Headwear - Types, Features, and Materials

Choosing headwear for your needs can be difficult because there are so many options like beanies, balaclavas, neck gaiters, and sun protection caps, for example. Sometimes it's just difficult to orient yourself in the abundance of models, designs, and materials. This guide will help you choose the right type of headwear for your specific needs.

The extremities can be one of the hardest areas of the body to properly regulate mainly because they are far from the core. As a result, they take longer to circulate warm blood. In addition, they are one of the sweatiest parts of the body and are constantly exposed to the elements. You can properly regulate the warmth in the hands, feet, and head by wearing gloves and/or mittens for more warmth in cold environments, proper hiking socks and footwear for dry and cool feet, and various types of headwear for protecting your head, face, and eyes from sun, cold, and precipitation.

Three hikers with warm hats walking

Headwear types, features, and materials

Headwear for cold weather protection

You’re probably familiar with the claim that we lose 50 percent of our heat through the head. Some people say that it’s a myth and we actually lose only between 7 and 10% of the heat through our heads which is proportional to the total surface area of skin exposed. The truth is that if you’re clothed, the body is effectively insulated and your head is the only uncovered part of the body, you will lose a significant amount of heat through your head and as a result, the body’s core temperature will drop much more rapidly than most people would expect because:

  1. There’s constant blood flow through your head - your brain needs blood in order to function properly. Your scalp contains a lot of blood vessels meaning that on a very cold day, when your head is uncovered, the environment cools the blood passing through your scalp and this blood then goes to the core of the body cooling it as it goes.
  2. You shiver when you are cold. It’s an automatic reaction (an involuntary muscle movement) of your body. Shivering leads to a boost to your body’s surface heat production for several hours - until your muscles will have run out of glucose. At that point, your muscles don’t have enough fuel to contract and shivering stops. Keep in mind that it is strictly individual when shivering starts. The main factors are: the temperature of the environment, the presence or absence of wind and water as well as your age, body fat, health condition, etc. Interestingly, people do not shiver when only their head is exposed to the elements, which leads to faster cooling.

Certainly, all those who say you’re going to lose this and that have their reasons for mentioning particular numbers. They often cite various tests and experiments in order to back up their claims. However, in reality, the relative amount of heat you lose from your head will vary - from a not-so-significant amount to tremendous amount of relative body heat. The main factors for this are your clothes, your physical condition, and the mechanisms that regulate your body temperature.

Layering your hiking clothing is required to insulate your body from the environment in cold conditions. Similarly, the head and neck must be well protected because as the body gets cold, the blood flow is shifted from the extremities to the more vital areas in an attempt to warm the body core. Especially in extreme conditions, you need to extend protection to the face, ears, and neck. The best way to do that is by following the layering principle. You can use combinations of garments with multi-featured components such as neck gaiters, headbands, hard and soft hats, skull caps, fleece, and balaclavas to cover the head and to provide protection for the neck and face. The key to effective layering is flexibility meaning that your headwear system should suit a range of conditions and exertion. There are some simple but very good combinations like:

  • Two warm hats
  • Balaclava and a beanie
  • Warm hat and a hood
  • Skull cap and a beanie
  • Skull cap and a balaclava
  • Neck gaiter and a balaclava

The main fabrics used are similar to and often coincide with the materials used for other articles of clothing addressing the weather conditions and your own preferences.

Man wearing scarf, beanie, and a hood in snowy conditions

Many people combine different types of headwear for better protection from wind and cold

Warm hats

Let’s start with paraphrasing an old adage, which says that when your feet are cold, you need to put on a hat. It’s very accurate considering that you must protect your head in order to keep your body warm. All active winter pursuits require that the hat offers versatility and flexibility. It can be windproof, though the majority of the hats aren’t. The wind-resistant ones will keep you warm no matter whether you put your hood up making it better for cold weather, while the others are better for milder conditions and require wind-resistant shell in freezing cold.

The standard design is still the so-called “watch cap” (a stocking cap, beanie or knit cap/toque). There are variations such as the bomber cap (hat with earflaps and fleece lining) and chullo (Andean hat with earflaps). Winter hats need to be stretchy (though not too loose), quick-dry, warm, and comfortable and that’s why the most widely used materials include wool, polypropylene, and polyester fleece. Knitted wool and acrylic are stretchy fabrics in comparison to fleece so bear this in mind when choosing your warm hat. It‘s important to get a good fit - neither too loose nor too tight, especially if you choose fleece headgear. 

There are beanies made of traditional materials such as silk, cashmere, cotton, bamboo, and nylon, and some exotic fibers like Kevlar, hemp, and flax.

Low profile, lightweight merino wool, and merino blend models are not suitable for super cold but are usually comfortable and warm enough for mixed weather and most cold days. Moreover, they are packable and can be worn under a hood or under another warm hat in harsh conditions. The biggest downsides - they aren’t windproof, may not cover your ears well, and there might be issues with their durability. All-synthetic beanie hats can be even thinner than merino beanies. As a rule, synthetic fabrics such as polyester are more durable than merino wool but not as breathable. The skull cap looks very much like a low profile beanie but its roles are different. It’s typically used under another hat or a helmet and has to:

  • Keep sweat out of your eyes by directing moisture away from the eyes (thanks to an elastic band).
  • Keep your head warm in cold conditions.
  • Protect your head from the sun and UV radiation when hot.

Quality skull caps should be able to wick away moisture, dry very quickly, and be soft and breathable to keep you comfortable in both warm and cold temperatures. Thus, skull caps are usually made of wind and water-resistant man-made fibers such as polyester (microfleece) and various polyester blends. Skull caps are used mainly for biking, motorcycling, running, and hiking.

Beanies are multifunctional and can be used for everyday wear in the city as well as for a ton of indoor and outdoor activities. Warm hats, and especially the black watch cap, are highly praised in the military. Used to counter heat loss, a black beanie for the military should be thin enough to fit under a helmet so synthetic fibers are preferred. Wool hats are also used given that they aren’t bulky and difficult to fit under a helmet.

Three Types of Headwear

Headwear: warm hat (beanie), balaclava, ear band

From left to right: Warm Hat (Beanie), Balaclava, Ear Band

Balaclavas

Balaclavas are a versatile and effective type of headwear that provides great protection for your head and can be used as a hat, neck gaiter, face mask, or complete coverage. They’re lightweight, effective in keeping your face warm and give more protection than other designs. Their insulative abilities make them suitable for various uses dependent on the weather conditions and your personal preferences. For example, you can use a balaclava as a base layer beneath a warm hat. Another useful application of balaclavas is as an addition to your sleeping system in cold temperatures and environments. In bitter cold weather, balaclavas will protect your neck and face from wind and will keep them warm including the cheeks and nose (both are among the most vulnerable parts to a cold injury called frostnip) better than any other type of headwear. If it gets too warm, you can roll your balaclava up and wear it as a warm hat. Quality balaclavas are warm and reliable and shouldn’t slip and ride down.

The most typical materials used are wool and fleece fabric since they are light and provide and retain enough warmth. Both fabrics are soft, breathable, moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and offer excellent weight to warmth ratio but typically they aren’t windproof. This means that merino and fleece balaclavas are comfortable and won’t overheat your head but in cold, windy conditions you may need a windstopping balaclava or a wind-resistant hood or rain hat over the balaclava. Keep in mind that wool can stretch more than most synthetic materials and then needs more time to recover, whereas fleece doesn’t stretch as much as wool does so you need to get a good fit. Other fabrics used include polyester, silk, cotton, acrylic, polypropylene, and neoprene.

Balaclavas are used in many outdoor sports and pursuits as they are especially popular for motorcycling and cycling (under the helmet), snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing, and winter hiking. Balaclavas and balaclava face masks are also used by special forces units such as the British SAS, military, and police to conceal their identity as well as for protection from the cold. Firefighters and race drivers wear fire-resistant balaclavas as part of their personal protective equipment.

Man with neck gaiter, helmet, and snowboard

Balaclavas are often used for snowboarding

Face masks

Face masks or ski masks cover all but the eyes and nostrils and are used to will keep your nose and mouth protected from the cold and wind. In addition, covering the nose and mouth is beneficial in climates with low humidity since this way you limit the drying of the mucous membranes in the nose and throat. Though some people prefer wearing ski and face masks even in bitter cold and severe blizzards, bear in mind that they don’t cover your neck or forehead. This is actually the main difference between balaclavas and face masks. Unprotected areas are prone to severe burns and frostbite in mountain conditions so be mindful of this when choosing headgear for your winter expeditions.

Headbands and ear bands

Headbands and ear bands can be useful in cool conditions when you want to keep your ears/head warm but a warm hat isn’t really needed or available. Ear bands should cover your ears fairly well (you don’t want to readjust an ear band often) to provide enough warmth for your head. On certain occasions, ear bands may need to be worn under a warm hat or a helmet so you may wish to choose one that’s compact, comfortable, and easily accommodates helmets and hats.

Backpacker wearing multifunctional neck gaiter

Multifunctional neck gaiters can be used and as a wide headband 

Neck gaiters

Neck gaiters are perfect for bitter cold and windy conditions because they add an additional layer of warmth not only around the neck but can also better protect the face up to the chin or even up to the nose depending on their length (those which are long enough can be worn as a balaclava, a wide headband). For this, you can cover your mouth, chin, and cheeks. Moreover, neck gaiters also prevent heat loss from the collar. Furthermore, there are neck gaiters that can be worn as a hat because they have a drawcord that can be tightened to keep the cold out. The biggest drawback of wearing a neck gaiter is that covering the mouth can lead to moisture buildup over the fabric. This accumulation of moisture comes in the form of frost over the fabric due to your exhalation.

Just like warm hats, balaclavas, and other types of headwear, there’s a variety of materials used for neck gaiters as the most common ones are merino wool and polyester fleece. Soft, warm, thin, and versatile merino neck gaiters are lightweight, cozy, stretch easily, stay warm when wet, offer insulation in less than ideal conditions, don’t retain odors, and are perfect for backpacking, camping, cycling, motorcycling, running, walking, travel in cold and snowy weather, etc.

Multifunctional neck gaiters


Headwear: three multifunctional neck gaiters

Sun-protection hats

Your head needs protection from sun and solar rays not only during summer hikes but also always when there’s sun. Sun-protection hats with wide brims shade your face and neck from the sun and keep rain, snow, and sweat out of your eyes. Moreover, they keep you covered and well protected from bugs (in combination with a head net) and cool through promoting cooling ventilation thanks to mesh side panels. Brimmed hats are also convenient to clip LED lights for a safer night hiking experience. Sun-protection hats are popular for desert and mountain hiking, kayaking, rock scrambling, and especially for glacier climbs. Ice and snow reflect the sun’s rays, so any piece of clothing that covers exposed areas of the body will protect your skin from sunburns.

One drawback of wearing a sun-protection hat is that it doesn’t fit well under hoods so it isn’t very convenient wearing one in windy conditions. However, there are simple solutions to this problem. For example, some sun protection caps have an adjustable draw cord added to provide a secure fit even in strong winds.

Mountaineer wearing sun protection cap under a hood

Sun protection caps are especially important at altitude where the UV rays are stronger and more dangerous

Other types of headwear

Insect protection

Head nets with shield protect well against insects and are especially effective against mosquitos and flies. Larger-pored head nets have two main advantages over head nets made of fine mesh: 1) they provide better airflow; 2) you can see better through them. Remember that no matter which type of head net you choose, bugs can bite through netting so you should wear it over a ball cap so that no netting is flush with the skin. Certainly, you can leave behind the head net at home, however, it is not recommended to do it if you go during peak mosquito season. Yes, substitutes like insect repellents will do some work, however, head nets are much more effective because they form a physical barrier between your skin and the bugs.

Hoods

Hoods can be quite useful in certain situations. They can provide great wind and water protection because of features like brims, neck flaps, drawstrings, and cord adjusters. Some hoods are detachable, while others roll into the collar. Both types are convenient for town use, however, these characteristics are not very convenient for hiking or backpacking where functionality, and not design, is king. Hoods need to be big enough to go on over a variety of headgear from none, to a helmet or other close-fitting headcover. At the same time, hoods need to be adjustable, so that if not wearing any helmet the hood can be pulled in tight to the head.

A visor or a wired peak that do not impair vision is essential for those who wear glasses. While some hoods have this feature, they often don’t offer the best protection so keep in mind that you may have to choose between protection and good vision.

Hooded person near snow landscape

Rain hats

Rain hats and sombreros are useful because they provide full coverage in wet weather. They’re often made of waterproof breathable fabric, have taped seams, and are designed to provide reliable sun and rain protection. Some of the most typical and valuable features of rain hats include broad brim to keep water off your face, chin strap that prevents the hat from flying away, internally adjustable cinch-band to provide the right fit, and UPF rating for reliable sun protection. Good rain hats are lightweight, packable, easily adjustable, provide cooling, breathability, and ventilation, and are great for a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, travel or everyday wear in sunny, wet or windy conditions.

Conclusion

In both sunny and cold weather, you need to be prepared with an effective and flexible headwear system that can suit a range of conditions and exertion levels. Experienced mountaineers and thru-hikers often carry several different types of hats in order to quickly adapt to changing temperatures. You can lose huge amounts of heat quickly through your head, especially if your clothing effectively insulates your body. This will cool your entire body leading to potentially dangerous situations and to serious health consequences.

Don’t underestimate the importance of headwear. Choose it according to the current weather conditions, the expected weather conditions, and your personal preferences. The best way to select an outdoor wardrobe is to gain experience and judgment by trial and error, sticking with the clothing strategies that provide the most comfort.

 

Related Articles

Hiking Clothing

How to Dress in Layers

Guide to Gloves & Mittens

Polyester vs. Cotton

Characteristics of Hiking Clothing

Properties of Cold Weather Apparel

Winter Hiking Tips

Winter Hiking Dangers

Waterproof Breathable Clothes

 

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