Choosing the right headwear type 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 headgear 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 (see our in-depth post about the best glove and mitten designs and how to choose the right pair for your needs), 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.
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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. Actually, this is proportional to the total surface area of skin exposed.
How do you lose heat in cold weather?
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. As a result, the body’s core temperature will drop much more rapidly than most people would expect because:
- 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.
- 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. This continues until your muscles 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.
All those who say you’re going to lose this and that 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 a 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 headgear
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
- Windproof headband and a thermal headband
- 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.
Many people combine different types of headgear for better protection from wind and cold
Types of winter 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. The other types of warm hats 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.
The most widely used materials include wool, polypropylene, and polyester fleece. Other materials include traditional textiles such as silk, cashmere, cotton, bamboo, and nylon as well as exotic fibers like Kevlar, hemp, and flax. Knitted wool and acrylic are stretchy fabrics in comparison to fleece. Bear this in mind when choosing your warm hat. Good fit is essential – neither too loose nor too tight, especially if you choose fleece headgear. Low profile, lightweight merino wool, and merino blend models are not suitable for super cold. They 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.
Beanies are multifunctional and many people use them 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 a good choice given that they aren’t bulky and difficult to fit under a helmet.
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. Nylon, spandex, and other man-made materials are also typical for skull caps. The versatility of this type of headgear means that many people use skull caps for a range of outdoor activities such as biking, motorcycling, running, and hiking in various weather conditions.
This kind of knit hat is basically a beanie with a round smush of fabric on top. It’s typically made of yarn and is called pom-pom or bobble. It’s thought that the initial role of such a bobble was to cover the seams on the knitted cap. However, this is only one of its functions. Other functions of the pom-pom include protecting the wearers from injuring their heads by signaling for potentially dangerous objects or surfaces nearby (sailors); as a decoration; to demonstrate the wearer’s order; to indicate the wearer’s marital status, etc. The bobble cap should be close-fitting (as it is the case with beanies) for maximum comfort.
The most common materials used for bobble hats coincide with the fabrics for watch caps. This way, the cheaper models are usually made with synthetic fibers such as acrylic and polyester (fleece). On the other hand, there are also models made with more expensive materials like (merino) wool, fur, and even cashmere. Merino bobble hats are perfect for the winter. They’re good quality and will keep you nice and warm and won’t make your head itch. Interestingly, there are bobble hats crafted with waterproof breathable fabrics and materials. These are nice and warm and can be used even in rain and wind. The biggest downside is probably the waterproof breathable membrane that some people find to be too noisy.
Pom-pom hats are common in cold climates and environments. The bobble hats and the beanies have slight functional differences as the presence of a pom-pom on top of your hat impairs the fit of a hood and cannot fit under a helmet. This fact makes bobble hats more convenient to use in dry and cold conditions.
This type of hat has been quite popular in the Andean Mountain region for thousands of years. Chullo is essentially a winter hat with earflaps that cover the ears. They have ties that can be tied under your neck to keep your head toasty. The chullo may look strange to most people because of its appearance but it’s warm and comfortable. Actually, it looks quite appealing when decorated with some traditional Andean geometric patterns.
The most typical material for manufacturing chullo is wool, specifically alpaca fiber (fleece). Alpaca is a type of vicuna and very similar (though smaller) to the llama. The alpaca fiber is light, soft, and warm fiber used for making clothing. It’s very similar to sheep’s wool and many of its properties are similar to the properties of merino wool. Nowadays, you can often find Andean hats made of thin wool. These are not suitable for real cold unless they have a warm lining to add insulation.
The chullo should fit you well. A too big or too small hat is not as comfortable as it should be and it won’t protect you as well when you really need it.
Chullos with good thermal insulation are perfect for a variety of activities in the winter cold. Chullos without insulation are better for fall or spring.
Bomber and ushanka hats
The other names/types of a bomber hat are trapper hat, aviator hat, and ushanka (typical Russian fur cap whose name comes from the Russian word for ears, i.e. “ushi”). This type of headwear is a cap with earflaps that can be tied for better protection from the cold. There are three different styles of tying up the flaps:
- Up to the crown of the cap
- Down below the neck
- Ski-style (with flaps folded back)
Wearing this type of headwear has a long tradition in many countries with a colder climate – Russia, Sweden, Norway, etc. Historically, they’ve also been quite popular in many other European countries with milder climate – Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia, just to name a few. Aviator hats were really popular in the first half of the 20th century but now they aren’t that common.
Originally, bomber hats have been made with natural fibers that are warm and insulate well such as fur (from sheep, rabbit, fox, etc.) and wool. Now you can also find trapper hats lined with lighter and relatively expensive natural or synthetic materials such as down and Thinsulate. Cheaper models are made with synthetic materials such as faux fur and other man-made materials (acrylic, polyester). Ushanka-hats that fit really well are super warm and comfortable. Aviator hats are usually made with leather and some nice warm lining (fleece, wool, fur, felt).
Because of their excellent thermal insulative abilities, ushanka-style hats can be used in temperatures way below zero. In Russia and some Nordic countries, they have been used for cold protection by ordinary people as well as by military and police forces, hunters, arctic explorers, etc.
Stormy Kromer caps
The Stormy Kromer cap is warm, comfortable, and durable headgear for those active outside. It looks like a brimless cap with a visor and a pull-down earband. The earband can come down to keep the ears warm in colder temperatures.
Traditionally, a Stormy Kromer cap is made of a blend of wool and nylon (the ratio of wool/nylon is 80/20), while the lining is made of cotton flannel. However, there are models made of 100% wool with a cotton lining as well as models crafted from different blends of wool, polyester, nylon, and cotton. Stormy Kromer caps should fit snugly and unlike most other types of winter hats (which are often advertised as “one size fits all/most”) the buyers have a lot of options to choose from. Keep in mind that the hat won’t stretch so choose the right fit before buying a Stormy Kromer hat.
This type of headgear is really multifunctional and can be used in various weather. The manufacturer has an excellent reputation for making hats suited for hunting and work but there are also models for casual wear.
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 fleece and merino balaclavas are comfortable and won’t overheat your head. However, in cold, windy conditions you may need a wind stopping 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.
Balaclavas are often used for snowboarding
Face masks or ski masks (even bandanas work well as face 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. 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. 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.
Multifunctional neck gaiters can be used and as a wide headband
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
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 drawcord added to provide a secure fit even in strong winds.
There are many different types of hats for summer and hot climates. Here, we’ll discuss several of them.
Sun protection caps are especially important at altitude where the UV rays are stronger and more dangerous
Panama hat is probably the most popular representative of the sun hats with wide brims. The name Panama hat doesn’t indicate its origin but rather the place that made them famous around the world. The role of the 26th American president Theodore Roosevelt in popularizing the Panama hat is undeniable as he posed for a series of photos wearing such a hat during the construction of the Panama Canal at the beginning of the XX century. Actually, this type of headwear originates from Ecuador. Hence its other name – an Ecuadorian hat.
It’s a lightweight and breathable straw hat. Unsurprisingly, Panama hats usually come in light colors and are usually white or cream-colored. The quality of a Panama hat depends mainly on the selection and the preparation of the fiber as well as the tightness of the weave. Although most hats of this type are cheap, there are models that cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars. If you want a good quality Panama hat, we recommend you to check out this one on Amazon.
Panama hats have been a favorite type of a summer hat for those on vacation. That’s why many people use it as a beach hat. It’s also popular among those hiking and backpacking in hot regions – the tropics, desert, etc.
Cowboy-style hats are wide-brimmed and high-crowned hats designed to protect the wearer from the elements and especially from the blistering sun. They are all-weather hats and many people wear them in snow, rain, and heat. However, this headwear isn’t suitable for windy weather even for moderate winds.
Sturdy hats are made from wool felt, fur-based felt or leather. Some brands (Stetson, Resistol, etc.) make high-quality hats, with a unique personality, that sell for hundreds even thousands of dollars. These hats have a smooth finish, look beautiful, and are extremely comfortable. Cheaper models use straw or faux felt.
This type of hat has been a symbol of the cowboys and ranch workers in the US since the 19th century. Interestingly, there are regional distinctions between the hats worn by cowboys from different parts of the US. The design called “Boss of the Plains” is probably the most wide-known type of cowboy hat. It was created by Stetson some 150 years ago and became the modern cowboy hat. Today, cowboy-style hats are still huge in the United States but also in many other countries.
Tilley produces medium and broad-brimmed sun hats known for being light, versatile, and functional. Designed for nature, these high-crowned hats are packed with many features such as mesh panels and eyelets into the crown for extra ventilation, UPF 50+ fabric for protection from UV rays, anti-glare brim, wind cord, adjustable sizing, and hidden crown pockets. All these features of the Tilley hats together with the guarantee for life have made them quite popular among outdoorsmen for hot and sunny climates. Their best-selling style is the AIRFLO style (with mesh band in the crown for added ventilation; check out on Amazon).
For their sun hats, the company utilizes mainly lightweight and durable synthetic textiles such as nylon, polyester, and rayon.
The sombrero is a wide-brimmed hat that originated in Mexico. It has a simple design that consists of a flat crown and an extra-wide brim. It might also have an adjustable chin strap to hold it in place. As with most other types of broad-brimmed hats, the sombrero shields the wearer from the sun by providing shade.
Designed for maximum protection from the sun, sombreros are straw hats crafted from woven straw. The Mexican caballeros (cowboys) used sombreros to protect them from the challenges of hot, sunny environments. Nowadays, sombrero hats are popular not only in Mexico but also in many countries and regions with hot climates.
Also known as a giggle, bush or floppy hats they’re typical headgear used by military forces in hot and humid conditions. That’s why boonie hats come often in various camouflage patterns. They usually have a couple of metal eyelets on the crown for additional ventilation and an adjustable cord to secure the fit in light wind. There are also models with mesh venting instead of metal eyelets. Though soldiers used to shorten the brim of their boonie hat, nowadays they don’t have to do it anymore as hat brims are relatively short to allow for better vision without impairing its sun-protective abilities.
Boonie hats are made from heavy-duty fabrics with excellent wicking properties such as ripstop nylon, cotton (denim, canvas), and polyester. Many people find that those wearing floppy hats look a bit ridiculous but this is probably the biggest downside of this kind of sun hat. On the other hand, floppy hats are light, cool, compact, and very breathable. In addition, they provide decent sun protection, which makes them an excellent choice for keeping the sun off while hiking, running, fishing, hunting, and other summer activities.
Very similar to the boonie hat but with a shorter, downward-sloping brim (so it doesn’t provide as good sun protection as a boonie), the bucket hat is also known as fisherman’s hat. One of the main differences between bucket hats and floppy hats is that the former usually don’t have chin strap so it may not stay on your head if worn in high winds.
Heavy-duty cotton, polyester, and nylon are the most common fabrics for bucket hats (if you need a sturdy bucket hat for your outdoor adventures, check out this Outdoor Research hat on Amazon). Some expensive models utilize more “exotic” (for bucket hats) materials such as wool. There are even constructions with a water-repellent finish. Many outdoor enthusiasts use this type of sun hats for fishing, camping, beach, and everyday wear in town.
Baseball caps are hats with basic design – a rounded crown and a curved part sticking out at the front (stiff bill) to shield the wearer’s eyes from the sun. They have vent holes for extra airflow and an adjustable buckle for individual fit. Cheaper designs such as the trucker cap have foam front, mesh back, and plastic snap closure. Although baseball caps are a favorite choice for three-season use (and especially for summer), some baseball style beaked caps are crafted for use during the cold winter months. They are made from thick and warm wool or another fabric with similar properties and can be equipped with ear flaps for additional protection from the cold.
Typically, manufacturers of baseball caps use cotton as well as a range of other materials. Among them: nylon, polyester, fleece, suede, and wool.
Soft and comfortable, baseball caps are extremely popular among baseball players and tennis players as well as sports fans, in general. Many travelers and lovers of the outdoors also appreciate baseball style caps and wear this type of headgear.
Other types of headwear
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 reasonable 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. Basic styles (like the one on the image to the right; you can check it out on Amazon) are inexpensive but also as efficient as more expensive head nets.
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 does 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.
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.
- Chinstrap that prevents the hat from flying away.
- Internally adjustable cinch-band to provide the right fit.
- UPF rating for reliable sun protection.
Good rain hats are lightweight, packable, easily adjustable, provide cooling, breathability, and ventilation. Outdoor Research makes great rain hats suited for a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, travel or everyday wear in sunny, wet or windy conditions.
In both sunny and cold weather, you need to have 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.
What types of headwear do you prefer for your winter/summer activities in the backcountry? Drop us a line in the comments section below.
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