Biking in the winter is awesome. There's something about pedaling through the woods in the crisp air that makes you feel truly alive. Blue skies seem much more vibrant. Landscapes look completely different. There are no bugs! It really is magical. It's also great exercise and a way to make our long winters seem shorter.
We've biked in all different conditions and without exception your enjoyment is directly related to how warm or cold you are on your ride. Cold fingers, toes, and faces are the typical culprits but being too warm can also be an issue. With the increase in winter riding there is a lot more speciality gear for those who plan to spend their winters on two wheels and can afford it. For those wanting to just try it, only go occasionally, or on a limited budget you can typically piece together what's needed with things laying around the house.
In real estate the three most important things are location, location, location. When it comes to staying warm, it's layering, layering, layering. Wearing multiple layers of clothing will help maintain your core body temperature, keep you dry, and protect you from the freezing outside elements. We've all heard this before, but let's break it down further so you can get a solid grasp on how to pull it off.
There are three basic layers:
I recommend, when possible, purchasing layers that can be interchangeable for all your activities. I use the same base and mid layers for biking as I do for hiking, running, snowshoeing, and winter camping (with the addition of bike shorts of course). I often will use the same outer layer for these endeavors as well. This is typically my Gortex jacket and pants that are marketed as backpacking rain gear but work great for just about anything where you need breathable, windproof, durable protection. If it's not expected to snow or sleet (most of the time), I'll skip the Gortex and use something even more breathable as I generate a lot of heat while biking and there are certainly more breathable fabrics than Gortex.
Of course, activity specific clothing does have its advantages as it is designed for a given sport. For example, bicycling tops typically have a longer "tail" on them so you don't expose skin when bent over your handlebars and have pockets in the back for carrying supplies. I have a pair of cycling specific tights that have windbreaker material on the front and highly breathable fabric on the back that are super nice. I would recommending looking at how often you will participate in a specific activity, look at the sport specific features, and you budget to determine if it's worth going general or specific.
When biking in the cold, most people find keeping their hands warm the biggest problem. The combination of the wind, little finger movement, and frozen handlebars can lead to being uncomfortable if not prepared.
Gloves vs. Mittens
Should you wear gloves or mittens to stay warm when biking? Mittens are definitely warmer but are not ideal when biking. You lose individual finger dexterity which can make shifting and braking while maintaining a firm grip on your handlebars problematic. We certainly have lots of people come to our events and use mittens successfully but for safety reasons I'd steer you away from them.
Gloves solve the problem of dexterity but may leave you with cold fingers. If you're only riding for a short period or temperatures are not extreme, they will work fine. For those cooler days a chemical hand warmer in your gloves will do wonders.
My personal favorite for cold weather biking are "lobster" gloves. These are part mitten and part glove. Some styles have two fingers together and other have your index finger solo and your remaining three fingers together. The ones with the solo index finger are better from a safety perspective as they allow you to cover your brakes while having three fingers on your bars but I prefer the other style as I've found the solo model leaves my index fingers cold.
Regardless of what type of glove/mitten you use, I would recommend carrying a thin pair of gloves with you that you can throw on should you need to tend to something on your bike while out on the trail or in the parking lot. This thin layer of material will go along way when you're touching ice cold metal parts and need maximum dexterity.
TIP: I find that my fingers typically start off cool at the beginning of my ride. After a few minutes I stop and let my hands hang by my side so the blood can rush into them and then they are warm the rest of my ride.
Ultimate Warmth: The Pogie
If you want the ultimate in warmth and protection from the cold and don't mind spending some additional money, pogies are the way to go. Pogies are water resistance, breathable, "sleeves" that you attach to your handlebars. You then slip your hands inside them and away from the elements. Even with a thin glove your hands should stay warm. There is typically a trade-off between warmth and how quickly you can get your hands out in case of a fall, so look for ones that meet your criteria. These ones are from 45Nrth:
Feet are like hands and some people are just prone to have cold toes. To combat this wear a winter hiking boot, low profile winter boots, or winter specific cycling boots. If you plan to use clipless pedals or want a stiff sole for maximum efficiency, you'll want to go toward the cycling boots. There are some great choices out there now. They are very expensive. As a result, if you are going to use flat pedals for winter riding there may be better and cheaper options.
I use my winter boots that I also use for winter hiking and snowshoeing. They are plenty warm and not too bulky so they don't interfere with my pedaling. They are also nice should I have to walk my bike back to the trailhead.
Pair your footwear with a warm pair of breathable socks. Make sure your boots are not too tight where they limit blood flow as this will also cause cold feet. Some people wear a plastic bag next to their skin and under their socks to create a windproof vapor barrier. I have found this works for short outings but after awhile my feet tend to get cold as there is no way for the moisture to escape.
You'll want to wear a thin hat when biking in the cold. Ideally, this hat will be wind resistant, cover your ears and forehead, and fit comfortably under your helmet. Hats with pom poms are really cute but don't work well with a helmet and thus should be avoided. I typically wear a really thin hat and bring an extra, thicker one just in case I have to stop and walk or if the thin one isn't cutting it.
On cold days you'll want to cover some or all of your face. There are many different options from face masks to balaclavas. I prefer balaclavas (think ninja mask) as they function as my thin hat, protect my face, and keep my neck warm. If you wear prescription eyewear or sunglasses (recommended), you'll need to use some anti-fogging stuff on them if you pull the mask over your mouth.
Another solution for keeping your face warm is to use something like WarmSkin on your skin to help protect it from the cold. I've found it works really well and helps fight off that uncomfortable feeling you get when an icy cold wind blows on your face and forehead. In the past, we used to coat our faces with petroleum jelly on super cold days but looking like a glazed donut leaves much to be desired. WarmSkin works equally well and looks better too!
Finally, Some winter riders use ski goggles when riding. I haven't found a need for them. If you do want to purchase a pair and wear glasses, make sure you get one that is built to wear over them.
Cycling in the cold is one of my favorite winter activities and something everyone should try. You'll want to dress appropriately to make it a positive and safe experience. For occasional or short rides you'll probably already have what you need in your closet. For more frequent or longer rides you may want to opt for cycling specific gear. Use the handy chart as a quick reference and get out there!
|Head||Thin hat||Bicycling specific under helmet hat|
|Torso||Base: Thin wool or synthetic long sleeve
Mid: Medium weight fleece jacket or thicker wool or synthetic long sleeve
Outer: Breathable windbreaker
|Base: Thin wool or synthetic long sleeve
Mid: Medium weight fleece jacket or thicker wool or synthetic long sleeve
Outer: Breathable cold weather bicycling jacket
Tights or warm-up pants
Windproof tights or cycling specific winter pants
Chemical hand warmers
|Feet||Wool or synthetic socks
Hiking or winter boots
|Wool or synthetic socks
Cold weather biking boots
Have any tips to share? Post them below.