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A gas mask is technically a kind of respirator that focuses on filtering out chemicals and gases. They are a very specific tool, that won’t protect you from everything, and might be overkill for some hazards.
Still, you can find relatively cheap and modern gas masks to protect your body and your respiratory system from certain threats. Here are our suggestions of the best gas masks, filters, and what to look for if you’re in the market.
What Are Gas Masks Good For?
Not all preppers will find a gas mask a practical addition to their bug-out bag because they are not full protection from many of the hazards people assume they protect from. These include:
- Many chemical weapons and nerve agents: Including mustard and Sarin gases, because they absorb through your skin — look into an NBC suit in addition to the mask if this is a concern for you.
- Nuclear radiation/fallout: Because they also absorb through the skin.
- Gases that are collecting in your area: Whenever you put a gas mask on you also need to be getting to high ground/away from the gas. Most hazardous gas is either lighter or heavier than oxygen and will concentrate on the ground or disperse in the atmosphere. If you stood in your basement when mustard gas had been released, for example, the gas would start to sink below the oxygen and push it up. At some point, there would be no oxygen to breathe, and gas masks don’t supply oxygen.
- Serious fires/thick smoke: The same principle applies here, gas masks don’t supply oxygen. Firefighters wear SCBAs, which deliver oxygen directly to them.
At the same time, there are hazards that gas masks can protect you from, but which cheaper, thinner, or single-use respirators or plain masks will also protect you from.
- Epidemics and pandemics: There’s a range of protection for these situations, depending on how the illness spreads from a simple N95 mask, to the addition of eye protection, to the addition of a Tyvek suit.
- General debris/smoke: if a nearby building has collapsed or caught on fire, an N95, or even a wet rag, is good protection as you flee the scene.
That being said, there are plenty of good reasons to buy a gas mask, including:
- To pair with your NBC suit.
- If you’re worried about being caught amid civil unrest.
- If you have a specialized use for a gas mask (like you live nearby a manufacturing plant or a volcano or something).
- If you have two competing hazards and you don’t want to carry two kinds of masks.
- If you just plain think they are cool and want your gas mask to be functional too.
So, here’s how to find the best gas mask for prepping.
What to Look For in a Gas Mask
Filters (Also Called Cartridges)
A gas mask is only as good as its filter. Different filters are designed to protect from different hazards, and they have a color code to help you identify which is which. Filters should always be sealed up before use, and they do have a shelf-life.
This is the primary reason many older military or civilian model gas masks should not be used, most can’t be adapted for use with modern filters. If the old gas mask comes with its own filters they may be expired, filled with asbestos, or no longer protective from newer/all hazards. Plus, rubber seals degrade with time, so they may no longer seal to your face even if the filter is working.
Essentially, unless you’re using a proprietary gas mask filter for your mask, you should always be using a NATO 40 mm threaded gas mask filter, regardless of what specific subset of filter you need to protect yourself from your target hazard. 40 mm fits or can be adapted to fit almost all modern gas masks.
Some gas masks, like those from MSA or Honeywell, have proprietary mask filters which generally provide the same quality but tend to be more expensive.
Filters are colored to represent the threat they deal with. OSHA has a fact sheet that explains this color code. Some colors likely of interest to preppers include:
- Purple (Magenta): radioactive materials, except tritium and noble gases.
- Brown: Acid gases, organic vapors, and ammonia gases.
- Purple: Any particulates.
40 mm filters are available, but take care who you purchase them from — there are many reports of old, damaged, and unsealed filters. Approved Gas Masks and actual manufacturers like MSA Safety are good sources.
Generally, companies catering to workplaces will be more credible and have working products. You may find the CDC’s filter guide to be helpful.
Remember that you will need spare filters, they don’t last forever.
When you’re looking for gas masks you’ll see all kinds of rating systems and specialized terms.
These terms, the important ones, come from NIOSH. This is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, their department (the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory) recommends gas masks for workplace use. Their fact sheet on respirators is worth a look, as is their certified equipment list.
CBRN is the top specification. This is NIOSH’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear standard. Look for it in conjunction with NIOSH and you’ve found a mask that, given the proper filter, can withstand these threats. A simple search for a CBRN gas mask will lead to a lot of results and in-depth information. Sometimes people also refer to these masks as NBC masks.
It’s important to note that the term “gas mask” is applied to all kinds of masks that won’t help you one bit in an emergency, including surgical masks, paintball masks, and so much more. Be cautious of scams, whether innocent or intentional. Plenty of people use fake gas masks for costumes.
Fit and Wear Issues to Be Aware Of
- If a mask doesn’t fit properly, or if you’re not sure how to put it on, it won’t protect you.
- Always use a full face mask, because if you need to protect your lungs you need to protect your eyes too.
- Perform fit tests on masks and drills to get faster at putting it on.
- You should test your mask for positive and negative pressure. Also perform “sniff tests”. You need to use a filter to perform these test.
- You cannot have facial hair while wearing a gas mask.
- Vaseline can help if you’re struggling to make a seal or have facial hair, but it will be very hard to get off afterwards.
- If you fail to put your gas mask on before you’re exposed to the threat, it can’t help you.
- If you want to be able to speak to others clearly, check to make sure the SHTF gas mask you choose has a speech diaphragm.
Modern Gas Masks Available to Civilians
3M Full Face Respirator FR M40 Series
This is a NIOSH-certified CBRM mask with a threaded connection (and not a bayonet connection—that’s key). The M40 series is one of the best civilian gas masks, and in very high demand, having once been the gas mask of choice for the US military. It is more comfortable and durable than our other two masks.
As you might expect, it is painfully expensive, although prices can vary with different suppliers. 3M has some amazing resources to check out in general, including a respirator guide, find it at the “Resources” section of this page.
Mestel SGE 400/3 BB
This gas mask is very popular with preppers, and for a reason, it’s the cheapest high-quality modern mask here. It is well designed for both protection and comfort. You have to purchase a filter port to get this to work with NATO 40mm filters, but that’s worth the investment as the 40 mm are cheaper than the proprietary filters for this mask.
It’s important to go with the BB model and not just the 400/3 model because the upgraded rubber seal is a significant improvement and adds CBRN rating due to new resistance from corrosive blister agents.
That being said, here is an amazing review of the 400/3 model (not BB) that will give you a real feel for what it looks like:
Police and first responders use these masks. They are CBRN rated and have their own proprietary filters (which MSA calls canisters). The mask is generally over $400 dollars depending on who you’re purchasing it from.
The older MSA model’s visor would turn slightly yellowish after use, but that isn’t generally too much of a problem if you’re just using it to flee the scene. You can find the MSA Milllenium’s instruction manual online.
Kinds of Military Gas Masks
You probably won’t be buying or using a military gas mask, but the background on these can help you understand what’s going on in this confusing market. If you are considering a military-grade gas mask, be sure to check out our review and video of the MIRA CM-6M gas mask. MIRA Safety gas masks are worn by many law enforcement officers and militaries around the world.
It can also help you assess any army surplus sources you might choose to shop from — just note that when something is surplus, it’s for a reason, and that reason might affect your safety if you rely on the gas mask. Always test your gas mask before you need it.
This gas mask was developed in Eastern European counties, including Czechoslovakia and Poland, and modeled after the American M17 (multiple generations of American gas masks have replaced the M17). You’ll find many retailers offering it as a “clone” of the M17 but there are differences, including threaded filters (which is a good thing).
Here’s a video of the mask being tested
Though this is a popular model with preppers, you can’t find modern filters for this mask and it is considered obsolete. This means the protection you’d receive from this mask is suspect at best. Plus, even if you’re trying to use old filters, this gas mask uses two cheek filters, which means you need more extras than you would with a single-filter gas mask.
M40 (M40A1, M40A2, FR-M40)
This used to be the standard USA military mask (now replaced). 3M owns all M40 models now, having purchased them from the original developers. 3M now produces these for civilian wear. The FR-M40 is the newest model of the bunch, and the easiest to wear.
M50 (XM50, FM50, M51 Are All Similar Models)
This is the current standard U.S. military gas mask. It’s easier to breathe and see in, weighs less, and has some advantages as far as protection goes over its predecessor the M40. You can find out about this mask’s other advantages here and here.
Here is an Air Mobility Command video on the mask:
The M50 is manufactured by Avon, which can help you determine which sellers are dealing in props while calling their masks M50s.
One day these masks will be out of date and you’ll be able to get your hands on one for less. For now, you can find them online for at least 200 dollars (that’s without filters) and only if you’re in the United States. Also, these masks don’t use 40mm filters, they have their own!
The M15 is currently Israeli’s standard gas mask, including for its citizens. Over concerns of chemical and other attacks from their neighbors, Israel has handed these out to their whole population. Therefore, they’ve been produced on a massive scale and you can find them online.
For more information on military gas masks, consult the Gas Mask and Respirator Wiki.
Other HAZMAT Gear
Remember that a gas mask is just one piece of what you need to protect yourself in the event of chemical warfare, a chemical attack, or a nuclear attack. A hazmat suit like those produced by MIRA will protect your body from toxic substances.
Practice With Your Mask
A full-face mask is a lot different than wearing a half-face respirator. If you tend to be a little panicky when it comes to enclosed spaces, you may want to take some time to get used to your mask before there is a real emergency. Practice taking it off and on.
You don’t have to attach the filter to do this. Just remember that when the filter is attached, the mask will be a bit heavier and the airflow will feel different. Try to wear your mask for 20 minutes and see how it goes.
Practicing getting a good seal on your mask will make it more likely that you put it on the right way when every second counts. The protection a mask offers depends on the user knowing what to do to some degree.
When people think of preppers, a shadowy figure in a gas mask usually comes to mind. This seems to have given many people the idea that gas masks have no legitimate uses.
They may not always be the best buy for your money, depending on what threat you’re prepping for — but they are certainly a useful tool. That is, so long as you have the correct knowledge and practice to use them effectively.
I hope this post has helped you determine the best survival gas mask for you. Just keep in mind that during long events some styles of mask can be hard to find, so you better get them before you need them. Check out this post on mask options for every budget.