Throw Down the Gauntlet
Ski gloves go mano a mano.
I've been skiing East Coast slopes for as long as I can remember, from slushy Virginia valleys to frostbitten Vermont mountains, and I know that rainy winter weather comes with the territory. But when that dreaded wetness turns my gloves into ice-cold sponges, I long for an early retreat to the lodge so I can dry my fingers, and my gloves, by the fire.
I'm certainly not the only one who's been subject to a soggy glove. The trick for manufacturers has been to create handwear that is both waterproof and breathable. Without breathability, your body heat and moisture are trapped inside. Once your body temperature lowers, say, when you take a break or hop onto a chairlift, the moisture that's trapped inside will chill. W.L. Gore supposedly solved the problem in 1980 by creating seam-sealed Gore-Tex glove inserts boasting "micropores" that are small enough to block liquid water but large enough to let sweaty vapor out. While the material may have been sound, the construction sometimes was not: Even the last pair I bought in the mid-'90s started leaking right out of the gate. I resigned myself to the fact that waterproof ski gloves were simply out of reach.
Then a few months ago I heard a tantalizing rumor: "Waterproof" gloves had finally achieved truth in advertising. I called my trusted local ski shop, the Ski Chalet, and threw down the gauntlet; the manager promised me that today's best ski gloves are "totally waterproof."
Eager to pit gloves against each other from across the cost spectrum, I tested eight pairs from six brands: Columbia, DAKINE, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, the North Face, and Spyder. With a handicap for price, would an unheralded competitor snatch the gold medal? Let the Ski Glove Invitational commence!
Since leakage was the bane of my ski outings, the testing required a trial by water. I filled the kitchen sink, threw in a few trays of ice cubes, and dunked my gloved hands up to the wrist for five minutes. To make conditions more grueling, I wiggled my fingers and made fists.
After the gloves had air-dried, I stuffed them into my backpack and hit the slopes. During descents I studied each pair's comfort, quality of grip on the poles, and heat exhaust. Windy chairlift rides offered chances to compare hand warmth. I tried jotting down comments while wearing the different models as a dexterity test, but I abandoned the idea after a few doctorlike scribblings.
Instead, I conducted time trials at home to see how quickly I could gear up for an imaginary descent. Each heat involved the following steps: donning and adjusting the gloves (back-of-the-hand buckles, for example); fastening the Velcro cuffs on my ski jacket; fumbling to get the main zipper zipped; and throwing on a knit hat and goggles.
Then I reloaded the backpack and drove out to the batting cages for a swinging durability test. In addition to simulating extended wear and tear, retasking the skiwear as batting gloves was handy for checking breathability and comfort. Plus, picking up and finagling tokens into the slot was an instructive, if frustrating, feat of dexterity. Finally, I gave the gloves another five-minute dip in the icy sink to find out if they were any worse for wear.
1) Waterproofness (15 possible points): All competing gloves are touted as "waterproof" by their manufacturers—no dubious designations like "water resistant." One point was given for each minute of survival during the two five-minute sink tests. If, for example, a pair lasted three minutes in the first dunk and two in the second, it received a score of five. Perfect tens were awarded a five-point bonus.
2) Warmth/Breathability (10 possible points): As I carved my way down the hill, did they keep out the cold while blowing off steam? Were my fingers frozen on the chairlift? Did the gloves become sweaty kilns at the batting cages?
3) Performance (10 possible points): This category covers comfort and dexterity. Major concerns: Did the gloves become constrictive when I squeezed the poles? Did the palms make a firm grip? Could I zip my parka easily?
4) Style (5 possible points): Let's be honest, when it comes to ski gear, it isn't only about how well things work. Skiing is one of the most fashion-conscious sports. Looking cool matters.
5) Value (based on formula below): Some of the gloves I tested cost more than twice as much as others. Did they perform twice as well? To factor in value, I tallied up the previous results, multiplied by 20, then divided by the list price.
RANKINGS (worst to first)
Marmot Borealis, $40 Waterproof/Breathable Fabric: Marmot MemBrain The Borealis gloves have an excellent pedigree—reputations for quality don't get much better than Marmot's—but these gloves bring shame to the family name. This is the only pair that failed both dunk tests, turning in pathetic survival times of 50 seconds in the first round and 33 seconds in the final. They provide decent warmth and comfort, that is, until the water seeps in and drowns the fun. Suitable for winter yardwork or dog walking, but not skiing.
Columbia Freedom, $40 Waterproof/Breathable Fabric: Columbia Omni-Tech The Columbia entry failed the second immersion test (35 seconds), but did OK until then. The Freedom gloves have respectable warmth and a good fit, which is maintained by buckled straps across the backs. The synthetic palm made a secure grip on the poles, and overall they handled the mountain fairly well. But in the batting cage they overheated fast, and some of the stitching had come loose by day's end. In the looks department, it's tough to make black and gray unappealing, but somehow Columbia found a way. Still, for $40 (or a low $16 I found on Amazon.com), they're not bad.
The North Face Montana, $50 Waterproof/Breathable Fabric: the North Face HyVent These North Face gloves outperformed the Columbias with one major exception: the rubbery "Toughtek" material covering the palms and insides of the fingers felt, and gripped, like latex cleaning gloves. Worse, the palms aren't sewn down across the middle, which causes uncomfortable folding in the grip with every pole plant. Not too shabby for the price, but a few dollars more will buy something that's watertight.
The North Face Surge, $90 Waterproof/Breathable Fabric: Gore-Tex Like all the gloves that follow, these came through both sink tests without allowing a drop inside. The Surges feature the same wretched rubbery palms as the North Face Montanas, but otherwise they boast a completely different blueprint. Each glove has a removable spandex liner that can be worn alone, or removed to make the thinly insulated Gore-Tex shell suitable for warm conditions (aka spring gloves). Together, they make a warm, comfortable glove that breathes well. Worth the steep price? No way. (If you choose to go with the North Face, consider moving up a size. I wear larges for this brand but mediums in all others.)
Mountain Hardwear Flipside, $59 Waterproof/Breathable Fabric: Mountain Hardwear Conduit This pair has a straightforward design that gets the job done. The supple goatskin palm and fingers allowed me to deftly zip and unzip my jacket and easily pop a token into the batting-cage slot. (They made for the best batting gloves, too. Heads up, Alaska Goldpanners!) They aren't as heavily insulated as others, so may not protect as well in extreme cold. The Velcro cuff also worries me a bit: The strap-and-buckle design seen on other gloves assures a better fit and seems more durable for the long-term. While the gloves aren't much to look at, this was the only competitor to break the 10-point barrier for value. The Flipsides are the least-expensive safe bet.
Bronze Medalist: DAKINE Cobra GT, $69.95 Waterproof/Breathable Fabric: Gore-Tex DAKINE is a relative newcomer to the ski gear industry (they started out making surfboard leashes), but their gloves have quickly earned a solid rep. This pair combines top-tier fabrics with rugged construction. Again, I question the Velcro cuffs, but they fit great and the supple leather palms give a firm grip. One drawback: The bred-to-shred appearance is way too extreme for my extremities. Slip these neon suckers on and you've instantly got something to prove, whether it be that you can outski Bode Miller or that you're a cosmonaut pimp from the future.
Silver Medalist: Marmot Randonnee, $100 Waterproof/Breathable Fabric: Gore-Tex XCR ("eXtended Comfort Range"—eXtra breathable, eXtra money) This pair does the Marmot name proud. Built with the best materials, this sturdy design provides day-in, day-out comfort. These gloves have the softest, grippiest leather palms in the pack. Pole plants are painless. If your hands are still too cold wearing this toasty pair of gloves, you probably don't want to be skiing. Aside from a negligible poofy feeling on the inside, the only real flaw I noticed was the sky-high cost. Price apologists would counter that this pair will weather at least three seasons of steady use, and therefore are worth every penny.
Gold Medalist: Spyder Whistler, $85 Waterproof/Breathable Fabric: Spyder XT.L Although the Spyder gloves posted impressive scores in all events, their performance on the slopes transcends the numbers. The fit is snug but they aren't unwieldy in any way—no constriction, no bunching up of material. The Whistlers feel tailor-made. Without wetness, cold, overheating, or other discomfort in my hands, I was so content skiing that I nearly forgot I was wearing the gloves at all. Now, that's the mark of a true champion.
Scott Elder is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Photographs by Scott Elder.