There are many warm synthetic shelled gloves and mitts on the market, but none of these works around the fire when you have to reach in and pull a pot out, or lift the hot stove door to adjust the fire, or reach into the woodstove to adjust blocks and add new ones. Synthetics will melt. No synthetic material has yet been invented that can beat natural leather in almost all properties of hand wear for winter camping using fire, and so we are promoting these for most outer shells.
Mitts or gloves, or both? Yes!
You must not risk frozen fingers at any cost. If you have painfully cold fingers you are doing something wrong and need to warm them up immediately. More about this topic in the Safety section.
Camp Mitts and Gloves:
I prefer gloves around camp. Camp chores are energetic, you are venting heat and out of the wind (campsites down in treeline are chosen to be out of the wind), and I have rarely had cold fingers working in camp. You need a tough leather palmed and fingered glove. I and my buddies use extra big, cheapo leather work gloves with the cloth back and wrist cuff, and if they have any insulative lining, we usually cut it out and use a wool or high quality fleece insert. The exception is the work glove which has a lining on the palm only. Keep this in, and use a liner glove, because that glove’s integral palm liner will prevent a hot pot bail handle from burning through your inner liner if its synthetic. Its just enough added thickness that it does the job.
Nothing grips an axe or saw firmly like leather. Its always pliable in cold temperatures, and if the saw skips out onto your hand, the leather will protect you. Conifer stick knots can be very sharp, and leather will again protect you from puncture wounds. If you prefer mitts, I recommend a pair of leather “chopper” mitts with a wool or fleece liner, but your dexterity for chores will be less, and you may find warm gloves better, but whatever works for you. One of my buddies prefers his nylon mitt gauntlet shells for many things except around the fire.
These gloves/mitts will get wet especially if its mild out. On a longer trip, I recommend bringing two pair. In a hot tent you can dry everything on clotheslines. In cold camping, you can wear them and steam them by the fire. Or you can rig a drying rack by the fire and dry your wet ones while wearing your second pair. But I find it most effective to dry them by wearing and steaming them around the fire.
Liners should be flared at the wrist, called “gauntlet” style. Gauntlet allows you to slide your hand in and out easy without the liner bunching up. You will find your hands and wrists get quite sweaty during work around camp, and they won’t slide into tight cuffed mitts and gloves.
Trail Gloves and Mitts:
Gloves or mitts are personal preference for mild to medium cold, but in deep cold you will need mitts. If mitts, leather chopper mitts work well, and full forearm gauntlet mitts are the best. In both cases make sure the liners also are gauntlet so they don’t bunch up. Those tight wrist cuffs on liners you see in some ski gloves are bad – no end of frustration. Gauntlet style are the ancient design that still works best because you will need to bare hand some tasks, but you need to pop those fingers back in very fast or risk frozen fingers.
I use full leather gloves in all but the coldest conditions. I prefer very soft, thin, lose fitting deerskin gloves (stuffed with a mini gauntlet fleece liner), because they grip ski poles very well and have lots of dexterity. They usually come with a liner already, but I cut that out and replace with a thicker fleece liner. The soft leather breathes well, and is soft for wiping the runny nose. They are too soft for the abrasion of camp chores and hot stoves and pots. After a day on the trail these gloves are usually wet, and in camp I switch to my camp gloves and hang these up to dry in the hot tent, or dry them by the fire later. The second pair of camp chore gloves can substitute for the trail gloves/mitts if they are not dry enough.
For deep cold, you will need big mitts and full forearm gauntlets are best. Snow mobile gauntlets in full leather are good, and there are some traditional winter camping manufacturers that make excellent traditional gauntlets with a leather hand and palm, and cotton back and gauntlet for breathability. Northern 1st Nation communities sometimes sell hand crafted moose hide mitts lined with wool blanket duffel, and various fur trim options which are superb. I wish I had a pair or two of those.