The best balaclavas 2023: for skiing, snowboarding and all kinds of coldplay

Collage of the best balaclavas
(Image credit: Future)

If you ski or snowboard in all weather, you’ll need one of the best balaclavas in your gear quiver. Made to keep you warm and protect your face from frostbite, windburn and extreme cold, a hood-style balaclava covers your head, ears, nose, mouth and neck. The best balaclavas are made from a breathable material to prevent your ski goggles or sunglasses from fogging, and most can be pulled down below your chin if you’re too warm, or they can be partially pulled off and worn like a neck gaiter.

The term “balaclava” was coined in the mid-1800s during the Crimean War when – after the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, where British troops suffered terribly from cold – Brits at home started knitting clothes for the troops, including wool caps, dubbed balaclavas.

Traditionally, balaclavas are worn under a ski, bike or climbing helmet. Nowadays some brands also make balaclavas that go over a helmet. Fabric neck gaiters, sometimes called 'buffs' (though that's actually a brand name), are also sometimes worn as a balaclava, pulled over the head and left high to protect the top of the head, ears and cheeks, with almost as much coverage as a true balaclava.

The best technical balaclavas

Skida Stealth Balaclava

(Image credit: Skida)

Skida Stealth Balaclava

A fantastic do-everything balaclava

Specifications

List price: $38 (US) / Not currently available in the UK
Style: Hood
Materials: Brushed thermal poly-spandex fabric with moisture management and anti-microbial technology

Reasons to buy

+
Available in many colors
+
Kids’ sizes available
+
Adjustable without being baggy

Reasons to avoid

-
Can slide over your eyes if not adjusted properly

Made for skiers by skiers, Skida’s balaclava is ergonomically sewn to fit the head without being too loose or too tight. It’s hinged at the cheeks for easy adjustment, so you can pull it down and wear it as a neck tube if you don’t need full coverage. The neck is cut long enough that this balaclava doesn’t ride up under a jacket. The flatlock seams stretch with the brushed, soft-on-the-face, breathable fabric. And this balaclava comes in a rainbow of colors and patterns, as well as sizes for children and adults. On test the hood was super comfortable under a hat or helmet. It’s designed in Vermont and made in the US.

Outdoor Research Vigor Plus Balaclava

(Image credit: Outdoor Research)

Outdoor Research Vigor Plus Balaclava

The best warm balaclava

Specifications

List price: $45 (US) / £44.99 (UK)
Style: Hinged hood
Weight: 69g / 2.5oz
Materials: Bluesign approved 93% recycled polyester, 7% spandex, 75D stretch woven fleece with grid interior
Colors: Black / Nimbus

Reasons to buy

+
Extremely warm
+
Different sizes available
+
Adjustable

Reasons to avoid

-
Less versatile than a tube

Made from a mid-heavyweight grid-backed recycled fleece, this balaclava is one of the warmest ones out there. The hood has a hinge that allows for loads of adjustability in changing weather, so it won’t feel restrictive, but it also won’t slide to cover your eyes. 

The Vigor Plus balaclava is made from Outdoor Research’s new 93% recycled polyester fleece. The exterior is woven for stretch and mobility. The high-loft grid interior is super warm, and also extremely breathable. It won’t ice up and be hard to breathe through like some other fabrics. It’s also low bulk and comfortable under a helmet or a hat. Thanks to the woven exterior, this balaclava is water-resistant, wind-resistant and has four-way stretch. 

Black Diamond Coefficient LT Balaclava

(Image credit: Black Diamond)

Black Diamond Coefficient LT Balaclava

Best balaclava for ski mountaineers

Specifications

List price: $40 (US) / £50 (UK)
Style: Hood
Weight: 119gsm
Materials: Polartec Powergrid polyester stretch grid back fleece
Colors: Black

Reasons to buy

+
Extremely light
+
Dries fast
+
Fits well under a helmet
+
Easy to breathe through

Reasons to avoid

-
Binding on the cheek-to-cheek flap quite tight
-
Not a lot of wind protection offered

This balaclava is the highest warmth-to-weight balaclava, and it’s the lightest balaclava you can buy. Black Diamond’s Coefficient LT Balaclava is made from Polartec Powergrid polyester stretch grid back fleece, one of the most technical materials of any balaclava. It’s a see-through thin-grid fleece is über breathable, quite durable and it dries fast. Made for ski mountaineers and others who count the ounces on their bodies and in their packs, this balaclava will keep frost from forming on your face, and it will take the bite out of winter weather. It didn’t have as much wind protection as some other balaclavas, but it still got the job done. It’s cut trim and comes in one size. If you have a larger head, it may be too snug. 

Best over-helmet balaclava

The North Face Whimzy Powder Hood

(Image credit: The North Face)

The North Face Whimzy Powder Hood

The TNF Whimzy provides warmth without being tight

Specifications

List price: $40 (US) / £35 (UK)
Style: Over-helmet hood
Materials: 100% recycled polyester fleece with a WindWall 100% polyester with a durable water-repellent finish overlay
Colors: Lavender Fog / TNF Black

Reasons to buy

+
Two sizes available
+
Windproof
+
Water-repelling

Reasons to avoid

-
Bulkier than other balaclavas

Not every skier or rider likes the feel of a balaclava worn under a helmet. If you’ve found other balaclavas to be claustrophobic or just uncomfortable, The North Face’s Whimzy Powder Hood provides the same level of protection without the tight fit. 

Designed to be worn over a helmet, but also suitable for wearing alone, the Whimzy blocks flurries, biting wind and cold without feeling as tight and confining as an under-helmet balaclava. The fleece hood and neck cover has a wind-blocking panel around the perimeter of the hood providing extra weather protection for your face. A toggled shock cord adjusts it. The panel is treated with DWR to bead water. 

Inside the hood, a fleece flap pulls up to cover your lower cheeks and mouth. If you buy it sized for over a helmet, it might be baggy if you choose to wear it without a helmet. But thankfully the Whimzy comes in two sizes, so you can pick your starting point for fit. The hood is made with recycled polyester. 

Best tube-style head protectors

Smartwool Thermal Merino Long Neck Gaiter

(Image credit: Smartwool)

Smartwool Thermal Merino Long Neck Gaiter

Best double-duty balaclava/neck gaiter

Specifications

List price: $35 (US) / £32.99 (UK)
Style: Tube
Weight: 60g
Materials: Merino
Colors: Brown / Blue

Reasons to buy

+
Long cut provides max coverage
+
Natural odor control

Reasons to avoid

-
Doesn’t dry as fast as some synthetics

The Long Neck Gaiter is made from Smartwool’s heaviest-weight, double-layer, interlock-knit Merino, and if you love the stink-busting warmth of natural fibers, there’s no better protection from the cold. 

While the Long Neck Gaiter isn’t a true balaclava, it’s easy to wear balaclava-style because it’s so long. Pull it over your head and the stretchy Merino tube is long enough to cover your neck with the top of the tube still goes over your ears, nose and mouth. Some skiers and riders prefer tube-style coverage over a proper hooded balaclava because it’s easier to slide down or take off as the day warms up without removing your helmet. It’s also a piece you can wear all season long as a neck gaiter. For some skiers, that means it’s more likely you’ll have it on hand when the weather changes and you want another layer as quickly as possible.

Best budget head protectors

Buff Polar Neckwarmer

(Image credit: Buff)

Buff Polar Neckwarmer

An affordable layer of protection for your head and neck

Specifications

List price: $19 (US) / £26.95 (UK)
Style: Tube
Weight: 66g / 2.3oz
Materials: Fleece (91% Recycled polyester)
Colors: Embers / Garble Bark / Black / Blue / Red / Various patterns

Reasons to buy

+
Cheap
+
Versatile
+
Cut so that it stays on without feeling confining

Reasons to avoid

-
A little more length would be more protective

When nothing but fleece will do, this soft, recycled fleece-lined tube provides cozy, quick-drying warmth. The high-stretch, highly insulating fleece is great for extremely cold days when you need its thickness to block the cold. It’s just long enough to cover your ears while also protecting your neck, though a little extra length would make it easier to use this tube as a hybrid neck warmer balaclava substitute. It’s itch-free, and easy to get on and off. And you can feel good about buying Buff’s Polar Neck Warmer. It keeps two plastic bottles out of the landfill. 

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Best balaclava
BalaclavaPriceStyleMaterials
Skida Stealth Balaclava$38 (US)HoodBrushed thermal poly-spandex fabric with moisture management and anti-microbial technology
Outdoor Research Vigor Plus Balaclava$45 (US) / £44.99 (UK) Hinged hoodBluesign approved 93% recycled polyester, 7% spandex, 75D stretch woven fleece with grid interior
Black Diamond Coefficient LT Balaclava$40 (US) / £50 (UK) HoodPolartec Powergrid polyester stretch grid back fleece
The North Face Whimzy Powder Hood $40 (US) / £35 (UK)Over-helmet hood100% recycled polyester fleece with a WindWall 100% polyester with a durable water-repellent finish overlay
Smartwool Thermal Merino Long Neck Gaiter$35 (US) / £32.99 (UK)TubeMerino
Buff Polar Neckwarmer$19 (US) / £26.95 (UK) TubeFleece (91% Recycled polyester)

How we tested the best balaclavas

Each of the balaclavas featured in this buying guide was tested in person by our expert reviewer on the mountainsides and ski slopes of Vermont and elsewhere. 

Choosing the best balaclava for you

snowboarder covered in snow smiling in winter

Proper hood-style balaclavas provide the most warmth (Image credit: ArtistGNDphotography)

The most important thing when choosing the best balaclava is to pick one based on what’s most comfortable for you. A proper hood-style balaclava will provide the most warmth. A neck tube won’t cover the top of your head, but it’s easier to pull down if you get too hot. If finances allow, buy more than one – that way you'll always have a clean one, you'll have options for different weather – and different kits – and you can pick the one that suits your mood on any given day. A balaclava is a great accessory for adding a little style or color to your kit too. Consider the following factors:

Fit

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Not every balaclava fits every head. Get one that’s snug but not tight, and that fits comfortably under your ski helmet. Ideally, try before you buy.

Man in snowboard mask helmet and balaclava

The best balaclavas are breathable to prevent goggles from misting up (Image credit: Vera_Petrunina)

Style & thickness

Balaclavas are made in many thicknesses. A thinner-style balaclava will fit better with a helmet. If you’re not a fan of tight fabric around your face, opt for an over-helmet, not an under-helmet style. If you want to be able to pull your balaclava down when you warm up, go for one that’s hinged at the cheeks, not one that has a sewn circular opening. Hinged balaclavas can be worn around the neck without feeling confining. Neck tubes are also a great choice for skiers and riders who want full coverage but also want to be able to vent.

Fabrics

Carefully consider the material your balaclava is made from. Choose one made from a quick-dry material so that moisture buildup over your covered nose and mouth will dissipate quickly. Merino is naturally odor resistant, but it doesn’t typically dry as quickly as synthetics (and synthetic balaclavas come in a rainbow of colors).

Berne Broudy

Vermont-based writer, photographer and adventurer, Berne reports on hiking, biking, skiing, overlanding, travel, climbing and kayaking for category-leading publications in the U.S., Europe and beyond. In the field, she’s been asked to deliver a herd of llamas to a Bolivian mountaintop corral, had first fat-biking descents in Alaska, helped establish East Greenland’s first sport climbing and biked the length of Jordan. She’s worked to help brands clean up their materials and manufacturing, and has had guns pulled on her in at least three continents.