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Heat Exchanger Masks – a Love Story

How it started

Back in the 90s I started riding my bike to work after a hiatus of a few years. My coworkers would regularly ask me if I was going to be like Tom, a notoriously all-weather rider. As winter came on, I realized what most people who cycle in the winter do, it isn’t as hard as it looks. It can, however, be cold. With the internet in its infancy, it wasn’t easy to find quality information on how to stay warm in winter, but I knew at the time that my airways were a weak point in that I couldn’t really insulate them from the cold air that passed over them. Then I read about a product called LungPlus and my obsession began.

The Untold Story

The human body is remarkably good at keeping itself heated. The circulatory system will gradually move blood flow away from the surface and away from extremities to keep its vital organs warm. Activity, including shivering, will help by generating heat. But in order to do any sort of activity, one needs to breathe, and in the cold, that means breathing cold air.

The air passages are designed to warm up air as it enters the body so that the blood can pick up oxygen from it. Unfortunately, this is exactly the same as wind chill. On top of that, the airways are damp, which means they are subject to evaporative cooling just the same as if a person was to go outside still damp after a shower. Except that the lungs have approximately 5 times the surface area of skin, and they are always naked.

Well, What the Heck am I Supposed to do About it?

If you stop breathing you will die.

The simplest form of heat retention is the extended hood that Northern peoples have used for millennia. It creates a pocket of warm air around the person’s face, and helps take the edge off breathing in extremely cold air. In turn, this pocket of warm air requires less warming by the airways and lungs and so is pulling less heat from the body.

The next low-tech solution is the scarf, Buff, mask, or bandana across the face. These do capture some heat from the outgoing breath to warm the incoming air, but their primary purpose is to warm the face itself. They are great for preventing frostbite on the face, but they do relatively little to prevent heat loss through breathing.

The next technological step is to use a heat retention or heat exchange device to capture the heat from outgoing air and return it to the incoming air, and that is what this article is about.

Yes, 6 Heat Exchanger Masks.

from top right: Airtrim, Polar Wrap, Psolar, Ergodyne 6970, and Lungplus with a modified face mask. (5 masks)

What follows is a brief description and mini-review of the 6 heat exchanger devices that I personally own. Yes, I could have gotten away without buying more of them, but in my efforts to optimize, I have continued to purchase more.

Lungplus

This device is the only one on this list that does not have a mask with it. It was the first one that I used back in ’99 or ’00. The device is a bit like the mouthpiece of a snorkel with a heat exchanger built in to it. It isn’t fashionable, or really even dignified, but it does work.

Pros

  • It helps keep glasses unfogged by routing breath away from the eyes.
  • It is an effective heat exchanger and helps to keep the body warm
  • it routes the captured water away from my chin and reduces beardcicles.

Cons

  • Looks like a science fiction device worn by Venutians to breathe the earth’s poisonous oxygen.
  • It routes air through the mouth and I find it sometimes makes my teeth cooler
  • droolcicles at the end

Polar Wrap

Oh yeah, this device lets you breath warmer-than-room temperature air. Oh damn, when I exercise it is like breathing through a straw. This is the best device for waiting for the bus.

Psolar

This device is great, if they still made them, I’d have bought more.

pros

  • great heat exchanger
  • close fit to the face
  • low profile balaclava works well with other hats
  • very free breathing and the air path does not ice up

cons

  • the exchanger sits close to the lips and can contribute to chapped lips
  • the exchanger forms a shelf that can collect snot
  • they were bought by another company and were discontinued

Cold Avenger

This unit is a little more sophisticated than a long hood on a parka, but not much.

Pros

  • Simple, never clogs
  • keeps the mouth and nose clear so skin stays un-chapped.

cons

  • no real heat exchange, only a pocket of exhaled breath at the mouth
  • some (Tadhg) find it restricts breathing
Cold Avanger on a cold day.

Ergodyne 6970

I bought this one based on a review from a friend with more cold weather experience than me (yes, those people exist).

pros

  • Very effective heat exchanger
  • good airflow for high-output activity
  • keeps wet parts off the face
  • the “Darth Vader” look
  • great balaclava

con

  • does eventually get somewhat wet
  • the “Darth Vader” look
  • the great balaclava is a bit tight on my enormous head

AirTrim

This and the Ergodyne are my go-to masks for cooler days. Back to back testing today gives the edge to the AirTrim for warmth.

pros

  • Warm
  • doesn’t restrict breathing
  • away from the mouth and nose for reduced chapping
  • doesn’t put pressure on the nose – less runny nose
  • is available with a selection of exchangers with greater flow, or warmer air depending on activity

cons

  • Recently, a grade 2 kid said it looked like a pig nose
  • it does not cover the upper cheeks – risk of frostbite
  • if you neglect to blow the water out of it the water can drip on clothing

Finally a recommendation

On the bike, and this is at least partly a blog about bikes, the Ergodydne has the edge because of its coverage of the cheeks. However, if you have or can get a face mask that covers the cheeks and leaves the mouth and nose free, the AirTrim’s superior performance will win out. All this week, I was outside in temperatures as low as -29ºC with the AirTrim on, and I dressed exactly the same as I would have for -12ºC without the AirTrim (yes, it is that good). I don’t get a commission, though if the good folks at AirTrim were to send me 3 more for the rest of my family, I’d be mighty grateful (hint, hint). I bought my AirTrim from skiwax.ca

If anyone thinks I am exagerating the benefit to these masks, they should head on over to https://thismombikes.net/ to ask he how inadequately she has seen me dressed in this cold snap. Below -25ºC roughly 90% of a body’s heat is lost through respiration. if you could reduce even 15% of that it would be equivalent to doubling your clothes. When you keep your core warmer, it signals the brain to send more blood to your extremities, so in a way, the heat exchanger mask is a handwarmer too.

Yes, that thermometer reading below its -30ºC lower limit.

What About Medical Benefits?

We’ve all heard about the dangers to lungs and airways of breathing extremely cold air. I am not a physician, nor do I play one on TV. I am way too lazy to do the research as to what medical benefits these masks may give to users. Even if it were no medical benefit, I would still use one for comfort and for warmth. Airtrim and Lungplus have some medical articles on their sites that I have not read.

Disclosure

Lungplus sent me free product in about 2000 with no conditions attached. I have purchased all the other products myself with my money. At the time I am writing this, I derive no benefit from sales of any of these devices. I have received no money for this review, but I won’t turn down offers of free product.

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MYOG part 3: You Can Make Pogies (or Buy Them)

Prologue:

Pogies are giant mittens that go on the handlebars of bikes to allow the user to wear light gloves but still work the controls and not freeze their hands. They are a not necessity for winter cycling but they sure are a great way to keep hands warm. If you know how to sew, you can make pogies and have toasty warm hands on your bike this winter.

For those who don’t ride their bikes in the cold, pogies might not make sense, but they are probably the single most important piece of equipment for making me comfortable on the bike in the winter. It is entirely possible to ride a bike in mittens, but brakes and shifters wear out mittens at a very quick rate. I would not go bikepacking in winter without them.

For anyone who doesn’t care about making their own, or hearing my philosophy on making pogies, go ahead and scroll to the bottom or click this link to just buy some.

 

 

How I started making them.

My second bikepacking specific item I ever made was a pair of pogies. At the time, there were few options in pogies commercially available, and I wanted some specific qualities. First I wanted them warm enough to keep my hands from freezing. Second, I wanted them to be roomy enough the I could fit some snacks thawed in them, third, I wanted them to serve extra duty as emergency booties. What I missed out on was the part where they would be better if they stayed better attached on the bars. Though they worked well enough, the outer edges would rotate outward unless I left the zip ties that I designed to hold the corner tethers in place. Unfortunately, the zip ties would rub on my hands causing serious wounds after a few hours.

The first pogies I ever made, filling with snow.
My ITI bike from 2002 – scanned from disposable camera film.

How do you make them stay on the bars?

There are a bunch of commercial solutions to the problem of securing pogies to the ends of handlebars. A very popular method is a velcro strap and tether. It works, but does not really address the issue that I had of my city-boy hands rubbing on the strap. It also does not do an ideal job of securing the pogies. My favourite way to secure pogies is a bar plug that clamps the pogie to the end of the handlebar. Conveniently, Tadhg took up 3D design and printing just as I was trying to work out how to modify some off-the-shelf bar plugs to work with pogies. He has refined the design enough now that a pair of his clamps comes with all the pogies I sell. One of the big advantages of home-made gear is that you can modify it easily, or at least easilyish, if it doesn’t do what you want.

My pogies have changed over time

I modified that first pair of pogies several times, and I still have them, they now use a plug in the end of the bar to keep the pogies on. The number one issue I have had with them is that they can fill up with snow if I leave them on the bike without rotating them downward. They were, however designed to be used as booties when they are off the bike. I have not made any more pogies that fill with snow.

As time goes by, my preferences change, and many things that I liked about the first set of pogies were not what I ultimately wanted, and so I have tried several other styles over the years.

Upcycled Children’s Jackets as Pogies.

I have made many pairs of pogies from children’s size 12 to 14 jackets where I simply hem the cuffs, turn them inside out, sew each side of the zipper to the back of the jacket, cut them in half, and voila, a pair of pogies. They are warm reasonably light, and aren’t too expensive to make. They are not the most attractive pogies, but they are simple, warm, and are reasonably light. I still have several pairs of these in my collection (how many people have enough winter cyclists and winter bikes in their family for a pogie collection?) and they are great for around town and even for longer trips. Several of my pairs of this style don’t have mounting holes in the sides, so they are quicker to install and remove than the newer style that I make.

They are a great first MYOG project, and I can definitely endorse finding a relatively simple style of kids jacket in roughly a size (US age sizing) 14 and making it into pogies.

Pogies from Scratch

When I first started selling pogies, I made them by upcycling children’s jackets with faulty zippers. These eventually became harder to source in sufficient quantities, and I eventually decided to make my own design of pogies from scratch.

My experience had shown me by then that I wanted several things in pogies. First was simplicity. I have made pogies with complicated vent systems, food thawing pockets (it is exceedingly difficult to eat things that are frozen to -30ºC), storm cuffs, and a number of other “features”, but I gravitate toward simple styles.

 

My preferred style for the last few years has been a simple shape with roomy hand area, longer arms (to keep the blood warm on the way to your hands) and enough stiffness to help me get my hands in but not so much that they face upward and get filled with snow in a storm. They are fleece lined, which is comfortable and reasonably warm, they are large enough to fit a couple of snacks in the bottom for thawed food.

 

I Sell Pogies

I encourage people to make their own pogies, but people have lives. Not everyone wants to make their own, and not everyone likes sewing as much as I do. Some sewing machines won’t punch through the materials well enough to make pogies. For this reason, I sell my own pogies on this blog. Feel free to buy some, also feel free to ask me questions about building your own.

Since I am not only a winter bikepacking nerd, but also a dad, I of course make the pogies in smaller sizes for kids (or anyone with smaller hands).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why?

I get asked, like most winter cyclists, “why?” The situation varies between riding with my kids a couple of blocks, to riding in extreme cold, to riding and pushing through snow to go sleep outside somewhere. The implication is that it’s too hard to be worth it.

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Some of the questioning comes from a mistaken assumption that it is inherently unpleasant. This is almost invariably from people who haven’t tried it. There is seldom a ride where I feel uncomfortable during the ride. I generally dress reasonably for the temperatures and weather conditions. I often end up shedding a layer while riding, but seldom feel the need to put a layer on. I don’t like being uncomfortable, so I avoid it. I sleep well outside.

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Many people assume from my hobbies and appearance that I’m some sort of hardcore leathery mountain man who pits himself against the odds to see if he can. Again, that is rooted in a lack of knowledge. I love to see the beauty of the mountains. I love the freedom of outdoor life. I love a challenge, but I’m quite cautious by nature. My 10-year-old daughter is way more of a daredevil than I am.

Me (a younger version) on the last day of the 350mile ITI.

I do get a rush from the exertion of pushing myself a little. I sometimes enjoy the thrill that comes from not holding back. Sometimes I like to suffer a bit, to feel my lungs burning, or to fight falling asleep on the bike as I put off stopping for the night.

Mostly though, I like being outside, moving. I was not built to sit idly by as life passes. Past experience tells me that if I get out and move, I feel good. It’s as simple as wanting to feel good. Some might call it an addiction, but if it is, it’s one without consequences and one I feel comfortable sharing with friends and family.

This winter has, for some people, dragged on. For me, It has been fun. I’ve been out camping on skis, my feet, my bike, and most importantly, I’ve done it with my family and friends. I feel good that I haven’t wasted my winter watching TV. I feel great that I’m fit. I mostly feel great because I’ve spent my time outside. Even the most mundane grocery run is more fun when you do it by bike.

Life is short. At the end, I anticipate regrets, but I don’t expect to regret a single minute of riding my bike, in the cold or not.

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The Nordic Nap

When my kids were young, they took naps. Tadhg stopped around 10 months. Fiona would still occasionally nap until she was 5. Now this is purely anecdotal, but Tadhg mostly napped in a crib at home, while Fiona took part in what has been a tradition in Scandinavian countries for generations: the outdoor nap.

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For safety reasons, dried mango was removed after the picture.

No matter what the temperature, I would take her outside to sleep after lunch. Usually, she would be in the bike or a stroller, but sometimes she would just lie down on the deck, or in a sled. Now I have a lot of experience with being outside, so I know how to dress a baby to be comfortable in -30ºC, professional driver, closed course, don’t try this at home, other fine print.

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There is a belief that sleeping outside may help children resist viruses, or improve their health, or just improve their sleep in general. I’m comfortable that at worst it does no harm. What I am certain of is that it can free a parent to get things done that otherwise might not happen during a nap. I often made trips to get groceries, to visit friends and relatives, and any other errands I wanted to do. I was never a servant to the nap.