Layering: as easy as 1, 2, or 3

I tend to over-think things a lot! This quality of mine can be both good and bad. What I like about fall/winter riding is that dressing for it really is easy – you just need to know the purpose of each layer and best fabric for that task. Aside from those days when I start pondering other gear, layering is really quite easy – and leaves me feeling always prepared.

From fall through springtime in Chicago I either always carry with me in my commuting arsenal (water resistant pannier) OR am already wearing on my body (esp on the colder winter days) the following items: extra glove liners + extra gloves or mitts, wool knee warmers, a Warmfront, extra wool socks (in case one pair gets wet), rain or wind pants to block wind and keep the road spray off my clothes, silk or wool long underwear for top and bottom (I especially like SmartWool and L.L. Bean wool), beanie cap that covers my ears, Hedz headwear, and wool/fleece balaclava – topped off by my most visible layer…. a hi-vis wind- and waterproof jacket. I rarely have a need for any more than 3 layers worth of clothing – base, mid and outer suffice in any weather; so while our skin may consist of 7 layers, for me, the gear only needs to be 3 layers deep at most … most of the time. (If you live in a much warmer or colder climate, I realize your needs for layering may vary; please adjust your technique accordingly and share with us what works for you in the comments.)

When I first started to bike through the colder, yuckier weather months in Chicago, I did a lot of my own research for what to wear and soon learned about the fine art of layering. (My go-to resource at that time was a blog authored by a woman in Alaska living a bike adventure life and recording it in her blog – I think it was called Up In Alaska; she has since moved and renamed the blog to Jill Outside.) A few of her posts detailed her layering technique and gear. Another site that has also helped me over the years is the Icebike website, brimming with strategies and gear designed to keep you warm (without overheating) while out bike riding or enjoying other winter activities for long periods of time. Last, but not least in deserving credit, is Chicago’s Bike Winter — a grass roots effort that has supplied me with how-to knowledge and an awesome DIY fleece balaclava designed to keep as many Chicago cyclists pedaling through the winter as possible.

If Jill could make it work for rides in Alaska and these Icebikers and fellow Bike Winter-ers could do it, I knew I could apply the layering strategy to my Chicago commutes; below I provide you with the layering technique that works for my urban bike commutes and the importance of each layer.

Chicago’s recent bout with chilly, windy and damp fall days reminds me that I really do have all I need already in my wardrobe (even though I’m always thinking of the next best gear or tip most of my winter “gear” is not really cycling specific gear). Take a photo gallery tour of these layers I recently wore during a damp fall commute (temps in the high 40s/low 50-degrees):
Base layer: long sleeve microfiber shirt (easily substituted for wool or silk on chillier days). A good base layer will wick the sweat away from your skin so that you don’t overheat OR get chilled from damp skin. Wool and silk are also naturally odor-resistant = bonus! I’ve learned to avoid cotton next to my skin at all costs, since it tends to keep the perspiration close to your skin.
Mid layer: vest (or wool or cashmere sweater in winter). A mid-layer helps insulate. This layer continues to challenge me during the fluctuating temperatures we get during the spring and fall, but in winter I usually turn to a cashmere or wool turtleneck sweater. During warmer months, I may forego this layer or opt for just a vest or stick to a cardigan sweater that can be zipped or unzipped as needed.
Bottom: REI cargo pants (with long underwear when the mercury dips below freezing). Depending on the level of chill in the air, I adjust my wardrobe – from jeans to lighter weight khakis to stretchier fitness style pants. As a female, I also have opted for wool tights and a skirt – and have found this combo to be just as warm as pants. I also keep a pair of wool knee warmers (or leg warmers in you prefer) around just in case I need a little more buffer.
Feet: midweight wicking socks (I live in wool hiking socks come winter), Vasque waterproof hiking shoes (and NEOS overshoes in the worst of it!). Just the other day I wore mid-calf Bogs boots with a neoprene liner. Once it’s freezing and below, my feet prefer the thicker socks and waterproof shoe. For commuting I don’t usually ride with clipless pedals, and in the chill I prefer the added warmth of regular hiking/winter boots – just make sure they allow your foot/ankle enough mobility for pedaling. You may even want to ride on wider BMX-style pedals to accommodate the clunkier footwear.
Hands: Gore bike gloves (new this year!); Headsweats lobster shell gloves (mittens and hand warmers on standby for temps below freezing). Up til this year I used a pair of wool gloves I acquired at the Army-Navy Surplus store and paired those with the shell gloves or with a pair of REI mittens. Mittens keep my hands warmest on the sub-freezing days. Hand warmers helps when it drops below zero.
Outer layer: Loeka (or other waterproof) commuter jacket with pit zips, Marmot rain pants. A jacket -even on the coldest of days – need not be thick and heavy. The best outer layer provides maximum wind resistance so as not to allow the chill in and is also waterproof; a sports-oriented jacket will have pit zips to allow added ventilation and help prevent your body from overheating. Given the lack of daylight during winter, I stick with hi-vis and reflective jackets to keep me as visible as possible to fellow road users.
Head: HAD microfiber tube to cover my neck, REI Novara cap (new to my arsenal this year… and I wonder how I lived without it all these years!) to cover my head and ears, helmet. In winter my layer below the helmet is a wool/fleece balaclava; sometimes I use the microfiber tube like a neck gaiter beneath the balaclava and will pull it up over my nose so I’m not breathing in the bitter cold air. My mom always stressed keeping my head warm; to this day, I cannot argue with my mom’s advice. For me, if my head and neck are warm, the rest of my body seems to naturally be warmer.
And last but not least Eyewear: Sunglasses with an amber tint in daylight AND clear or yellow tint glasses in darkness suffice for me most of the time (all my sunglasses have come from Solar Eyes (an online retailer)); in the winter I switch to ski goggles (rose tint works day and night even navigating the well-lit urban roads at night).

As I mentioned above, as a female I love having the option to wear wool tights and flashy rubber boots to spice up my winter cycling wardrobe, too, when I feel so inclined.

One final note: it’s best to feel slightly chilled during the first few minutes on your bike. If you start out already warm, you could easily overheat. I find that less is more to avoid overheating. Folks at work think I must be so cold given my thin layers, but I assure them that by the time I reach the bus stop at the corner, I’m already warm from generating my own body heat; those folks waiting for the bus are the ones who look so cold just standing there. Rather than overdress, it’s best to carry an extra layer, so you can always stop and put it on if you need it or if it turns chillier for the bike commute home later that day. My commute is about a half hour each way and in the stop-and-go traffic of the city, so I’ve adjusted my layering accordingly. Those of you with a shorter or much longer commute may have other tips and tricks to share. Noah shared a few of his tips last year, including starting a log of weather conditions and your clothing choices.

Since my gear – most of it not cycle specific – seems to be accounted for, it gives me time to ponder getting a bike with disc brakes this upcoming bad weather season…. to at least improve my stopping power in the dampness. Then again…. I could finally try adding a more full coverage helmet (like a Nutcase or Bern)… options….


  1. Steve A

    What I find to be the biggest problems are fingers and toes. Especially toes. Sometimes, the combination of cold and the pedal pressure causes them to get numb. With fingers, I don’t like bulk because it makes shifting and braking tougher. Still, with either, I’m good down to zero which is more than we need in North Texas.

  2. Ghost Rider

    A good foot trick I learned from Kent Peterson is to swap out your pedals for BMX platforms in the winter and just wear snow boots. Keeps those toesies warm! NEOS overshoes might work well, too, from what I hear.

    One of my favorite cycling-wear pieces is a windproof vest (a “gilet” to our friends in the UK)I scored from Sierra Trading Post a few years ago. It’s basically a sleeveless nylon front and shoulder cape with a mesh back, and on variable days when it’s fairly dry, keeping that wind off your chest is the way to keep in the warmth. And, it rolls up into a tiny package, fitting into a jersey pocket or any bag/pannier/backpack.

  3. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @Ghost – yep – I mentioned the BMX platforms and road with them for several seasons until converting to the Shimano dual clip/clipless pedal. I did find the platform pedals to provide a bit more gripping power for my boots, especially in damp conditions.
    +1 on keeping the chest/core warm. That was how I found the Warmfront which I can easily take off while riding (unlike a vest that requires a bit more dexterity to remove, especially if it’s layered). Usually keep it on hand for the chillier commutes after the sun goes down. Things that pack down to nothing are key!

    @Steve – fingers and toes have always been a struggle for me too. And each year (as my own body seems to change how it reacts, I find myself exploring new and different techniques and gear). Hand warmers do help. And adding a windproof glove/mitt/toe cover helps too. I know folks who cycle with plastic bags over their feet to insulate from the cold.

  4. BluesCat

    I’ve always gloried in the outstanding cycling weather we have in Phoenix, AZ. For most of the year, you don’t need anything special to ride comfortably. In the winter, a wicking shirt underneath a lightly insulated windbreaker works for all but the coldest days.

    In the late spring, summer and early fall you need to follow a strategy which is opposite of the more humid areas of the country. You need to stay away from close fitting, wicking cycling duds and wear backpacking clothes: lightweight, loose fitting, moisture retaining materials.

  5. Kevin

    I’m a low budget commuter… and I’ve found that trying to save a few $$ will only cost you more in the long run. That said things I look for for my outer layer is material that has little or no “blow through”. I hold it to my mouth and blow… if there is lots of resistance then it’s good for outer layer.

    I agree with the 3 layer… thin tighter 1st layer, my middle layer I have several thicknesses I use for that purpose and then a wind blocking outer layer…

    Here in CO the temperature changes a lot between my AM ride (3AM 10 to 15 F) and my afternoon ride (1 PM ~60-~80)… SO I need a full gambit between the 2 ranges… 3 layer to sleeveless and shorts…


  6. Ghost Rider

    @Kevin — I’ve discovered that temperature change the hard way…after riding 20 years in Florida, coming to the midwest has been a learning experience. Fall here is tough…it’s super-chilly in the morning and warms up nicely by midday. So, I start out all bundled up, and by the time my rides end, I’ve got my jersey pockets stuffed with the excess and a layer jammed up inside my jersey the way the pros carry extra water bottles!

  7. Iron_Man

    Good article! I don’t think folks realize just how much of the cooling effect of the wind we are relying on YEAR ROUND. Whether it’s below zero or over 100, I’m still trying to manage excessive body heat. There’s a lot of trial and error involved too. What I can get away with wearing might not be enough for others.

  8. Elizabeth

    @ Iron_Man – you point out a key element: “There’s a lot of trial and error involved too.” How true! And what works for one person may not work for another. In my years of commuting, I’ve found that what works for me from year to year can change too. Layers help in that we have more flexibility to adjust to the temperatures as they affect us. Also, bike commuters riding 15-miles one way vs someone riding only 1.5-miles one way will have varying advice.

  9. Chris

    I’m a big fan of layers, too. I recently acquired a great lightweight jacket that works as an outer layer in mild temps and a mid in colder (Mountain Hardware’s Super Power Hoodie). It’s full-zip, has those fun sleeves that hook over your thumbs and cover your hands, and the hood is slim enough to fit well under a helmet. The tail could be a little longer for biking, but I’ve been wearing this thing for absolutely everything lately.

    I switch between a pair of full-finger cycling gloves and fingerless knit wool gloves depending on my mood. I’ve also got a wool Buff that is fantastic for keeping my neck and face warm in just about anything.

  10. Deb

    Elizabeth, how long is your commute? (For sake of reference.)

    When I first started I used a great article (is it a no-no to link to another blog’s article? I’ll do it anyway, because it’s a great resource! ) to get myself in the ballpark for my first winter, and even took some advice of someone in the comments and kept a spreadsheet that first winter. Temp, wind, what I wore and how comfortable it was. It really helped get a handle on things that first year, and then I used it as a reference the following year. Now it’s more auto-pilot, though I do refer to it once in a while.

    I still struggle with my feet. I’ve tried everything. Every different combo of socks, and boots, and even vapor barrier. (And not just the grocery bag hack.) Nothing made any difference. I am pretty sure this is because I have a giant hill smack in the middle of my commute, followed by a fairly flat 6 miles and then more hills at the end. My feet *always* start to freeze following that hill in the middle. Last year I gave up on finding a “real” solution, and went with handwarmers. (A hint from an experienced bike commuter I met one cold day – keep a ziplock bag handy, and at the end of the ride, seal the handwarmers in the ziplock, getting all the air out, and it pauses the chemical reaction, which means you can use it for several commutes (depending on how long your commute is).)

    I have never had issues with hands or torso. I do recommend that the mid (insulating) and outer (wind/rain blocking) layers be full zip, because that builds in extra flexibility for heat management on the fly. Even on the coldest days (my coldest ever was 8 degrees, we dip below 20 only a handful of mornings per year) I find myself unzipping to some extent for at least part of my commute. (Hills to blame I am sure.)

    One thing I can’t stand is balaclavas! I wear them if the temp drops below 20, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to keep it on for more than 15 minutes. I just hate them! And once my core heats up, my face feels over-warm with the balaclava anyway. (Probably the hills to blame again.)

    Another tip from who knows where – use extra moisturizer on your face and hands, and lip balm on your lips before you head out in the cold, and it helps to keep you warm!

  11. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @ Deb – my commute most days is a short 5-miles. On those windy, cold blustery days though — it’s far enough! And I have no hills… just the Chicago winds. 🙂 On longer commutes, I ride about 9-miles one way. Where and how far are you commuting? Hills… I’ve actually sought those out this year to learn how to ride in terrain other than “flat” but luckily I don’t have to contend with them on a daily basis, especially on the coldest days. 🙂

    +1 on the hand warmers and the zip lock bag to preserve them for later…

    For the duration of my commute… yes, last year I usually found myself about to rip out of my balaclava by the time I got home. But for most of my commute, I was comfortable. I also like breathing in warmer air (since my nasal passages easily dry out).

  12. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @ Chris – I’ve got a wool base layer with thumb loops and love it! I just acquired a pair of wool arm warmers with the thumb loops, too. I may test ’em out for a commute and will let you know how they do.

  13. Ghost Rider

    I just learned that the thumbhole sleeves are known in the garment industry as “hobo sleeves”.

    @deb — you’re right; your article link was a good one, and I liked it even more because the author Nick used to write for us right here on

  14. Deb

    @Elizabeth – my commute is 13.5 miles each way, and I’m in the DC burbs (VA side of the Potomac). I’ve got a serious hill in each direction plus a bunch of more minor ones, but the hill in the middle on the way to work followed by a long-ish stretch of flat-ish terrain is what I think does my feet in. They get warm and sweaty, and then no hills for a while, and they end up cold and wet. And frozen if I don’t use the hand warmers. It frustrates me – it takes me a little over an hour to do my commute, and I know that others (like Jill!) ride for many times that length in worse conditions and don’t seem to have feet issues. I keep thinking there’s a solution I haven’t found yet, but in the meantime I’ll be using hand-warmers!

    5 miles is definitely long enough when it’s cold and nasty. It is interesting to think about how clothing solutions might be different in a flat place, since your effort is likely more constant with the (ha!) peaks and valleys of hill riding. I guess that’s why I swear by full-zip layers! 😀

    @Ghost Rider – oh good, glad Nick was one of yours! Less faux-pas-ish of me to link to another blog that way. 🙂

  15. Deb

    Doesn’t this *sound* like it should/would work?

    “Feet get so cold because they sweat from active exertion then freeze when you slow down. The result is often excruciatingly painful frozen toes. With VaprThrm®, your sweat cannot get through the sock to jeopardize your insulation or your feet. While the seams are not sealed, these advanced vapor barrier socks will keep most of the moisture next to your skin and out of your boots. The dry insulation then works efficiently to keep your feet “toasty”. ”

    But it didn’t work for me. 🙁

  16. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @ Deb – have you tried layering your wool socks with Goretex Waterproof socks. They should insulate too. OR – have you tried fleece socks?

    What about these footwarmers – ???

    What kind of shoes are you wearing? Cycling shoes? Boots? Just curious.

  17. Bike Hanger

    Great run down of gear for keeping warm. Thanks.

  18. Steven

    For the really cold days, I got a pair of hiking shoes that are a size and a half too big so they can accommodate thicker socks. If you try to stuff too much sock into a shoe that isn’t big enough, you end up squeezing your feet which will limit circulation.

    If your shoes are big enough for a liner and a thick wool sock without squeezing your feet at all, you should still be able to have normal circulation, which will do wonders for keeping toes warm.

  19. Chris

    I have a folding bike, so admittedly, I don’t think I have *as* much winter gear as some others…I can bundle up against the cold, but if it’s raining/snowing when I get out of work, I will take my bike home on the bus with me, instead of riding. That said, I cannot live without my shoe covers. I hate having cold feet, and the shoe covers keep them so warm.

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  21. Robin

    Very thorough list! My mom was also always telling me to keep my head warm, and it makes such a difference. I can’t wait until winter gear goes on sale to buy a bunch of wool socks for next year!

  22. Elizabeth (Post author)

    @ Robin – buy your wool socks at CostCo! They have women’s styles too, but the men’s are warmer.

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