Wearing a pair of dry gloves combined with a drysuit, like the ones I tested here, is a great way to make sure your hands and fingers stay dry. But doing so doesn’t necessarily keep them warm.
The majority of dry gloves are, similar to trilaminate drysuits, simply a shell made of a material that keeps out water. They produce little or no insulation in and of themselves. For that, you must wear an additional layer, and there is a range of options. But which ones work best?
Insulated dry gloves
This option is less a liner and more a pair of lined dry gloves, typically with a form of synthetic fur, which traps air and insulates from the water’s cold. The advantage here is that you don’t need an additional pair of liner gloves, which in turn means that the risk of forgetting your liners is non-existent. They are also quicker to put on, as there’s only one layer to don.
The disadvantage is that you cannot change the liner depending on the temperature of the water. Or, if you get a leak on a dive, you cannot swap the wet liner for a dry one on your next dive, provided you’re doing one. Also, in my experience, these types of gloves tend to be on the bulkier side, and performing fine motor skills can be difficult.
Too often I’ve seen divers use simple cotton gloves, often cheap work gloves, as liners. While cotton has many attributes, it has a couple of serious drawbacks that make it largely useless in active pursuits, such as scuba diving.
Cotton is superb at absorbing moisture. Unfortunately, it’s terrible at releasing that moisture again, which means that any water introduced into your glove before closing the dry system, or that may seep in during the dive, is immediately absorbed by the cotton but not transported away from your skin. The same would happen to any sweat or condensation that may accumulate during the dive. And unfortunately, when this happens, cotton loses almost all of its insulating properties. As we used to say when I was a climbing expedition leader, “cotton kills.” Cotton also dries very slowly.
Fleece is a plastic product (a lot of it is actually made from recycled plastic, bonus), which is turned into a soft, lightweight and very fluffy material that traps large amounts of air relative to its weight, and thereby has great insulating properties. It’s fast drying and will usually wick moisture away from your skin, meaning it retains most (but not all) of its insulating properties if damp or wet. If it gets soaked, it usually has no insulating properties to speak of. There are new fleece-like products made specifically for divers, though, that can tolerate lots of liquid and still act as insulators. Fleece is fairly inexpensive and is often a good choice. It’s a bit on the fluffy side, meaning it can be quite bulky.
Another option is thin, synthetic liners, made of a material similar to sports underwear. While these have very high moisture-wicking properties, they offer limited insulation, so they are only really useful for warmer water when you need only a little insulation.
Wool was the material of choice for outdoor sports for decades before synthetic materials came along, becoming the de facto standard for many years. Wool is lately making a comeback; modern products are often made of merino wool, which has longer fibers, and is less prone to itching and shrinkage — the two main complaints about wool in the old days.
Wool offers very high insulation properties for its weight and bulk, meaning even a thin glove can provide a lot of warmth. It is fast-drying, moisture wicking and retains almost all of its insulating properties, even when pretty much soaked. The downside is that wool is more expensive than the other materials mentioned here.
I typically dive with two pairs of gloves: a thin, synthetic liner, which wicks any moisture away from my skin and adds a little warmth, and on top of that, a thicker, woolen glove to provide the main insulation. The end result is surprisingly non-bulky, with both gloves sitting like a second — well, second and third — layer of skin. I can perform even quite detailed fine motor skills, such as tightening a wing nut on a tank holder. And my hands stay dry and warm, even in frigid water.