The Best Face Mask for Biking & Exercising Around Coronavirus

landscape with couple using face mask in bike vector illustration design. a nice sunny day.
Photo designed by studiogstock / Freepik

With the Coronavirus here to stay for some time, a face mask or face covering is becoming an essential item everyone needs to own. While not everyone will need a mask all the time while biking or exercising, it’s becoming something everyone should have nearby in case the need arises.

If you decide to wear a face covering, which one do you choose? There are so many options right now (although sometimes low availability), and some are better for biking and working out than others. It’s mostly a trade off between breathability and protection, so pick the one that best suits you for your ride. (And don’t use a mask with exhaust valves as that defeats the purpose of the mask! Those are primarily to protect from pollution, not viruses.)

For me, the weather also changes which mask is the best for biking. When it’s hotter, I prefer the surgical mask because it’s light and easy. If it’s cooler I may wear the shemagh around my neck like a scarf and pull it up when necessary.

If you have a few options at home already and you want to test how much protection and breathability each one has, put your hand in front of the mask and blow out. Most of the ones I’ve used I haven’t felt much of anything when blowing out. If you do, maybe try a different option. Then try to run around the block and see how you feel. If you wear glasses while biking, make sure you can get them to not fog up while you’re moving.

The are three general options of masks to choose from: surgical masks, cloth masks, and N95 (or stronger) masks.

Surgical Mask

Wearing a surgical face mask while holding a bicycle next to a bed of flowers. One of the best face masks for biking.
Wearing a surgical mask for show. Usually I’m not wearing the mask while riding around Golden Gate Park, since there’s plenty of room to social distance on the new car free JFK Drive.

If this is available, I think the (non-molded) surgical mask is one of the best face masks for biking, since it has a considerable amount of space on the sides where you can breathe, and the metal prong on top if done right can keep your glasses from fogging up. However, that breathability comes at a cost, and it may not provide as much protection as other face coverings tighter on the face.

The only difference between the surgical mask and an around the ear cloth mask are the materials and a bit of extra filtration, so many cloth masks are just as nice.

I like this around the ear style for the ease of use for taking it on and off. Just make sure to put it on after your helmet or it will get stuck in between all the straps if you want to take it off during the ride.

Breathability: High

How to get one: There are some on Amazon and eBay, though they may take a while to ship. These have been hard to come by, as many people want them and healthcare workers sometimes use them too (although N95s are preferred for healthcare workers).

Cloth Masks

A portrait of someone wearing a 2-layer etsy cloth face mask
A cloth mask found on Etsy, but it doesn’t have a metal prong to keep it tight to your face.

Cloth masks come in many different shapes, sizes, materials, just everything. The breathability depends on the materials made, and some have space for filters in them (which can be a coffee filter or paper towel for a DIY). There’s also much variability in how you attach them to your face. I’ll share some of the ones I’ve used and like, but there are countless options on Amazon or eBay.

The best face covering style for biking and exercising is the kind that wraps around the ears like the surgical masks and has the metal prong to shape it to your face (and keep your glasses from fogging). I also like the styles where you tie it around the back of your head and can drop it down around your neck or untie it when not using it. It depends on the weather and how hard you’re pushing on your bike ride. Many of the options I’ve shared can also be DIY’d to be worn around the ears if you have hair ties, rubber bands, or some other strap material.

Shemagh (aka Keffiyeh)

Someone wearing a helmet and biking with a shemagh (aka keffiyeh) over there nose and mouth. One of the best face coverings for biking.
Wearing my keffiyeh or shemagh (which one do you call it??) on a ride through Golden Gate Park.

This square scarf from the Middle East is good at many things. One of them being covering your face while bike riding! I had one socked away in my closet, and realized it is surprisingly comfortable while biking around. I just made a triangle and tied it around the back of my head, so I had 2 layers of cloth over my face, but there are many more ways to tie a shemagh or keffiyeh if you want to do a 4 layer tie. If I was more socially isolated or needed more oxygen, I could easily drop it around my neck.

Breathability: High to medium. They can be thick especially when folded over many layers.

How to get one: There are many different designs on Amazon (shemagh/keffiyeh) and eBay.

Buff or Neck Gaitor

Wearing a helmet and a buff face covering around the neck covering the nose and mouth.
I’m wearing this buff loosely so it’s not too tight. You can pull it around the back of your head (maybe under the helmet) to get a more snug fit.

This tube scarf also has many different uses, one of them being covering your nose and mouth. There is a lot of variety with the size and fabric used. One thing about any small circular scarf like a buff is that if I got too hot and wanted to take it off, I had to take off my helmet and sunglasses, so that was not a quick and easy change.

I have one that is long with thin, elastic fabric. This one hugs my face tightly, so it caused any lip movement to be uncomfortable (and you definitely can’t lick your lips with that thing on!). I also have one that is a thicker material and shorter, more like a scarf.

You have to fiddle with it sometimes to make it stay over your nose and mouth. My thin one I had to pull up around the back of my head to make sure it stayed put.

Breathability: Usually high, but depends on the fabric.

How to get one: On Amazon: buff for the lighter elastic or neck gaiter for a thicker version. On eBay: buff for the lighter elastic or neck gaiter for a thicker version.

Bandana

Wearing a bandana folded over their nose and mouth while wearing a helmet. One of the best face coverings for biking.
A simple bandana tie. I just folded it once into a triangle and tied it around the back of my head.

A bandana is similar to any other cloth mask. You can even take a bandana and make a mask out of it with a few hair tires or rubber bands. More discussed in the cloth masks…

Breathability: High

How to get one: Amazon or eBay.

Cloth Mask Made from Cycling Jersey Material

I’ve heard good things about these masks made by Eliel since they’re made with the same Lycra material cycling jerseys are made of. This should make them very breathable, but I haven’t tried them myself.

Cloth Face Covering with a Filter

Some face coverings can have replaceable filters for protection that’s more than just a few layers of cloth. You can always DIY this by adding a coffee filter or paper towel that you can dispose of at the end of the day.

The Scough (scarf + cough) is a cool face covering that has an active barrier concealed within a scarf or bandana. They are having trouble meeting demand, but if you pre-order one may come eventually.

N95 Mask

Someone wearing the most protective N95 mask outside. There is an out of focus bicycle in the background.
The most protective N95 mask. Technically my beard prevents it from having full protection, but this is just for the photo.

Honestly this should be a last resort, as it seems unnecessary for biking unless you’re going to be standing around people very close to you while talking. However, it does offer the best most complete protection. I wear these for protection against wildfire smoke in California, and it works well, but I wouldn’t want to do exercise in it.

Breathability: Low

How to get one: Because of the total protection of the N95 mask, this is also the one healthcare workers need the most, since they may be around COVID-19 patients all day. There are some on Amazon and eBay, but the shipping is delayed.

Mask with Exhalation Valves

Pictures of 3 face masks with exhalation valves and a red cross out over each one of them.
This is part of a sign at Costco telling people they won’t be allowed in if they’re wearing a mask like this with an exhale valve.

These masks with exhalation valves are meant more for pollution instead of viruses. It prevents particles from getting in, but when you breathe out the valve opens and lets your breath out (unless it has some kind of exhale filter). While this may sound nice, the small valve hole causes exhaled viral matter to be projected farther than if you were just breathing normally. So in fact, this mask is WORSE than a normal mask or even no mask at all. If you have one of these masks, you can tape over the valves to make it compliant, but then it’s likely the same as another cloth mask.

Conclusion

As you can see there are tons of options for face coverings while biking or exercising. You may not want to wear them for your entire ride, but in a crowded area they may be good to have. Like I said in the beginning, my favorite masks would be the surgical mask for warmer weather and the shemagh for cooler weather. Try a few out to see which one works best for you.

Let me know in the comments what mask you prefer, especially if it isn’t yet on the list. And check out my FAQ on biking amid coronavirus for more answers to any COVID-19 questions.

Happy Biking!

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