Balaclava vs neck gaiter: which is best for winter sports?

woman adjusting ski helmet
Do you want the full-coverage bank robber chic of the classic balaclava or the simpler tube of stretchy fabric that is the now-ubiquitous neck gaiter? (Image credit: The Good Brigade)

As the cold weather wears on, you end up covering more and more of your body each time you step outside. At first, it’s a running jacket for your morning jog. Soon, you wouldn't consider hiking without a beanie hat and hiking gloves. Before you know it, you’re wearing a base layer and thermal underwear beneath your outerwear and discovering the joys of windproof ski pants even when you're not actually skiing. 

Eventually, the only skin that’s left exposed to the cold air is your face and, with frostbite being the last thing you want to content with this winter, you find yourself at the local gear shop holding a balaclava in one hand and a neck gaiter in the other, wondering which to choose. Do you want to full-coverage bank robber chic of the classic balaclava or the simpler tube of stretchy fabric that is the now-ubiquitous neck gaiter? We weigh in on the balaclava vs neck gaiter question to help you decide which is best for winter sports.

snowboarder covered in snow smiling in winter

If you’re not seeking warmth, we’re not really sure why you’d be considering a balaclava or a neck gaiter in the first place (Image credit: ArtistGNDphotography)

Balaclava vs neck gaiter: warmth and protection

If you’re not seeking warmth, we’re not really sure why you’d be considering a balaclava or a neck gaiter in the first place and both options will definitely help keep you toasty. How warm they are of course depends in part on the fabric they’re made from – either one can be found in merino wool which is naturally insulating, while one made from cotton may not be so warm. But overall, the better coverage of a balaclava gives it a definite edge of a neck gaiter in the warmth department. The right balaclava will cover your head, neck, ears and the majority of your face, and have a snug fit to trap body heat, whereas a neck gaiter is a bit looser, but great for keeping the drafts out of your neck area. You can pull a neck gaiter up to cover the bottom half of your face, and there’s even a way to wear them like a balaclava, but doing so won't keep out quite as much cold air.

For the same reasons as it provides better warmth, a balaclava also provides better overall protection from windchill and frostbite (especially if worn with ski goggles) and does a great job of protecting your skin against the sun’s harmful UV rays on those bitterly cold, bright winter days. With a neck gaiter, the chances are that a bit more of your skin will be left exposed unless you get really creative.

Two women laugh on a ski lift

With a neck gaiter, the chances are that a bit more of your skin will be left exposed, but these two don't seem to mind (Image credit: Daniel Milchev)

Balaclava vs neck gaiter: weight and packability

If you’re unfamiliar with these two garments, discovering that a balaclava provides more coverage and warmth may lead you to think it’s heavier and bulkier. It’s not. Assuming you’re comparing a balaclava and neck gaiter that are meant for winter sports, and not one of those thick snood-like fashion balaclavas, both will be made using thin, lightweight material and will easily stash in the pocket of your ski jacket.

Balaclava vs neck gaiter: versatility 

While a balaclava’s design means it traps warmth and seals out drafts better, it also makes it less versatile overall. Certainly, a balaclava with a bigger opening means you can pull it down to free your nose and mouth, or up for more coverage, but besides that and the ability to rob a bank without being recognized, it doesn't offer you many other options. 

A neck gaiter, on the other hand, is basically a tube of material which means it has tons more uses than just an alternative to a balaclava or a scarf, and can be useful in both summer and winter. It can be a hairband, sweatband, wristband and face mask for the next pandemic, too (a balaclava would be overkill unless you plan on quarantining in Siberia). Curious? Learn more in our article 7 ways to wear a neck gaiter for hikers and runners.

Dumgoyne Hill Loop" Fiona on Dumgoyne summit

A neck gaiter can also be a hairband (Image credit: Fiona Russell)

Balaclava vs neck gaiter: breathability

Like warmth, breathability will be influenced by the fabric your balaclava or neck gaiter is made from, and it’s safe to say that for either option, you’ll want to find one that’s made from a material that is both breathable and moisture wicking. You can tell a breathable fabric because you can see the light through it when you hold it up, but cotton and bamboo are both breathable and hold onto moisture, which isn’t great if you’re breathing heavily inside your mask. Go for merino wool, nylon or polyester which all pull moisture away from your skin and dry quickly.

All of that said, because a neck gaiter isn’t so tight and can be pulled down more easily, it’s probably easier to breathe (or at least, it feels that way) when wearing one than a balaclava which potentially covers your mouth and nose and can feel like it’s suffocating you if you’re already sensitive in that department.

Man in snowboard mask helmet and balaclava

Make sure your balaclava is made using breathable, moisture wicking material! (Image credit: Vera_Petrunina)

Balaclava vs neck gaiter: goggle fog 

If you’re going to be skiing and snowboarding, you’re going to be wearing your neck gaiter or balaclava with a pair of ski goggles to protect your eyes. If worn incorrectly, this can mean you end up with foggy ski goggles, which is both annoying and dangerous, but it’s possible to avoid this. Tucking either your balaclava or neck gaiter into the bottom of your ski goggles can funnel your breath up inside your goggles, so with both options, either leave it untucked or just barely seal it in under the very bottom part of the foam. If your goggles still steam up, something else might be causing the problem. Learn more about how to stop ski goggles from fogging.

Balaclava vs neck gaiter: price 

A quick look at REI’s selection of balaclavas (opens in new tab) revealed them to be priced between about $26 and $65, while their selection of neck gaiters (opens in new tab) will set you back between $19.95 and $65. So on the lowest end, you can find a neck gaiter for a bit cheaper than a balaclava, they’re definitely in a similar ballpark pricewise.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Balaclava vs neck gaiter
Header Cell - Column 0 BalaclavaNeck gaiter
Warmth and protectionSnug fit and better coverage means it traps heat and seals out draftsLooser fit and less coverage means some drafts will sneak in, and less body heat gets trapped
Weight and packabilityAny balaclava meant for winter sports should be lightweight and packableAny neck gaiter meant for winter sports should be lightweight and packable
VersatilityCan really only be used in very cold weather for covering your head and neckHas a variety of uses in summer and winter, from face and neck coverage to a hairband, sweatband, wrist band and more
BreathabilityIt can feel harder to breathe if covering your nose and mouthLooser fit and less coverage makes it easier to breath
Goggle fogCan cause goggle fog if worn incorrectlyCan cause goggle fog if worn incorrectly
Price$26 - $65$20 - $65

Balaclava vs neck gaiter: the verdict 

This one comes down to a mix of personal preference, what you plan to do in it and what kind of temperatures you’re expecting. For seriously cold weather, you’ll appreciate the full protection of a balaclava, but only if you can stand having something covering your nose and mouth. If you’re not looking at any extreme cold and want something versatile, a neck gaiter is the way to go.

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.