Balaclava Vs Neck Gaiter Vs Beanie – Staying Warm From The Neck Up


Running in cold weather offers many benefits. It burns more calories, improves circulation, and can even improve the immune system.

But in order to reap those benefits, it’s essential that you gear up properly for the cold. There’s no use burning more calories if you’re fighting off frostbite!

Your basic winter running outfit should include warm running tights (with or without a layer on top), a long-sleeved base layer shirt, a jacket, gloves, and warm socks.

When it comes to keeping your head and neck warm, there are a few different options. How do you choose between a balaclava, neck gaiter, or beanie?

Each has its pros and cons, which we’ll discuss below. They’re all fairly different, so one may work better than the others for your needs and preferences.

It’s important to note that balaclavas and neck gaiters are NOT suitable as personal protective equipment!


A balaclava, sometimes known as a running mask or ski mask, is a head covering that leaves only the eyes and sometimes the nose and mouth exposed.


A balaclava is one of the warmest head/neck coverings you can find. It keeps both the head and neck protected from rain, wind and icy air in winter weather.

One of the best things about a balaclava is that it covers as much of your head as possible without hampering your breathing. There’s an opening in the front of the balaclava that allows your nose and possibly your mouth to remain uncovered, so you can breathe easily.

You can wear a balaclava by itself. But you can also wear it as a base layer, adding a cap or beanie on top of it if you need more warmth.


The biggest downside to a balaclava is that it’s hard to get on and off while you’re on the move. Because it covers so much of your head and neck, getting it on and off can be a bit of a pain.

When you get going on your run, even in the cold, it can be easy to overheat. When your face is almost entirely covered, warm air can become trapped inside and you can start to overheat.

If this happens, you may need to stop running for a few seconds to take your balaclava off.

Neck Gaiter

A neck gaiter is an unobtrusive, scarf-like neck covering that protects your neck from wind and cold. Nothing chills you quite like a sneaky breeze down the back of your neck!


A neck gaiter is usually great at keeping your neck warm and preventing breezes from getting in. It’s usually a one-piece, circular type of scarf that slips over your head and sits around the neck.

You can leave it just around your neck, or you can pull it up to cover your mouth and nose. The gaiter may not sit tightly around your mouth and nose, though, which could cause irritation as you run.

Be aware that they come in both thin and thicker varieties. If you have a thin one, it’s better suited to keeping your neck cool in summer and may not work as well in cold weather.

They come in many styles and colors, so it’s easy to find something that suits you. An added benefit is their versatility. Gaiters can be worn many ways – around the neck, but also as a headband, as a make-shift balaclava, or other ways.


Although neck gaiters can usually stretch over the mouth and nose, they’re not usually stretchy enough to fit over the neck, face, and head. Even if it could stretch that much, neck gaiters aren’t made with a mouth/nose hole!

Most of the time, you can use a neck gaiter to cover your neck, mouth, and nose, or your head. Not all at the same time.

A neck gaiter can also be tricky to take off mid-run if you begin to get too warm. It’s a bonus, though, that it’s very easy to carry – simply loop it around your wrist or forearm.


A beanie is a simple head covering. You won’t find any neck protection with a beanie, but it’s a great, warm head covering. We lose most of our body heat through our heads, so keeping your head toasty is important.


A beanie is usually made from soft, warm material. It’s a great way to keep your head snug and protected from the elements. Most of the time, a beanie will also offer some protection for the ears. Wind can wreak havoc on the ears, especially in the cold.

One big advantage a beanie has over a balaclava is that it’s super easy to put on and remove as you’re running. It’s usually small enough to stick in a pocket when you’re not using it, so you don’t have to carry it around in your hand if you take it off during your run.

Beanies also come in a variety of materials, colors, and styles. It’s not difficult to find something pleasing to your eye and comfortable on your head.


You won’t get as much protection from a beanie as you would with a balaclava. Your face and neck remain uncovered, and in some cases your ears may only be half-covered, leaving you with frozen earlobes.

What Are They Made From?

These head and neck coverings are made from a variety of materials. It often depends on the brand, but two of the most common materials are a synthetic polyester and Lycra blend, and merino wool.

Synthetic Polyester & Lycra

This is the more common fabric mix due to its relative affordability. It’s easy to make apparel in this fabric in plenty of styles and colors. Runners will appreciate the quick-drying nature of beanies, balaclavas, and neck gaiters made of synthetics.

The downside is that the material may begin to retain odors. If you’ve had your gear for a while, you may find that no amount of washing removes the smell. Some runners may be okay with this, but others may be unhappy with it.

Merino Wool

Merino wool is a newish fabric that sportspeople love for its temperature-regulating properties. It keeps you warm in the cold (and wet) but also regulates your own temperature so there’s less chance of you overheating.

Merino wool also doesn’t retain odor! It’s also known for being super soft and comfortable to wear.

You’ll end up paying more for these features though – Merino wool is somewhat more expensive than other fabrics. Because of its softness, it can also be easy to accidentally poke holes in it, which can lead to tears. If you choose to go for Merino wool, take good care of it.

How to Look After Your Neck/Head Warmer

Keep It Clean

Regardless of what type of neck or head warmer you have, keeping it clean is important. It can be easy to forget to wash these, as they almost count as accessories rather than clothing items!

You don’t need to wash your beanie/balaclava/neck gaiter after every use. If you’ve taken a light run and not sweated much, then it’s probably safe to go unwashed. If, however, you’ve been on a long, intense run or you’ve sweated a fair amount, it’s best to throw it in the wash along with your other gear.

Remember, you’re wearing this over your face. You want it to be as clean as possible so you aren’t breathing in whatever nasty stuff may be in there.

Machine Wash

You can wash your neck or head covering in the washing machine, but you may not be able to wash them with your other gear. It’s usually best to wash both polyester/Lycra and merino wool products on a gentle, cold cycle.

When you buy your neck or head covering, it’s best to check the manufacturer’s recommendations before washing. They’ll often include some information about how best to wash your apparel.

Air Dry

Because they’re small and sometimes made of more fragile material, it’s never advisable to put your beanie, balaclava, or neck gaiter in the dryer.

We recommend hanging them up to dry naturally. Usually, it won’t take long.

Which One is Best for You?

All three of these neck and head coverings are great options. They’re obviously all different and have features that may make them more or less appealing to you.

But in the end, the head/neck warmer that’s best for you will depend largely on personal preference. If you dislike a head covering but need to keep your neck warm, a neck gaiter would be the best choice.

Runners who feel restricted with something around their neck may opt for a beanie instead.

Those who want the most comprehensive coverage will benefit from a balaclava.

Photo of author


Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.