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  1. Why You Should Wear A Balaclava

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    Man Heating Water For A drink In The Alps Whilst Wearing A Sub Zero Balaclava

    Named after the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War, the original head protection was knitted from thick wool to keep soldiers heads warm during the harsh winters. Nowadays you can buy balaclavas in all types of materials from lightweight base layer fabric to heavy weight polar fleece.

    A typical balaclava fully covers your head and also your neck, with an opening in the front for your mouth, nose and eyes. This can either be a single opening (as the image above) or separate holes – just think of the SAS.

    If you do not own or have never worn one, then let us extol the virtues of the much maligned humble balaclava.

    Hygienic Layer

    Wearing any type of helmet, whether that be a motorbike helmet or a safety helmet, is going to lead to your head sweating due to the poor breathability of the protective outer material. Without wearing a balaclava, this sweat will be absorbed in to the supporting inner foam, creating an ideal environment for odour creating bacteria to prosper. Not only will your helmet be smelly, it will also need replacing earlier as the foam is attacked by naturally occurring acids in your perspiration.

    Wearing a lightweight balaclava under your helmet will help absorb sweat and is easily washed after use.

    Head Protection

    Balaclavas insulate most of your head and neck in one go. If you wanted the same level of protection without wearing one, then you would need a separate hat, neck tube, face mask, and head band. These altogether are not only expensive but also bulky on your face.

    Adaptable Design

    The adaptability of a balaclava makes it one of the best pieces of emergency kit to keep in your backpack should the weather take a turn for the worse. Not only is it a full head and neck covering, it can also be turned up in to a beanie hat, or a neck tube if required. The flexibility of the material will also allow you to cover your nose or leave it exposed depending on the weather conditions.

    Heat Retention

    Most of your head is covered when wearing a balaclava, so there is much less surface area for heat to escape from. The thermal insulating properties can obviously be adjusted depending on the materials used in its manufacture. A lightweight base layer fabric is thin enough to be worn under a helmet and is ideal for Spring and Autumn use as well. When the weather starts getting colder then you will need to change to a mid layer balaclava, whilst winter mountaineering will require a thick polar fleece design.

    Look A Bad Ass

    You cannot argue with the fact that you look ‘well ard’ wearing a balaclava. Just make sure you take it off before entering a bank!

    Buy A Balaclava

    If you are still not sold on the idea of wearing a balaclava then you obviously have not experienced biting cold for any length of time. It may not be the trendiest piece of headgear available but who cares what you look like in a 80mph gale on top of a snow windswept mountain.

  2. Why A Synthetic Base Layer Is Better Than Wool

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    Why A Synthetic Base Layer Is Better Than Wool

    Fashion always seems to go in full circles, and this is no more truer than with thermal underwear. For centuries wool had been the winter underwear of choice but this changed with the invention of man made yarns in the 1940s and 50s. New materials made from these raw materials lead to the spread of the synthetic base layer towards the end of the 20th century. However, over the past decade the market has seen a resurgence of performance woollen underwear, with synthetic base layers being much maligned, albeit by woollen vested interests.

    Before people start to dispose of their ‘plastic’ underwear and adopt a more ‘environmentally friendly’ woollen clothing system, they should really consider the following points:

    User Comfort

    Wool can be itchy. There is no getting away from it. If people have sensitive skin then it doesn’t matter how soft the wool actually is, it is going to irritate the wearer. Sometimes this can be psychosomatic, but that is no comfort if you are on top of a mountain scratching away.

    Synthetic fabrics on the other hand have a very soft handle, especially polyamide, that rarely irritates the skin. The long smooth fibre profile glides over the skin rather than scour it. This smoothness also helps other items of clothing to glide over a synthetic base layer, helping to prevent rubbing and chafing.

    Longer Lasting

    Being a natural product, wool will degrade over time. This was fashionably demonstrated by HRH Prince Charles who buried an old woollen jumper. Although this composting ability is seen as a major advantage it does have the disadvantage in that the longevity of a woollen base layer is short. You will be lucky if one set lasts you a season if used regularly.

    In comparison, a synthetic base layer will not degrade, well not in your lifetime anyway. Viewed mainly as a negative to the environmental lobby, this is in fact a positive – a thermal base layer for your lifetime. Most people only change their synthetic base layer if a) they loose it b) they boil wash it and shrink it c) change body shape that means the fit is no longer good d) fancy a different colour.

    Better Moisture Management

    Wool acts a bit like a sponge, soaking up moisture when in contact with it. Defenders of this process will state that it doesn’t feel wet, it’s just absorbed internally. OK, this is true for about 25% absorption, but if you fall in a body of water you are going to have a very heavy base layer. Just feel the weight of a washed jumper before the spin cycle.

    With a synthetic base layer basically being made form plastic, water absorption within the yarn is very low, and is in fact 0% in polypropylene base layers, effectively making them waterproof. The construction of the garment will dictate how much water is actually held (rather than absorbed) but this is often marginal. With these base layers, and especially polyamides, you can impregnate hydrophilic treatments in to the yarn itself to further aid moisture movement.

    Superior Washing

    Most people will have probably shrunk a woollen jumper at some point in their life. Its a natural reaction by the wool fibres to heat, water and mechanical action to want to revert back to their original curly shape. Think of straightened frizzy hair after getting rained on. Some woollen base layer can be washed on a cool cycle with no spin, but most recommend hand washing and line drying, which is ideal in the summer, but a pain in the bum in the winter when you are going to use them the most.

    Don’t get me wrong, synthetic base layers will shrink at high wash temperatures, but put them on a washing machine spin cycle at 30-40oC and you will have no issues. Due to their low water absorption, they will also dry much quicker.

    More Environmentally Friendly

    If you interviewed most outdoor enthusiasts, the vast majority would probably believe that woollen base layers are more environmentally friendly than synthetic versions. You can understand why. It’s a natural product that rots down and absorbed back in to the earth. But scratch a little further and all is not as it would seem. Wool is not something you just sheer off the back of a sheep and wear. There are a lot of energy intensive processes involved to get a finished product that is relatively soft and user friendly. So if you are having to buy one woollen base layer a year, over your lifetime that is a lot of energy and resources used.

    In contrast, a synthetic base layer may not be biodegradable but it will last a long time and is a lot more robust. You may only ever need one thermal set in your lifetime if you are lucky enough to stay the same shape. Once you have finished with, it can also be recycled in to the next base layer for someone else lifetime.

    Purchase Price

    For just coming off a sheeps back, the cost of a finished wool product is very expensive, mainly due to the amount of processes involved. A new set every year is going to be cost prohibitive to a lot of people, especially with the added risk of laundry damage and natural wear and tear.

    A good quality synthetic base layer of comparable weight and style will probably be around 15-25% cheaper. Once you start to multiply the cost by the lifetime of the garment, you are getting a lot more bang for your buck with a synthetic base layer.

    When Wool Should Be Used

    There are certain situations where we would advise woollen base layers to be used. If any person has the possibility of contact with fire such as in the aviation industry or the emergency services, then woollen base layers are ideal, as the fabric chars rather than burns. There are also industrial applications, such as welding, where sparks or high temperatures may be around the wearer.

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