Keep Your Hands, Feet, and Head Warm for Snowshoeing

A magic hat is what turned Frosty into a real walking and talking snowman.  As written by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, the lyrics go like this:

“There must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found. For when they placed it on his head, he began to dance around.  Oh, Frosty, the Snowman, was alive as he could be. And the children say he could laugh and play, Just the same as you and me.”

It was a hat that was essential to Frosty’s life, just as a hat in the dead of winter would be necessary to our life. So let’s prepare for the upcoming snowshoeing season by ensuring our extremities are well protected, including our hands, feet, and head.

hands, feet, head warm while snowshoeing: man posing on WI trail

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Why Cover Your Extremities

Covering our extremities during winter provides comfort and safety. Rarely are my hands or feet cold when snowshoeing because my cardiovascular system is working hard to keep my inner furnace burning. So, I tend to be comfortable wearing something light on my hands.

But, when I stop to take a break, my furnace slows down, and I start to feel the effects of the cold. At that point, I cover my hands with a heavier mitt. But the danger comes when someone is not prepared, their extremities are uncovered as their inner furnace is idle, and temperatures are dangerously low.

Gabrielle Martina of Mainers, producer of the world’s best winter mitts, mentioned, “It’s good to prepare for the worst, or even the mildly uncomfortable. Pack an extra pair of socks, mitts/gloves, and wear layers. You never know when your gear might get wet… It’s [also] a good idea to keep a few hand/foot warmers in your pack in case your hands or feet get cold, and you need to build warmth.”

This notion is even more essential with this season’s projected winter weather. For winter 2022-2023, the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center issued a La Nina advisory, which could lead to below-average temperatures and increased precipitation. With colder temperatures, especially those below 0° F (-17° C), the use of safety measures is critical when outside in these conditions.

Potential Problems if Unprepared

If you are not appropriately prepared for cold weather when snowshoeing, there could be a few safety concerns. For the extremities specifically, the problems that could occur are twofold: frostbite and hypothermia. To prevent these injuries, it’s critical to cover our hands, feet, and head.

Frostbite

Frostbite occurs when human tissue freezes from over-exposure to the cold. It can be dangerous and permanently damage the extremities, including fingers, toes, ears, and nose.

Frostnip is the early stage of frostbite when there is a loss of circulation due to the freezing of the skin. It appears gray or white and is stiff to the touch. Warm your extremities by placing mittens or gloves over your ears or fingers under your armpits. The best prevention of frostbite is to be covered up.

Read More: Safety First: Snowshoeing Hazards and How To Avoid Them

Hypothermia

When a person’s core body temperature falls below 98.6 degrees, their extremities get cold. This could eventually lead to uncontrollable shivering, making the person irritable, apathetic, and awkward.

At that point, they are experiencing signs of hypothermia, which is considered critically dangerous for winter travelers and can be life-threatening if not treated. Chronic hypothermia can result in advanced medical attention requiring evacuation to a hospital.

Read More: Book Review: Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Other Cold Injuries

Covering the Hands

Winter jackets and snow pants protect the arms and legs, but what about keeping your hands warm while snowshoeing? As I snowshoe, I often wear a handmade pair of fleece mittens. Then, I carry a pair of waterproof/breathable gloves or waterproof-lined mittens in my daypack.

Mittens vs. Gloves

“Mitts are the way to go for subzero snowshoeing… [or] for long days of winter fun even when the temperature is above zero. [So], keep a pair of mitts in your pack just in case your hands get cold,” mentioned Martina from Mainers.

There are a few reasons mittens are recommended. However, one reason is they keep your hands warmer even if they’re made of the same material as gloves. Since your fingers share the same space, they can help keep each other warm from body heat. Additionally, Martina notes that mitts also have less surface area for heat to escape than gloves do.

As an alternative to mittens, gloves separate the fingers. But a lot depends on the material and insulation of the glove. Quality gloves can serve the snowshoer well, too, especially in specific circumstances. For example, “if you are going to stop and take a lot of photos, wear gloves!” suggests Martina.

What About Glove Liners?

In addition to the mittens/gloves themselves, consider bringing a pair of glove liners to keep your hands warm while snowshoeing. Wearing a pair of liners can wick moisture from your hand to keep your hands dry and warm.

There may also be certain situations where liners are particularly useful. As Martina mentions, “We recommend liners if you need to take your mitts or gloves off often to perform a task that requires a good deal of dexterity. [For example, it’s] not a bad idea to have liners on while you get your gear organized and your feet strapped into your snowshoes. [But] once you are situated, pop your mittens on and stay warm!”

Also, remember that neither mitts nor gloves can generate warmth, so make sure your hands are warm before you put them on, reminds Martina. You can also pack hand/foot warmers as a backup for extra warmth.

Read More: Analysis: Will Merino Wool Keep Us Warm While Snowshoeing?

Materials and Features

Gloves and mittens come in varying materials and linings. Some are polyester, polyurethane, nylon, fleece, wool, and acrylics. Some have a mix of fabrics, such as wool, synthetic, and spandex.

When looking for a mitten for those frigid days, look for multiple insulation layers with water-repellent or waterproof features, including GORE-TEX™. For example, Mainers Extreme Cold Mitts include a water-repellent exterior and a Gore-Tex waterproof liner. This line is also windproof, which keeps out the elements. In addition, “[Mainers] makes mitts with a longer gauntlet with a cinch to go over a coat to keep out snow and cold,” notes Martina.

For comfort and ease of use, materials such fleece or wool provide additional warmth, and leather provides dexterity and grip and is abrasion-resistant. There are many options on the market when making a hand protection choice. Keeping your hands warm is key, but also make sure the mitten fits appropriately.

Covering the Feet

In addition to keeping your hands warm while snowshoeing, you also want to keep your feet warm and dry. “Your boots are among the most important pieces of equipment that you bring into the backcountry. With every step, they are the direct interface between you and the land,” writes Rick Curtis, author of The Backpacker’s Field Manual.

Thus, choosing the proper footwear is critical. By footwear, we’re thinking of socks, boots, and even gaiters. These are important for keeping your feet warm, dry, and comfortable.

 Read More: Snowshoeing Footwear: Tips for Choosing Your Boot

Socks

Starting on the inside and working outward, put on a sock liner. I use a thin nylon liner (or a nylon/polyester blend that these) that are made to wick moisture from my feet. You may find liners that are also mostly polyester or polypropylene.

Over the liner, most of my winter socks are a blend of wool and synthetics. For example, I found one pair of 43 percent Merino wool, 28 percent nylon, 14 percent polyester, 3 percent acrylic, 1 percent Kevlar, and 1 percent spandex.

There are many combinations of fabric blends in hiking and winter socks. I recommend having wool, which can help with warmth, as one of the blends. In winter, never use socks containing cotton since they absorb moisture. Cotton also does not insulate, does not dry well, and might bunch up when damp resulting in blisters.

Read More: 5 Socks for Your Next Snowshoeing Outing

boot in snowshoe

Good footwear makes a difference in a successful snowshoe outing. Photo: Jim Joque

Boots

On top of the socks goes a boot, hiker, or other appropriate footwear for snowshoe travel. The type of footwear depends on its use.

For example, a pair of waterproof running shoes work well for trail runners in moderate temperatures on a packed snowshoe trail. But a pair of insulated winter boots is needed when backpacking on snowshoes in deep snow and very cold temperatures.

There are a few features to consider when choosing your footwear, but the keys are to keep your foot warm, dry, and comfortable. Other features for footwear could include support via tight lacing, appropriate fit, a durable sole, or a textured heel to hold your snowshoe binding.

There seem to be as many boots on the market as there are feet, but we have a few favorites. These boots and shoes are made from a variety of materials and fabrics. Some are waterproof breathable leather, polyurethane or polyester synthetic uppers, or thermoplastic rubber. These materials could be combined with Thinsulate, PrimaLoft, and other brands of insulation. In addition, you may find GORE-TEX linings, removable and washable wool felt inner linings, fiberglass shanks… and much more.

Read More:  6 Boots for Snowshoeing

Gaiters

One final touch to footwear that helps to keep feet dry in winter is the use of gaiters. Gaiters are a waterproof material that wraps around the leg and sits along the top of the boot.

Curtis writes, “High gaiters are essential for winter activity. They keep snow from getting into your boots and keep your socks and pant legs free from snow.”

When wearing mid-high boots, especially in deep conditions, gaiters are highly recommended to ensure the snow stays out of your shoes and your feet stay dry. Even if you wear socks that wick moisture or waterproof boots, getting snow inside your shoes can still present hazards.

Read More: Gaiters for Snowshoeing: A Buyer’s Guide

close up of man very excited for the snow

Keep your head covered and warm so you can be this excited about your snowshoe adventures. Photo: Susan Wowk

Covering the Head

The final piece to keeping your extremities (hands, feet, head) warm when snowshoeing is a good hat. I believe the word “chook,” derived from the Canadian word “tuque,” is indigenous to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (U.P.), where I grew up.

As a child, my parents always said to put on my chook before going outside to play in the snow. My chooks today are mostly made of wool or breathable synthetics. And what I call a chook is referred to in other parts of the country as a winter cap, ski cap, stocking cap, boggan, or beanie.

Types of Hats

Growing up a Yooper (someone from the U.P.), I found men often wore the Stormy Kromer cap. It was first designed and made by George “Stormy” Kromer and his wife Ida of Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century. They’ve been manufacturing various men’s and women’s hats for almost 120 years!

The Bomber or Aviator hat (like this review) was and is yet another popular head cover. It is made of leather or fabric and is usually lined with rabbit fur or synthetic fur. The hat’s primary feature is its huge ear flaps that can be worn up on the hat or down over the ears and connected with a chin strap.

Finally, consider the balaclava (like this review) for extreme weather conditions. A balaclava is a garment that covers the entire head, leaving only the eyes, nose, and mouth exposed.  In addition to this headpiece, scarves and hoods on jackets are also headcovers that protect you from the elements.

Read More: Sunday Afternoons Lodgepole Beanie Review: A Go-To for Snowshoeing

Overall

“Frosty the Snowman is a fairytale, they say. He was made of snow, but the children know he came to life one day.”  Why? Because “There must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found. For when they placed it on his head, he began to dance around.  

Although Frosty and his magic hat is just a children’s story, you and your winter hat, mittens, and winter footwear are for real. So wear them when snowshoeing on the trails this season, and protect your extremities!

How do you keep your hands, feet, and head warm while snowshoeing? What are some of your favorite mittens, gloves, socks, boots, or hats? Please let us know in the comments below.

This article is sponsored by Mainers. It was first published on November 10, 2014, and most recently updated on September 26, 2022. 

Read Next: Snowshoeing Dress Code: What Clothing To Wear for Snowshoeing

Author

  • Jim Joque is a Midwest writer on snowshoeing, backpacking and canoeing. He retired from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as director of disability services and adjunct adventure education instructor, having taught snowshoeing, camping, backpacking, adventure leadership and Leave No Trace.

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