Headover Heels in Love —
In Praise of the Neck Gaiter
By Tamia Nelson
February 8, 2011
Once upon a time, I caught rides to the local community college with a guy named Don, who taught at the college when he wasn't running the family farm. We passed the time during the 45‑minute drive in the usual way, by talking. Our conversation was the familiar stuff of everyday chat, revolving around the social trinity of weather, family, and sport. Then, one Monday, Don dropped a bombshell. His brother Jim had just had a close brush with death, and Don wanted to talk about it. Here's his story: Jim helped out on the farm, and the two brothers had been stowing hay bales in the barn loft. Jim was loading the elevator when the ends of his scarf — it was a bitterly cold day, and he wrapped a scarf around his neck whenever the temperature dropped below freezing — somehow got caught in the machine's chain drive. In an instant, the scarf turned into a close approximation of a hangman's noose, choking the life out of Jim. He couldn't scream. He couldn't even speak. To make matters worse, he was almost immediately lifted off his feet by the remorseless, clanking elevator. Seconds passed, and Jim's world slowly faded to black. Meanwhile, Don had no idea what was happening. He was up in the loft, heaving bales into place. But then he came back for the next bale and he saw his brother hanging by the neck in midair. Jim was clawing feebly at his throat, his face already beetroot red. It was a sight Don wouldn't soon forget.
Luckily, the story had a happy ending. Don jumped down, hit the kill switch, and cut Jim free before it was too late. Needless to say, both brothers learned an important lesson that day about the dangers inherent in wearing loose clothing around machinery. Me? I didn't need to be reminded. I was a rock and ice climber, and I'd been a downhill skier as a teenager. Flapping garments of any description were an unwanted distraction when I was hanging from an ice screw, halfway up a frozen waterfall, and I'd already seen what happened when a skier's scarf got caught in the works of an old‑fashioned T‑bar lift. Not for me, thanks! So I kept looking for better ways to …
Keep the Warm In and the Cold Out
Hypothermia isn't much fun, after all, and it can be deadly. Which is why staying warm is Job One for paddlers and other backcountry travelers on all but the balmiest days. The thermometer outside my office window reads below zero (that's Fahrenheit, not Celsius) as I write this, so you can see why I'm thinking about keeping warm. There's not much paddling to be done hereabouts right now, of course, but I don't hibernate. I snowshoe along the forested ridges flanking The River, and I ride my bike whenever I get the chance. Either way, it's a chilly business. On days when the temperature struggles to rise into the teens and a brisk nor'easter brings torrents of snow cascading down from the pines, even a turtleneck sweater worn under a high‑collared fleece lets in a lot of arctic air. I wear a wool hat, of course, but that leaves my neck, chin, and nose out in the cold. Something more is needed.
For years, I relied on a wool balaclava, and it's plenty warm. Too warm, in fact. It's overkill in late winter and early spring. To make matters worse, it soaks up the moisture from my breath like a sponge, slowly becoming an icy mask in the process. And it can't be worn when I'm cycling or kayaking, because it's just too bulky to fit under a helmet. My search for alternatives was rather hit‑and‑miss. I began by pulling a synthetic fleece ear warmer down around my neck, but the coverage left a lot to be desired, and it was also too loose to serve as an effective wind barrier. Still, it was better than nothing. Then I added the first in a long succession of thin fleece caps. This combination of ear warmer and cap was OK. Not great. Just OK. So I kept looking. Finally, while browsing through a military‑surplus catalog, I stumbled on something called a "headover." The catalog copy was wonderfully muscular, tracing the headover's lineage to Britain's elite SAS and trumpeting its superiority over effete civilian "neck gaiters." Which was all well and good. By whatever name you call it, however — headover or neck gaiter or something else — it's little more than a stretchy tube that you pull over your head and wear around your neck. Simple? Yes. In design. But surprisingly sophisticated in application. As we will see…
Here it is. The first panel shows it folded for storage; the second, stretched out on a table. It makes a tidy package, small enough to slip easily into a jacket (or rucksack) pocket. As the tape measure in the right‑hand panel reveals, the headover is around 16 inches long. And the width? About 9 inches, unstretched. (This corresponds to a circumference of some 18 inches.) The headover is quite elastic, of course. It's made of polypropylene, fleeced inside for warmth, but with a snow‑repelling smooth finish on the weather surface.
And the fit? Just about perfect: Stretchy enough to go over your head easily, yet comfortably snug when in place. Snug. Not tight. There's none of the strangling constriction that some garments — remember early drysuit collars? — make you suffer. But the headover doesn't slip down and leave your tender flesh exposed to winter's icy blasts, either.
Which makes it a perfect neck gaiter. That's only one item from the headover's bag of tricks, however. It also folds up into a warm watch cap. And here's how it's done:
If that's your fancy, you don't even need to fold the headover. Simply pull the tube over your head and tug it round till you're peering out the hole in the top. In this configuration, the headover looks a lot like a medieval monk's cowl. No coincidence, that. Monks worked outside in all weathers and slept in unheated dormitories. They knew something about staying warm.
The bottom line? As you can see, the headover is a versatile piece of clothing. And because it's so small and light, I now bring it along with me even on summer trips. After all, Canoe Country weather is wonderfully unpredictable. I've endured 40‑degree days in July in the Adirondacks and paddled through snow squalls in August in northern Québec. The headover is also a great comfort on clammy, foggy mornings, not to mention during the icy downpours that accompany summer thunderstorms. It blunts the cutting edge of the wind, too.
Versatile. Rugged. Cheap. How can you go wrong? You can't. And how do you go about …
Getting One of Your Own?
Easy. I bought my headover from a now-defunct surplus outlet, but you can find something similar in almost every outfitter's catalog, and a Web search will turn up even more outlets. Spread your net wide. Headovers go under a wondrous assortment of names: neck gaiter, neck buff, neck warmer, neck sock… Some are truly single‑purpose garments, but many can stretch to cover all the applications I've described here. As I've already mentioned in passing, the length of the tube determines whether or not a "neck gaiter" is more than just that. So, too, does the fabric's elasticity. And what about materials? I favor polypropylene (or other stretchy synthetic) over wool. Polypro is cheap, nonabsorbent, and easy to launder in camp, besides being quick to dry. (Some folks are troubled by a persistent pong, though, especially after several days of wear. I'm not, as it happens. In fact, I've never been troubled by polypro pong with any garment. Must be something in my chemistry, I guess.) Not a fan of synthetics? No problem. If you're a dyed‑in‑the‑wool woolie, you can get neck gaiters in SmartWool, too. Or knit one of your own.
Maybe you want something more stylish than a basic black tube. If so, you're in luck. You can find headovers in just about every color of the rainbow, and some eschew the simple tube for a more elaborate, contoured cut. Others have tails to warm your back and chest. And a few have drawstrings. Me? I like to keep things simple. But the choice is up to you. Who'd have it any other way?
Headover or neck gaiter? Take your pick. It's a turtleneck, a hoodie, a hat, and a balaclava, all rolled into one. Yet it's nothing more than a stretchy, fleecy tube. This is backcountry clothing at its best: simple and good. As I see it, there's no better companion when it's cold and wet. In fact, I'm headover heels in love with mine. And I'm betting you'll fall for this ingenious, do‑almost‑everything garment just as hard as I have.
Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.