A comprehensive guide to the best balaclavas and
ski masks for winter sports and backpacking in 2019.
© Sgt. Trish McMurphy, U.S. Army
Pronouncedˌ"bah - luh - klah - vah", balaclavas are a form of cloth or knitted gear used to block wind and insulate your head, face and neck. They are mainly used in extreme weather conditions and only leave a small part of the face exposed, typically just your eyes and mouth.
For backpackers, a balaclava can significantly help keep your face warm and safe from miserably cold and windy conditions - specifically by keeping the blood circulating and preventing blisters. Personally, they have saved my face from numbing on many sub-zero hikes.
Also known as ski masks, balaclavas are also used widely for warmth and protection during outdoor winter sports such as snowboarding, hiking, skiing, mountain climbing and snowmobiling. They are also popular with bicyclists and motorcyclists, fire fighters and racing car drivers for face protection and fire resistance. The military, special armed forces and police wear balaclavas to keep their identities anonymous, as well as for their protective value. And, of course they appear to be one of the preferred regalia for some Hollywood bank robbers.
Their original use was during the Crimean War in 1854, when the British troops were battling it out in the cold weather. Their loved ones at home began knitting woollen caps, which were fashioned to be worn under a helmet. These were soon named "balaclavas" after a village near Sebastopol in Russia, the site of the Battle of Balaclava. Ok, enough random trivia, eh?
Balaclavas completely cover your head, neck and parts of your face. The main advantages:
Wind Protection: particularly from frigidly sharp wind. A few hours exposed to sub zero winds can lead to some seriously harmful, not to mention painful, skin damage.
Debris Protection: They can prevent bugs from hitting your face, icy hail from berrating your cheeks, etc.
Insulation: again, in freezing alpine temperatures, your faced needs to be covered to stay warm.
Flexibility: most can turn into a neck warmer or a beanie as well.
Beanies differ in that they are purely for the head - aka a "skullcap". Similarly, it can be made out of knitted wool or fabric. A beanie will also adds the extra ear warmth coverage, if you pull it down.
Neck warmers, like the name says, is worn purely around the neck for warmth like an enclosed scarf. This "tube" of fabric made out of thick fleece or a synthetic fabric, it is slipped over the head and can be pulled up over the mouth leaving the top half of your face and head exposed. It is often used to minimize exposure to the wind and or sand, and can double up as a headband in the heat to prevent sweat dripping off your forehead.
Design and Openings: Balaclavas come in many different designs, so you have to think carefully about whether you want a full face covering with only eye slits, eye slits plus a mouth, or nose, opening. I personally prefer longer ones that cover most of my exposed neck. Also, if you are a big talker or like to eat frequently, then you may be better off with a balaclava with a mouth opening.
Snug or Loose Fit: Do you want it tight fitting to wear under another piece of gear or loose to wear by itself? If hiking in subzero temperatures, I personally like to have a snug fit that acts like a base layer underneath my beanie and possibly an outer rain shell's hood.
Material: The fabric will depend on the use that you have in mind.
Wool: Warm and insulating that won't become too smelly, as it is fairly odour resistant, usually "merino" wool is used, as it is finer than regular lambs' wool and won't itch. Merino wool breathes and is the perfect barrier from harsh winter storms or sub-zero temperatures.
Synthetic: Generally more durable and rip resistant than wool, synthetic fabrics such as nylon, polyester and polypropylene are fast drying, if you are dripping sweat or hiking in the rain. Lycra is another synthetic known for its exceptional elasticity, soft to touch and comfy, which is perfect for spring, summer or fall hiking. This breathable material will protect you from the sun, wind, dust, bugs, debris and other airborne stuff.
Fleece: Definitely to keep you from the cold, fleece is soft to wear with a thick knit feel that insulates and protects your face from chilly winds, whether you are hiking or hitting the slopes.
Silk: Not my favorite, but worth mentioning. A lightweight comfortable fabric that is better for hiking in spring, summer and fall. Cotton is in a similar category - comfy, but not ideal.
Neoprene: A treated cotton fabric that is flame resistant and water repellent, it is also used in scuba-diving wetsuits, as it maintains its flexibility over a wide variety of temperatures. Great for most conditions.
Weight: 1.28 oz
Price: $19.99 on amazon.com
Not technically a balaclava, the Buff is more a multifunctional item that can be used as a thick facemask or a beanie. Made out of 100% microfiber polyester with seamless construction to minimize irritation, one size fits all. It dries quickly, resists wind, can be worn 12 different ways (from balaclava to a cap, a hair tie to a neck gaiter) and won't get smelly. If you want more warmth, then go for a "polar buff". Super lightweight and a personal favorite.
Weight: 1.2 oz
Price: $35 on moosejaw.com
A full-face balaclava for cold weather, the Arc'teryx is made of 90% polyester and 10% spandex to give it stretch for freedom of movement. The fabric breathes, is moisture wicking and durable. A full-face cover with added length in the front, the seams are flat for extra comfort and the fabric is soft against your skin. Can be worn as a beanie or a neck gaiter, it is thermally efficient making it perfect for snowboarding, mountaineering and alpine backpacking, ice and mixed climbing or skiing.
Weight: 2 oz
Price: $34.95 on moosejaw.com
A unisex fleece balaclava, 95% polyester and 5% elastane, it is helmet-compatible with a versatile face opening that can be worn above or below the mouth. The fabric blend provides moisture management and breathability, as well as making it stretchy and soft, whilst the flat-locked seams ensure that it is comfy to wear all day long. The hinge at the back of the neck allows easy removability of the face cover and the neck material is thick enough to block out mega cold and chilly winds.
Weight: 2 oz
Price: $40 on moosejaw.com
Super thick with a visor, it features polartec power stretch fabric that is super soft against your skin, durable, warm and comfy, it is moisture-wicking featuring a "glassket" that keeps eye and sun glasses or goggles where they should be on your head. It is a snug fit under a hood or a helmet with flat lock seam construction for comfort. The pliable visor keeps the sun out of your eyes and falling snow off your goggles or glasses. Perfect to wear in harsh winds and weather, it fits well and leaves little skin exposed especially between your eyes and ears.
Weight: 3.2 oz
Price: $35 on amazon.com
Made out of 100% merino wool, it is a one size fits all creation that you can throw in the washing machine when you want it cleaned. A full-coverage design, it offers mid-weight insulation and breathes efficiently whether you are hiking up a mountain or out in frigid weather. The overlap section gives better protection against the elements and in mild weather you can pull it down under your chin. There is also a small ventilation flap over the mouth, so that you can breathe better and the balaclava's flat-lock seams eliminate any chafing. It has a contoured hem for complete coverage.
Weight: 1.6 oz
Price: $15.95 on rei.com
An ultra thin balaclava that easily fits under a helmet and is perfect as a light weight insulating layer, the Seirus Thermax Headliner is made out of Thermax® polyester blended with Lycra® spandex for a comfy and snug fit. It is moisture wicking and easy to care for, as you can throw it into a washing machine. Depending on the conditions you are in, it is your choice, as to whether you leave only your eyes exposed or wear it as a hood and expose your whole face.
Weight: 1.4 oz
Price: $125 on blackrockgear.com
The ideal balaclava for winter camping, alpine climbing and backpacking in extreme conditions. The only real "insulated" balaclava on the list, the goose down hood is a one-of-a-kind design with a full-face coverage and an opening that can be layered with goggles. The balaclava's neck hugs your shoulders, neck and head, even while you move. The perfect way to keep warm in torrid conditions. Note it can be hand washed in warm water.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
650-calorie fuel. No cooking. No cleaning.