OR - Down Works Balaclava - Ray Estrella
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The Down Works Balaclava
By Raymond Estrella
September 12, 2011
NAME: Raymond Estrella
LOCATION: North Western Minnesota, USA
HEIGHT: 6' 3" (1.91 m)
WEIGHT: 215 lb (97.50 kg)
I've been backpacking for over 30 years, all over California, Minnesota, and many western states. I hike year-round in all weather, and average 500+ miles (800+ km) per year. I make a point of using lightweight gear, and smaller volume packs. Doubting I can ever be truly UL, I try to be as light as I can yet still be comfortable. I start early and hike hard so as to enjoy the afternoons exploring/chilling. I usually take a freestanding tent and enjoy hot evening meals. If not hiking solo I am usually with my brother-in-law Dave or my twin children.
Manufacturer: The Down Works
Web site: www.downworks.com
Product: Down Works Balaclava
Model: Standard, also available in Ultra Light and Light
Year manufactured/received: 2010
MSRP: US$ 75.00
Weight listed (in polyester microfiber fabric): 3 oz (85 g) Verified accurate
Insulation: 850+ fill-power goose down
Fill weight listed: 1.13 oz (32 g)
Loft observed: at least 2 in (5.1 cm)
Quick & Dirty, Nitty Gritty
At only 3 oz (85 g), the Down Works Balaclava is a great way to extend the usefulness of a hoodless winter jacket or, as I bought it for, a hoodless sleeping bag or backpacking quilts. And it gives proof to Mom's accusation that I am a hot head
The Down Works Balaclava (hereafter referred to as the bala) is a pretty neat piece of headgear.
A balaclava is a type of headgear that that covers the whole head, and normally leaves only the eyes, or eyes, nose and mouth exposed (depending on how the opening is situated). While the Down Works Balaclava retains the shape of my many other balaclavas (that differ by material and fabric weight, fleece, wool, etc.) it has one big difference. It is made the same way as a nice down jacket or sleeping bag is, with a nylon shell filled with down.
In the case of my bala, the shell is made of 1.3 oz polyester microfiber fabric. While the company makes three weight/loft sizes I bought the warmest one they make. And like any of my custom quilts this hand-made sweet piece of work features baffled construction to eliminate cold spots. The spaces formed by the baffles have been filled with a whopping 1.13 oz (32 g) of 850+ fill goose down. For an amazing comparison my MontBell UL TEC jacket (see review) in size XL has 2.9 oz (65 g) of 800 fill. It lofts up great as is seen below. The bala does not come with a stuff sack and I have never needed or wanted to stuff it into anything. But it squishes down to about the size of a tennis ball for anyone interested.
The bala is cut low at the front and back to let it drop down past the shoulders without bunching up. It also lets the bala be tucked into a jacket sealing out the cold. At the bottom of the back drop is a little nylon hang loop. When fully extended the oval face opening is roughly 6 x 8 in (15 x 20 cm). A draw cord runs around this opening culminating at a cord-lock at the bottom. By pulling the cord the opening will constrict in size to get as small an opening as I want.
When I first got the Down Works Balaclava I used it on some early spring snow trips in California to climb Mt San Gorgonio, and in San Jacinto State park. Camps were 9,000 to 10,000 ft (2740-3050 m) elevation and temps were between 13 and 19 F (-11 to -7 C) for lows.
Most use happened on trips in Minnesota took place on the North Country Trail from Itasca State Park and heading north-east through Paul Bunyan State Forest and Chippewa National Forest. Lows while using the bala were usually around 10 to 0 F (-13 to -18 C).
A couple years ago I switched all my 3-season sleep gear from sleeping bags to backpacking quilts and loved how well they worked for my side-sleeping style. I learned to always bring a light beanie or fleece balaclava along to keep my head from getting cold as the quilts have no hood like my sleeping bags had. After a year or so of using my quilts I decided I wanted to try to push quilt use into winter and decided to buy a quilt rated to 5 F (-15 C). One thing I knew was that the headgear I owned that would be warm enough for those temps would not be comfortable to sleep with on so I went in search of something better.
Enter The Down Works, a small business run by Nick and Shelley Gravem. Besides selling retail backpacking gear, they had a name for their custom-made down products. Once I saw the down-filled balaclavas that Shelley makes I knew I found what I needed.
As soon as I got it I was blown away by how nice it is made and how fat it lofts up to. It is major puffy and that translates into warmth around my head. It is extremely comfortable. The nylon is quite soft and the 850 fill down is wonderful.
Like I said I bought it to use with a 5 F (-15 C) quilt, but also used it with a 20 F (-7 C) quilt when doing some torture testing to see how low I could take it with added clothing. On all of the nights with the quilts my head was never cold. Indeed there were times I needed to open it up all the way to vent it a bit.
(Clockwise from top left) The Down Works Balaclava waiting for me to go to bed in a Nemo Esprit with a 20 F (-7 C) quilt, a Bibler Fitzroy, and a MSR Hubba Hubba HP with a 5 F (-15 C) quilt.
Besides use in a sleeping bag or quilt The Down Works suggests that it can be used as a hood for a jacket. While my extreme cold parkas have hoods attached I had the opportunity to beta test an electric-heat assisted down jacket that had no hood. I took the jacket on a dayhike to a local park just to stand around in -15 F (-26 C) temps for a few hours to see how the jacket handled it and wore the bala to keep my head from freezing as not even my warmest hat is good at those temps if I am not expending a lot of energy by hiking.
This use also lets me use one of my lighter hoodless jackets when using my Bask Yeti half-bag for sleeping if I want.
I always stuff the bala in whatever stuff sack my quilt is in. This way I always know where it is. At home the bala stays with my Arc Expedition in its cotton storage sack.
The bala still looks like new with absolutely no signs of wear. I plan to use this awesome head heater for a long time to come.
I measure happiness with an altimeter. (And a low-temp thermometer )
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