The Liner Balaclava: The Warmest 2-Ounce Garment You Will Ever Buy

December 21, 2015
A cheap, light liner balaclava should be part of your winter wardrobe. Photo: Merriam-Webster

Don’t let the heat coursing through your neck and head escape into the cold clutches of winter. Keep it close instead with the help of an ultralight, ultra-compact, and inexpensive clothing accessory that should be in every cold-weather adventurer’s wardrobe: A liner balaclava.

Your carotid arteries and jugular veins lie close to the surface on either side of your neck. Through them flows a substantial amount of blood and heat to and from your head and brain. If your neck is directly exposed to the cold, some of that heat is lost to the environment. To prevent that from occurring, you need a way to insulate your neck.

A neck gaiter is a good option for protecting your neck, but it misses out on some important features that a liner balaclava can provide.

First, a liner balaclava functions like long underwear for your head, providing an additional layer of insulation and warmth underneath your winter hat. And because liner balaclavas are thin and form-fitting, it’s easy to add one without affecting the fit of your hat (or helmet, if you’re skiing or biking). A liner balaclava also fully covers your ears, especially the lower sections that often protrude out from below your hat.

For cold-weather camping, I’m a huge fan of wearing a liner balaclava at night in my sleeping bag for a warmer night’s rest. Unlike a hat, which can often shift around or fall off during a night’s tossing and turning, a liner balaclava will stay securely in place all night long.

Lastly, liner balaclavas also tend to be very lightweight, with many styles hovering at a scant two ounces; compact, fitting easily into your jacket pocket when not in use; and inexpensive, with most ranging in price from roughly $15 to $30.

If at all possible, try on a few liner balaclavas before you buy. Look for the following features:

  • A form-fitting, but not uncomfortably tight, fit.
  • A neck that extends down far enough to provide full coverage, even when you look upwards.
  • An opening that sits comfortably against your face; does not restrict your vision, even when you turn your head from side-to-side; and is large enough that you can comfortably pull the material down below your chin when desired.

Options worth considering include the PS50 from Outdoor Research ($28, 1.6 ounces), Butter Balaclava from Mountain Hardwear ($20, 1.3 ounces), and the range of styles from Bula.

My personal favorite and go-to these days is the Pearl Izumi Barrier Balaclava, a slightly more expensive option ($35) that features a delightful windproof swath of fabric over the forehead and ears—a much appreciated feature in breezy conditions.

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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.