Equipped Head and Neck Protection

December 20, 2010

Your body strives to keep your brain operating, no matter what the conditions. It will sacrifice toes, feet, and fingers to winter’s bite but continue pumping warm blood to your head until the bitter end. And your neck is the conduit for all that brain-bathing warmth. In cold conditions, retain this precious body heat with the right accessories.

Know the Flow
Your heart pumps warm, oxygenated blood to your head through two primary pathways: the carotid and vertebral arteries. Located on the front and back of your neck, respectively, these arteries each consist of two separate, near-surface vessels; the pulse points on either side of your trachea mark the passage of blood through the carotids. Upon entering your head, the majority of blood circulates inside your brain while the remainder courses through your scalp, face, and ears. It then returns to your heart primarily via the larger diameter jugular vein, located adjacent to the carotid arteries. Whenever that warm blood passes close to the surface—especially on the scalp and neck—heat loss occurs at an accelerated rate. In cold conditions, it is imperative to retain that warmth for comfort and safety.

At zero degrees Fahrenheit, a person at rest expends more than 50 percent of heat production simply warming inhaled air.

Wrap Your Mind
It’s an old saw. “If your feet are cold, put on a hat.” The idea is simple: If your head retains more heat, your body can redirect warmth to chillier extremities. The perfect hat does three things: fits properly, insulates sufficiently, and blocks heat-stealing wind. It should fit comfortably snug and cover as much of your ears as possible, but not be so tight that it lifts up off your ears as you wear it, or so loose that it slops around as you move. Your hat should be warm enough for expected temperatures and conditions. Fleece and wool are both excellent hat materials that handle moisture effectively (all other factors being equal, a thicker hat will be a warmer hat). Windproof fleece blocks air flow entirely, but also impedes hearing, reduces breathability, and can have an unpleasant feel against the skin. Hats with nylon or polyester shells also repel wind; other wind-resistant fabrics are also available. Finally, consider compressibility—it’s nice to stuff your hat in your pocket when not needed.

Cozy Your Neck
The neck is perhaps the most overlooked source of heat loss. Exposed at the vee of your jacket, it pulses out arterial and venous heat. Retain that precious warmth with a simple, inexpensive neck gaiter. A small tube of fabric (usually fleece) that nests around the neck, this invaluable accessory corrals more heat for its weight than virtually any other garment. Neck gaiters come in a variety of thicknesses and lengths; evaluate your needs based on your current clothing system. Multiple layers often result in an array of zippers around your windpipe, plus a lot of surrounding fabric. Choose a neck gaiter that covers all exposed gaps, fits comfortably within this nexus of layers, and still gives you the flexibility to fully zip up if conditions warrant. Avoid styles that feature drawcords or other closure systems—your winter-layered neck is already cluttered enough. Longer versions are nice for pulling over your chin and lower face, but avoid styles that push constantly and annoyingly against your chin and jaw.

Armor All
In very cold or windy conditions, consider adding a liner balaclava to your system. A thin layer that covers your head and neck, it adds considerable warmth under your hat and neck gaiter. It also serves well as a sleeping bag accessory; unlike many hats it won’t fall off or shift during the night as you move. Full thickness balaclavas are also available, providing all-in-one head and neck insulation. Though warm, they are bulky and provide less layering flexibility than a separate hat and neck gaiter; consider them only for prolonged excursions in the deepest cold. Closely evaluate any balaclava for fit, especially the seam around your face; many styles chafe uncomfortably across the chin or forehead.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.