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How to Dress For Cold Weather Fat Biking


by Darren Dobier November 21, 2017

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. 

The Basics

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:

  • Base/Inner Layer - The layer of clothing that is next to your skin.  This layer should be fairly thin, made of a natural or synthetic fabric that wicks moisture (AKA sweat) away from your skin.  The importance of this layer cannot be understated.  Having wet clothes = being cold.  The better your base letter wicks moisture from your skin the warmer you will potentially be.  I say "potentially" because this layer doesn't act alone.  What you wear for the other layers also has a direct impact on how wet you'll be.  It's also important to remember that your bra and underwear and bicycling shorts should also be of wicking material  Wool, silk, or various synthetic material are great for this. DO NOT WEAR COTTON!  I prefer merino wool because it's soft, keeps me warm even when damp, and doesn't hold onto the funky smell that often comes along with synthetic clothing.
  • Middle (Mid) Layer - The layer(s) of clothing that you wear between your base layer and your outer layer.  It is meant to trap air which is what keeps you warm.  The more air they trap the warmer you'll be.  Choose natural or synthetic materials designed for this purpose and that are breathable.  Once again...DO NOT WEAR COTTON!  Mid-layers should also allow the transfer of the moisture that was wicked through the base layer to continue it's journey away from the body.  Typical materials are goose down, fleece, wool.  Rather than wearing one really thick layer on really cold days, I would recommend wearing several thinner layers so you can better manage your core temperature to minimize excess sweating.  Remember...wet clothes = being cold.  If your mid layer is so warm that your layers cannot transfer your sweat away from your body fast enough, you'll get wet and then the chill sets in.  By wearing multiple layers you can add or remove layers as your activity varies throughout the day.
  • Outer Layer - The outermost layer of clothing designed to protect you from the elements.  This layer is your armor from the wind, rain, snow, branches, ....  It should be durable and breathable.  This can be as simple as a breathable wind breaker or rain jacket.  Other options include winter jackets designed as "outer shells" which tend to be more durable.  The outer shell typically isn't very think or warm on it's own as that job is left to the mid layers.  This layer should also be at a minimum water resistant.  If you plan spending several hours outside when it's raining or snowing, it should be waterproof.  Fabrics like Gortex are perfect for this layer. Waterproof, breathable clothing is expensive so if you don't need it to be completely waterproof, you may not want to shell out the cash.   Just make sure they allow all that moisture the other layers are transferring to be able to escape.

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.  

Hands

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.

pearl izumi lobster glove

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:

45Nrth ponies

Feet

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.

 keen winter boot

Head

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.  

Face

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!

warm skin

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.

Summary

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!

  Basic Advanced
Head Thin hat Bicycling specific under helmet hat
Face Face Mask
Balaclava
Face Mask
Balaclava
WarmSkin
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
Legs Bike shorts
Tights or warm-up pants
Bike shorts
Windproof tights or cycling specific winter pants
Hands Windproof gloves
Chemical hand warmers
Lobster gloves
Pogies
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.




Darren Dobier
Darren Dobier

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