Owning a gas mask is often associated with the stereotypical Doomsday Prepper that is obsessed with the threat of a biological or chemical terrorist attack.
While some people may think that planning for such attacks is going overboard, there are many other scenarios where a gas mask can be an essential survival item.
For example, gas masks can ensure a supply of clean air during a wildfire, a disease outbreak such as avian flu, a nuclear power plant accident, tear gas during a riot, and many other realistic scenarios.
For $100-$250, you can get a quality gas mask that is a potentially life-saving item that can be stashed away in your bug out bag, closet, under a bed, or practically anywhere else.
However, keep in mind that a gas mask should only be one part of your survival plan in the event of an emergency.
Today we’re going to give you a comprehensive look at modern gas masks and give you the knowledge and the confidence you need to find the right gas mask for yourself and your family.
So let’s get started.
Different Types of Gas Masks & Full Face Respirators
If you’ve already started shopping around, you’ve probably noticed that there are a wide variety of gas masks and respirators on the market today, most of them identified by cryptic numbers and letters like “CBRN,” “NBC,” or “P100.”
Each of these acronyms reflects the quality of filtration and the different types of threats each mask is designed to protect against.
- N/R/P 95/99/100 Full Face Respirators: These are the most basic types of filters engineered to filter out airborne particles, making them ideal for asbestos cleanup, painting, and demolition work. The letter reflects the resistance to oily mists. N-type masks are NOT resistant to oil, while R-type masks are RESISTANT and P-type masks are oil-PROOF. The number indicates the percentage of airborne contaminants that are filtered out (95%, 99%, or 99.7% in the case of 100 masks). Gas and vapor cartridges are color-coded, with a white label to show they’re resistant to acid gases like chlorine, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide. Yellow cartridges are approved for organic vapors and acid gases. Green label cartridges are approved for ammonia methylamine.
- NBC Full Face Gas Masks: NBC masks are designed to protect the user from Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical contaminants. This includes protection from nuclear fallout and 110 different chemical agents according to the CDC, including chemical warfare agents ranging from chlorine gas to hydrogen cyanide, sarin, and extremely lethal VX gas. It also offers protection from biological agents ranging from smallpox to ricin and anthrax. However, they don’t provide the extreme level of protection you’ll get from a CBRN mask.
- CBRN Full Face Gas Masks: CBRN masks are designed to protect the user from Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear contaminants. These masks typically offer the highest grade of protection, so they’re the best possible choice for anyone preparing for potential disaster. The added protection helps shield you from the aftermath of a radiological dispersive device (RDD) like a dirty bomb, or radioactive industrial waste. That means you’ll be safer from higher concentrations of radioactive dust and smoke. It’s important to note that these masks & filters work by preventing you from inhaling radioactive particulate, but that they won’t shield you from exposure to gamma radiation or alpha/beta particulates (more on that later). The filters themselves may become radioactive after exposure to radioactive elements.
So while a basic full-face respirator can protect you from construction debris, asbestos or oily mist, a more sophisticated CBRN mask can filter out 139 different agents ranging from serious biological threats to nuclear waste, making them a much more robust solution in case of an unexpected disaster.
Gas Mask & Respirator Standards: NIOSH vs. CE
American gas masks and full-face respirators are regulated and approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), who’ve developed thorough standards for determining the quality and reliability of each mask.
NIOSH regulates both the mask itself and the filter it’s used with, down to requiring NATO standard threading on the filter canister. NIOSH is one of the stricter and more comprehensive standards for gas mask approval. It’s also important to note that NIOSH certification can add a substantial amount of cost to a gas mask. There are plenty of good masks out there that are still high quality, but more affordable thanks to the lack of NIOSH certification.
Europe’s “CE” standards are equally strict in regards to the criteria each mask must meet for approval. While it’s legal to sell non-NIOSH-approved masks in America, all full-face respirators and masks sold in Europe are required to gain CE approval to be sold to the public.
So now that we know the different types and certifications for modern gas masks, we arrive at the most important question.
What’s the Best Gas Mask for Survival Scenarios?
When it comes to buying any gas mask or full-face respirator, the most important question to ask yourself is, “what do I need this for?”
If you’re looking to prepare for a wide variety of possible situations and disasters, ranging from house fires to potential terrorist attacks, then you’re going to want the most flexible solution you can find.
That’s why a full-featured CBRN gas mask will often be your best choice.
With shelf lives of up to 20 years, these masks can provide decades of long-lasting protection and peace of mind for just a few dollars more than you’d pay for something that’s not nearly as reliable.
For example, a good CBRN mask will often come with a speech diaphragm, fog-resistant mask, and an integrated hydration system. That might not sound too important for now, until you realize that you could potentially be relying on your mask for hours at a time, which means being able to stay hydrated, communicate with those around you, and actually see where you’re going could make a serious difference on one of the hardest (and most dangerous) days of your life.
The best gas masks are typically made of butyl rubber (a necessity for NIOSH approval of a CBRN mask), but others will also use materials like EPDM or rubber elastomer. Whatever you use, the standard of quality and protection is whether or not the mask will protect you from mustard gas intrusion.
Finally, one of the most desirable features of a reliable gas mask is whether or not military units actively use it. Military units are some of the largest and most frequent users of gas masks, and they typically only trust their lives to the most reliable and durable equipment on the market.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular CBRN masks on the market today.
Our Recommended CBRN Gas Masks
Arguably the best gas mask for its price on the market today, the MIRA Safety CM-6M is a full-featured CBRN gas mask that’s trusted by American law enforcement and European militaries thanks to its durable construction and reliable performance.
MIRA masks are packed with useful features from their butyl rubber construction to hypoallergenic inner masks, speech diaphragms, and integrated hydration systems.
In some ways, this tactical gas mask is a direct upgrade from the CM-6M, as it’s designed for military use ensuring rugged performance in the field.
It’s engineered with a focus on providing better optics for use with rifles and night vision goggles.
This mask is trusted by the Czech military and packed with the same great features as the CM-6M, including a built-in speech diaphragm and dual filter ports.
Designed to provide protection from chemical warfare agents (CWA), the Drager is a popular (but less budget-friendly) alternative to CM-6M and CM-7M masks that are not NIOSH approved.
Substantially more expensive than the other gas masks on our list, the Drager DHS 7000 is packed with features including electronic voice communication and quick cylinder change design. Unfortunately, it’s a good bit harder to find and more expensive once you do find it.
The Avon M50 is the US military’s current General Issue nuclear gas mask, and with good reason.
Ideal for field use in rugged conditions and even in nuclear fallout, the Avon M50 is a rock-solid gas mask that provides great value even at twice the price of our entry-level picks.
Probably the best tactical gas mask out there. The biggest downside is that it can be hard to find one that’s not expired and in good working order.
Finding Filters that Fit Your Gas Mask
In case you didn’t know, your gas mask is only half the equation. You will need compatible filters (also known as canister) before your gas mask can be used.
As mentioned above, each filter is designed to handle specific contaminants. When it comes to emergency preparedness, it’s best to buy a filter that answers as many different threats as possible.
That’s why many buyers stick with something like the MIRA CBRN Gas Mask Filter (NBC-77 SOF 40MM).
These filters have an outstanding 20-year shelf life (compared to a 6-year standard shelf life) and designed to deal with each of the chemical, biological, and nuclear agents listed above.
They’re CE-certified and compliant under EN 14387:2004 + A1:2008.
While these filters cost a bit more than other filters on the market, they make up for it with their much longer shelf life, superior build quality, and excellent packaging. Trusted by militaries all over the world and built to last, you can stock up on these NATO-standard filters for superior, long-lasting value.
Remember that most gas mask filters are built to last for roughly 24 hours in an NBC situation, but it largely depends on the concentration of the hazard in the air. Have a good idea of how long your filters will last, and keep as many on hand as you’re comfortable with (the more, the better, obviously). And most importantly, try to get to a safe place before the filter capabilities run out.
STAY AWAY from Surplus Gear and Some Filters
Gas masks have a shelf life. Due to their their rubber construction, they must be stored properly to ensure a good seal when finally used. Unlike a surplus rifle, these are sensitive tools that have to be taken care of so that you can trust them with your life.
When buying from a surplus store, you don’t know how well they’ve been stored or cared for over the years. Many surplus masks have passed their expiration date or have been warehoused at temperatures outside the range they’ve been designed for.
Surplus filters can be problematic as well. For example, the Russian GP-5 filter, is known to contain up to 7.5% asbestos. While you won’t necessarily inhale asbestos fibers unless the filter is damaged or expired, it’s best to avoid the possibility entirely.
Once You’ve Got Your Gas Mask/Full Face Respirator
Once you’ve got your mask, you’re going to want to make sure it fits snug and gives you a good seal. You can do that by executing a negative pressure test.
To execute a negative pressure test, you’ll want to cover off each of the mask’s valves and inhale gently, until you can feel the mask compressing against your skin. Once it does, hold your breath for 5-10 seconds. If the mask expands, or if you can feel the air seeping in, the mask isn’t sealing, and the test is a failure. If the mask remains compressed, you’re good to go.
If you’re having trouble getting a good seal, remember that you’ll need to be shaved clean for the mask to work correctly. That’s why some people store a razor with their mask, to shave up right before putting it on.
Practice putting it on and taking it off until you’re comfortable you can do it while distracted, in the dark or in panic mode.
You’ll want to inspect masks on a relatively regular basis too, to ensure the rubber hasn’t cracked and they’re performing as needed.
A Closing Thought
A full-face gas mask will protect your respiratory system and the soft tissue of your eyes, nose, and throat from airborne contaminants, but they won’t prevent absorption across the rest of your body. This can be an issue when it comes to nuclear fallout, and it’s the reason why the mask is just a component of CBRN PPE (personal protective equipment).
That’s why it’s also essential to consider a HAZMAT suit like those trusted by the military, law enforcement, and chemical handling professionals.
Advanced HAZMAT suits are available in a variety of sizes and sold at about half the cost of an entry-level mask with a 20-year service life, so they’re an obvious and affordable upgrade to any bug out bag.