Hasty review: PT like a ninja — and stay warm — with the Cold Avenger Expedition Balaclava

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Two years ago the folks at Cold Avenger gave GearScout and me some of their Expedition Balaclavas to try out. But what they didn’t send us was an actual winter.

So for two years, my mask has been sitting, waiting, in mint condition in my gear pile. But this week’s frigid polar vortex finally made it cold enough in the Mid-Atlantic to break it out and give it a go. I suited up this morning for a quick 3 miles on the Mall in D.C. The temperature at 0745 was 8 degrees with a wind chill of minus 8.

The Expedition is two parts: a balaclava made from tightly knit and highly wind-resistant fleece and a medical-grade ventilator that attaches to the hood with Velcro hook and loop closures.

The point of the Cold Avenger — besides looking like a ninja/burglar/bad-guy-from-Batman — is to keep your head, neck and face warm while creating warm, humid air to breathe. All of which make frostbite-friendly weather more bearable.

How does it work?

“The patented Cold Avenger ventilator passively creates (no moving or  mechanical parts to break) a ‘micro-climate’ over the mouth and nose,” according to the Cold Avenger website. “The micro-climate mixes cold air with warm insulated air to create the perfect balance of warmth and humidity of inhaled air. Exhaled moisture binds to the surface of the ventilator to keep your skin dry while returning this moisture to inhaled air, achieving the perfect elevated humidity for the micro-climate.”

Here are my initial thoughts:

(Keep in mind I’ve only been able to wear it once, and for a measly 3 miles, so this is not the typical, in-depth review we like to do. I figure that D.C. won’t give me cold enough weather to do more testing.)

Cons: The fit, though this probably isn’t the best style for running, I think the half-mask style could eliminate some of my fit complaints.

The hood is one-size-fits-all, which leads to my biggest complaint. For me, it’s just too big, even with all my long, crazy hair stuffed underneath.

I found that the balaclava gapped around my eyes, sending cold wind back to my ears. The too-big design also meant that the top of the hood kept sliding back until it was at my hairline, instead of over my eyebrows where I’d like it. I ended up with a very cold forehead and a knot of hair.

I also had the ventilator fairly snug, but couldn’t get it to seal well over my nose. It worked properly, pulling the moisture away from my skin and keeping the air warm and humid, but it moved around so much it almost gave me a blister on the bridge of my nose. Nose chafing is not something I’ve ever experienced as a runner. Not fun.

It’s also quite difficult to adjust with gloves on and made me feel pretty claustrophobic. I’d also love to see a pony tail port so I didn’t have to have all my hair mashed under the hood.

I would also have trouble wearing this on the trail. When I look down at my feet all I see is black fleece instead of the road or trail, making a trail tumble inevitable.

Pros: It does work, though not without lots of annoyance. I typically wear a polyester or fleece Buff over my mouth and nose when the temperature drops below 20, but when it’s as cold as it was this morning, the condensation from my breath usually freezes on the Buff. This leaves me breathing through ice, which is very unpleasant. The Cold Avenger, despite its fit issues, didn’t cause this problem and I found I could breathe a lot more easily.

With the low temperature and the wind, I didn’t find myself getting hot in the Cold Avenger. If the temperature had gotten much warmer I probably would have, but in the bitter cold it breathed well enough (and I wasn’t out long enough) to keep me from getting too sweaty.

Verdict: If I lived in a place where the mercury regularly dropped below zero this — despite its issues — would be a must-have. I’d also be sure to pack it if I were headed to a very cold race, such as the Antarctic Marathon. It would also be great for skiing or mountain biking in the cold where you’d have significantly more wind in your face.

For mild D.C., though, I think I’ll stick with my trusty Buff, which can be worn so many different ways. With a little more time I would have liked to have found a way to MacGyver the ventilator to my regular and beloved winter running hat. This would have combined the good parts of the Cold Avenger with the fit and comfort of my regular hats.

Buy it: www.coldavenger; $79.95

Sara Davidson is an all-weather ultrarunner and our resident women’s gear destroyer. She’ll run until her eyelashes freeze.