Wind can be a dangerous weapon on a runner’s face. Anyone who lives and runs in a cold place will know that! Even when the wind isn’t slicing a runner’s face to shreds, just the cold, icy air can be enough to cause frostbite symptoms.
Enter the balaclava. No cold weather running gear set is complete without one of these face-savers. Once you add one of these to your stash, you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.
Our top choice is the Smartwool Merino 250 Balaclava. It’s simple but effective, and is double-layered to make sure you stay as warm as possible without overheating.
Here are our picks for the best cold weather running masks to keep you safe and cozy.
Top 3 Best and Favorites
Smartwool Merino 250 Balaclava
Under Armour ColdGear Infrared Balaclava
Pearl Izumi Barrier Balaclava
Best Overall Merino Wool
1. Smartwool Merino 250 Balaclava
Merino wool is a super-soft type of wool. Wool may conjure up images of warm, cuddly little sheep hopping from rock to rock in snowy conditions, and that’s partly right. But wool isn’t the thick, stuffy material some think of it as.
Merino wool, in particular, has some superb properties that make it great for running wear. For a start, it’s much softer and less scratchy than other wools, so this one will go easy on your face.
It’s also moisture-wicking, which means if you do get a little warm, your balaclava won’t get soaked. Even if it does, it’s quick-drying, so your face, neck, and ears can stay as dry as possible.
One of the other awesome things about Merino wool is that it doesn’t hold odor. Even if it does get sweaty, you’ll still smell sweet.
This particular balaclava is made with an interlocking knit and double layers. It keeps warmth in and cold out. Merino wool is thermoregulating, so you’ll most likely be kept at just the right temperature.
It’s also unusually breathable for wool. Not only will it keep the airflow going and not make you feel like you’re fighting for breath, but if you’re wearing sunglasses, they shouldn’t fog up.
The only downside to Merino wool is the price. It’s definitely pricier than other fabrics, but if you have the means, the benefits that come with it are well worth it.
- Machine washable
- Simple, easy to use design
- Odor resistance
- It’s a little pricey for a simple balaclava
Runner-Up Top Merino Wool
2. Icebreaker Merino Oasis Balaclava
This balaclava is also crafted from lightweight Merino wool, but it’s slightly different in design than the previous one. It’s created using an overlap design, adding stability and, according to the manufacturer, better protection against the elements.
One of things we like about this particular balaclava is the addition of a ventilation flap over the mouth. If you’re a runner who struggles with a covered mouth but suffers in the cold, you may like this one.
The flatlock seams lie flat against the skin, preventing chafing, which is especially helpful in icy weather. It’s slightly longer in the front than in it at the back, which provides great neck protection. Some customers have reported it being a little short at the back, though.
Like our top option, it’s lightweight and easy to wear under a helmet if you do other sports in addition to running. It doesn’t retain odor, and it’s easy to throw in the washing machine after use.
It’s available in black and grey. Although it only comes in one size, it should fit most heads—some people may find it a little tight or too loose to stay properly warm, though.
- Near full coverage
- Flatlock seams reduce chafing
- Midweight insulation
- Ventilation flap for mouth
- It could be a little longer in the back
- Only available in one size
Best Overall Non-Wool
3. Under Armour ColdGear Infrared Balaclava
While Merino wool is a superb fabric for a balaclava, the best cold weather running masks don’t necessarily have to avoid synthetic materials.
This one is made of polyester and elastane, which have various benefits. One is the slightly lower price than Merino wool. Another thumbs-up to polyester is that it protects from UV rays, which should not be underestimated in winter weather.
Under Armour is known for its quality running gear, and its contribution to the best cold weather running masks comes with their ColdGear InfraRed technology. This makes use of a thermal conductive inner layer that uses your own body heat to keep you cozy.
It’s also easy to breathe in this mask. The material over the mouth is more perforated than the rest, making it far easier to get enough breath in.
The downside is that due to it being one-size-fits-all, it may not fit everyone. Ironic, but true.
- Great neck coverage
- Polyester is moisture-wicking
- Designed to be form-fitting
- Uses UA’s ColdGear tech to take advantage of your own body heat
- There’s only one size, so it may not fit well for everyone
Top Runner-Up Non-Wool
4. Nike Running Therma Sphere Hood Mask
Nike is another big name in sports, and their balaclava is constructed of a polyester/spandex mix. While it may be as warm as wool, it makes for a light, breathable, and easy-to-pull-over-your-head piece of gear.
We particularly like the foldover design. It may not have an extremely practical reason for being that way, but it does seem to be somewhat more comfortable over the nose, as though you’ve wrapped something around your head.
The material is created with Nike’s Therma-Sphere technology, which regulates the body’s temperature, allowing for more energy to go toward performance and less toward keeping yourself warm.
Their other useful bit of tech, Dri-FIT, allows the fabric of the balaclava to wick away moisture and keep you dry, whether you’re sweating, being rained on, or running through a snowstorm.
There’s a reflective Nike swoosh on the side and a reflective strip down the back, so you’ll have some added visibility if running in the cold and the dark!
- Convertible foldover design is stylish and easy to get on
- Dri-FIT technology makes it moisture-wicking
- Smaller facial opening allows for extra warmth
- Crossover design on front is fairly comfortable
- It’s one of the more expensive options
- Reports indicate that it may not be as durable as its price suggests
Top Balaclava With Sizing Options
5. Outdoor Research Ninjaclava – Cold Weather Wicking Thermal Face Mask
The Ninjaclava is sleek and stylish, as well as practical. It’s made from a combination of 3 different materials: nylon and polyester, for great moisture-wicking properties, and spandex, for a stretchable and easy fit.
The overlapping design creates an eye-opening that’s just big enough for a good range of vision, without letting in the cold.
A really nice feature is the silicon grippers around the eyes, which are designed for wearing goggles. This could be helpful for runners in icy weather if you need extra eye protection.
Another thing that this balaclava gets a thumbs-up for is how the hood hinges back easily to vent extra heat. This is a helpful feature, because the material is slightly less breathable than some of the others on this list, and glasses could fog up easily with the excess heat.
It also comes in two sizes, so there’s less chance of being disappointed when a one-size-fits-all…doesn’t. Plus, it has a cool name. Who doesn’t want to don their Ninjaclava on the road?
- Available in two sizes
- Silicon prints around eyes for goggle security
- Machine washable
- Hinge hood to vent heat
- Customers report that it’s not breathable enough to prevent glasses fogging up
Best Value Balaclava
6. Pearl Izumi Barrier Balaclava
Pearl Izumi’s Barrier Balaclava is made from two different types of fabric. A P.R.O. Barrier forehead panel provides resistance to wind and moisture. The P.R.O. Thermal Dry fabric is moisture-transferring and quick-drying, and doesn’t retain odor, so no matter how much you sweat, you won’t smell bad.
The face panel is designed to fall just under the nose, and can be pulled down under the chin to let out excess heat. This is useful for extra breathability, but it may contribute to the cold getting in.
The elastane and polyester mix is fairly wind-blocking, and online reviewers have reported staying warm at temps as low as 20 degrees F.
Use it on its own, or as a base layer. This is another one-size piece of gear, which may or may not be a problem. For the nice price, it’s definitely worth the buy, though. That’s why it wins our Best Value spot.
- Larger facial opening to allow for the nose to be free
- Fleece lining for warmth
- P.R.O. Barrier fabric is water-resistant
- Reflective elements for added safety
- Larger opening may let cold in
Top Mask with Color Options
7. Tough Outfitters Balaclava – Windproof Ski Mask
Why do most balaclavas only come in black or gray? For runners who want a pop of color on their winter runs, this bright orange mask will turn heads and make you extra visible to motorists.
If you need even more visibility, there are reflective logos on the front, sides, and back. That should make you visible even if wearing the camo pattern version of this running mask.
The polyester and spandex mix makes it stretchable enough to be extremely versatile. Whatever the weather, you can find a style to suit it. Choose between using it as an open balaclava, a full face mask, a half ski mask, or a neck gaiter.
Moisture-wicking and heat-retaining properties make this mask warm yet breathable, and the addition of a mesh panel on the front allows for easy breathing, which is pretty important while running.
The decent price of this balaclava means you could buy all three colors for the price of a single one of the others. It’s still good quality, and its versatility is definitely worth the buy.
- Unusual color and pattern options
- Very affordable
- Mesh panel to enhance breathability
- Versatile wearing styles
- No variation in sizes
Top Cold Weather Fleece Mask
8. Purjoy Warm Fleece Balaclava
If you’re looking for a balaclava that doesn’t look like a balaclava, this one would suit you great. It looks like you’re wearing a cool colored hoodie, and its fleecy design will keep you toasty while you’re out on the road.
A feature we really like, apart from its stylishness, is the drawstring to tighten or loosen the face shield. While this is super helpful for small faces to close little gaps where wind or cold could get in, the already-tight size could make this feature a little redundant for those with larger heads.
With six ways of wearing, you’ll certainly get your money’s worth with one of these. Wear it as a face mask, hoodie, neck gaiter, or even a beanie.
The neck coverage is also pretty decent, so it’s easy to tuck under a shirt to create a decent seal against wind and cold, icy air.
It comes in eight funky colors, and with the fantastic price, you can get one to match every hoodie you own.
- We love the hoodie-like design
- 100% polyester fleece for extra warmth
- Good neck coverage
- Can be tightened or loosened with drawstring
- May not fit larger heads
- Not waterproof
Best Kids Balaclava
9. Smartwool Kids’ Merino 250 Balaclava
Kids should learn the joys and benefits of running from an early age! It can also be a super family activity for keeping fit together.
If you’re going to get one of the best cold weather running masks for your child, this one would be a good start. It’s crafted from Merino wool, which is durable and seriously soft, so it won’t be scratching your kid’s face or annoying them.
Double layers provide maximum warmth, keeping that little face as cozy as possible while out in the biting cold. It’s also lightweight enough for a cap or hoodie to fit over it comfortably.
The odor-resistance is a great help and parents, it’s machine washable, so if your kid drops it on the asphalt or accidentally steps on it, there’s no need to worry.
It does come in only one size, but this should be less of a problem for children than it may be for adults.
- Constructed from Merino wool
- Breathable and thermoregulating
- Machine washable
- Simple and uncomplicated
- Slightly pricey for a kids piece of clothing
If you live somewhere cold and you’re contemplating using a balaclava or cold weather mask while you’re running, here are some questions you may be asking.
What Are Balaclavas?
A balaclava (or ski mask) is a kind of cloth head covering that only leaves the eyes and mouth exposed. Some styles have a more open design and leave the nose exposed too.
It’s like a beanie that doesn’t stop at your hairline. It also makes you look kind of like a ninja on the road.
What’s the Benefit of a Balaclava?
Runners can benefit hugely from having a balaclava in their stash of running gear. If you’ve ever run in the cold, you know that knife-like feeling on your face very well. A balaclava can literally prevent your face from freezing.
Frostbite is real. When you’re doing physical exercise and feeling kind of pumped up, you may not even realize how the cold is damaging your skin.
A balaclava protects the sensitive skin of your face and neck from the icy air, cutting wind, and snow.
What Is The Best Material?
Balaclavas were first made of wool, which is a super warm fabric. Today, they’re created from a wide variety of materials. Silk, fleece, Merino wool, and even bamboo are commonly used. Polyester and other synthetic fabric blends are lightweight and moisture-wicking.
The best material really depends on your preferences and the weather in which you run most often. Consider whether you need something super fluffy and warm, or if you’d rather have something lightweight and a little less cozy.
What’s The Best Fit For a Balaclava?
You need to be able to move freely and breathe properly with your balaclava on your face. It’s great to protect you from the cold weather, but if it’s restricting movement or hampering your breathing, a bit of frostbite isn’t going to be your biggest problem.
It shouldn’t be so loose that it lifts or leaves gaps when you turn your head. At the same time, it shouldn’t be cutting into your skin around the edges.
Do You Need To Wear a Balaclava When Running In Cold Weather?
While it’s not absolutely necessary to wear a cold weather running mask, it can improve your performance quite drastically.
Breathing in the cold air directly can hamper your breathing while on the move. Severe cold can actually slow you down just as much as heat and humidity. Obviously, not being able to breathe properly can be a bit of a problem, and wearing a balaclava while out in the cold weather can help fix this issue.
Of course, protecting your facial skin from frostbite is also important. A balaclava serves the purpose of protecting both your skin and your airways, so it’s considered an essential piece of cold weather running gear.