Winter biking guide

I’ve been bike commuting and fitness training for roughly two months now. October around these parts was unusually nice, which transitioned into a very cold November and December (so far, at least). The first two weeks of commuting were rough. I was dressing wrong, my body wasn’t used to the rides, and in general I felt miserable after each ride. Now, though, I’m starting not only to get comfortable with long rides (hit 20 miles last night!) but enjoy cycling for its own sake, not merely the money savings and the fitness benefits.

I’m enjoying it so much that one of my personal goals for 2014 will be to complete at least a half-century (50 miles).

That said, it’s currently 10F here and the temperatures will be falling all day until we hit about -5F. Three months ago I would have told myself I was insane for biking in this weather, but it’s not that hard to adapt. The main challenge is learning how to dress. I realize that the magic of Clothes is an arcane art, but humans are really freakin’ good at adapting to wide climate variations. Rather than dig around on forums for answers, this is my attempt to provide an evolving guide on how to approach biking when it gets cold.

Ambient temperature: 50F

  • Top: Layer 1 – moisture wicking long-sleeve base layer (I have had good luck with whatever closeouts are available at Sierra Trading Post; Layer 2 – rain/wind shell like my new favorite jacket, the Marmot PreCip (thanks to The Wirecutter’s review).
  • Bottom: Layer 1 – moisture wicking base layer; Layer 2 – durable synthetic work pants like my ancient Dickie’s “fat pants” from when I was a size 44 (just use a belt :P).
  • Shoes: Standard trainers with wool socks.
  • Gloves: leather driving gloves.

Ambient temperature: 30-50F

  • Top: Layer 1 – moisture wicking base layer; Layer 2 – lightweight fleece (this doesn’t have to be fancy, as I’m still using a pullover I got from the Dockers outlet 10 years ago for $15); Layer 3 – rain/wind jacket (see above).
  • Bottom: Layer 1 – moisture wicking base layer; Layer 2 – thin sweatpants, like “lounge pants” or pajama bottoms; Layer 3 – work pants (see above).
  • Shoes: Here the wind penetration through standard trainers will freeze your toes. Switch to leather boots. Insulated boots may be overkill but as long as you wear wool socks, your feet won’t sweat too much.
  • Hat: whatever winter hat you have, but try to avoid non wool/synthetics.
  • Gloves: good, multi-layer ski gloves, ideally with a Goretex layer for wind and water-proofing.

Ambient temperature: 20-30F

  • Top: Layer 1 – moisture wicking base layer; Layer 2 & 3 – lightweight fleece or other synthetic/wool blends. AVOID cotton clothes, as they’ll soak up moisture and the latter part of a long ride will get brutally cold; Layer 4 – rain/wind jacket (see above).
  • Bottom: Layer 1 – moisture wicking base layer; Layer 2 – thick sweatpants; Layer 3 – work pants (see above). Snowpants may be able to replace layers 2 & 3 but only if the outer material will keep out wind.
  • Shoes: Insulated hiking or snow boots with one or two layers of wool socks. Standard leather boots will work with double wool socks, but I find my toes go numb about every 7-8 miles, requiring a block or two of walking or jogging to flex the feet and stimulate blood flow.
  • Hat: If it’s very windy, add a balaclava under your winter hat.
  • Gloves: good, multi-layer ski gloves, ideally with a Goretex layer for wind and water-proofing.

Ambient temperature: 5-20F 

(Note: 5F is the coldest I’ve biked in. If this winter gets colder, I’ll add some thoughts for those ranges.)

  • Top: Layer 1 – moisture wicking base layer; Layer 2 & 3 – lightweight fleeces; Layer 4 – heavyweight hoodie, fall jacket, whatever you might have that will fit well, EXPERIMENT before resorting to buying new gear!); Layer 5 – rain/wind jacket (see above).
  • Bottom: Bottom: Layer 1 – moisture wicking base layer; Layer 2 – thick sweatpants; Layer 3 – work pants (see above). Snowpants may be able to replace layers 2 & 3 but only if the outer material will keep out wind.
  • Shoes: Insulated hiking or snow boots with one or two layers of wool socks. This is the ONLY option if your ride is more than 5 miles. Otherwise you will be getting off the bike frequently to stimulate blood flow in the toes.
  • Hat: Layer 1 – balaclava; Layer 2 – standard winter hat. Optional: consider ski goggles, as wind at these temperatures will make your eyes water for the first 10-15 minutes of the ride.
  • Gloves: good, multi-layer ski gloves, ideally with a Goretex layer for wind and water-proofing.

This is a good starting blueprint that you can vary depending on the properties of gear in your possession. Experiment with different combinations before resorting to buying things. The exceptions to that rule are good socks, good boots, and a good rain jacket. The rain jacket is a must even when it’s not raining or snowing because they also really cut down on wind penetration, allowing you to insulate your torso less, keeping you from over sweating when at slow speeds or stopped at intersections.

Another good thing to remember is adaptability. Bring a backpack along in case you’ve under or over-dressed. I typically aim to underdress for a current temperature, adding an extra layer when sweat has weakened the insulating properties of my clothes. Having an extra layer in my pack really saved me last night when I had 5 miles to go and I could feel my torso getting chilled all the way down to my base layer. Turns out so much sweat had wicked into my (cotton) sweatshirt than sweat had frozen on the inside of my wind shell. Yikes!

If there is snow on the ground, avoid bike trails unless they’re really well maintained (i.e., plowed and salted). If they’re just plowed, a mountain bike can definitely handle traction at reduced speed, but the safety gain of avoiding traffic is not worth the safety loss of possible ice patches. Wiping out hurts. When riding on roads, take as much of the lane as you can to avoid the slush and tracked snow that is often left in the parking lanes. Cars are being help up? Tough luck, you have every right to the road lane. Unless, of course, your municipality is a crazy anti-bike zone (they do exist, so know the laws!).

I probably won’t bother reviewing any of the clothing I get, because I buy things from Nashbar or Sierra Trading Post when they go on closeout, or are factory seconds. By the time I’d review it, you probably couldn’t buy it! This nets me nice wool socks for a current average of about $8/pair and base layers for about $11 each. I’ve heard mixed things about expensive brands like Under Armor, as to whether they’re worth it (or not), but so far the cheap stuff is working nicely. The one thing I won’t be cheaping out on is a good pair of boots, since I’m currently suffering through the toes-freezing-in-non-insulated-boots hell. Currently I’m looking at a really nice pair from L.L. Bean that’s $179 but should last a decade or more with my level of use, making the amortized cost minimal.

Questions or advice of your own? Add in the comments!

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