Brr!

It’s that time of year again. Folks at the office have started questioning my sanity even more than usual. The questions are rolling in. Isn’t it cold? What do you do when it gets below freezing? What do you do when it starts snowing? Do you even have a car?

Yes, I have a car, and there may be a few days this winter I use it since I don’t have the option of public transportation like I did at my last job. It takes more than just cold air to make me ditch the bike.

I’m also having discussions with my fellow winter cyclists, some of which are giving this a shot for the first time.

Some people have pointed to Civia Cycles’ guide to all-weather clothing but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. For a 40ºF (4ºC) bike ride, I’ve seen Californians wearing stuff that would make me spontaneously combust unless it was well below zero. Doug‘s usual winter wear is lighter than most people I know. For this reason, I suggest finding out what works best for you. Keep a log of weather conditions and temperatures as the winter wears on. Note what you wore and if there’s anything you’d change about your choices. This especially helps you get into the cold-weather groove next winter.

Here are a few more tips I’ve picked up along the way these past few winters:

  • When normal skiing gloves fail to keep your hands warm, you can try expensive lobster-claw gloves, but if you can safely operate your brakes and shifters with plain old mittens on, they will keep your fingers all together, nice and warm. They’re also really cheap at pretty much any discount store.
  • Warren taught me this trick. Use parts of plastic grocery sacks on your feet (inside the shoe or between layers of socks) to block the wind and trap heat into your feet. I only do this in the coldest part of the season, or my feet get soaked in sweat. It works that well!
  • Dress in layers, but always make sure the layer closest to you will wick moisture away. This could be wool or a high-tech synthetic base layer.
  • Balaclava-style ski masks provide whole-head warmth, but you may have better luck with a scarf or neck gaiter and a headband to keep your neck and ears warm if you find your head sweating too much.
  • Don’t over-dress, and slow down if you’re getting too hot. If you sweat too much or you have to stop while you’re overheating, you can quickly succumb to hypothermia.

Post your cold-weather tricks in the comments. Let’s hear ’em!

30 Comments

  1. Jed Reynolds December 6, 2010 11:04 pm 

    I often wear two layers of gloves: a polypro glove liner underneath a flip mitt (aka glommit). I only tend to wear a balaclava when it’s about freezing or below. I improvise some pogies out of gallon sized zip-lock bags that keeps rain and wind off my hands. And of course, wear some kind of safety glasses. I tend to prefer newspaper bags (narrower) under my shoes over rag wool socks over polypro sock liners. Too many layers of socks will constrict your circulation and make you colder, so don’t use tight socks, and keep your shoes laced loosely too make room to keep the warm air in and your circulation flow. Low-gaiters also keep damp off your ankles and out of your socks if you expect rain or deep slush. I tape over the holes in my helmet and wear a micro-fleece under my helmet, if it’s below 30F, I’ll put the micro-fleece over my balaclava. Also, keeping a pair of chemical hand-warmers in a pocket for emergencies is also not a bad idea. This keeps me pretty comfortable into the teens.

  2. Jay December 6, 2010 11:07 pm 

    Good tips. This is my second winter biking (in Chicago) and figuring out what clothing configurations worked best was the hardest part of last winter. Keeping notes of what I wore and what the weather was like on a particular day has already paid dividends this year.

    I’ve been fine with glove liners under a bigger, wind-blocking & insulated ski-type glove. A friend of mine swears by latex gloves as a liner under cheap cotton stretchy gloves, but I’ve never tried it.

    I’m also a big fan of ski goggles. I have pretty sensitive eyes anyway, and I swear they start watering as soon as it drops below 50 degrees. Ski goggles have completely eliminated that problem, even on the bitterest of cold days.

  3. Cecily December 6, 2010 11:30 pm 

    Another tip – take your own body composition into account. As a “cycle chunk” commuter (meaning I’m fat, but stylish), wearing a lot of layers is a one way ticket to sweat-ville very, very quickly. Let your natural insulation help you, and dress accordingly.

    I do think that wearing a technical fabric as your base layer is a great tip, so if you’re a plus-size woman/big dude, invest in technical base layers from retailers that target the plus-size market. A lot of this stuff can’t be bought off the rack in your neighborhood outdoor shops, so you may have to look around online to find stuff that fits.

  4. Jay December 6, 2010 11:48 pm 

    Hear hear on dressing for your body type. Also, keep in mind your own comfort level. My ride takes a half an hour. Generally I dress so that I start out feeling a little cold, but after about 10 minutes of riding I feel just right. On the other hand, my wife’s commute to work is only about 10 minutes, so she dresses so that she’s warm the whole way.

    I’ve found that the best technical fabric is merino wool. It wicks away moisture and insulates as well as any synthetic fabrics I’ve tried, but with the added benefit of natural odor fighting. Seriously, it just works. I have some synthetic baselayer stuff that is great, but after my ride in to work it smells funky. After my ride home, it’s downright toxic. Never an issue with my Smartwool stuff. It’s not cheap, but I can wear the same baselayer top five days a week without washing it.

    I’ve found some good mid-weight synthetic baselayer stuff at Costco. The brand is Paradox, and tops and bottoms are typically under $20 each. The quality is excellent for that price.

  5. Ghost Rider December 7, 2010 4:20 am 

    Jay makes a good point about dressing so that you start out a little cold…this is the time-honored wisdom that I keep hearing from seasoned cold-weather commuters.

    Here in SW Florida, we don’t have much to contend with as far as cold weather goes (obviously)…but when it gets chilly I dress in ways that “real” cold weather cyclists would laugh at — balaclava when it goes below 40 (rare), heavy helmet liner with ear flaps when it’s in the 50s or lower, multiple layers, etc.

    I’ve tried the latex underglove trick, and it works much the same as Noah’s bread bag trick — your hands will get sweaty unless it’s pretty cold out. If you want to try it, I recommend the more durable nitrile surgical gloves. Having a pair of such gloves on hand is good for breakdowns, too…keeps your hands free of chain goo and brake dust when you have to make an on-road repair.

  6. Deb December 7, 2010 5:08 am 

    I never have problems with my hands – I wear light full fingered gloves down to about 34 degrees, “wind resistant” gloves down to about 20 degrees, and regular winter gloves beyond that. (Coldest I’ve ridden in is 12 degrees.) Hand temperature is linked to core temperature, and so it generally takes about 10 minutes and one good hill for things to heat up.

    My feet I’m still struggling with after 3 years. No idea if I’ll ever find a solution, or if I’ll always have chilly toes at the end of my hour commute. I’ve tried vapor barrier, I’ve tried the plastic bag (which is a diy vapor barrier anyway), I’ve tried many layers, and few layers. And nothing really makes any difference. Yet other people can’t keep their hands warm!

    One additional tip regarding layers for the core, the general rule of thumb is base layer + fleece (if needed) + windbreaker. Having the windbreaker and the fleece layer be full zip is a huge advantage, because venting is one more way to control our core temp and prevent overheating.

    Oh, and chapstick! Chapstick on the lips and moisturizer on the face can do a lot to keep our face from getting too cold.

  7. Coco December 7, 2010 5:15 am 

    I also agree with dressing so that you are a little chilly at the start but if you commute at night or in remote areas, just be sure to pack some warm emergency clothes. If you have a mechanical that takes time to fix or you end up walking, chances are you’ll cool down and will need an extra layer.

  8. cafn8 December 7, 2010 5:40 am 

    Here’s one more vote for warming up to your comfort zone (or shedding a layer before the sweating starts.)

    Regarding feet, if you use clipless pedals, and can not justify the high cost of winter bike shoes, it might be a good time to switch to platform pedals. This allows a lot more freedom in the selection of warm footwear. I switched to platforms over the winter, and never went back when the weather warmed up. In addition, in the darkness of winter, reflectors on your pedals are a big help to being seen.

  9. gintertcinakr December 7, 2010 6:22 am 

    I haven’t had a chance to try my luck in the winter storm we’ve been having the last two days, but its been in the 20’s and 30’s in the mornings since early November. Like Jay, my eyes can’t handle anything lower than 50 so I’ve been sporting ski goggles too (just a cheap set of Oakleys). They work great for keeping my eyes comfy but they aren’t too compatible with my helmet. I often struggle with them smashing my nose. I wear some thin Pearl Izumi full fingered gloves in the morning under some ski gloves. That seems to be working out great. I don’t seem to need the ski gloves in my afternoon commute. For my feet I’ve been using my cycling shoes with some heavy duty shoe covers and warm Smartwool socks. So far, I haven’t needed anything else. I am using my platform pedals too, just in case I need to bust out winter boots. The clothing is the trickest part for me and I’m still working out the kinks of wearing too much. This is the first year I’ve tried commuting in the winter. Thanks for all the great tips!

  10. Noah December 7, 2010 6:43 am 

    I can attest that the Costco “Paradox” base layer stuff is good for the money at $40 for both top and bottom. I’m on my second winter season with a set I bought last year, and it’s held up remarkably well. I just wear a chamois under the base layer pants. I also found that you can find good technical base layers at department stores sold near the long johns. I have some cheaper Champion stuff that I got on my first winter (now seeing use on their fourth season) and it works very well.

    I also second the use of platform pedals and loose-fitting shoes in the winter time. The metal plate inside most clipless shoes acts like a huge heat sink, pulling heat through the thin insole and away from the ball of your foot, dissipating it out to the cold winter air, snow and slush. I have a new (to me) winter commuter bike waiting to be paid off at the bike shop, and I’m really hoping santa drops off a pair of double-sided platform/clipless pedals for Christmas this year.

  11. dukiebiddle December 7, 2010 6:51 am 

    Everybody is different and every body is different too. There are no hard and fast rules. For me, wearing the same thing as I would for a brisk winter walk, combined with extremity considerations like glove liners, merino wool socks and ear covers, is usually sufficient. I also recommend taking it easy and minimizing sweating. I’m pretty boney, so if I under dress and mash to heat myself up, I’m likely to get a nasty case of the shivers from the sweat at red lights. I also have a lot of cargo space, so if need be I can peel layers and easily throw them into my humungous basket if I’m overdressed. Also, I keep safety glasses in my bag if I’m going to be out after dark.

  12. MtnWrench December 7, 2010 7:51 am 

    the synthetic base/fleece/windbreaker combo works great! I found a Under Armour long sleeve base at my local thrift store for $5.00 (normally $30 new). Next comes my favorite synthetic jersey. Hoss MTB used to make a light fleece jacket with removable sleeves called “The Prospector”. I wear mine in ‘vest’ mode as my mid layer. It has elastic cord ‘gathers’ at the waist and neck to keep the warmth in. Last comes my Fox Racing jacket. It’s a water resistant cycling jacket with Velcro cuffs and zippered arm pit vents. All this keeps my core nice and warm, but not too hot. My hands are ALWAYS hot, so Regular long finger gloves work for me.
    As for my legs, my trusty bibshorts with knee warmers under a pair of modified Dickies pants does the trick.

    I’ve been commuting in low 30’s to mid 40’s with this set up and it’s working. If I do get cold, I crank up the RPMs on the fixie!
    BTW, I’m in Portland, Oregon. When it rains, the only change is the addition of raingear as my outer layer.

  13. Ghost Rider December 7, 2010 8:16 am 

    @Mtnwrench…I have the same (or similar) Fox Racing jacket — with the three-layer system you describe, I’ve been well covered on our rare cold days here. My only complaint about the Fox jacket is that the pit zips don’t go back up easily without fiddling — they open easily enough, but I have to wrestle with them on-bike when the temperature drops.

  14. Nancy December 7, 2010 9:14 am 

    The coldest I’ve gone, here in IN, was 10F w a wind chill of -9F. I was wearing silk lining socks, wool knee highs w plastic bag toe covers; my long pearl biking pants w Columbia “titanium” yoga pants (wind resistant outer w *thin* fleece lining); a thicker long john shirt, a technical running jacket, and a hooded wind breaker; silk lining gloves, lobster gloves; head sock, pearl ear band (they have holes placed to slide glasses through near your ears), and the jacket hood up. When I get warm, I can in zip the wind breaker and the running jacket. They only separate to the chest so drag isn’t a problem. I always have my construction vest if the sun’s not up  I also run more red lights. My eyes only tear up in the first two minutes. 

  15. Kagi December 7, 2010 10:32 am 

    Agreed on mittens — I use hand-knitted wool liner mittens under Outdoor Research Gore-Tex shell mittens. Very warm and wind-proof.

    As for base layer: silk is very, very nice, and while you might think it’d be expensive, it’s not (try Campmor or Sierra Trading).

    Most of the year I don’t wear a helmet, but in winter I wear one over a thin fleece cap. If it’s really cold, I dig out the ski helmet.

  16. Jack Bulkley December 7, 2010 11:25 am 

    I have two balaclavas. One is very thin but good either side of freezing. For colder days like this morning (23 degrees and really windy), I have a heavier polypropylene one with a molded nose that holds it away from your mouth. The mold makes it really comfortable.

    I wear Gortex hiking boots and thick Smartwool socks, but last year when it was in the teens I slipped a chemical warmer in each boot on top of my foot. I should try the plastic bag trick when it is that cold.

  17. Elizabeth December 7, 2010 11:36 am 

    Layers are key! I find each year that I need to tweak my approach, but I have a basic layering system down. Here in Chicago we went from near 70s for a high (just before Thanksgiving) to only a high of 22-degrees today!

  18. Daniel December 7, 2010 12:44 pm 

    I knit myself a thin, but tightly knit 100% wool hat to block the wind, but when it gets into the 20s I switch to a balaclava. Wore the balaclave for the first time this season today. I had forgotton how much it restricts breathing on tough hill climbs. I wear regular shorts with winter tights over. On top a regular jersey, a fleece, and a shell. If it’s in the 50s just a jersey and shell. My gloves are no good below freezing and I need to pick up some mittens.

    As some have pointed out overdressing is the worst. I found that out on an evening commute when the morning had been in the 20s but had warmed up considerable during the day. I didn’t check the outside temp and bundled up. Drenched with sweat by the time I got home.

  19. BluesCat December 7, 2010 1:09 pm 

    Living in Phoenix, I don’t have the requirement for cold weather clothing that many of you have.

    I do have one issue I have yet to solve. I wear prescription eyeglasses, and during cold weather riding the wind whips around behind them and stings and makes my eyes water. Does anybody know of an inexpensive set of side shields or blinders that would work to mitigate this problem? I can’t stand the huge ski goggles which fit over eyeglasses.

  20. idahorider December 7, 2010 8:35 pm 

    Lake winter riding boots. I’ve tried booties, vapor barriers, ect., but nothing else has worked as well as these boots. Buy them a size large for thick socks. Also, if you are warm when you leave the house, you will be too hot at the top of the first climb.

  21. PhilGE December 7, 2010 8:46 pm 

    I don’t use a balaclava as my head simply gets too hot and sweaty with one on. I use a poly/lycra bicycling cap (REI), a pair of lightweight ear muffs (180s), and a homemade lightweight fleece neck/face gaiter. This combination allows me to adjust coverage as needed so I don’t end up with a sweaty scalp or frozen face/ears. Also, I use cheap Wal-Mart (yeah, I know) wrap around sport safety glasses year-round for eye protection (I wear contacts). CliMitts (pogies) make winter commuting so much more comfortable (http://bit.ly/hwHzTo).

  22. Iron_Man December 8, 2010 4:27 pm 

    I think having a digital thermometer that beams the temp to an indoor unit is helpful. A quick glance lets you know the accurate temperature outside and over time you learn what clothing combinations work best for you at what temps. The single digits and below, the teens, and each ten degree change in temps up to 70 all have their own unique clothing options for me. What works in the teens is overkill at 32, and what works fine at 32 is entirely too little in the teens, particularly the core.

    As a rule of thumb I am pretty much slightly chilled while riding. Not freezing, but not toasty warm either. Starting out each day for the first mile I always have the thought in the back of my mind “Crap, I didn’t put enough on.”

    And for me neoprene does not work very well at all.

  23. gintertcinakr December 10, 2010 8:49 am 

    Does anyone have a recommendation for womens tights/pants that don’t require a second mortgage? I’ve figured out what works for my upper body, but haven’t found anything for the legs that keeps me warm and is close fitting.

  24. John December 10, 2010 10:53 am 

    gintercinakr, for years I have used the XC pant from Sporthill. It’s loose fitting with room for an extra layer of long underwear for those 10 degree F days. Blocks the wind pretty well, and breathes. Women’s version here:

    http://www.sporthill.com/product.php?TypeID=2130&gender=w

    (Second mortage?)

  25. crazycommutingcyclist December 11, 2010 5:09 am 

    If you have warm gloves but the are not water proof you can use rubber gloves over the winter gloves to help keep them dry. Because I work at a hospital I use the rubber gloves that I wear to draw blood from Patients’. If it hadn’t been mention before, wool socks are great as well. During the real cold weather spells I trade my bike shoes for cages and boots.

  26. cgakr December 12, 2010 5:43 am 

    Thanks guys. None of the shops around here carry much cold weather gear for women and what they do have is crazy expensive.

  27. Dacius December 22, 2010 11:43 am 

    We rarely get below 20 here in northern florida. But I find if you spend good money on your outershell (wind and water resistant…but breathable) and get a decent wicking base layer…everything else just takes care of itself. We had 18 degree with 10mph wind last week and I was perfectly fine with my strategy. For cold weather I ditch my clipless pedals and opt for a hiking book to get me to and from. it is harder on the knees but it beats frozen toes. I have noticed my techwool gloves are not enough in sub 30 degree temps. My hands still get really cold. I need to look into some wind breaking gloves.

    I hate having a cold face…so I use a underarmour baclava for anything under 50 degrees.

  28. Elleria January 1, 2011 2:13 pm 

    The temps seem much lower this winter in WI and my fingers are so cold I cried the last three miles of my ride, and I fumbled to unlock my house. I had just bought a pair of down ski gloves that were immediately returned (bulky and cold). What do I try? I have convertible fleece mittens with the half fingers and I put windstopper gloves underneath but that doesn’t work either–fingers together are warmer. If I wanted to rock the baggie trick how would I do it? On the outside?

  29. Ghost Rider January 2, 2011 4:38 am 

    Elleria,

    the baggies would go between the mitten and the glove, I’d think. You could always throw those small chemical warmer packs in there, too.

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