You can call it a ski mask. Or a ninja mask. Or a balaclava. But you’d better have one in your gear closet. “A balaclava is your one-stop-shop face protection,” says Sara Nazim, our associate product manager for accessories.
What exactly is a balaclava? It’s a close-fitting hood that combines the warmth of a beanie with the protection of neck gaiter in one sleek, low-profile piece. Some balaclavas cover the entire face except for the eyes, while some have an opening for the whole face and others have separate vents for the mouth and nose.
“You lose a lot of heat through your head and extremities,” Sara says. “A balaclava is a key layering piece that helps you maintain a comfortable temperature whether you’re in the Arctic, on a chair lift in the Spring, or if you’re biking in cold and wind.”
Frostnip and frostbite can occur at any temperature below -0.55C/31F, Sara says, and the risk is even greater when there are high winds or you’re skiing fast downhill. Balaclavas help give you that added protection and warmth to minimize frostnip and frostbite. They’re easy to put on, even in harsh conditions or with gloves on, and can coordinate with any type of kit.
Which kind of balaclava is right for you?
Our most sleek, lightweight balaclavas are the Alpine Onset, made with breathable, natural, odor-resistant merino wool, and the Option, made with a synthetic fiber with a thermoregulating treatment. Both the Alpine Onset and the Option are designed for all-day wear with a helmet. The nose and mouth are exposed to release heat and for easy eating and drinking.
Heavier options for colder weather include the Ninjaclava, Sonic and Helmetclava.
The Ninjaclava fleece is brushed for softness on the inside. Silicone grips around the eyes help hold it in place with goggles. The Ninjaclava covers both the chin and cheeks, but its overlapping design makes it easy to pull open when you need to eat or drink, or if too much heat builds up inside.
The Sonic Balaclava is specially designed for high-wind conditions. It features Gore Windstopper microfleece with Polartec Wind Pro hardface fleece over the ears for better hearing. A mesh breathing port helps keep condensation from building up.
The Helmetclava—as the name suggests—is designed for use with a climbing helmet. It’s perfect for mountaineering and other high-exertion activities in wet or windy weather. The face and neck are protected by Gore Windstopper soft shell while the crown of the head and back of the neck are made of ActiveTemp treated fleece.
For custom, adjustable protection, the Gorilla Balaclava offers the most flexibility. The nose and cheek piece is removable, and the entire face and neck can be opened. This convertible design, made of Gore-Tex Infinium Windstopper fleece is perfect for high-exertion activities or adjusting to microclimates.
And for the coldest, most extreme conditions, the new Tundra Aerogel Balaclava features NASA-tested PrimaLoft Aerogel insulation. “We did a frostbite study to understand what areas of the face are most at risk in harsh weather,” Sara says. “The nose and cheek bones are usually the first area to show signs of frostbite redness and blistering. So we designed a Primaloft Aerogel Insulation pattern piece that perfectly covers the at-risk areas.”
The Aerogel nose piece on the Tundra Aerogel, in tandem with the neoprene breathing port and Gore-Tex Infinium Windstopper fleece, make this a lightweight and protective balaclava for extreme conditions, like high-altitude mountaineering. It has a narrow eye hole that can be completely covered with goggles overlaying on top to seal in the heat.
How should a balaclava fit?
“You know your balaclava fits if you feel comfortable moving and breathing in it and it provides enough protection for the environment you’ll be in,” Sara says.
Sara recommends trying it on with goggles, glasses or a helmet if you’re planning on wearing it with them. “Move your head left to right, up and down, do some jumping jacks, and see if it still sits where you want it. You don’t want lifts or gaps around the face, the edge of the balaclava should sit comfortably or slightly snug.”
Start with our Size and Fit Guide for Hats, and go from there.
Whether you’re driving a snow machine through the arctic tundra or skipping work for a powder day at your local ski hill, a balaclava is the key to comfort in any sort of cold conditions.