A backcountry skier in the High Sierra above Lake Tahoe.

Review: The Best Winter Hats of 2018

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By Michael Lanza

Do you love getting outdoors in winter? If so, then you know that, just like the rest of your body, your noggin needs protection from cold temperatures, wind, and precipitation at this time of year. But just as with your body core and extremities, how much insulation your head needs depends on ambient conditions like temperature and wind as well as your activity level—how much heat your body is producing. And it sometimes seems there are as many choices in head wear out there as there are heads.

Look no further. This review covers the best winter hats for all kinds of outdoor recreationists, including Nordic, backcountry, and downhill skiers, runners, snowshoers, fitness walkers, climbers, bike commuters, and others who stay active outdoors in the cold months. And if you’re simply looking for a warm hat at a good price, you’ll find those in this article, too.

Hats made for being on the move in temperatures from above to well below freezing vary greatly in breathability, warmth, and wind and weather protection—because needs range widely, depending on your activity level.

For that reason, this review separates winter hats into two categories:

Lightweight winter beanies. Generally under two ounces, these consist of thin, highly breathable fabric to balance minimal warmth with the ability to offload the heat and sweat your body produces in high-speed activities like Nordic skiing and running on trails or streets. They also fit easily under a skiing, cycling, or climbing helmet.

Warm winter hats. Thicker than the above, these caps trap heat efficiently during moderate exertion, as when skiing, hiking, or snowshoeing downhill, and usually offer better protection from wind and snow. Look for a snug fit that covers the ears. In deep cold, these hats can be worn for highly aerobic activity, too. But they do not usually fit under any helmet.

One of my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter” is to bring two hats for any outing on which your exertion level or the temperature will vary—especially when out for more than a couple of hours. For example, when backcountry skiing, I wear a warm hat when skiing downhill, but a lighter, more breathable one for when I’m skinning uphill, so I don’t overheat.

 


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Subscribe now to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

For the most part, winter hats aren’t waterproof because you don’t really need that. When your body’s generating heat through activity, you’ll quickly get sweaty under any hat with minimal breathability. Besides, in temperatures below freezing, any precipitation is frozen, of course, and most hats, whether wool or synthetic, will shed falling snow and still trap heat. Plus, if you’re out in those conditions, you’re probably wearing a waterproof-breathable or highly water-resistant shell with a hood you can flip up.

Below are my picks for the best hats I’ve found and field tested on many days of Nordic, backcountry, and downhill skiing, running, snowshoeing, and biking around town in winter. I’ve separated them into the two categories described above, and listed them in each category roughly from lightest to warmest—although there’s less variation in warmth in the second category.

Below the hat reviews, I also recommend a few balaclavas and why and when you might need one.

 

Winter is fun. Cold fingers aren’t. See my “Review: The Best Gloves for Winter.”

 

Smartwool PhD Training Beanie.

Smartwool PhD Training Beanie.

Smartwool PhD Training Beanie
$25, 1 oz.
moosejaw.com

Best For: Highly aerobic activities in temps from around freezing to the mid- or low 20s Fahrenheit, or moderately strenuous activities in temps from the mid-20s to above freezing.

This close-fitting beanie quickly became one of my favorite lightweight caps for highly aerobic sports like skate-skiing in temps ranging from freezing down into the low 20s, simply because it delivers an ideal blend of minimal warmth and high moisture transfer. Smartwool’s soft PhD Ultra Light Merino wool stretches and rebounds and, because it’s wool, moves moisture off your head to the fabric’s outer surface, where it quickly evaporates (especially in wind or high-speed sports like Nordic skiing, cycling, and running). The fit covers the ears and forehead. Very cool feature callout: Two almost unnoticeable fabric sleeves that you can slide the arms (actually called the “temples”) of sunglasses inside to secure them to your head.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Smartwool PhD Training Beanie or PhD Ultra Light Training Beanie at moosejaw.com or rei.com, or the similar PhD Light Reversible Beanie at rei.com.

 

What touches your skin matters. See my picks for the best base layers for any season.

 

Black Diamond Icon Headband.

Black Diamond Icon Headband.

Black Diamond Icon Headband
$25, 1.5 oz.
ems.com

Best For: Moderately strenuous activities in temps from around freezing down into the 20s, or highly aerobic activities in slightly colder temps.

Although it seems strange to describe a headband as warmer than the two beanies reviewed above, the Icon’s acrylic outer fabric and fleecy polyester lining block wind and trap heat very efficiently—it’s like a moderately warm beanie that’s been decapitated to let you dump surplus heat. The extra-wide design and tight fit help boost warmth, but the headband also stretches to accommodate large melons. My wife prefers headbands when skate-skiing because she gets quite warm during a Nordic workout, and actually found the Icon too warm for temps in the mid- to high-20s Fahrenheit.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Black Diamond Icon Headband at ems.com.

 

Don’t go out in the cold before reading my “12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter.”

 

Outdoor Research Shiftup Beanie.

Outdoor Research Shiftup Beanie.

Outdoor Research Shiftup Beanie
$25, 1 oz.
outdoorresearch.com

Best For: Highly aerobic activities in temps from around freezing to about 20° F, or moderately strenuous activities in temps from above freezing to the mid-20s.

The Shiftup was my other go-to lightweight beanie for skate-skiing and climbing uphill when backcountry skiing, and is a good pick when you need some warmth under a skiing, cycling, or climbing helmet. While I could feel wind pass right through it when Nordic skiing downhill, my head stayed warm in wind even once the hat became damp with sweat. Credit its hexagon fleece pattern, which creates hundreds of tiny air pockets to trap warmth, while breathing very well to prevent overhearing while chugging uphill. The Shiftup is one of the two lightweight beanies (including the next one) that provide the most head coverage, pulling down over the eyebrows and back of the neck when desired; but the stretchy, close fit allows raising it up a little higher on your head, too.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Outdoor Research Shiftup Beanie at outdoorresearch.com.

 

See my review of an outstanding shell jacket for winter, the “Outdoor Research Skyward Jacket.”

 

The North Face Ascent Active Beanie.

The North Face Ascent Active Beanie.

The North Face Ascent Active Beanie
$30, 1.5 oz.
moosejaw.com

Best For: Moderately strenuous activities in temps from the 20s down into the teens, or highly aerobic activities in slightly colder temps.

The warmest of these lightweight beanies, TNF’s Ascent Active Beanie bridges the gap between these two categories—it’s a warm lightweight cap that doesn’t quite fit in the “warm hat” category. But on cold days, its soft polyester fleece delivers much-needed extra insulation under a helmet when downhill skiing, or alone when skiing up a skin track in the backcountry, running trails, or skate-skiing. That’s in part because the fit extends over the ears and forehead, even on big heads. While wind passes easily through this beanie, if paired with a hood when necessary, it may be the only hat needed for snowshoers, hikers, and climbers whose exertion levels vary over the course of an outing.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase The North Face Ascent Active Beanie at moosejaw.com or ems.com.

 

Be smart about winter. See my expert tips in “How to Dress in Layers for Winter in the Backcountry.”

 

Nordic skate-skiing in Idaho's Boise Mountains.

Nordic skate-skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

Warm Winter Hats

 

The North Face Bones Beanie.

The North Face Bones Beanie.

The North Face Bones Beanie
$20, 2 oz.
moosejaw.com

Best For: Low- to moderate-intensity activities, like downhill skiing, hiking, or snowshoeing, in temps in the 20s and colder.

The acrylic Bones Beanie, which has a thick, interior micro-fleece earband lining, kept my head toasty (sans helmet) while downhill skiing in temps in the 20s—but I needed to pull a shell hood over it when the wind kicked up. But it still breathes reasonably well for snowshoeing and hiking in temps below the mid-20s. Its snug fit covers the ears completely, even on bigger heads. While there’s not huge variation in prices of these hats, this one’s a bargain at 20 bucks.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a The North Face Bones Beanie at moosejaw.com or ems.com.

 

Get the right synthetic or down puffy to keep you warm. See my review of “The 10 Best Down Jackets.”

 

Seirus Heatwave Ziggy Hat.

Seirus Heatwave Ziggy Hat.

Seirus Heatwave Ziggy Hat
$25, 2 oz.
seirus.com

Best For: Low- to moderate-intensity activities, like downhill skiing, hiking, or snowshoeing, in temps in the 20s and colder.

This wool-acrylic blend hat features the Seirus Heatwave technology, an interior earband lining that reflects back 20 percent of the head’s heat loss and bumps up the temperature inside the hat by 4º to 5º F (both stats according to Seirus). My verdict is that this cap is warm for its low weight and moderate bulk, assisted by a soft, fleecy lining. The fit accommodates big noggins and extends below the ears and onto the back of the neck—a bit more coverage than TNF’s Bones Beanie or the Sherpa Jumla.

 

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Sherpa Jumla Hat.

Sherpa Jumla Hat.

Sherpa Jumla Hat
$30, 2.5 oz.
moosejaw.com

Best For: Low-intensity activities, like downhill skiing, in temps in the 20s and colder, or moderately strenuous activities like hiking or snowshoeing in deeper cold.

Knitted by women working in small co-ops in Nepal, the Jumla’s dense lambs’ wool is super warm and blocks some wind—it’s better than The North Face Bones Beanie or the Seirus Ziggy in that regard—while the fat fleece interior earband amplifies the insulation of this snug-fitting cap, and the fit covers the ears. While lacking much stretch, it’s warmer than many, and it fits on my big head. It has insulated my squash on many downhill ski runs on chilly days at resorts and in the backcountry.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Sherpa Jumla Hat at moosejaw.com or rei.com, or the kids’ version at rei.com.

 

Shopping for new gear? Start with the menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.

 

Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon.

Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon.

Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon
$36, 2 oz. Sizes: M-XL
rei.com

Best For: Low-intensity activities, like downhill skiing, in temps in the low 20s and colder.

The classic Dome Perignon is a mainstay at ski resorts and in mountain towns for its bountiful warmth and lovably goofy styling. Polartec Windbloc fleece completely shuts out wind and traps heat supremely well. The stretchy, snug fit extends to the eyebrows, below the earlobes, and onto the back of the neck, and the large size easily fits my big head comfortably. It’s also the only hat on this list available in more than one size—and it comes in a whopping three sizes. One drawback of Windbloc: It blocks some sound, making it a little more difficult to talk to someone.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon at rei.com, sunnysports.com, or REI Garage, or a Dome Perignon Lite ($32) at moosejaw.com or udans.com.

 

Cross-country skier heading out from a yurt, Boise National Forest, Idaho.

My wife, Penny, heading out from a yurt, Boise National Forest, Idaho.

Balaclavas

Why and when would you need a balaclava? This type of headwear—basically a stretchy, long, warm sock for the head and neck, with an opening for the eyes, nose, and sometimes the mouth—becomes useful in deep cold, especially dangerous wind chills near or below zero Fahrenheit, when you should leave virtually no skin exposed. Balaclavas vary in warmth and fabrics, but generally have enough stretch to allow you to cover your mouth and nose (often while simultaneously wearing ski goggles, so no part of your face is exposed) or not, or even rolling it up and wearing it like a beanie.

Balaclavas made with breathable fabrics help prevent overheating—it actually can happen, even in deep cold, and your outerwear layer would have a windproof hood in those conditions, anyway.

Here are a few balaclavas I recommend:

Arc’teryx RHO AR Balaclava ($35), made with Polartec Power Stretch, available at moosejaw.com and arcteryx.com.

Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Balaclava ($35), made with Polartec Power Dry grid fleece and Polygiene odor control, available at rei.com and patagonia.com.

Smartwool Merino 250 Balaclava ($30-$40), made with soft, warm Merino wool, available at rei.com and REI Garage.

 

Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons below, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

 

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