Toes Froze? Here are some tips

You’ve probably noticed the up-tick in winter content here. For Elizabeth and I along with many other bike commuters, Winter just got cranked up to Eleven this week, despite the fact it’s still officially “Autumn”.  We’re hoping that these posts help newer commuters cope with the weather change, and encourage bike commuters to expand their foray into the cooler climates. We also welcome the sage advice of others in the comments.

Continuing with our winter theme: Keeping those feet warm. The toes are further from your heart than any other body part, and they spend most of their time close to the snow and slush. Here are some suggestions for keeping those feet warm.

  • Ditch the clipless. The big metal plate found inside most clipless-ready shoes acts like a giant heat sink. You can try putting in extra-thick soles and other tricks like that, but clipless shoes will always cool your feet pretty quickly. I usually end up switching to a completely different bike with platform pedals. It’s also easier to catch yourself before you eat snow if you don’t have to punch out of your clipless pedals when (not if) things go badly.
  • Shoe Covers. Elizabeth has mentioned them several times. These neoprene or rubber covers zip over many different styles of shoes. They block out wind and water, and help hold the heat in that your feet naturally radiate. Many of them are designed to be compatible with clipless shoes and pedals, so if you really don’t want to sacrifice the “connected” feel, you can probably find a set of covers that will work for you.
  • Layer up. Wool socks are thick, and often one single layer of wool will do wonders. I know a few cyclists who wear one or two layers of wool socks with cycling sandals (no, really!) year round. A good, wicking technical sock closest to your skin with less expensive cotton socks can also work. I really do prefer wool or wool/polyester blend socks this time of year, though.
  • Plastic grocery sacks. I learned this trick from Warren during my first winter of bike commuting. Take part of a grocery sack and put your foot in it before you put it into your shoe. Sometimes, I put this layer of plastic in between two layers of socks. Either way, it works to block the wind, but I only use it on the coldest of days, else my feet actually get too hot and can’t breathe. I’ve also seen cyclists (mostly the urban homeless variety) tape or rubber band grocery sacks around the outside of their shoes. I wouldn’t do it, but you can try it if you want. It might keep your shoes dry.
  • Loosen your shoelaces. A LOT. Even without the extra layers of socks, many shoes worn somewhat snugly will impact circulation to your toes. Loosening them up a bit will help. This is even more important when you’re adding layers of socks to your feet, though.
  • Wiggle those toes, and get off the pedals for a bit. If your toes start to go numb, use brief periods of coasting or stopping to wiggle your toes and get the blood flowing. Take one foot off the pedal and flex it around a bit. It usually helps.
  • Air-activated “hand” warmers.  I don’t usually have to resort to these, even in below-zero temperatures. I know plenty of people who do, though. As they’re disposable (and frankly, quite expensive for their purpose) I’d urge you to use them as an option of last resort. Also, I find that the lump they make in my shoes is fairly uncomfortable regardless if they’re above or below my foot. Your mileage may vary.

Got any other tips for keeping those little piggies nice and comfy on cold winter rides? Tell us in the comments!


13 Comments

  1. John Romeo Alpha December 11, 2009 7:25 pm 

    In addition, keep your core and head warm, else your body will naturally take steps to pull in warmth from the periphery to warm the center and vital organs. If you keep the core warm, somewhere between minimum warm and less than sweating, and can maintain a good level of effort, then the neoprene booties will do a good job of keeping your feet dry and out of most of the wind when you are in motion, even if they don’t seem to do a lot when you’re just standing around. A thin polypro base sock can both wick and insulate, too.

  2. dukiebiddle December 11, 2009 8:45 pm 

    “Air-activated “hand” warmers.” -on being expensive. I recently read in a blog comment thread (I wish I could remember which one – it might have been here) that when you aren’t using these, you can seal them in ziploc bags and they’ll last a week.

  3. R A N T W I C K December 12, 2009 7:35 pm 

    +1 for taking care of the core. Those were all good tips though! I hate riding without my clipless, and use a platform one side, spd on the other pedal. When things are dicey, I ride on the platforms.

    I have also found that common drugstore gel insoles for the shoes greatly reduces cold transfer through the cleats.

  4. Pär December 13, 2009 2:28 am 

    Shimano winter shoes are great. Keeps you warm for atl least 45 minutes in -10 degrees centigrade. That´s 14 degrees F.

  5. Erik December 14, 2009 10:08 am 

    Pearl Izumi Barrier shoe covers are amazing for keeping your feet warm in cycling shoes. I wore them over my cleated shoes, with thick wool socks underneath last Thursday when temps hit zero degrees fahrenheit here in Chicago. No problems.

  6. Dave Lloyd December 14, 2009 10:16 am 

    You can use the hand warmers several times if you seal them up inside a ziploc bag when you get to your destination. The exothermic reaction is pretty similar to iron rusting. Cutting off the oxygen supply to the reaction stops it. Pop the warmers out 15 minutes before you depart, give ’em a shake, and you’re good to go. I get ~6 hours out of hand warmers this way.

  7. Dave December 14, 2009 11:09 am 

    My commute is 6 miles round trip of 1/2 street 1/2 plowed off bike trail and I get by wearing tennis shoes with rubber boots/overshoes. It’s a cheap way for me to go and I don’t have to carry different shoes with me. Regarding core temps: I read some advice somewhere that works for me – if you step outside and what you’re wearing feels slightly cool you’ll be fine once you start to pedal. If you are warm when you step outside you are overdressed. Also, my favorite item to wear in cold weather is a balaclava. Thin, but nice and warm, and I’ve had it for many years.

  8. Matt P December 14, 2009 12:53 pm 

    I use to wear shoe covers with my road shoes but I can’t find any that fit my touring shoes (which I wear on my commute). I found a pair of Pearl Izumi MTB shoe covers and I think I’ll give them a spin.
    If they don’t work, I’ll try the plastic bags!

  9. Dean Peddle December 15, 2009 9:07 am 

    Another good tip is to get off the bike and run. I did this for years before I found the chemical hand warmers which truely are the best. Running will get that blood flow back and warm your toes up pretty fast.

  10. Max December 15, 2009 12:11 pm 

    Rather than expensive shoe booties, I cover all the mesh of my bike shoes with duct tape. It works very well to keep the wet and wind out.

    Also, I disagree with not wearing bike shoes to commute in winter. Riding with a perfect cadence (pushing and pulling your pedals) will keep your rear wheel spinning consistently which will aid in preventing slippage when riding up a snow covered hill (or going down if your rear wheel is fixed).

  11. Jamey December 15, 2009 1:20 pm 

    Winter shoes. End of discussion. Have your clipless and use them, too. A smoother cadence, more consistent application of power to the drive wheel, and a better riding position all make for safer, more enjoyable riding.

  12. Todd Gee December 22, 2009 4:09 pm 

    The BEST thing for winter riding is N.E.O.S. (overshoe.com) and big platform pedals. I ride every day here in Chicago. I ride in my normal office shoes w/ NEOS and have never been cold (in the toes anyway).

    checky bikewinter.org

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