Headgear & Eyewear

Inner acrylic knit balaclava and outer 6-layer knitted balaclava toque by Crown Cap. Glacier glasses, Aiguille model, from MEC.

You lose a lot of heat through your head and neck, but its also a prime area for manipulating layers for venting a lot of steam.  Your head and neck are a thermoregulatory chimney, and so it helps to have a layering head gear system that allows for a lot of flexibility.   Face and eye protection becomes a critical factor as temperatures dip below -200C and the wind comes up.  Frostbite prevention, especially on the tip of the nose is a major issue to deal with.  While some people have superb circulation on their face and need very little face protection, (like many northern 1st Nation peoples), others have poorer circulation and need face masks in the deep windy cold.   You should have a parka hood on your outer shell that fits over top of your hats to keep the wind and snow out.  The light reflecting off the snow is very strong on clear days, and the UV radiation can cause major eye damage.   It is essential to use UV protective eye wear.   We will cover all these considerations below

Hats and Toques:

Everyone has a different preference for head gear so you will have to experiment to see what works.   But a universal rule is don’t get head gear that’s too tight.  Some of us have big (fat?) heads including yours truly, and its no end of frustration to find lose fitting head gear.   The one-size-fits-all sizing does not work for me.   Itchy, scratchy “hat head” and “toque head”, and sometimes headaches, are no fun at the end of a long day.

I was lucky to find a toque made of loosely knit acrylic that fits my big fat head very comfortably, and which is,… count ‘em,…6 layers thick!    It’s the best toque in the world in my humble opinion!   And it cost me only $12 at a roadside gift shop in northern Ontario (now out of business unfortunately).  I was lucky I bought 2 when I had the chance.   One is now full of spark melt holes in the outer layers, but the inner layers are still good, and the other is stored for when the first wears out.   It was made by Crown Cap © out of Winnipeg.   I should have bought several more for a lifetime supply.   With six layers it insulates very well, yet breathes perfectly because of its loose knit structure.   Its simple roll up rim allows for it to be adjusted for venting or pulled down for really cold.  Its is also loose enough to wear over another toque or balaclava.  How’s that for flexible gear integration!

Perhaps the world’s best winter camping toque? Made by Crown Cap of Winnipeg, this has 6 layers of knitted acrylic. Loose fitting, comfortable on big heads, cuts the wind and yet breathes superbly. And its loose fitting style allows for comfortable layering over top of balaclavas and face masks. Watch cap roll design means you can pull it over most of your ears, or roll it up for venting the steam. Glacier glasses, Aiguille model, from MEC.

It is very hard to find a thick but lose fitting toque these days.   If you cannot find one, I suggest you have a 2-toque system and size appropriately to fit one on top of the other for those really cold windy days.

There are unfortunately some next to useless toques sold in gear stores.  The simple thin fleece toque without any wind blocking is not functional on its own in the windy cold.  This is only suitable for layering underneath a more substantial knit toque that can block some wind.

High tech wind blocking membranes in synthetic materials do work, but one of the down sides is that the membrane rubbing on your ears creates a loud sound which I cannot tolerate.    These also tend not to have enough loft for insulation on their own for the really cold days, so you need something on top.

Another buddy of mine found a very thick layered fleece “mad trapper” hat that he swears by.  With the flaps he can regulate the venting effectively.  There are a variety of mad trapper hats out there, made of sheepskin, leather and faux fur, and rabbit fur, and who knows what else.   Whatever your hat of choice, it must be able to cover most if not all of your ears when rolled/flapped down.


Whatever your main hat is, it should be sized loose enough to be able to accommodate a balaclava underneath.   Open face balaclava’s are essential gear in my experience.  They make all the difference in keeping ears and neck and head warm when worn under a loose fitting toque.  Its incredible how they can turn a bitter, cutting day into a no big deal day.   In extreme cold they also protect much of your face so that you can seal out all exposed skin with ski goggles.  Any small bit of skin not covered by the goggles or balaclava will be frostbitten, so having at least two balaclavas in your kit is essential.   Carry only one and lose it, and you could be in trouble.

Acrylic knitted balaclava under a toque. The loose fit if the acrylic knit is comfortable all day long, and adjusts to many head sizes. Only thing worse at the end of the day than “hat head” is “balaclava head”!

Neck Gaiters:

When my neck is cold, I am cold all over.  The neck gaiter insulates and seals in your top neck collar and balaclava bottom.  These come in a variety of fabrics, and my preference is knit acrylic.   Just like toques, I find acrylic knits to block wind very well, yet breathe easily.   They also seem to stretch effortlessly yet maintain tension to stay up or down in various adjustments.   Neck gaiters also are made in various fleece materials.

Face Masks

When its really cold and windy I need to cover my nose, and I like the neoprene or wind block fleece face masks with the nose piece.  In fact its so essential to protect my nose from frostbite that I do the quadruple check for this in my packed gear for all trips.  Don’t leave home without it!

They come as integrated balaclavas or wrap around masks.   Some models have small breathing holes around the mouth, but these don’t convey enough moisture for my liking, so I cut them out to improve the ventilation and keep my face dry.

Photo taken while hauling sled at -35, no wind (and still smiling!). On the cold trips, don’t leave home without one! Common ski shop neoprene face mask with the nose protector. This shows a 3-layer system, with the mask worn over a thin polyester balaclava, and underneath the toque. Mouth breathing holes cut out for better breathing. The smaller opening around the eyes allows for ski goggles to seal up the entire face when dealing with high winds. Note how the acrylic toque is transmitting moisture.

“Note how the neck area is open for venting steam. Even at -35, when hauling sled you must vent excess heat and moisture.


Ski Goggles:

Sometimes its cold and the wind is so cutting you have to cover all exposed skin on your face, and especially around your eyes.   With an open faced balaclava and face mask, wear the goggles on top to seal out all exposed skin.   Fogging can be a problem.   Don’t cheap out on the goggles.  Get a good pair with a fogging resistant lens and UV protection.   This will go a long way to minimizing fogging problems.  But if you are continuously fogging up, it likely means you are overheated and overwhelming the system with steam.  Adjust your layers and try to cool down.   It can be tough, but hey, part of the fun in winter camping is the learning curve and eternal challenge to find the perfect clothing system.

Skiing into the wind at about -18. Ski goggles are essential gear for eye protection and frostbite protection of the face. Don’t leave home without them!

Sunglasses and UV Eye Protection:

I learned the hard way.  Don’t be stupid like I was.  Always bring UV blocking sunglasses.  Your eye health is too precious to risk.  Now my eyes are hyper-sensitive to bright reflected light off snow, and I go into instant extreme pain and tearing in reflected snow light, even on semi-overcast days.  Without UV blocking ski goggles or my “glacier” sunglasses, I’m done, unless I could make some classic Inuit snow goggles with thin slits.  I have never used those, so don’t know if they will work for me, but it’s good survival knowledge to have in case you lose your eyewear.

“Glacier” is a common name for sunglasses which have side shields to prevent intense reflected light from the snow getting into the sides of your eyes.  The shields are made of leather which cups your eye socket area, or there are new plastic and neoprene slip on shields you can get for regular sunglasses.   The cupped shields also function like light ski goggles, and I much prefer my glaciers instead of my goggles if its not too cold and windy.   I have “transition” lenses which darken and lighten according to conditions.  I am extremely pleased with their performance outside.   I also use slip on head retainers on the temple arms to keep them snug.   I can’t afford for them to flip off and be damaged.

Glacier glasses have all-important side-shields to protect from reflected UV, and they also seal out side winds. Always bring your UV protective eyewear. Shown are “Aiguille” frames, from MEC, fitted with prescription Transitions lenses). For prescription eyeglass users, glacier glasses frames are some of the best to use. Modern wrap-around sunglass frames often will not accommodate an Rx lens.

The latest sunglass fashion and design has produced “wrap-around” style sunglasses which are excellent and negate the need for side shields, if you don’t need prescription lenses.   The wrap-around lenses are too curved to so that most of these frames will not accommodate prescription lenses.   The “old fashioned” glacier glasses frames are less wrap-around, and some will accommodate prescription lenses.  If you need prescriptions sunglasses, be sure before buying that the frame model can be fitted with such lenses.