better and extend the life a good bit if you have to grip & grab frequently.  I’ve been eyeballing a pair of “Yellowknife” gloves from the Duluth Trading Company  for use with my motorcyclke when the temps drop into to freezing.  If anyone out there has a pair of these please do share your experiences & opinion with me as I’m reluctant to shell out 80$+ s/h  with out being able to try them on in a store first.

  22. I’ve been a (moto) biker for 30 years in new England, Canada, the Rockies and now the PNW… I like lobster (Duluth Trading Co style) or 2 + 2 finger glove/mittens combined with some of the below:
    1) A fairing wide enough to cover the end of the grips
    2) Electrically-heated grips (even a 49cc Japanese scooter can run these)
    3) “Hippo Hands” grip/handlebar control insulated covers
    4) Re-usable miniature heat packs (I like
    The most difficult part for me is finding gloves small enough – I don’t know any company or military surplus that comes in a size 5-6 (XXS)

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