You know it’s winter when…

I got my first “how do you do it?” of the season today. Overnight, temperatures dropped to about 25°F.

Riding a bike in the cold isn’t really any less possible than snow skiing, ice skating or any other activity that you’d expect to see in the cold. Stay active. Dress right. Stay warm. Still, it blows some peoples’ minds that a person can be outside when it’s below freezing.

I won’t get into the whole layering thing, but I used to have a problem, and I’ll tell you how I fixed it.  At the first sign of colder temperatures, I was always tempted to go overboard on warm clothing. Example: 40°F, two shirts, a windbreaker, long johns and jeans, ski gloves and a balaclava. For me, that’s TOO HOT. For people used to warmer climes, people with less “natural insulation” or higher metabolisms, it might be perfect. Some people get cold toes easier. Some peoples’ knees are really sensitive. That’s why it’s hard to tell people exactly what to wear. Everyone’s different.

I started logging what I was wearing, and what the temperature was, and how well my clothing worked. Not every day, but as temps got 5-10 degrees colder or as I encountered things like freezing fog, high winds, snow, etc, I’d note them. This works for everyone.

Here’s an example: The forecast calls for an overnight low of 16° in KC with light winds and no precipitation. Some day last year, it was 19° and the setup I chose was perfect. There’s a 12° day I logged in ’07 where I was a bit overdressed, but in my notes, I kept track of what I’d change. Using my notes, I already have my warm clothes laid out for the morning, and I’m almost sure it’ll be perfect. It’s a little mix of what I wore at 19° and 12°.

I’d show you my log, but it wouldn’t really do any good. I can say that choosing the layer closest to your skin is the most important part of your winter riding apparel. Always use a good, wicking fabric. Technical polyester base layers, lycra leg/arm warmers, running shirts, jerseys, wool jackets, wool socks, and the like are all good choices.

Experiment and learn. Take notes. At the very least, the lessons you learn this winter will carry over to next season and you won’t find yourself re-learning how to gear up for the cold.


  1. Aaron

    Where can I get that sticker?

  2. John Romeo Alpha

    I use the backpacker rule, start cold. If you are warm enough when you start hiking or biking, you will become too warm soon. Since Winter has started to arrive and the temperature has plunged below 70F here in Phoenix, I’ve had to start wearing a light jacket on my morning commute. When it gets cold, I wear the minimum required, and exert myself a little more to generate more heat if I am too cold.

  3. R A N T W I C K

    You’ve got it, man. It can take a couple of seasons to fine tune, but when you get your clothing choices right, winter riding is awesome.

    I also want that sticker.

    JRA – “plunged below 70″… hehe.

  4. Noah

    Our friend Apertome came up with the idea for that sticker.

    Then, I ran with it and subsequently made one like it for my own winter bike. It took a total of SIX tries to make it work. It’s a strip of white reflective tape stuck to my bike, then a small printed inkjet transparency piece under a layer of packaging tape, all cut to size, and stuck to my bike in layers. When I made them all in one piece, the layers wanted to warp when I stuck it to the round tubing of my bike, so I had to apply each layer separately. So, sorry. The stickers as they are, aren’t for sale. If there’s interest I could see about running a batch of white (non-reflective) versions through cafepress or something.

  5. Murali

    I found that another great tool for moderating body temperature is … the bicycle.

    If I am feeling cold, I increase the pace/effort to let my body warm up internally. Conversely, I slow it down if I am getting too warm.

    As you mention, the proper innermost layer is key to making this work.

    Basically, if you do not get the clothing choice exactly right, you can use your pace as fine-tuning.

  6. Elizabeth

    I do plan to log my layering here, too… but so far this year, as long as the temperatures drop steadily, I’ve found that my body has the time to adjust accordingly and I’ve found myself requiring less layers this year… I think today I may finally break out the inner layer for the legs or at least the knees.

    Wool socks are a must. And as I commented on LGRAB , I live in wool and cashmere sweaters all winter (especially turtlenecks to keep the draft to a minimum).

  7. Elizabeth

    when the “real feel” on the weather report says it’s only 10 degrees! (with wind gusts over 20mph)

  8. Orbix

    It’s one of the highlights of my day when the smokers hanging around the back entrance to my office make comments about how they’re “getting cold just looking” at me… I love colder-weather cycling- it’s extremely refreshing. 🙂

    I’ve found that the other thing that makes a HUGE difference in comfort for cold weather riding is windproofing. A good base-layer (ideally merino wool or a good wicking synthetic) plus a thin windproof jacket and gloves keeps me comfortable all the way down to around 30F.

    If you’ve never checked out any of the Gore BikeWear stuffthat uses their Windstopper fabric, it’s well worth looking at. It’s pricey, but it’s how I can get away with only two layers and be comfortable over about a 30-40 degree range of conditions.

  9. Clancy

    I agree with all your points, especially moisture management through technical base layers. Bike commuting help prep me for Ski season.

    My biggest problem is find some glasses that protect my eyes at temps below 15.

  10. db

    My biggest problem is find some glasses that protect my eyes at temps below 15.

    Goggles, Clancy. I wear goggles when it’s below 30, but they always fog up at the stoplights. I just have to pull them away from my face while I’m standing still.

    14 degrees this morning… just now feeling my toes again.

  11. Noah

    I usually wait until it gets to 10*F to get into goggles. Once, at -1F, I couldn’t keep them from both fogging and frosting over so I had to take them off and fight frozen-eyelash syndrome. And then half-way through my 15-mile ride to work I stopped to take a swig from my big coffee thermos and the lid (the cup part) had frozen shut so hard I couldn’t open it without feeling like I’d break something. That was a rough morning.

    I also agree with the sentiment that a good wind-breaking layer is key. Gore-tex is usually pretty good at blocking wind without trapping too much sweat inside. You can get away with surprisingly few layers of clothing if you use the techniques others have pointed out here… hammering it when you get cold, for example, and taking it easy (or unzipping, even stripping a layer) if you feel like you’re going to bake.

    Just beware… if you get sweaty and then have to stop for any reason (mechanical failure, flat, ANYTHING) and it’s very cold, you’re in danger of hypothermia.

    I wasn’t going to go into a whole discussion of layers. I’m pretty sure someone here at BikeCommuters will put together a full article on layering theory soon. But for the time being, I was going over how I keep track of what works and what failed. It’s really helped me refine my cold weather gear with confidence. This morning ended up being 15 degrees and I was perfectly comfy, without having to modify my usual pace for temperature regulation.

  12. mike

    The best part of layering is the easy peel. I was a courier in Boston in one of the worst winters of my life. I know people say to start out cold, but that never worked for me. What did was easily removable layers.

    If you have an easily accessible bag, peeling can work seamlessly with your ride. If not, peeling at a stop can work too, but you lose the feel of what temp you’ll be at while moving.

    Other tricks that have helped are: wearing zippered clothing on the outer layers. I wear a few thin bike jackets & start to unzip them when too warm. Also, those pants whose legs unzip to make shorts are useful. Opening their zippers slightly can cool down overheating legs. Also, hooded shirts or thin head gaiters are sometimes better than balaclavas. They can easily be slipped off while under your helmet.

  13. Elizabeth

    @mike, I’ve used a great layering piece that’s super easy to peel off single-handedly. It’s called the Warmfront. There are similar products on the market, but I really swear by this one. Plus it’s made in the USA by a guy in CO. 🙂

  14. Noah

    A further note about balaclavas… it seems many people think they absolutely MUST be worn like ninja masks. All the ones I’ve ever owned were easy to pull down under your chin so they’re more like a thin cover for your neck, ears and the top of your head, leaving your face wide open for breathing. I usually only pull my balaclava over my mouth at 20*F and below, and I don’t cover my nose until it gets to 10*F or so. Otherwise, I really do prefer being able to breathe without having to suck air through a layer of fabric.

  15. Iron_Man

    I aim to be slightly uncomfortable on the cool side with my clothing choices. When heading I am generally thinking “Crud I didn’t put enough on!” but within minutes I’m fine.

    I rely heavily on the headwind during the ride to keep body temperature under control. Without it I get overheated. A too long traffic light or flat tire fix can mess me up for a while. Once stopped I begin to overheat, sweat builds up, then taking off all that sweat begins to chill me.

    I get asked all the time “How cold does it have to be for you to not ride in?” I tell them that I don’t know. The coldest I’ve seen since starting to bike commute seven years ago was 6 F and I felt fine. So we’ll see if it dips below zero this year and if I can hack it.

  16. Elizabeth

    I felt great riding in today. The thermometer read 27 F. The crisp, cool air actually invigorated me. It’s so much better than riding in the damp 40-50F weather we’d been having; the dampness just chills me to the bone!

    Noah – Good point about the balaclavas. I do the same as you. Usually I start with my chin and mouth covered and once warm pull it down and enjoy unobstructed breathing.

  17. Karl McCracken (twitter: @KarlOnSea)

    The only problem I have is with ice. Cold isn’t a problem – provided that you can keep the rubber side down!

  18. Elizabeth

    @Karl – that’s where the studded tires become helpful. 😉

  19. Ghost Rider

    I know it’s winter because…I actually had to wear a long-sleeved shirt for my ride!

    Sorry, I know that’s not helping — what does a Florida boy know about winter riding, anyway?

  20. Iron_Man

    The worst part of Winter in my opinion is how the sun just gets shot out of the sky right at quitting time. No lingering twilight either like the Summer months. The gloomy dark ride home is far worse than the cold.

  21. Elizabeth

    Well… and it seems once the sun goes down, the temps just plummet, too. Of course, the wind’s always at your face in Chicago, which means a brutal north wind for my ride home. The extra effort keeps me extra warm.

  22. dukiebiddle

    “I know it’s winter because…I actually had to wear a long-sleeved shirt for my ride!”

    Heh. D**k. I bet you had to close your windows before you went to bed and sleep *under* the covers. Brrrrr.

  23. michael sicurello

    How ndid they knnuw I nlick bikes?

  24. jamesmallon

    I ride down to -20C in Toronto. Feet are a real issue on clipless pedals. Neoprene over-boots and thick merino socks are the start. I also use double insoles. On the coldest days toe-warmers rule. On the other hand, I gave up clipless on the icy days: can’t get my feet out fast enough falling. And yet, crashing hurts less bundled up for winter.

  25. Ghost Rider

    @dukie…I can’t help rubbing it in at this time of year, but rest assured that I have the UTMOST respect for our winter warriors out there.

    It’s funny…when it DOES get cold here (and, of course, that’s relative — cold for us is around 40 degrees), we all bundle up in a bunch of layers, balaclavas, shoe covers, ear flaps, etc. like we’re about to tackle the Arrowhead 135. Folks in “true” winter conditions would simply shake their heads at us, I’m sure.

  26. Bill Baker

    the cold i can deal with here in Michigan. its the dark when i ride to work and dark when i get out that gets me. days with out any sun is not good.

  27. Steven Soto

    @Jack – Don’t worry about it. No one from up north thinks about you in August when it’s 95°, you’re leaving work, and it just rained.

    Every commuter has their own challenges, and it’s what binds us together.

  28. Ghost Rider

    @Steven — thanks…you’re right, of course. Living in the heat is a challenge in itself, especially when summer lasts 9 months!

  29. Marrock

    Way back when someone offered up a bit of advice that seems to work rather well.

    Dress for how you’ll feel after five minutes of riding.

  30. Apertome


    Thanks for the throwback. I was just thinking about that sticker the other day when I came in from a brief ride and water condensed on the frame immediately.

    I haven’t done the whole clothing log thing, but I usually have a pretty good idea what will work. Like some other posters here, I try to err on the cool side. I can always ride more vigorously to warm up, but if I’m too hot it’s hard to do much about it.

    I still think it’d be cool to have a copy of the sticker, even if it was just a normal Cafepress sticker.

    We had a bit of snow overnight and my coworkers were stunned when I came in in my biking gear (I have a new job and they haven’t realized the extent of my commuting just yet).

  31. cafn8

    There’s a lot of discussion about clothing, and keeping warm here. Lots of good suggestions. I’d like to suggest something else: Hankies. Maybe it’s just me, but when I’m out in the cold exerting myself, my nose just runs (especially when leaning forward on a bike.) I have experimented with free-blowing, but too often end up with a mess on my clothing or beard. Paper products tend to blow out or not be porous enough to let the air through while catching the fluids. A nice cloth hankie can be a great thing on a cold ride.

  32. Noah

    It took a couple months of solid practice, but I can honestly say I have mastered the art of the snot rocket. First off, I usually do it only when stopped: and I can land one on top of the other. 🙂 If I have to do it on the roll, blow with the wind, not into it.

    Oh, the joys of information overshare.

  33. Ghost Rider

    Yay, the snot rocket (also known as “the gym teacher’s hankie”). It takes a bit of practice, sure…but can be very rewarding.

    @Cafn8 — your hankie idea is a good one. I can imagine your coworkers might be dismayed to see you roll in with a frozen booger in your beard!

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