The Surprising Upside to Covering Your Face on a Run

COVID-19 has split the country on whether or not runners should wear masks, but there are plenty of upsides to owning a neck gaiter.

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Trail runners and adventurers of all sorts have been running with masks forever. Neck gaiters, like BUFFs—the multi-functional tubes of lightweight, stretchy fabric that come in all sorts of patterns and colors—have been worn long before the CDC started recommending face coverings during the current global pandemic.

While COVID-19 has split the country on whether or not runners should wear masks, take some comfort knowing that there are plenty of upsides to owning a neck gaiter. And don’t worry, they’re fairly breathable when worn as masks for running.

From trail running races like Marathon des Sables and the Badwater 135, runners have worn BUFFs because they’re functional in keeping sun off their necks (and lower face, when pulled up) and sand and dust out of their mouths. Runners have tucked ice in BUFFs and wrapped them around their necks to keep cool, and worn them as sweatbands around their wrists. And they’ve worn them as protection while running through clouds of gnats or other pesky insects—there are even versions treated with an EPA-registered insect repellent.

So if you’ve been fighting the idea of wearing a mask while running, know this: Owning a BUFF (or similar product, like the Mission Cooling Gaiter/Face Cover constructed with microgrooves to retain water and stay cool for up to two hours) will come in more handy than you might think, even after the CDC recommendation to wear a mask subsides.

“The mask part aside, a BUFF is useful in the cold, in the heat, shields you from the sun, protects your face from wrinkles…the uses are endless,” says Dianette Wells, a Park City, Utah–based ultrarunner and adventure racer who’s competed in events like Racing The Planet’s Atacama Crossing, a 7-day footrace across the Chilean desert. “I wouldn’t consider climbing a snowy high peak, racing through a jungle or racing through a desert without a BUFF on me, for numerous reasons.”

“The mask part is a bonus,” she adds. Wells wears a Buff on trails these days as both “a nice layer of protection and a sign of respect for others on the trail.” Plus, she adds, the thin layer of technical fabric is remarkably breathable.

Wearing a BUFF around your neck and pulling it over your face and mouth when passing other runners won’t protect you nearly as well as a medical-grade mask, and the company isn’t claiming so. Their website states:

BUFF performance head and neckwear are not intended to be used as medical-grade face masks or as a replacement for N95 respirators as effective measures to prevent disease, illness, or the spread of viruses.”

But a versatile neck gaiter made of technical fabric is no less protective than homemade masks made out of old T-shirts or pillow cases, and they’re much more functional.

Ultrarunner and three-time Hardrock 100 champion Darcy Piceu explains how, like Wells, she’s always taken a BUFF with her on mountain runs to use as anything from a sweatband to keeping her ears or head warm on mountain passes, and always wears one under a headlamp for comfort. These days, she’s wearing one around her neck for even short trail runs around Boulder, Colorado, and pulling it over her nose and mouth when passing others. “I mean, I’d rather not have to breathe through it while I run,” she says, but adds jokingly, “I just pretend I’m training for races at altitude with less oxygen.”

Some runners will prefer traditionally designed masks, like the two-layer Boco Gear Face Mask, which has a pocket to accommodate an additional filter, or Blackstrap’s Civil Facemask (made with an anti-microbial fabric). These might not be as breathable as a single-layer gaiter, and you might not be able to use it in myriad ways like a gaiter—Wells says she’s even worn a BUFF as a tube top during a paddling section of a race in steaming hot Borneo—but they’re comfortable to wear around the neck when running solo and breathing through for just a few steps when passing others.