Balaclava (now written as Balaklava) is a settlement on the Crimean Peninsula. During the Battle of Balaclava on Oct. 25, 1854, which took place during the Crimean War, British troops took to wearing close-fitting knitted headgear in order to keep warm, and they named it after the town. Of course, this battle is also chiefly remembered as the scene in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” featuring the famous words, “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.” Nearly two centuries later, however, we not only remember the Light Brigade, but the balaclava name and gear itself have also survived to be used by winter sports enthusiasts.
Today’s balaclavas, however, aim to do more than just keep riders’ heads and faces warm. Depending on the type of balaclava, anything from breathability to moisture wicking to wind resistance is key.
First, let’s consider the common fabrics used in balaclavas. Materials range from natural fibers, such as Merino wool, to blends, such as cotton and polyester, to pure synthetic, such as rayon. While at first glance, wool may seem a hot and heavy fabric compared to the others, it has its pros. For instance, it’s extremely soft and comfortable, and it is in fact more breathable than polyester. In addition, it has natural anti-microbial/bacterial properties that help it control odors.
That isn’t to say that blended and synthetic fabrics are inferior. On the contrary, most balaclavas are made of synthetic materials to keep them lightweight and provide not only moisture absorption but quick drying abilities. In fact, many balaclavas will feature a variety of such fabrics stitched together. For instance, there are types available that craft the head out of moisture-wicking fabric (and even Spandex to keep it snug) but cover the neck in a windproof material on the outside and a soft, warm liner on the inside.
Balaclavas also have a wide range of shapes. Some come in ergonomic forms that conform to the head and throat, while others are looser around the neck. This could be a key selling point to riders who don’t like the feeling of fabric touching their necks. Some balaclavas even have extended skirt panels running down the front and back for added chest and back insulation.
Some of the most deluxe balaclavas today are created to resemble masks with respiration areas molded over the nose, mouth and/or chin. These balaclavas are meant to be highly breathable, fitting to the shape of the nose but not conforming to it. Some types of balaclavas even feature a deflector meant to direct breath down towards the mouth to control fogging on goggles and helmets.
Layers are a critical element to snow gear, and this includes the humble balaclava. Long periods of exposure to the cold, plus the bracing cut of wind as it whips past on a snowmobile, will prove brutal to a rider unless he or she is well prepared.