Under Cover: Which Hat to Wear

Which hat to wear outdoors? It all depends on the conditions, time of the year and personal preference.

People new to backcountry winter activities or even the outdoors in general often have questions about which hat to wear.  What seems obvious to someone who has spent time in the backcountry may not seem obvious to someone new to the outdoors.

Based on the questions asked about sun protection, down hats, balaclavas, etc. on various forums, , I thought an overview of hat types may work well.

Obviously, I can’t write about all the hats out there….only what I know, use and/or am personally familiar with. A pith helmet review would be awesome….but I can’t see myself wearing one. 🙂

Zulu:  Excellent movie with plenty of pith helmets!

All purpose “hats”


I always use a bandanna, even in winter.  In the summer, I can drape it “French Foreign Legion” style  around my neck with a ball cap or visor. Or wear it pirate style under my boonie hat.   In winter, it is something I pack as it has many uses.  Even something as simple as wiping off my skis before putting on climbing skins makes a bandanna indispensable.

Just call me “Mags of Arabia” (This was obviously a staged photo btw 😉 )

Buff or similar

To quote the buff site, a buff is “seamfree multifunctional headwear in technical fabrics”.  A buff is essentially a long and thin neck gaiter that can be folded in many different ways, A very versatile item with many fans.

I have limited use of this type of product. But I have found it useful for warm spring and fall days esp when I hike in the local foothills. It is perfect for shoving in my day pack or pocket when I want to pack a warmer hat of  some sort but don’t necessarily think I will need one.


I was not plotting robberies in Golden Gate Canyon SP. Honest.

Warm weather hats

Sun protection is often needed for exposed hiking. Be it in the desert, above treeline or high altitude, the sun’s UV radiation is best avoided as much as possible.

Sun screen of course works, but a simple hat is even more effective in keeping the sun out of the eyes and off the face. In conjunction with sun screen, a warm weather hat works well.


Being follically challenged, a visor does not work for me. Many people like them, though, as the ventilation is great and works well with a bandanna worn as a neck cape. If your hair is thick, may be a good option to wear by itself. Otherwise you need to use a bandana French Foreign Legion style with the visor.

Another use is to be worn over a winter hat to help keep the snow out of the face.

Ball Cap

For day hikes, climbs (under my helmet)  and the occasional spring ski, I’ll wear a ball cap. Gives basic protection but really needs sun screen to be effective. Sometimes I just want something quick that, quite frankly, does not look as dorky as my boonie hat. 🙂  I always have a ball cap in my car now in case I do forget a hat.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Wide Brimmed Hat

A wide-brimmed hat has long been my choice of head wear for more than just casual jaunts. Provides sun protection in addition to  light rain and snow protection. A boonie is something I pack in all four seasons. I can combine with a bandanna or a balaclava as needed.

I’ve embraced the boonie hat. Disco and d-low have embraced the visors. We’ve all embraced Oskar Blues!

Colder Weather Hats


In three season hiking conditions, I rock a polypro balaclava only. It is so versatile.

From Wikipedia

I can roll it up as a hat, use it as neck gaiter, ear muffs or in “ninja ski mask mode” for fuller face protection. I pack it in all four seasons.

I was called “Dances with Cactus” on the AZT! 


Beanie (aka watch cap, toque, ski hat and many other names!)

For three season plus (and spring skiing when the conditions can be wet and sloppy), my go to hat is a light weight fleece beanie.  I paid $4 CDN at the MEC in Calgary. It is actually one of my two favorite hats. 🙂  I’ll wear it in conjunction with the balaclava above at times.


In winter? I’ve used many different types of hats. I used to use a wool one as the snow just collects on top yet the wool stays warm. Lately, I’ve been using a thin fleece/polyester type hat from Head Sweats as it is lighter in terms of thickness.


For REALLY cold and windy days (and often at night when winter backpacking), I have an old, worn but effective thick wool/acrylic balaclava that was a stocking stuffer one year.

Here I am posing as an extra in a documentary on the Winter War.

The balaclava is getting rather worn looking, so it may be time to replace.  Though the blaze orange is always fashionable. 😉 ( I’ve since retired this balaclava and went to a very thick fleece one.)

Maybe not????

Other Hats

Down or synthetic puffy hat

I never used a puffy hat,  but for stationary activities or sleeping, people swear by them.  A popular, if expensive option, is the Black Rock down hat.

Another, more budget friendly, option is the Ray Way Bomber Hat. 

Other options are available too.



Black Rock hat from the website

Personally I’ve never used them for the following reasons:

  • Both my three-season and winter puffies have hoods. Would be a bit redundant for me.
  • When active, and if you put out a lot of heat, the puffies will suffer the same problem as puffy jackets: moisture build up, sweat and salts all compromise the loft

Still these hats are light and warm. Depending on your style and goals in the outdoors, these hats may be a good fit for you.

Flap style hat

A beanie that extends down to the cheeks.  Also known as an Andes style hat. Another hat style I have not used, but is popular.  Since I always pack a light balaclava, never had the need for this type of hat.

From Andrew Skurka’s inaugural winter backpacking trip last year

I can see it being useful for brisk days where a combo of warmth and breathability is desired.

Six-hats-in-one fleece hood (or similar)

Goes by many different names, but these fleece hoods  are the same in overall design. A versatile cross between a buff and a balaclava that is able to be cinched down.  The surplus ones are made of very thick fleece.



From Amazon.com

You can wear it as a hat, a scarf, a balaclava, a hood and so on.

someone loved hers for  winter camping. I also found it to be warm and versatile.

As much as I loved it, found it to be a  bit too bulky and heavy  for backpacking..

Wearing it as a scarf in the AM. Photo courtesy of Andrew Skurka.

The 6-in-1 one fleece hood is good for stationary activities. Unlike down hats, I feel more comfortable with the fleece hat in the snow.  My thicker balaclava above is similar enough without as much of a weight and bulk penalty.

If I did more above treeline activities in winter, esp mountaineering when belaying, I can see myeself putting this in my pack more often.

Quick side note: On all these hats, I personally avoid any kind of windblock or waterproof-breathable membranes.  I find that these membranes make clothing perform double duty. The breathability and vesatility of the clothing is then limited.  I like to mix and match layers as needed.  Hats are no exception. Any kind of extra membrane limits this versatility in a backcountry situation in my opinion.  Others may have a different take.


These are just a few different ideas that may assist with your choice of head-gear. If you are three season backpacking only, a simple beanie and some sort of warm weather hat is probably all you need. Going out in near or full winter conditions? Think of what system would work for your own personal style of backpacking and outdoor use.

And, as I like to say, above all else be safe and have fun!

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