I’m not proud of it but I found myself in a Baby Gap the other day. They sell terrific toddler clothes, what can I say. As I stood in line I noticed a rack of facemasks. Dozens of them. I didn’t really think it was odd or anything until I left and saw a bus with an ad for a grocery store on the side, with a smiling cashier also wearing a mask. That’s when the normalcy of masks being an everyday thing finally sunk in as an odd development. In a matter of months, facemasks have gone from something very few people owned or thought about, to a must-have piece of apparel you probably have a drawer full of by now.
That doesn’t mean they’re all the same.
I’ve been testing out more than a dozen different options from different outdoor brands over the past month or so. Outdoor brands did a terrific job of leaping into the void to fill an alarming lack of PPE for medical personnel after the pandemic started, and they’ve learned—some of them anyway—how to use their expertise in fabrics and design to make masks that are comfy and breathable, whether you’re trail running, riding a bike, or just popping into the store.
Now, I’m not a virologist or materials scientist, so I won’t be wading into the efficacy of synthetic fabrics versus cotton, or neck gaiter versus face mask here. This review is written under the assumption that each of the masks in question offer at least minimal protection as required by mask mandates and public decency.
After wearing each of the masks I tested during regular walks, bike rides, and hikes, these are the five I liked best.
Favorite Overall: Outdoor Research Essential Face Mask ($20)
Another mask with a filter pocket, the OR mask is a terrific blend of comfort, stability, breathability, and moisture-wicking. The filter pocket is prone to scrunching the included filters, but that’s the only gripe. This is a big mask but the ear loops are adjustable so it will fit any face. The nose wire helps with fit too. If you own just one mask for both athletic and casual wear, this would be the call.
Best for Demanding Physical Activities: Buff Filter Mask ($29)
This mask boasts the sheerest and lightest feel, though it’s a double layer of polyester for extra protection. It also has a filter pocket and the mask comes with a handful of thin filters. The mask is treated with an antimicrobial coating. I found the filters impossible to use properly, so keep that in mind. But as a mask, it’s ideal for running. The head straps are comfortable and the tight fit is great when you’re in constant motion.
Most Comfortable: Black Diamond Use Protection ($13)
Simple two-layer cotton, these lightweight and stretchy masks feel like almost nothing, and the nose wire is super comfy. Easy to keep in a pocket, no big catastrophe if you lose one, the ideal walk-around mask.
Coolest Looking and Feeling: Cotopaxi Teca ($13)
True to Cotopaxi form, the Teca masks come in the brightest colorways. Maybe that matters to you, maybe it doesn’t, but I tire of plain-looking masks easily, so I tend to reach for the neon Cotopaxi. Plus, I love the little “DO GOOD” message on the mask just above the nose wire; maybe each time a passerby sees it, they endeavor to do some good. Cotopaxi donates one mask to a person in need for each mask purchased.
Best Neck Gaiter: Skida Tour ($22)
Skida makes my favorite neck gaiters, and though I don’t often use a neck gaiter as a face mask, as the temp dips I’m more likely to start. The Tour is super light, incredibly comfortable, and made in Vermont, as are all Skida products.
Mystery Ranch Street Mask ($16): Terrific build quality, ear straps a little finicky, look great though.
Kitsbow Mask ($25): Phenomenal quality, a great choice, I simply prefer some lighter weight masks for walking around, and the OR or Buff for activity.