Winter cycling gear part 1: Weather too nasty to bike? NO SUCH THING. Wear this.

Guest post by Sylvia Hook

Merino wool long underwear and shirts, safe and rainproof jackets, cycling boots, convertible gloves and more!
Merino wool long underwear and shirts, safe and rainproof jackets, cycling boots, convertible gloves and more!

While any sane human being might reasonably give up bicycling as the temperature dips below freezing and the snow flies, some of us live by the motto, “there is no weather too nasty for cycling; there is only insufficient clothing.” While you can certainly get away with short trips by bicycle in almost any warm clothing, there are some things that I find particularly helpful.

Under-layers: The stuff that gets sweaty

If you don’t sweat a lot when biking, you can get away with a lot more, so long as your clothing is warm enough. I sweat, though, so I need good base-layers to wick all that wet away from my skin so that I don’t get too hot, get wet, and freeze. I love my Merino wool long underwear so much that I wore them nearly constantly last winter (almost to the point of gross), so I bought two more pairs this year.

If you can afford Merino, it’s the best stuff out there; I’d suggest getting the base-layer (stuff right against your skin) first, since that’s going to have the most effect. If you can’t afford Merino (which is totally understandable, since that shit’s expensive), look for stuff that breathes and handles moisture well.

Mid-layers: Look like a grown-up when you get to work

Unless you’re planning to change when you get to your destination, your mid-layers are likely what everyone is going to see. They don’t have to be as good at handling moisture, although breathing is still pretty important, so that all that wet doesn’t get trapped if you sweat.

Again, if you can afford Merino, it’s great stuff (both for shirts and sweaters). But don’t let the price-tag prevent you from winter cycling — just wear something else breathable. I tend to wear jeans, although you could really wear any pair of pants (winter-biking in skirts takes very good under-layers, and a special level of dedication).

On top, I usually wear this long sleeve top and an Icebreaker Women’s Quantum Hood jacket, possibly with another shirt under my shirt as a base-layer, depending how cold it is.

Outerwear: Waterproof breathables are your friend

Your outer layer is what protects you from the wind, the sleet/snow/rain/road-spray, and in large part, the cold. As with the mid-layers, breathability is important — you don’t want to trap moisture.

I generally wear rain pants to keep my legs dry(er), and on my torso I tend to wear some combination of extra sweaters, insulating layers from coats, and either the (warmer but not-so-waterproof) shell from the ski jacket I got when I was 16, or my (thinner-but-drier) rain coat.

If it’s dark out, I’ll throw on a fluorescent yellow lightweight jacket; you can also buy reflective/fluorescent vests, which help with being seen.

In my continued quest to turn into a sheep, I recently picked up a boiled wool jacket for spring/fall riding, and also for layering with ALL THE THINGS in winter. I want a wool pea coat so that I can actually get off my bike and look like an adult, even in winter. Plus, it’s long enough that I won’t get that stupid cold crescent on my back where neither my coat nor my pants cover sufficiently.

Footwear: Keep your toes toasty

I generally wear warm wool socks (sometimes multiple pairs), my bike shoes, and a pair of shoe covers. Shoe covers are a pain, because you need to take them off before walking anywhere, or you’ll shred the bottoms. However, I’d say they add at least 5ºC to my foot-comfort-range, AND they keep my feet dry, so they’re totally worth it.

If you don’t have cleated pedals, you can probably wear good socks and your regular winter boots (just check whether you can bend your ankles enough). Specific winter-cycling boots do exist, but they’re all super-expensive. I’ve been drooling over a pair of Wölvhammers, but at roughly $350? Oof.

Bits and pieces: Hats, gloves, and scarves

Winter biking selfieThe little accessory bits can make a huge difference to overall warmth. For hats, Merino wool balaclavas are a popular option (Icebreaker, Smartwool, and 45NRTH all make them), but any reasonably fitted, reasonably thin hat should work. Balaclavas protect more of your face, and can slightly warm the air going to your lungs.

Smartwool and Icebreaker also do make Merino wool neck gaiters that can function kind of like the lower half of a balaclava; you could also wrap a scarf over your face.

I’ve been mostly using my hoods, a tube-thing (not Merino), and a cashmere shawl as a scarf. I really like having a nice big scarf around my neck, because it keeps the cold air from whistling right down my front between my boobs — never a good feeling. I’m looking at getting a Merino balaclava, though.

As to gloves, I’ve been wearing a pair of gloves with a mitten-flap, and Merino wool liners inside those. The mitten-flap is great, since it keeps my hands a little warmer for riding, but then I can still lock/unlock my bike without taking my gloves off and freezing my fingers. However, at some point, it’s simply too cold out to be able to wear enough insulation on one’s hands AND still be able to unlock one’s bike. For the colder weather, I recently picked up a pair of mittens. For this winter, I’m also looking into getting pogies for my bike, to add another layer of weather-protection around my hands.

But I’ll talk more about those in my follow-up post on winter cycling gear!

Winter-biking homies, what are your favourite things to wear in the cold times? Any tips for keeping fingers and toes warm? How about staying warm without breaking the bank, or justifying it when you do?

Comments on Winter cycling gear part 1: Weather too nasty to bike? NO SUCH THING. Wear this.

  1. I love seeing posts on winter biking. We bike year round, with kid. I’m 6 months pregnant and still going by bike. Finding prego clothes I can bike and work in is a real challenge, hah. This post hits the nail on the head about wool though, it’s absolutely the best and a good wool coat does so much for keeping the harsh wind off of you, keeping you warm but still letting your body breath. I like a good longer wool coat cause it adds a layer of protection for my upper legs too, which tend to feel it more harshly than anywhere else. And never underestimate the value of legwarmers too. I go with brightly colored ones that really stand out against the black and help add visibility for me. They’re also something easy enough to take off when I get to work so I’m not overdressed at the office.

    • We’re not quite at the point of having a kidlet, but I’ve been wondering how well newborns and carfree lifestyles go together. Most of the kid-transit options for bikes seem to say “6 months to (however old)” — do you know of any good options for transporting a newborn by bike? I’d be pretty sad if I had to walk or take the bus for half a year after we eventually have a kid, and sadder still if childrearing forced us into car-ownership…

      • Honestly, there aren’t a lot of super safe options for under 6 month babies. I’ve seen some car seat hacks into madsens or trailers or bakfiets, but two things held me back. The first was neck strength and repetitive head movement, I.e. Make sure the ride isn’t shaking your baby. Also, keep in mind you will probably need twoish months after giving birth to feel comfortable biking, no matter how the kid exits. We have a madsen and it is great for the four year old and we are excited to use it next summer for the one year old.

      • We were given a car just before our daughter was born last October, and it was pretty helpful for the months following birth since I really wasn’t able to bike for a few months, and then the weather was bad enough that with a wee one I didn’t really miss it. It’s so nice to walk and babywear that that was a pretty good replacement until she got too heavy! Then we sold the car because I hated having it, so don’t worry too much about that!

        We’re part of a formal community car-share and also the informal car-share that comes with living in the same town as your parents. We don’t bike with our one-year-old as much as we’d like due to not having good enough bike infrastructure in our city – usually I want to go out with her in the evening, and I really don’t like pulling the trailer in the dark without my partner blocking for us, so it does still suck sometimes. But we started using the trailer with her at about 10 months, so while the wait can seem long, it’s really not that bad in the grand scheme of things. Although winter cycling with a toddler probably won’t happy too often either, unfortunately.

        Oh yeah, if you can afford a bakfiets or similar, you can rig it up to hold a carseat!

      • Excellent question, and I worried the same. Bad news… there’s no safe recommended way to transport a newborn on a bike. They don’t make helmets that small, because they don’t have necks strong enough to support a helmet. Most of the trailer companies, like Chariot, suggest only walking infants under 10 months, as they can’t sustain an accident impact at a higher speed, like behind a bike. Some babies are large and sturdy by 6 months and can fit into a helmet. Mine took 9 months. It sucked, but I walked her in a lightweight jogger stroller for the 9 months. Personally, I would never put a child or baby in a bike trailer without a helmet, because if they get hit by a car, it could be fatal.

  2. yay! I’m all excited this article exists. I’ll admit I’m not a cyclist but as a Texan living Maine I’m a bit perplexed as to how to dress for my newly acquired hobby of running. these are all super helpful. thank you!

    only complaint…wool is always the go to fabric and lining for winter and I am allergic. it’s so tough finding non wool, breathable, and not crazy expensive. any tips?!

    • There are lots of synthetic options for layering– check REI and similar stores for “baselayers”. I have a stellar set of Patagonia Capilene longjohns that I got on sale years ago. Still not cheap, but they have held up beautifully.

    • Yes, this article definitely holds true for running or really any other outdoor activity.

      From my understanding, some allergic reactions are due to how some wools are processed, not the wool itself. Smartwool, for instance, brands itself as hypoallergenic. But if even the “good” stuff doesn’t work for you, I second Maggie’s suggestion about synthetic layers. Try the REI online outlet or Target’s C9 line for inexpensive options.

      The advantage of wool in the winter is that it keeps you warm even if it gets wet. Synthetics dry faster, but they don’t provide much warmth when they get wet (and they get stinky much more quickly). Still, they’re a great option. I use a mix of both wool and synthetics for different occasions year-round.

  3. This is fantastic! I live in Milwaukee, and I am always looking to extend my biking months into the cold, cold, cold winter. Biking from only May to September just isn’t fair.

  4. Just started my second winter cycling and running in the UK and I’m coveting all sorts of cold weather gear! I really want a glamorous rainwrap instead of my horrible ugly waterproof trousers although it’s a little pricey:

    …But what I love about the clothing in the photo that accompanies this article is that there is feminine gear in there that isn’t pink! Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with liking the colour pink, it’s just not my bag and since I started to get fit I’ve found it incredibly difficult to find affordable sportswear made especially for women that isn’t pink. Why is it the default setting for sportswear? It’s incredibly irritating to be so limited in choice.

    • That rain wrap is fantastic! I had no idea anything of the sort existed — I’ve long wanted an option for biking in skirts in less-than-perfect weather, and never found anything that would work. I think I’ve probably spent about enough on cycling clothes for this year, though. Maybe another year…

      I’m totally with you on the pink. Anything where the men’s and women’s versions differ in only whether they are pink (see: Smartwool’s training beanie, in women’s and men’s), I tend to just buy the men’s. If others like pink, that’s fine. I don’t, and I hate the assumption that everything in the women’s department must be pink.

    • I’m also typically irritated by the overwhelming pink in women’s gear…but right now, for me it depends on the gear. For golf, I kind of WANT bright pink stuff, even though I absolutely loathe pink and own nary a single pink item for any other use. But there are still men-only golf clubs out there, and even at the ones that aren’t, there are still plenty of men who will call up for a tee time and specifically ask to not play with women (true story; Mr. Chi used to work at a pro shop). So because there’s still an aura of “girls have cooties” around golfing, I really would love to golf with a bright pink bag and shoes etc. because it would be rubbing it in their sexist faces that I’m a lady, I’m playing golf on this course, and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it. Also, Bubba Watson has a pink driver, and I kind of want one, too.

      Anyway, anything other than golf, no pink, thank you. We need all colors as options, not just the “lady” ones, and that includes golf.

  5. Any tips for cycling safely in winter weather? I tend to think cycling in the snow or ice is too dangerous after someone I know was hit by a bus when he fell off of his bike in front of it on a snowy day. (Just a few inches of snow that day, but enough to make the roads slippery.) He is an experienced biker who rode his bike all weather for years, so I figure if that could happen to him it could happen to anyone. How about a post on bike safety in less than ideal weather and some thoughts about when it really is not safe to bike due to bad weather?

    • As the title suggests, this post is part one of two — the second one is on non-clothing gear — winter tires, lights, and all that good stuff. Good tires and lights are essential to biking safely through the winter. Winter-specific tires are what’s going to keep you upright while you’re riding in snow and on ice; that being said, a common problem winter cyclists have is putting their foot down at an intersection and falling over, because their footwear wasn’t as grippy as their tires — so wear something good and grippy on your feet. Brightly coloured clothing is also really important — then cars can see you better, and will tend to give more space. Other than that, I’m planning to try to avoid busy streets when it gets really nasty, and obviously ride cautiously — go slow and avoid sharp turns. Sure, it’s not 100% safe. But neither is winter driving.

      • Personally I’d take public transit (preferably subway or light rail) in bad weather, but I know that’s not an option everywhere. I don’t own a car, so it isn’t driving vs biking as a choice for me in bad weather.

        I’d be glad to know about winter tires for bikes, as I did not know there were ones made for that. I just know about mountain bike tires vs road bike tires.

  6. This is perfect timing since husband and I are grumpy that it recently got too cold for biking in the last two days.

    Any suggestions for warm men’s pants that would be good for cycling? It’s on his Christmas list.

    • Honestly, layers are your friend. Long underwear (if he’s willing to wear it — my dad complains about it feeling weird on his leg hair, but my husband deals with it just fine, so that’s personal preference), pants of some sort (my husband and I just wear jeans, but we’re also still on the tail end of student-hood, so that’s acceptable for most of what we’re doing), and rain pants are enough for most weather. I’ve been known to layer multiple pairs of long underwear in super-cold weather. There are thicker, lightly insulated rain pants that add a little more warmth — but they also cost a lot.

    • Check out something like REI’s Novara line. Bike-specific pants will have some frontside wind protection, with a more breathable back and some insulation and stretch.

  7. I’d also highly recommend investing in a pair of goggles. Windshield for your face! I wear a pair of orange-tinted ones – enough to cut the glare of the snow, but not so dark that I can’t see at night. Hi-vis gear is also even more important in the winter. It’s darker outside, and people aren’t expecting bikers. They have neon-reflective vests at Ikea for $5 – I throw mine over my coat.

  8. I just found a site that sells reflective piping. I’m strongly considering ordering a yard or two and taking it to a tailor and having them insert the piping into the seams of my regular biking clothes. If there’s a better suggestion for such a thing, someone tell me.

  9. I live in a more rainy-cold area than snowy cold, and in this climate, I actually find I’m wearing skirts MORE as the weather gets cold and wet rather than less. Warm wool tights, or leggings give me so much more freedom of movement and still keep me nice and warm. Tights also dry a LOT faster than jeans, so it’s not as big a deal if the rain gets me a bit wet. Here I also find for me it’s much too warm for a wool coat, even in 32 degree mornings as I head downhill so I wear layers under a raincoat. I agree that wool and layering are key.

    In response to the reflective piping, there are also reflective iron ons that are pretty cool and apparently even work on gore-tex.

    When the temp first dropped, I tried just adding layers to the parts of me that were cold (feet and hands) but I found that didn’t help. What made a huge difference was adding one more (light) layer to my core – it was pulling heat from my hands and feet so I didn’t even realize it was the cold part of me.

    Thanks for this post! Excited to see the next installment.

  10. This is very timely! I moved to the Netherlands recently and bought a bike just yesterday. I’ve already realized that I get REALLY hot biking around, even in chilly temperatures, and it would never have occurred to me that they make clothes for that.

  11. I, too, live in Southern Ontario, and I work in the snowbelt (London, ON) where I leave a folding bike to get to and from my friend’s place (where I stay overnight). I have to say, the roads are brutal there; however, I’m committed to continuing to bike despite all the forces working against me. I just saw these shoe/boot spats ( in Momentum magazine, which I think would be great and convenient. There are plenty of spat patterns on the web so I’m going to make myself a pair.

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