This post explains the key features you should check out when choosing the best cycling balaclava for your needs. Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist wanted a great cycling balaclava, and I didn’t want her to have anything but the best. So I spent many, many hours researching how to choose the right cycling balaclava. I discovered that there are several key issues to take into account when choosing the best cycling balaclava. This post explains these issues, so that you can easily pick out the best cycling balaclava for your climate and your needs.
Will the Cycling Balaclava Keep Your Neck Warm?
The most common complaint about cycling balaclavas is that the balaclava turned out to be too short. As a result, it did not fully cover the neck. For me, this is the most important aspect to consider. Your neck is full of very important, very big veins. If these get cold, YOU will get cold. If the cycling balaclava is not long enough to tuck into the neck of your winter jacket, then it’s not going to keep you warm. Usually you can easily assess this aspect from the product pictures.
You’re going to have freezing air hitting your neck, which is NOT going to be fun. Or you will be forced to wear a scarf as well. However, the whole point of a cycling balaclava is to be an all-in-one solution to keep your head and neck warm. So look at the neck length first and foremost.
Alternative Option: A Snuggly Neck Gaiter
A neck gaiter is a warm and snuggly alternative to a balaclava For those who don’t like wearing balaclavas, or for times of the year when it is not cold enough to need one, a neck gaiter is a great alternative. It functions like a scarf to keep your neck snuggly and warm, but does not have any dangerous dangly bits (you do NOT want to go the way of Isadora Duncan!).
The best neck gaiter I have tried is the Heat Holders neck gaiter. It is super warm, and also very soft against the skin, thanks to the fleece lining. Heat Holders also makes super-warm, super-soft socks, scarves, gloves, tights and toques.
Chart Showing Our Picks for the Best Cycling Balaclava
This chart is extracted from our post called 7 of the Best Cycling Balaclavas to Keep Your Head Warm this Winter.
Variable size eye hole depending on configuration
10% Windshield Windproof Fleece
Hinged construction allows for multi function features, wear as balaclava or neck tube
Can be worn alone but also works very well under a helmet
Laser cut breathing panel with mesh for superior air exchange
Lycra binding around the face to seal out the elements
Flat lock seams and 3D panel construction
Breathe through windproof face mask, or pull down the hinged mask
Small hole but mouthpiece can be pulled down as material is stretchy (no hinge)
Barrier panel over the forehead and ears insulates from windchill, and works in conjunction with P.R.O. Thermal to wick moisture and keep your head dry.
with reflective elements.
P.R.O. Transfer fabric provides optimal stretch, recovery, compression, and moisture transfer.
11% Spandex Knit.
Thermodynamic fabric; durable nylon face and looped polyester interior. Smooth, stretchy polypropylene fabric offers light insulation and excellent moisture management.
(85% Nylon,15% Elastane,
Meshed thermo-stretch panel over mouth; small hole under nostrils
Will You be Able to Breathe Wearing a Cycling Balaclava?
The second-most common complaint in reviews of cycling balaclavas has to do with breathing. Many people complain that they cannot breathe well enough to cycle while wearing a balaclava.
The main reason for this is that people wear balaclavas for different activities. The same balaclava that works very well for a motor cyclist might not work very well for a cyclist, because the cyclist needs to breathe much harder.
So the second aspect to consider when picking your cycling balaclava is whether you will be able to breathe enough to ride your bike.
Ways to Breathe while Wearing Balaclavas
Different manufacturers approach the issue in different ways. A common method is simply to cut out a giant hole for the nose and mouth. While this is effective in enabling you to breathe, it may be less than effective for keeping your mouth and nose warm in super-cold conditions. Some kind of compromise between nothing and an impermeable cover seems to be required!
Manufacturers use various sizes of holes for breathing and eyes, ranging from very large to extremely small. Choosing among these will come down to a balance between how cold your ride is, how well you want to be able to see and breathe, and how claustrophobic you get.
Some balaclavas have a hinged nose and mouthpiece that you can pull down to enable you to breathe deeply from time to time. In my experience this simple solution works really well. This is how our top choice in cycling balaclavas, the very affordable Chaos CTR Tempest balaclava, is designed. It works very well.
Some Balaclavas Make it Easier to Breathe
The Outdoor Research Option Balaclava is very stretchy and could be a great option if you want a mask you can easily pull down. Users pull it around to cover more or less of their faces, as needed.
If you prefer a balaclava with a hinged mouth to make it easier to pull down, the hinged Chaos-CTR Tempest Balaclava is a great one to try.
Many balaclavas enable breathing with ingenious combinations of design and textiles. For example, the part that fits over your mouth and nose often has tiny vents for breathing, as with the Gore Bike Wear balaclava mask.
However, some reviewers complain that those vents are insufficient, and that they cannot breathe enough. If you don’t have a hinged option to pull the balaclava downwards, that could get really claustrophobic. Of course, you could also just make the holes a bit bigger, which some people do via the simple method of sticking a ballpoint pen through the holes!
Will You be Able to Wipe Your Nose while Wearing a Cycling Balaclava?
Another problem that cyclists may experience while wearing a balaclava is that they cannot wipe their nose. This might not sound like much of a problem – until the extreme cold is causing your nose to run, and you have frozen snot stuck to your upper lip or your mustache. Trust me, this is NOT fun.
If this might be a problem for you, look for a hinged mask that enables you to access your nose, such as the Chaos-CTR Tempest Balaclava (above). OR go with something super slim and stretchy (and cheap) such as the Friendly Swede Face Mask Sports Balaclava. The super stretchiness enables you to wear the Friendly Swede in multiple different ways.
Will you be able to see while wearing a Cycling Balaclava?
Some balaclavas have relatively small holes for the eyes. This will keep you warmer, but it may mean that you have a limited range of vision. So think about this as well. Look at the size of the eye holes, and think about how much you move your eyes around while cycling.
For example, if you ride a road bike your eyes you need more flexibility: you need to be able to look in different directions, depending if your hands are in the drops or on top of the handlebar. So that would mean you need bigger eye holes.
On the other hand, if you ride a hybrid your eyes will not need to move around as much, as you will usually stay upright all the time. So you might be able to get away with smaller eye holes. However, for safety reasons, I have not included any of the balaclavas with tiny eye holes in my top picks.
Will You be Able To Wear Glasses with your Cycling Balaclava?
A lot of cyclists complain that if they wear a balaclava, their glasses constantly fog up. This can be a real problem. The balaclava may funnel warm air straight upwards and cause serious fogging problems. Consider this aspect if you need to wear glasses while cycling.
One solution (but it is not cheap) is to buy cycling glasses with air vents. Read my review of the excellent Adidas cycling glasses here – they work very well with a balaclava. They are not cheap, but mine are nine years old, and still in perfect shape.
Will a Winter Balaclava Keep you Warm?
This is of course a key question. And this is where choosing the right balaclava can get really tricky. A wide variety of different textiles are used to make balaclavas, ranging from cheap polyester blends to state-of-the-art especially designed synthetics. This is where price often becomes a factor.
There are thousands of cheap balaclavas available, and most of these are made from a simple polyester blend. They will keep you warm – but they may also be so non-breathable that they will keep you way TOO warm. They may also have no wicking ability at all, so that your head will soon be soaked in sweat. And you do NOT want to be stopping in freezing conditions to take your helmet and gloves off so that you can rip off your soggy balaclava.
It may come down to a bit or trial-and-error, to find out what will work for you. And it is very likely that you will decide that you need more than one balaclava. Personally I have two beanies and two balaclavas that I use for different levels of cold. It’s easy to carry them all in your pannier, as they weigh next to nothing.
What Size Cycling Balaclava Should You Get?
Many manufacturers offer balaclavas in one-size-fits-all. This is usually OK, because all balaclavas are made from stretch fabrics. They will probably all fit the biggest head – although if you have tons of hair, you might be in trouble. I notice that some of my readers choose balaclavas that have space for ponytails!
This is definitely not a problem for me, though – turns out that there are some advantages to losing your hair! You might have a problem if your head is very small, in that there could be bunching of the material under your helmet. And I know that some people with very large heads have problems.
Note that some brands offer a range of sizes, so if your head is unusually big or small, go with one of those brands.
Do you Need a Reflective Logo on Your Balaclava?
Many winter balaclavas have reflective logos. It’s a nice little touch. But if you wear a helmet, it’s going to be invisible, so it would not help much. If you don’t wear a helmet, it could be a good thing to have. Also, you may find yourself using your balaclava on winter hikes, which I often do. In that case, reflective logos could be a useful safety feature.
Here’s To Your Warm Head!
I hope that this post helps you to pick out the perfect cycling balaclava for a warm bike ride, regardless of the weather.
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