Even if you aren’t familiar with the word “balaclava,” you’ve almost certainly seen one. This highly effective — and highly underrated — headwear is most often associated with winter sports, but it has long been worn by hunters, off-roaders and many other types of outdoor enthusiasts.
Whether you’re looking for the best balaclavas for winter, a fog free balaclava, or a top rated balaclava for summer, we’ve got you covered — literally.
History of the Balaclava
Balaclavas have a neat, historically significant origin. During the 1850s Crimean War Battle of Balaclava, conditions were especially cold. British soldiers wore knit head coverings to protect their faces from the extreme elements.
Only the soldiers’ eyes were exposed, much like modern balaclavas. Over time, the unique headwear became known as simply balaclavas. Their usefulness quickly spread to law enforcement agents, firefighters and even professional racecar drivers. Eventually other sportsmen began to seek out the best cold weather balaclavas, realizing the invaluable protection and versatility they provided.
Reviews of the Best Balaclavas for Winter
It may seem that with something designed as simply as a balaclava, they’re basically all the same. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. All balaclavas are not created equal. Here are our favorites:
1. Outdoor Research Tundra Aerogel GORE-TEX Balaclava
NASA also happens to use the very same PrimaLoft Aerogel insulation found in the Tundra balaclava. In fact, NASA invented Aerogel in the 1930s. That’s a pretty solid endorsement, making this a best balaclava for extreme cold.
The substantial design offers nearly full-face protection, while cleverly-placed Aerogel insulation inserts offer extra warmth where you need it most: the bridge of the nose, under the eyes, and along the cheekbones. A neoprene panel over the mouth with laser-cut perforations provides tough protection against wind while also preventing glasses from fogging.
2. Icebreaker Merino Oasis Balaclava
Icebreaker is synonymous with high-quality Merino wool products, including what we consider among the best cold weather balaclavas. Actually, it’s also the best balaclava for summer because, well, Merino wool is amazing.
The Oasis balaclava is well-designed with overlapping construction. This seemingly small detail protects the ears and helps the balaclava stay put. The fit is snug enough that you can wear it under a hat or helmet, but also very thin, soft, and breathable. A clever ventilation flap over the mouth improves breathability and makes this our favorite fog free balaclava.
3. Turtle Fur Chelonia 150 Fleece Shellaclava
Turtle Fur makes some of our favorite cold-weather headwear, including the best balaclavas for winter. The Chelonia 150 Shellaclava can be worn comfortably under helmets, featuring an innovative hybrid design with a lightweight technical hood and a warm fleece neck warmer.
The double-layer midweight Chelonia fleece on the neck does an excellent job of fending off wind chill, while the polyester/spandex blend hood keeps you dry. Both pieces offer UPF 50+ protection, making this a front-runner for warmest balaclava. It’s also easy to pull down the bottom portion of the balaclava and there are several colors to choose from, which is a nice bonus.
4. Smartwool Merino 250 Balaclava
Being made of 100 percent Merino wool helps make a product one of the best balaclavas for winter. Smartwool’s Merino 250 Balaclava is made of a heavier wool that’s exceptionally warm, yet extremely lightweight and breathable.
The one-piece, double-layered design provides substantial coverage, protecting the cheeks, ears, chin, and neck especially well. Because the balaclava is so lightweight, it’s ideal for wearing underneath any type of helmet or hat.
5. BUFF ThermoNet Hinged Balaclava
BUFF knows its headwear, having long given itself a unique place in the market with its product lines. For fall 2020, the company re-engineered its classic materials into something called ThermoNet, a sustainable performance fabric that blends PrimaLoft yarn, recycled REPREVE fabric, and the BUFF brand’s fabrication process to create a product that delivers four times the insulation as before.
The ThermoNet Hinged Balaclava is designed with a laser-cut VaprGrid air transport feature and an articulated stay-put wind barrier, both of which offer maximum breathability and comfortable, as well as high thermal coverage. It can be worn at three highly-worn active profiles to provide full-coverage protection from the elements headwear without added bulk or weight. As expected, it also has the four-way ultra-stretch and quick-dry characteristics you’d expect from a BUFF head piece.
Lastly, the ThermoNet Hinged Balaclava has an articulated, soft, chafe-free neck for comfortable full coverage.
6. Burton Burke Hood
The Burke Hood’s unique design looks as if it’s two separate pieces (it isn’t), an adjustable drawstring hood and a panel covering the face. Burton is a leader in extreme sports, so this balaclava for winter was thoughtfully designed to be worn over gear such as a helmet and goggles.
The balaclava is made of quick-drying, ultra-breathable DRYRIDE fleece that keeps you toasty warm. The polyester-spandex fabric blend won’t chafe your skin or pill, and hunters will appreciate that it’s extremely quiet.
7. Under Armour Men’s Coldgear Infrared Balaclava
Like most Under Armour ColdGear products, the Infrared Balaclava is ultra-thin and light, yet it keeps you exceptionally warm. This is one of our top picks for the best balaclava for extreme cold because of one key feature: the ColdGear Infrared technology.
This soft, thermo-conductive coating on the interior absorbs and retains body heat, then radiates it back onto you in a constant cycle. There’s a perforated panel that runs vertically down the front for added breathability, and you can quickly remove the head section to convert this into a neck gaiter.
Taryn Shorr is an avid outdoor enthusiast, frequent traveler, and wannabe photographer based in southern Arizona. She lives for the opportunity to explore The Great Outdoors, both at home and in new destinations, and firmly believes that nature is a form of both therapy and religion.
Feature image courtesy of BUFF
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