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The Best Face Masks According To Top Outdoor Gear Specialists

The Best Face Masks According To Top Outdoor Gear Specialists
Date Posted: Tuesday, August 4th, 2020

With decades of experience designing and manufacturing performance gear and apparel, the best companies in the active and outdoor sports world are uniquely positioned to make masks you might want. These companies are experts at utilizing the best and latest high-tech fabrics and materials, experts in fit, comfort, and performance, and they have ample access to skilled producers and modern factories. You don’t have to be active or an athlete to benefit from these innovations.

Just a few days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story titled, Face Masks Really Do Matter. The Scientific Evidence Is Growing. Consider this: “Face masks are emerging as one of the most powerful weapons to fight the new coronavirus, with growing evidence that facial coverings help prevent transmission - even if an infected wearer is in close contact with others. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he believes the pandemic could be brought under control over the next four to eight weeks if ‘we could get everybody to wear a mask right now.’”

Overwhelming scientific and medical evidence has shown and increasingly proves that masks make a very big difference, maybe the most difference of anything we can do as members of the public in fighting this pandemic. Nonetheless, there are mask deniers, including believers in unsupported conspiracies or those who are generally anti-science and/or anti-facts. But regardless of your personal opinion on masks, more and more cities, states, municipalities, retailers, airlines, attractions, and other businesses are requiring them, and this shows no signs of slowing amidst day after day of record-breaking infections and deaths. In fact, mask-wearing is likely to become more mandated, so if you have to wear one, even if you don’t want to, you might as well be as comfortable and protected as possible.

Like many people, when this all started back in March I expected a short term blip in our lives, and I got a few disposable paper masks. Then my next-door neighbor, who is handy with a sewing machine, offered to make us a few fabric versions if we supplied material. At the time, advice and designs for cutting old t-shirts and pillowcases into DIY masks proliferated on the internet, and many of us went the homemade route. But as it becomes increasingly clear that masks would be with us far longer and more broadly than anyone hoped, and would become increasingly required to shop or fly, I started buying more and more different models and trying them out in search of the perfect mask. For the non-medical consumer category, there is no doubt to me that the masks being made by top outdoor gear companies are the best reusable options I have found.

While most homemade fabric masks are simple rectangles, better masks almost never are, and the biggest common feature I’ve found in all the best models is true full-face coverage that encapsulates the nose as well as mouth, with some sort of shaped or molded three-dimensional nose pocket and an adjustable nosepiece. Even the disposable paper masks doctors use have this in the form of a bendable metal band, and a precise fit around the nose is key to a tight protective seal, and also more comfortable - especially if you wear glasses (I do).

Here are some of the most notable choices:

Outdoor Research: After a climbing expedition to Alaska’s Mt. Denali was stopped due to a faulty pair of climbing gaiters, scientist adventurer Ron Gregg returned to Seattle on a mission to create better and more reliable technical gear, and OR was born. Four decades later, the privately held gear specialist remains an award-winning, cutting edge innovator in all things clothing and accessories. I’ve had a lot of OR gear, and they still make the best gaiters on the market, the best ski gloves, and lots of other great stuff. The latest addition to the product lineup is the Essential Face Mask Kit, combining a washable, durable, water and stain repellent, microbe-resistant fabric mask with high-quality made-in the USA disposable filters. These provide bacterial filtration and sub-micron particulate protection, along with superb breathability for this level of protection. Given OR’s mission, breathability is key, and this a mask meant to handle active usage.

While a variety of features elevate this mask above almost all soft versions on the market, the key benefits are the filter (capturing more than 95% of virus, bacteria, and particles in accordance with ASTM test standards) and the fact that the mask itself is treated with HeiQ NPJ03, making the fabric highly resistance to microbes and germs, and it can be laundered up to 30 times while maintaining 100% effectiveness. In addition, adjustable earloops and a nose wire allow for a highly customizable fit, combining comfort with a tight seal. I’ve found the best masks adjust straps with locking toggles which can be operated with one hand for a precise fit, and this has that feature. However, it uses around the ear loops rather than around the head ones, which makes it a smaller lighter package, and easier to take on and off, but is not as comfortable while wearing glasses. The fabric mask itself is washable, and while the filters are not, they also are not single-use disposables and need only be replaced periodically (the suggested lifespan is 5-7 days of 8-hour use, or 50-60 hours of total use). A 3-pack of filters come with the kit ($20) and refills can be purchased in packs of 3 or 25.

Kitsbow: A high-end specialty cycling apparel company based in North Carolina, I already have Kitsbow clothing for road cycling. But for their two models of standout masks, they went further, partnering with researchers at nearby Wake Forest Baptist Health, and their masks have proven popular with frontline staff and first responders. Unlike competitors, they are also making disposable clear plastic full-face shields, which I haven’t tried, but are worth considering if you fly - and shockingly, they cost just four dollars each. They are single-use products but have foam forehead bands for comfort and are treated with an anti-fog coating.

But it’s the masks that impress most. The Kitsbow Face Mask is an all-day reusable and washable comfort face mask designed specifically for users that work many hours. It has an internal pocket that can be left empty when in low threat situations or during exertion requiring easier breathing but comes with two disposable HEPA filters that fit inside and you can order more. HEPA means "High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance," and at a minimum requires capturing 99.97% of the 0.3-micron particles in the air passing through the filter. Most mask filters are not HEPA, and some people are trying to make their own by cutting up vacuum cleaner bags and such, but unlike Kitsbow’s, many of the DIY materials have never been tested or intended to be safe for human respiration. With two elastic bands, three sizes, twelve colors and patterns, and full-face plus molded nose coverage, this is an excellent mask for those who like replaceable filters. It is also one of the priciest at $25.

Personally, my favorite of all the masks I have used to date is the even more expensive ($30) Wake ProTech model, named for the Wake Forest partnership. It is the most comfortable mask I’ve tried, in part because it comes in six precise sizes from XS to XXL, but also because both the strings that go fully around the back of your head have plastic locking toggles easily operated with one hand to micro-adjust, tightening or loosening the straps precisely. They work especially well with glasses, and the design also makes them easier to put on and take off than other full head strap masks. While double or triple layer masks are generally more effective than thin singles, this model has four-layer construction, including two permanent filtering fabric layers inside, an exterior layer of premium jacquard fabric milled in North Carolina and a 100% cotton muslin liner. Except for the plastic toggle cord locks, every component of the mask is domestically made, and all the Kitsbow masks and face shields are produced at its NC factory. This is a very full face mask with the same type of total coverage you get in a KN 95 paper model, with a moldable nosepiece, and is just really comfy with lots pf protective tech.

Buff: A Spanish brand well known for inventing the revolutionary multi-use headgear category (fabric sleeves that can be used as neck gaiters, caps, hats and much more, Buff has become an iconic outdoor brand that transcends all sports, from skiing to cycling, fishing to golf. When the coronavirus surged throughout Europe early in the year, before it was as much of an issue here, Buff’s brand teams felt the coming global impact at the headquarters in Spain. As employees were sent home for safety precautions and production paused, brainstorming ways to provide aid began. That's when the new corporate alliance with UNICEF and the new Buff Filter Mask were launched, with 2% of global revenues, including all sales from the new masks, to be donated to UNICEF next year.

The mask itself has a unique highly articulated design reminiscent of the neoprene facemasks used in cold weather skiing, with two adjustable full around the head straps. The design is lightweight on the skin and highly breathable, and it includes a disposable 3-layer filter with 98% bacterial filtration efficiency and waterproof properties (considered to meet surgical mask standards). Even with the filter in, the mask, made of Buff’s recycled CoolNetUV+ fabric, is still very lightweight and breathable. The same HeiQ V-block NPJ03 fabric treatment used by Outdoor Research is applied to the inside mesh filter pocket to reduce the build-up of bacteria and germs. One caveat is the while adjustable, the straps do not have the on the fly opening and closing some others do, making it harder to put on and off, and it comes in only one size, and the upper band, even at full extension, maybe too tight for larger heads. 5 colors, available in both adult ($29) and children’s versions ($27).

Skida: Vermont-based Skida revolutionized the winter hat industry a few years back with its ultra-thin, comfy, colorful, and very packable models designed by a former ski racer so they can comfortably be worn under helmets. In just a few quick years, they have taken all of alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, and general fashionable winter active and non-active wear by storm - the instantly recognizable designs are everywhere, from the slopes to city streets. After the pandemic began, Skida employees began experimenting with designs using their signature polyester/Lycra blend material in a thicker two-layer version. But what sets Skida’s masks apart - besides being by far the best-looking ones out here - is the flexibility of tying, thanks to the use of simple shoelaces, color-coordinated of course. Personally I like behind the head strap model best, and on its website, Skida explained that “we asked local medical workers who wear masks every day what they like and dislike about their masks. They told us that wearing elastic behind their ears day after day is painful and they preferred masks that tie behind your head.” But the Skida design allows you to choose three options: behind the head high, behind the head low, and ear loops. These fit however you want them to fit and come in about a dozen patterns ($22).

La Sportiva: A 90-year old climbing, hiking, mountaineering, and ski specialist with a focus on footwear, La Sportiva is a venerable Italian brand that still manufactures in the Dolomites. They just introduced their Stratos mask and I have not had a chance to try it, but what makes it notable is that it uses disposable 99% filtering inserts, made to European standards for surgical use, but each mask comes with 30 of them, far more than competitors. The mask is full-coverage and ergonomically designed, made of durable, breathable mesh fabric, with comfortable Lycra inserts on nose and chin touch points, and is fully treated with Viraloff™ by Polygiene® anti-microbial treatment, protecting the mask itself from contamination. Three sizes and two colors ($35).

Shock Doctor: This one is a little bit different and will not be for sale until mid-August. I have not tried it and know nothing about the company, and I am only including it here because it has a unique audience - competitive athletes. As some high school, college, amateur and professional athletes begin to return to the playing fields and practices, these masks employ an athlete-centric approach to design. The main feature that sets the Play Safe Face Masks and Gaiters apart is the patent-pending Quick-Flip, a multi-layer split design that allows easy access to mouthguards and hydration without having to remove your mask or touch your face. To increase comfort, eliminate ear irritation, and reduce pressure points during play, it includes dual-head straps and are made of lightweight, moisture-wicking elastic material that maintains breathability. They will be available at several sports retails and Amazon, in numerous patterns ($20).

Source: Larry Olmsted/Forbes.com

Date Posted: Tuesday, August 4th, 2020 , Total Page Views: 2734

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