From smart phones and sentient cameras to intelligent headtorches and wrist-mounted supercomputers, these days it sometimes seems you can't set foot outdoors without half a ton of electronics secreted about your person. Each device needs its own batteries of course, and life being as it is you've usually forgotten to charge at least one set the night before. So what do you get the climber or hillwalker who already has practically every gadget going? Battery powered gloves. Oh, brave new world that has such gizmos in it. Cynicism aside, I am a cold-finger sufferer, so when Outdoor Research suggested we review their new heated handwear, I jumped at the chance.
From the five models in OR's ALTIHeat range, we picked the Stormtracker. Lighter (though understand that this is a relative concept here), far less insulated, and more dexterous than the others, it seems the most versatile for general UK winter hillwalking and climbing.
Heated gloves may not be a new thing - motorcyclists have been using them for years - but they have not been long available at the sort of spec that outdoor users require. So would the Stormtracker prove a good match for winter mountaineering?
How it works
A zipped sleeve in each wrist houses a twin battery pack. Turn the heating on - you just hold down the built-in on/off switch for a couple of seconds - and the batteries kick in, powering heating elements. Completely flexible and unobtrusive, these elements are sewn into the fabric of the glove, running over the back of the hand and down the fingers.
There are three output settings, Low, Medium and High, which you scroll between with a short press. The power button lights up a different colour for each, so you can tell at a glance which has been selected. With a fully charged battery, Low offers a maximum heating time of 8hrs; on Med it's 5hrs at most; and on High the best you can expect is 2.5hrs. However, OR point out that these are estimates, and may vary as a result of environmental and battery conditions. In low temperatures, for instance, batteries tend to under-perform. While I have not been able to time these limits outdoors, I would not take them as gospel.
Batteries, charging and weight
OR's ALTIHeat system uses robust, slimline lithium ion battery packs. These are detached from the glove and plugged into a mains adaptor for charging (the charger, which comes with separate plugs for UK, EU and US use, is included in the price - replacements are available separately for £30). They go from empty to full in roughly 6-7 hours, can be recharged without having to be fully discharged first, and are good for roughly 500 cycles. Replacement battery packs are available too (£55 for a full set). With such a long charging time, you have to remember to plug them in the night before a trip; officially OR suggest doing this when you get home from a day out, but who'd remember to do that? Another disadvantage is that they won't charge off a USB or whatever; it has to be a mains socket rather than something you could use in the wilds.
The batteries sit out of the way on the inside wrist, and once inserted you can't really feel them. The chief downside of battery powered gloves though is their weight. On my kitchen scales I make it 375g for a pair of Stormtrackers (size L), batteries included. That's awful heavy for a pair of thin gloves. Without the batteries they weigh a more bearable 208g, though at least some of that weight is clearly heating element rather than insulation.
What's it like just as a glove?
Electrics aside, if you consider the Stormtracker's merits just as a simple lightly insulated glove, it is excellent. The outer is a mix of stretchy Gore Windstopper softshell and tough-but-soft goat leather at the palm, inside the fingers and back of the wrist. This leather is good and grippy on damp axe shafts and the like. Inside there's a thin layer of Primaloft insulation (60g/m2) and a soft tricot lining. This lightweight construction gives only a modest amount of insulation, but the upside to this is that there's plenty of dexterity. It is wind-and-water resistant rather than proof, so while it shrugs off a light shower or a bit of moisture from the snow, the glove does eventually wet out in really soggy conditions. It feels very breathable and un-sweaty though, and quick drying too by the standards of an insulated glove.
Tailoring feels superb, with pre-curved fingers and seams offset from the fingertips for maximum dexterity. On me the fingers are a perfect fit, and though I find the thumb slightly too long and baggy by comparison, these gloves are easily tactile enough for climbing, fiddling with gear or taking photos.
The gauntlet cuff is long and close fitting, designed to slide neatly into your jacket sleeve. For easier entry, or occasions when you might want the cuff outside your sleeve, there's an effective zipped gusset too. A pull loop, a glove clip, and a bit of extra padding at the knuckle complete the picture.
For anyone who baulks at the price and the weight of the ALTIHeat version reviewed here, it's worth pointing that the Stormtracker Sensor glove is also available for just £60 (see product news here). This is essentially the same glove but without the heating element, and at that price I'd say it was a bargain.
So how do they perform in use?
When sat at the desk it's easy to feel the difference between the three modes. High is unpleasant after a few minutes; Medium still gets pretty toasty; and Low is simply comfortable. Outdoors in the proper cold and wind however, I've found that Low merely fades into the background, so in winter conditions if you want to really feel the benefit of those batteries you need to set the output at least to Medium.
In order to conserve juice I've been tending to use the power in strategic short bursts. As someone who suffers with particularly cold hands at the drop of a hat (or glove) I've found the key benefit of the central heating is to provide a boost just as I feel my fingers getting cold - but ideally before they're properly numb. When having a break at the summit cairn, or gearing up at the foot of a route, ten or fifteen minutes of battery power tends to be enough to restore the circulation. If you climb in the Stormtrackers you can offset the risk of hot aches by giving yourself a bit of battery power at the belays. Alternatively, if you save them for the walk-out you can peel off your wet climbing gloves at the top of the route and revive your yellow fingers with some electrically heated luxury. It's hardly a must-have, but I have to admit it is a really nice feeling at the end of a long cold day.
There are definitely limits to the Stormtracker's effectiveness however, and I've soon found them in sub zero temperatures combined with a good Scottish bit of wind. Fundamentally these gloves are only lightly insulated. In illustration of this, you can instantly tell it's switched on just by touching the outside of the glove. In stormy conditions, even while the batteries are working their little hearts out the wind will be busy leaching the heat away. On at least one occasion when striding over the windy Cairngorm plateau with the power on full and the batteries nearly fresh, I've felt my fingertips going numb. A more heavily insulated glove from OR's battery powered range would doubtless hold this heat better, but then you'd have a more cumbersome gauntlet - and the Stormtracker plus batteries is heavy enough.
To be brutal, part of me is tempted to suggest that for typical windy UK winter conditions you could save a lot of weight - and money - by ditching the battery powered concept altogether, and still end up with a more effective solution. Better insulated battery-free mountain gloves are available at around 200g after all. If you wanted additional heat for emergencies, you could then carry one of those chemical sachets, and still come out on top in terms of weight saving.
It is only fair to point out though that once your hands have passed a certain coldness threshold it can be pretty hard - to say nothing of agonisingly painful - to re-warm them, no matter how thick your insulation. Here's where the Stormtracker is at an advantage, since it can quickly revitalise cold fingers without compromising dexterity with extra layers of insulation. But - and this is a big but - at the effective Medium heat output you have at most 5 hours of battery life. Once this power has drained you're left with some very heavy empty batteries and a pair of lightly insulated gloves. Given that a Scottish winter day trip 12 hours long would be unremarkable, the weight/warmth/time calculation might be of some importance. And for overnight trips? Forget it.
When it comes to gloves for winter mountaineering I suspect there will never be a magic bullet, no one single right answer; it's always going to be a tradeoff. Perhaps the Stormtracker's most obvious niche is Continental/North American style roadside ice cragging, where their weight and limited burn time would be less of a disadvantage.
Reluctant as I am to sit on the fence, I just can't come to a conclusion about the Stormtacker. It is a lovely glove, superbly made and tailored. The ALTIHeat thing has obvious benefits too, particularly if you suffer from cold fingers. However its drawbacks are equally clear, from the considerable weight to the limited battery life. Fundamentally, at £200 a pair the Stormtracker has to be considered a high-end luxury rather than a must-have. If you were sceptical of the electric heating you could buy two or three pairs of better-insulated conventional gloves for the same money, or indeed three pairs of the non-powered Stormtracker Sensor - most climbers and hillwalkers are going to want to carry several pairs on the average day out, after all. As battery technology develops, bringing cost savings, weight reduction and increased output times, heated gloves for climbing and mountaineering might become more mainstream. Outdoor Research may be helping to drive the application of this technology forward. But perhaps we're not there just yet.
Outdoor Research say:
The breathable, windproof GORE® WINDSTOPPER® and battery powered heating technology of the versatile StormTracker Heated Gloves spar with the most heinous weather. Durable water-resistant leather palms withstand punishment, and a TPU injection molded design at back of hand adds a layer of protection. An athlete favorite, these gloves retain your body heat and produce their own while alpine climbing, ski touring or ice climbing.
Fabric Performance : Water-Resistant, Breathable, Windproof, Lightweight, Wicking, Quick Drying, Soft and Tactile Leather Palm
- ALTIHeat™ battery-powered heat technology with rechargeable lithium ion battery
- Customizable heat settings
- Locking Zippered Compartment for batteries
- Outer fabric: WINDSTOPPER® soft shell (94% nylon, 6% elastane) face fabric with 100% polyester backer, water-resistant goat leather palm
- Inner: 100% polyester tricot lining, PrimaLoft® 60 g/m2 at back of hand, PrimaLoft® Grip 60 g/m2 m at palm
- Undercuff construction
- Gusseted wrist entry
- Pull-on loop
- Glove clip
- Weight: 375g / pair size L, batteries included (my measure)
- Sizes: XS-XL
For more info see outdoorresearch.com