How to Keep Your Head, Face, and Neck Warm While Running

smartwool balaclava

Neck Gaiters are a secret weapon of winter outdoor enthusiasts. They can keep both the neck and face warm.

Runners, cyclists, and skiers all share a similar goal: Staying warm in the elements. Particularly, it can be challenging to keep your head and neck warm when active.  The old wives tale is that people lose heat through their head.  Studies have more accurately shown that if your head is colder than the rest of your body, it will be acutely uncomfortable.

In addition to your head’s effect on your total comfort level in cold weather, your face and ears are more susceptible to frostbite given the reduced circulation.  Exposed skin is at risk when temperatures are in the low 30s and below, especially into the teens and beyond.  It is especially important to think about how to protect your skin there.

Think about Your Activity

The activity you are doing in cold weather makes a huge difference on what clothing your neck and head will call for.  Some activities factor in significant wind, others put you in conditions that are unpredictable, while others are in a much more controlled environment.  Here are a few things to consider for some more common activities.

  • Running requires warm, thermal headwear as you likely will not be wearing a helmet, and a way to keep off your neck and out of your jacket. Given that you will not be moving at a high speed, your face is likely OK above 20 degrees.  Below 20, and certainly below 10, you will want to cover your face as well.  If you wear glasses, be sure your system does cause them to fog.
  • Cycling calls for more certain warmth, and wind is a major factor. Riding at 15 or 20 miles per hour basically lowers the “feels like” temperature by 20 degrees.  Windchill can be a factor, so you will want to think about minimizing exposed skin in addition to staying warm.
  • Skiing needs can really vary. For cross country skiing, you will want to dress a lot like you would as you would running.  As for downhill, you will need to factor in the wind and the fact you likely will have a helmet and goggles.  The saving grace is that you usually are not skiing for more than a few minutes at a time, but you need to be ready for windchill as you would in cycling.

How to Keep Your Head Warm

coldgear hat

The UA ColdGear hat is a good all-around option for runners.

You have heard it said for years that heat escapes through your head.  That is not exactly accurate, but there is no doubt that if you are dressed well on the rest of your body, an covered head will lose lots of heat. The big questions to answer first are: a) How cold will it be, and b) Do you need to account for a helmet?

Runners can wear nearly anything that is snug and keeps the heat on your head.  Cyclists will need to wear something thin that a helmet fits over.  The main goal is to keep some thermal property on your head—the helmet will not.  Downhill skiers, on the other hand, will often have a ski helmet which typically is all you need, unless it is abnormally cold (below zero).

Our Picks:

  • For runners, we really like the simple-but-effective UnderArmour ColdGear Infrared Storm. Reasonably priced at $30, it provides a thermal layer along with a very comfortable feel.
  • For cyclists, we usually opt for the ultra-thin Manzella Powerstretch. It is a bargain and keeps your head moderately warm under a helmet.
  • Another great all-around option is the Smartwool Beanie. It is warm enough to be great on runs, but thin enough so it can serve as an effective cycling hat under a helmet.
helmetclava

The Helmetclava is a great option for cyclists and covers most of the face.

How to Keep your Face Warm

The face is a conundrum in cold weather.  Things are exponentially simpler if you do not need to cover it, but your nose and ears are prone to frostbite so you can’t take any chances.  Some runners opt for vasoline or other lubricant to keep a layer of protection between their skin and the wind, and others opt to cover it.  Whatever the case, be sure that whatever you wear doesn’t cause your glasses or goggles to fog if you are a cyclist or skier.

Our Picks

  • The classic way to keep your face warm is a balaclava. Of the bunch, we like the Smartwool Helmetclava.  It is a substantial face-and-neck covering that fits perfectly under a helmet, but is also fine by itself.
  • If you want to have a little more open area around the nose and mouth, REI’s Merino Wool Liner
    balaclava rei

    REI makes a classic balaclava if you want a more open face.

    will keep the cold away from your chin and ears but allow for a little more openness.

How to Keep your Neck Warm

How many times have we started on a run, only to realize in the first minute “my neck is cold.”  This is a common complaint of runners, cyclists, and skiers alike.  An uncomfortable neck not only makes you feel colder, but it can also allow wind to sneak in under your cycling or running jacket.  A balaclava, as noted above, works great, otherwise a neck gaiter is the answer.

Our Picks:

  • The Under Armour ColdGear Windstopper Neck Gaiter is in the style we like. It is long enough to be highly versatile, but soft enough so it can either be scrunched all around the neck or pulled up to cover your chin and mouth.
  • The Smartwool standard neck gaiter is another great choice for active folks, providing a
    smartwool balaclava

    Smartwool is cranking out great winter wear, including this comfy neck gaiter.

    good combination of comfort and warmth. This too is the “new” kind of gaiter, not the old bulky kind we all used to wear.

More Winter Running Advice

We know that keeping your head, neck, and face warm is only part of the equation.  We would also recommend you check out our articles on winter running jackets in order to keep your torso and core warm.  We did a piece focus on thermal running tights, those tights specifically made for cold weather activity.  And who can forget about the fast-freezing hands.  Keep those fingers warm with our newest piece on running gloves.

With the right gear, there is no reason you can’t enjoy those sunny winter days as you get ready for your next race season, or take to the slopes as you enjoy the snow.

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