Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
PolarWrap Exchanger balaclava (face mask)
[Originally written for BackpackGearTest.org, this review was current at the time it was written but should now be considered out-of-date. It is likely this product has been improved based on test results such as those reported here and experiences from other users. It is also possible that this product no longer exists or has been superseded by products produced at a later time. This page is included for historical purposes as an example of a gear testing report I had submitted.
Only minor updates such as email addresses, links, and formatting have been made as necessary to accommodate inclusion of an older report into this web site.]
Web site: Link to www.polarwrap.com broken in September 2012
Please note, there is a three day progression of comments here:
Initial Comments - March 1, 2001
Knowing that it was a face mask, when I took it out of the FedEX box, it seemed very heavy and bulky. My postal scale puts it at 4.5 oz. The primary material is a heavy lycra-like material which forms the primary balaclava. This lycra material forms a full hood and the front is long enough to cover your neck and tuck into other outer garments. The back is more form fitting and may not be long enough to tuck into a crew neck shirt or jacket.
The mask gets interesting when you look at the part in the front of the face. The exchanger part seems to be around 7" wide and 4" high with a higher, formed peak in the middle for your nose. It is lined with a soft micro-fleece except where there is a 1 5/8 x ĺ" rectangle through which you breathe. The entire 7" x 4" section is about Ĺ" thick to accommodate the exchanger. Thatís why the mask seemed bulky at the initial observation.
While there was a letter to the testers with use instructions, the accompanying material describing why the mask works did not include use instructions, cleaning instructions, or materials listing. Presumably this information would end up on a product tag attached to each unit when sold. The web site, www.polarwrap.com, does offer both use and limited cleaning instructions. I do wonder if it can be cleaned with some sort of soap or just rinsed with water.
When I finally put the mask on, I found the exchanger part to be rather stiff and uncomfortable. By scrunching it gently with my hands, it softened up a bit and wasnít too bad.
I, too, must have a big nose. I had to pull the mask down just a tiny bit to keep the mouth opening at my mouth. But, my nose was still basically where it needed to be in the nose pocket portion of the mask. For me though, I found that my nose pushed the mask away from my face and there was a gap of about a cm or a little more between the mask and my face.
I also found the center seam in the nose to press uncomfortably on my nose but that may just be me and it may soften with time, too. A more "average" shaped face and nose might not encounter these types of problems.
The mask fits quite well with ski goggles but does leave the forehead exposed. I also had small slits along my cheeks and the bridge of my nose that remained exposed.
I did find that the stiff exchanger portion of the mask extended about an inch below my chin. This would cause the upper edge of the stiff part to jam into my nose if I looked down or yawned and then tried to close my mouth without holding the exchanger in place.
While itís tight and obviously not designed for this, I can just pull the hood portion down in back of my to get some cooling up top as needed. It does tend to pull the top edge of the mask against my nose so I will not be inclined to do this much.
By making the "output" area by the mouth into a "house" shape with the peak pointing up towards the nose, would you then also be able to breathe through your nose?
Field Test Report
March 3, 2001 to March 4, 2001
I spent this past weekend hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. On Saturday, I hiked up to an exposed 3000í ridge (South Moat) and on Sunday it was 5000í (Little Haystack). There was considerable fog and a small breeze on Saturday so it felt much colder than Sunday though my thermometer put both days in the low to mid-twenties on the respective summits. I had hoped for colder weather for the testing so may add to this report when/if additional testing opportunities present themselves.
I found that sitting outside in cold temperatures, the mask performed as advertised. It really did seem to warm the air as you inhaled. This was most noticeable after I took the mask off and immediately felt a chill through my body as I was relaxing on top of the mountain. Also, there was no noticeable condensation on the mask, either inside or out. In this regard, the mask was much more comfortable than other balaclavas Iíve used that tend to get wet and/or ice up over a short period of time.
My nose still found the pressure from the shape of the mask and the seam along the nose portion to be uncomfortable but not enough to prevent me from wearing the mask.
Getting used to breathing from your mouth all the time is harder than it sounds. Scuba divers who are used to always breathing from their mouths may have an easier time. Unfortunately, I havenít been diving in a few years so I kept having to remind myself. I find the mask definitely works better when you do breathe from your mouth though.
There is not enough give to pull the ExChanger portion of the mask down below your chin however I found I could pull the chin flap over the mask portion and then flip the mask portion onto the top of my forehead. It would sit there like a hat and keep my head and ears covered while I had something to eat.
Talking and being understood by others while wearing the mask could be an issue. With just two of us and light breezes, my friend was able to understand me. With higher winds, being understood while wearing the mask could become an issue. I could easily pull the mask away from my face and be understood though.
The nature of this mask does not lend itself to sharing between people. Noses run, Blistex smears, peanut butter breath may or may not impregnate the ExChanger so the thought of putting on the mask after someone else has used it for a while just does not have appeal.
I did try to hike with the mask for a while. When you are breathing hard, the extra force required when both inhaling and exhaling was significant. I believe it would have to be extremely cold for the benefit of breathing warm air to outweigh the added effort of forcing air through the ExChanger element. If you are doing anything outside that does not require much sustained energy expenditure, then the mask could prove extremely useful.
I find this mask provides a happy medium between my polypro and fleece balaclavas. I will now keep this mask in my pack for break times while winter hiking, skiing, and other cold weather activities and events.
Last updated, July 10, 2010.
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