The Best Balaclavas and Neck Gaiters for 2023
Winter physical activities require special gear. You will have jackets and base layers, toques and gloves – the list goes on and on. But one part of your body that is super important to protect is your face.
Whether you want to cover your full face with a balaclava, or wrap up in different configurations with a neck-gaiter, we have the best face- and neck- warmers in the guide below.
Our top picks
What to look for in face protection
Balaclava versus neck gainer
First, when shopping for face and neck protection for the ski-hill, or any winter pastime, you should consider what kind of protection you need. We focused on two main kinds of face protection in this article, balaclava and neck gainers, since they are more renown for their qualities in the ski-hill.
Balaclavas, or ski masks as they are commonly referred as, cover the majority of the face, with openings for your eyes and mouth. Neck gainers, or ski buffs as the are also commonly referred as, are like fabric tubes that can be worn around your neck like a self-contained scarf, and can be bundled and twisted in different configurations to suit different needs out on the hill. Both have their pros and cons, but simply, balaclavas provide more thorough protection from the elements, while neck gainers are more versatile.
Like any type of outerwear designed for winter use, the material used is very important. Only choose a balaclava or neck gaiter made from materials with strong moisture-wicking and insulation properties, like polyester and Merino wool. Generally, synthetics are the number one choice due to the cheap cost of production, but Merino wool provides excellent thermal, moisture wicking, and anti-microbial properties. Avoid cotton at all costs.
You probably do not want to buy a garment that does not fit, right? When looking for face and neck protection, it makes sense to consider whether these garments will cover your face and neck. This involves looking into the degree that a balaclava will cover your neck, or the length of the neck gaiter you are looking at.
We talked about the versatility of the neck gainer, but more and more balaclavas have different ways that you can wear them.
Some people will simply look for a ski-mask because they saw it in a rap video. The balaclava has become a sort of fashion piece, with big fashion houses like Maison Margiela charging astronomical prices for a knit balaclava. We won’t include any $400 knit balaclavas here, since we have focused on practicality for this guide. But the aesthetic of your ski mask or buff is important to most, and it is worth considering whether face and neck protection is designed to hide in with other gear and just keep you warm, or if it is meant to compliment or even accent the rest of your ski fit.
Price will always be a consideration in our buying guides. We know that everybody wants good quality products at a good price, and while this is not always possible to offer in our buying guides, we try our best to bring an assortment of the best reviewed products at a range of prices.
The best balaclava for skiing
Under Armour ColdGear Infrared Balaclava
Under Armor is a name recognized among many for high-performance athletic wear. The ColdGear Infared Balaclava from Under Armor provides warm, full-face protection for those cold, windy days on the hill. If you want a slick, form-fitting balaclava that is highly breathable and lightweight, you need not look any further.
The Infared Balaclava is a form-fitting Balaclava, hugging to the contours of your face and head, providing full facial protection. One long opening across keeps your face warm while leaving your vision unobstructed, pairing with any pair of ski goggles perfectly. The longer length of the Balaclava combined with a one-size-fits-all sizing means you do not have to second guess which size you will need.
Featuring Under Armor’s ColdGear Infrared technology, this Balaclava has a thermo-conductive inner coating to use your body heat to keep you warm for longer. Perforations in the front of the Balaclava improve breathability. Chafe-free flatlock seams improve comfort, as well as prevent discomfort from a full-day wearing this Balaclava.
Users find this balaclava warm and well-fitting. Users complimented the comfortability it provides, both in terms of how soft the balaclava feels, as well as protection from the elements. Recent design changes made by Under Armor expanded the size of the eye opening, making the balaclava more versatile. However, not everyone has appreciated this change of design, since the opening leaves more of the face, including the ears, open to the elements unless the whole face is covered. While improving the versatility of the balaclava at the expense of the comfort seems counterintuitive, you should have few complaints if you use this for full-face protection from the cold.
- Thermo-conductive layer uses your body heat to keep you warmer for longer.
- Chafe-free seamless design.
- Does not cover your ears unless you cover your whole face.
The best balaclava for running
Outdoor Research Ninjaclava
Yes, part of me did want to include this for the ninja-like imagery this unique balaclava evokes. But the real reason it made the cut is it’s impressive in keeping your face and head warm on days where the temperature dips low into the negatives.
This balaclava features a form-fitting design that should fit most users. Constructed out a combination of synthetic-super materials including nylon, polyester and spandex, this Balaclava features fleece inside to insulate and warm your face, while a smooth outer sheds snow and ice. Flatlock seams prevent rubbing and chafing, making this balaclava comfortable in any configuration. Outdoor Research implemented a Silicone print around the eye openings, providing friction against goggles, preventing them from sliding down mid-run.
While neck gaiters are typically the choice for versatile neck- and face- protection, the Ninjaclava has six different forms you can configure this face-protection into, as illustrated here.
Users overall typically had favourable comments to make about this Balaclava. This insanely versatile, extremely warm balaclava has made its way into many people’s winter athletic repertoire, from running companion to essential part of users’ ski bag. However, there is one central flaw: breathability.
Without any design features to improve breathability, users complain that their breath moves upwards and out of the eye opening, causing issues like glasses fogging up. Some users were creative and made openings to improve the breathability of this balaclava, however ultimately this seems like an easy fix from OR’s end. We still think many of the features present make up for the downsides of this balaclava.
- Versatile balaclava with different configurations for wearing this balaclava in a range of styles.
- Very warm, as well as windproof, construction.
- Flat lock seams and a form fitting design make this a balaclava comfortable.
- Not very breathable, and people have had issues with glasses fogging as a result.
The best merino balaclava
Smartwool Intraknit 200 Balaclava
If you want a balaclava that you can throw any conditions at, the Intraknit 200 from Smartwool is an incredible contribution to the world of winter sports. Combining the best of natural and synthetic materials, this balaclava is a powerhouse for the hill.
Composed primarily of Merino wool (53%) and polyester (45%), with a slight amount of elastane, this balaclava offers impressive qualities for protection from the elements. Merino offers warm insulation, even if wet, as well as strong anti-microbial properties, while the polyester improves the feel and the elasticity of the material, adding up to be an impressive balaclava.
Smartwool has made some impressive decisions in the design of the Smartwool Intraknit. The fit is designed with 3D mapping, allowing for freedom of movement and a near-universal fit. Mesh ventilation around the nose and mouth improves moisture wicking and breathability. Overall, this is a well-designed Balaclava.
Overall, the Smartwool Intraknit Balaclava has impressed many users. Users find this balaclava incredibly warm yet thin, with strong thermal and moisture-wicking properties. However, this Balaclava is expensive, due to the premium materials and construction.
- Blend of Merino wool and polyester provide the strengths of both natural and synthetic materials.
- Strong fit that allows a wide range of movement.
- Strong anti-microbial.
- Pricier than most other Balaclavas available.
The best budget balaclava
Sireck Cold Weather Balaclava Ski Mask
If you are looking for a rugged, durable balaclava for use in adverse weather conditions, there are many options, but none with a bang-for-the-buck as much as the Sireck Cold Weather Balaclava.
Made from Lycra, this balaclava offers strong properties including strong moisture wicking and elasticity, which paired with thermal fleece allows for strong performance in cold, adverse conditions. Sireck’s Balaclava offers strong windproof protection and water resistance, making it a strong choice for those cold days on the hill. The elastic enclosure of this balaclava makes it able to fit most heads, although some users find the sizing too big.
This balaclava features breathable mesh near the mouth and nose, with the intention of improving breathability. Unfortunately, goggles and glasses fogging still seemed like an issue for many users, making this not as ideal for athletic activities like skiing.
While this balaclava features strong weather-resistant properties at a budget price, we are not fans of the aesthetic Sireck decided on. Wearing this, you will look like a supervillain’s henchman. It is not a good look.
Users overall liked this balaclava, complimenting the warmth, the stitching, and price. However, flaws regarding breathability are concerning, and suggest that extended athletic use is not the best use for this balaclava. At a budget price, it makes sense that things like adjustability and breathability were overlooked but does make us hesitant to bring with us on the ski-hill, or to participate in other winter athletic activities. Water-resistance and wind-proof protection mean this would be a great choice for users who work outside in the winter, however.
- Water-resistant and wind-proof construction.
- Very warm fleece lining.
- Inexpensive compared to some other Balaclava’s available.
- Unappealing aesthetic
- Does not breathe well.
The best balaclava for extreme cold weather
Outdoor Research Tundra Aerogel GORE-TEX Infinium Balaclava
While Balaclava’s are designed for cold weather, not all are designed for the extremes you might see on a Canadian mountain or in the Canadian outdoors. For the best Balaclava for the coldest weather, we suggest the Tundra Aerogel GORE-TEX Infinium Balaclava from Outdoor Research.
The Tundra Aerogel is thoroughly designed to maintain your warmth in very cold temperatures. With a triple-layer design, this Outdoor Research is intricately designed to protect you from the elements. The face and neck are designed from 100% Polyester, while the crown and back of neck are made from a blend of 54% Nylon, 41% Polyester, and 5% Elastane. The mouthpiece is designed from Neoprene, the nose piece is made from 63% Nylon, 23% Polyester, and 14% Elastane with nose and cheek padding made from 1.5mm Primaloft Aerogel Insulation. The entirely synthetic construction provides excellent qualities for winter protection, including strong moisture wicking, breathability, and windproof properties.
The 3L balaclava features GORE-TEX, improving the degree that this balaclava can resist the wind and moisture you might face while still being breathable. Heck, while we are talking about premium materials, that Primaloft Aerogel is trusted by organizations including NASA to provide reliable insulation.
Users overall are very happy with these balaclavas, due to their strong weather protection, including warmth and wind resistance, while still being breathable. One downside users brought up is due to the construction, in which nose padding and mouth cover are separated, meaning that some users found their nose exposed to the cold. This is workable, and you can pair this balaclava with other types of facial covering to cover up this gap, but we still think that it would be better if you did not need to turn to other types of facial covering.
- Super warm performance holds up to extreme weather.
- Utilizes GORE-TEX to improve weather protection
- Small gap between nose and mouth is not ideal.
The best gaiter for running
Buff Original Multifunctional Neck Gaiter
Buff is a name so synonymous with neck and face protection on the hill that many people refer to all neck gaiters as buffs. It is easy to see why this neck warmer that became the propriety eponym for multifunctional headwear, due to its unparalleled versatility and budget price.
The idea of the multifunctional neckwear that became synonymous with a “buff,” is a tube-like piece of fabric that can be bunched, twisted, and wrapped in several different configuration to protect different parts of your head or neck.
The Buff EcoStretch is comprised of a REPEVE Performance Microfibre that is sourced of 95% recycled material and composed of 95% polyester and 5% elastane. 4-way ULTRA-STRETCH allows for constant adjustment and readjustment without misshaping the neckwear itself. This buff features a completely seamless design, improving the comfort against your skin and preventing chaffing.
The Buff EcoStretch provides many qualities that users are looking for in neck protection for winter sports including skiing and snowboarding. The EcoStretch is very moisture wicking and breathable, making it a strong choice for athletic activities. It is also decently warm as well, although probably not warm enough for the colder days on the ski hill. One last thing we have to mention: UPF 50 protection helps protect against the sun, making it great for use on the hill and during the summer.
Users think buffs are extremely useful, with upwards of twelve different ways you can wear it. Whether using it for running, cycling, or taking it out on the ski hills, you can find a configuration or two that will suit your needs.
- Extremely versatile, with 12+ ways of wearing this garment.
- Moisture-wicking, breathable, and fast drying.
- Might not be the warmest option for those sub-zero days on the hill.
The best merino-wool gaiter
Buff Lightweight Merino Neck Gaiter
Merino Wool is a material that has some impressive qualities that make it an exceptional material for athletic wear, especially for winter sports. This offering from the company Buff utilizes the natural material to great effect, in a lightweight, versatile gaiter that keeps you warm on the hill.
Like many of the neck- and face- warmers from the company, these Buffs are designed to be a versatile way to keep the wind and elements off you. This product is a loose-fitting, tube style neck warmer that can be worn in a variety of ways to suit your needs. Two-layers of Merino of 300 gr/m² make up the design of this accessory, providing strong warmth, even if damp, as well as other qualities like moisture-wicking and breathability. This buff is also anti-mircobial, so you can take it on the hills a few times without it developing a funk.
Composed of 100% Australian Merino Wool, Buff sources their wool from humanely raised, non-mulesed sheep, making sure the animals that make this wonderful material live cruelty-free lives.
Overall, users have been very happy with the quality of this neckwarmer from Buff. While these Buffs are on the pricier side, they provide impressive warmth and versatility for long days on the hill.
- Natural Merino wool provides an impressive material for use on the ski hill
- Strong moisture-wicking and insulating properties.
- On the pricier side.
The best lightweight neck gaiter
Outdoor Research Essential Lightweight Ubertube Kit
Neck gaiter-type products are one of the best choices for keeping your neck and face warm. For a warm, durable, and lightweight neck-gaiter, the Outdoor Research Essential Ubertube kit.
The Ubertube has a unique design, comprised of a tubular gaiter with a contoured face mask at the top. Ear loops allow the mask to stay in place over your mouth and nose. With a pocket to insert filters, this is dually suited to protect against the weather and meet masking requirements, however it should be noted this product has not been approved to provide antiviral protection from Health Canada.
Made from a blend of 92% recycled polyester and 8% elastane, the Ubertube offers many benefits for use on the hill. The fabric provides strong breathability, and moisture-wicking, making it a strong choice for athletic activities. The Ubertube is easily washable and quick drying. The Ubertube also provides UPF 50+ sun protection, making it a great inclusion into your ski bag, even on sunny days!
With many ski-hills requiring masking when lining up for the lift and in the resort, many users enjoyed this 2-in-1 solution for masking mandates and beating the weather. Users really complimented the sun-protection and versatility that this neck-gaiter provides. However, this is a very lightweight and thin neck-gaiter, and as a result, is very lacking in terms of warmth. While this gaiter is a strong choice for the warmer days, your might need something warmer on the colder days.
- Dedicated face mask meets masking requirements for many ski hills.
- Extreme breathability and moisture wicking properties.
- Easily washable and quick drying.
- Not very warm.
The best gaiter for skiing
Smartwool Neck Gaiter 250
Merino wool offers exceptional thermal properties, making it easy to see why the Smartwool Neck Gaiter 250 is our choice for the best neck gaiter for skiing. No matter the conditions on the hill, this neck gaiter keeps you warm and dry.
This gaiter is constructed with a double-layer, interlocking knit improving the strength, warmth, and versatility. Cleanly knit seams reduce bulk and friction against your skin, allowing you to bundle up this gaiter in many different ways. Made from 100% Merino Wool, this gaiter provides all of the benefits of the wonderful material – strong moisture wicking and breathability, incredible insulation even when damp, and anti-microbial properties so you can wear it multiple days in a row without your friends wanting to take a different chairlift than you.
The midweight design of this gaiter provides a happy-medium between warmth and versatility. Users overall loved the warmth and softness of this gaiter. Users loved wearing this gaiter, finding it perfect for taking on all sorts of conditions you might find on a hill. However, the pure Merino construction made this gaiter not very good at staying in place. Maybe Smartwool should look to implement a material with more elasticity to improve this one slight downside.
- Warm, double-layer knit construction.
- 100% ethically sourced Merino wool is a responsible choice.
- Some users found this gaiter does not like to stay in place.
When looking at face protection, we found that users are looking primarily for warmth, with fit, versatility, and price being secondary qualities that are desirable.
But let’s get back to that first quality. What does it mean to be warm? Face protection like balaclavas and neck-gaiters need to meet certain criteria to provide warmth all-day on the ski hill or while doing other outdoor activities. Insulation or more specifically, the type of insulation and amount of insulation, is the main factor of warmth. However, the degree that the garment insulates and stays warm when wet (which might happen quickly on a day on the ski hill) is just as important. Breathability and moisture wicking are qualities that influence warmth too.
We put over 12 hours in the research of the creation of this list. We carefully read through the specs of each product, referred to product reviews from our peers, and read through countless user reviews of each product. We only considered products with an average rating of 4 stars or higher, to ensure user satisfaction.
Frequently Asked Question
What is a balaclava?
Balaclavas are a type of winter headgear distinct for its full face covering, which usually only exposes the eyes, mouth, and sometimes nose. A typical balaclava may have individual eyeholes and a mouth hole, one large hole for both eyes, or a hole for your entire face. Balaclavas are excellent at keeping your whole face warm. Some types of balaclava can also be supremely versatile, letting you wear in different configurations.
To wear a balaclava, you can pull it over your entire face, or roll it up, among other variations.
What is a neck gaiter?
Neck gaiters, also known by names such as “buffs” or “tubes,” look like long tubes, that fit over your head, and sit kind of like a scarf does. However, gaiters fit tighter to your neck, with no overhang, making them immensely safer for winter activities, like skiing and snowmobiling.
How to wear a ski buff?
One reason neck gaiters or ski buffs are so popular is the incredible versatility that they offer. You can wear a ski buff in countless ways, by folding and wrapping the gaiter in different configurations. For a super helpful guide with instructions and images that explain the different ways you can wear a buff, we suggest checking out this article from Cool of the Wild.
Where to buy a balaclava, neck gaiter, or ski buff?
Any ski store and most athletic stores will have a selection of full-face winter protection. However, countless online marketplaces like Amazon or your favourite athletic store’s site, like MEC or Atmosphere.
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