Original article by Kira Maicke; Updated article by Kristen Bonkoski
The days are getting shorter, and the temperature is dropping. Even if your indoor set up is dialed, sometimes you just have to get outside.
The first couple of rides of the winter are the toughest. Once you get better acclimated to the cold weather and get your layering down, winter riding can be fun!
The key is to recognize that different body parts require different levels of protection. The core has the ability to warm itself through exercise, while hands, feet and ears do not.
Even on sunny, still days, you will generate a noticeable amount of wind while riding. Protecting yourself against the cold wind will do wonders for keeping you warm, and allow you to ride longer.
Here are our top tips for surviving (and even thriving!) during the chilly winter months.
#1: Wear Plenty Of Layers
One of the biggest challenges when gearing up for winter riding is getting your layering down. You will be coldest at the beginning of the ride.
Since your core temperature will dramatically increase throughout the ride, you will want to shed some layers to avoid getting too hot. Everyone handles cold temperatures differently, so you will likely need to tweak the following suggestions to better accommodate your body and your rides.
As someone who lives in a mountainous area, layering is important throughout the year. My rides will typically include long climbs followed by fast descents. When the temperatures start to drop, those descents get cold.
Layering Suggestions For Cold Days
I have a lot of pieces that pack down small enough to fit into a jersey pocket, hip pack, or frame bag. Even if you don’t usually ride with a frame bag, adding one in the winter can be really nice for stashing additional layers–even a puffy coat.
In terms of layering, start with a merino (or merino blend) baselayer. Merino does an amazing job of wicking moisture and staying warm even when wet. I like a long-sleeved merino AND even wear a merino sports bra.
From here, depending on how cold it is, I’ll wear a long-sleeved jersey, another merino layer or two, or even a puffy coat if it’s well below freezing.
The final key is a windproof jacket or vest. You may choose to wear this for your whole ride or only on big descents. This could also be a waterproof layer depending on the conditions.
A few of our favorite upper body layers:
- Icebreaker Merino sports bra* (best for smaller chested women who don’t need a ton of support)
- Rapha Merino baselayer (pricey but will last forever)
- Kitsbow Lory Merino Longsleeve (great for mountain biking)
- Pactimo Alpine Thermal Jersey (cozy, full-zip longsleeve jersey with big rear pockets)
- Pearl Izumi Quest Barrier Jacket* (converts from a windproof jacket to a windproof vest)
Warmers Are Helpful For “Cool” (But Not COLD) Days
Arm warmers and knee warmers are ideal for spring and fall conditions, but will likely not be enough for winter riding–unless of course you live in Arizona or Florida, in which case warmers are perfect for “winter” riding. Many people recommend covering knees once temperatures drop below 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even before you start to feel cold, the temperature can affect the viscosity of the synovial fluids in your knees. When the synovial fluid gets cold, it becomes more viscous and does not flow as freely, causing joint pain.
Arm warmers have a small window of use, but they are great for those first few cold days. I always found arm warmers to be perfect when the sun starts to set earlier.
When the sun starts to set, the temperature drops with it. Arm warmers are easy to pack, so throw some in your jersey pocket before that after-work ride just in case.
Our Fave Warmers:
- Pearl Izumi Women’s Elite Arm, Knee, & Leg Warmers* (I’ve had a pair or Pearl Izumi warmers for close to 20 years and they are still going strong)
Make Sure Your Pieces Are Breathable
Many pieces designed for winter riding are engineered to breathe to keep riders warm while minimizing sweat. Unless you are planning to ride in the cold rain, you want to avoid truly waterproof clothing.
While these jackets and pants are incredibly warm, they trap heat. At the beginning of a cold ride, this can seem like an appealing feature, but once you get moving, you will want the heat to dissipate slightly so you don’t overheat.
If you are riding in rain or snow, make sure to look for waterproof pieces that have plenty of ventilation. These cost more but are worth it if you’re truly committed to riding in inclement weather.
Our Fave Wet Weather Gear:
- Shower’s Pass* (Shower’s Pass makes fantastic rain gear for all types of riding–road, commuting, mtb, you name it)
- GOREWEAR (Expensive, but it will keep you dry)
#2: Keep Your Head And Ears Covered
Head and ear protection is going to be more personal than most other winter apparel. Riders with long, thick hair may not need as much added coverage than those with shorter hair.
For chilly, shoulder-season rides, a headband or buff* should be enough coverage to keep you comfortable. You’d be surprised how much it helps to keep your ears covered and warm.
Headbands are one of my favorite cold-weather accessories. They provide noticeable warmth while allowing heat to dissipate, helping maintain appropriate body temperature.
Riders with shorter hair, or those in very cold climates, may want to opt for a hat or thin beanie. Many companies offer thin, yet warm, caps that fit comfortably under a helmet.
For even colder days, there are hats with neck gaiters built-in, called balaclavas. These are ideal for days where it is so cold that having any exposed skin can lead to frostbite. Pairing a balaclava with goggles will make even the coldest fat bike ride feel like a cruise on the beach.
Head And Ear Coverings We Use:
#3: Pay Extra Attention To Your Extremities
Most riders I know, myself included, start to feel the cold in hands and feet before the rest of the body. Hands and feet do not produce as much energy while riding, and need a little extra warmth to remain functional.
While cold toes can be very painful and uncomfortable, they are not necessarily integral to bike handling. Cold fingers, on the other hand, can alter your ability to brake and shift, causing potential safety issues.
There are many options for gloves, toe and shoe covers. I always suggest erring on the side of too warm when it comes to hands and feet. Keeping your feet and hands warm does not elevate your overall body temperature the same way a warm coat does.
For brisk fall and spring days, toe covers should suffice. On colder days, between 20 – 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you might want to opt for a full shoe cover.
Those of you who plan to fat bike in the snow, or brave sub 20 degree Fahrenheit on the road or trail, a dedicated winter shoe or boot may be the best option. These (paired with a warm sock) are likely to keep your feet warm in nearly any conditions.
A similar option for those that really suffer from cold feet are investing in electric heated shoe covers or insoles. These can be a bit bulky but worth it if cold feet are stopping you from riding.
Wool socks can also make a big difference. The biggest issue with wearing wool socks is getting them to fit inside your regular bike shoes. You may choose to get a bigger shoe for winter cycling, or you can opt to look for cycling specific wool socks. They aren’t quite as warm as ski socks but are thin enough for most people to fit inside their bike shoes. If you are biking in wet weather, opt for socks with neoprene.
Other slightly less fancy but effective ways to keep your feet warm and dry are tin foil and dog poop bags. You can put tin foil over your toes to help keep in heat, and dog poop bags over your feet to keep them dry in wet weather.
Recommended Gear For Feet:
- Shower’s Pass Crosspoint Essentials Waterproof Socks (great for biking in wet weather)
- Darn Tough Alpine Wool Socks (these are intended for nordic skiing but work great for cycling too)
- GORE Shoe Covers* (keep feet warm AND dry)
- Pearl Izumi Toe Covers* (helps cover vents and mesh holes)
- 45NRTH Boots* (these are “men’s” boots but they have EU sizing, so you should have no problem finding a pair that fit)
Keeping hands warm, yet functional, can be tough to do. While it would be nice to be able to wear mittens on those frigid days, one cannot afford to lose dexterity on a bike.
Many companies offer a broad option of gloves to accommodate a wide temperature range. For the 40-50 degree days, a lighter-weight, wind-resistant glove will do the trick. When the temperature starts to dip below freezing, look for a glove with insulation as well as a wind-resistant upper.
Lobster gloves are a popular option for those that live in colder climates. These types of gloves provide the warmth of mittens while leaving your fingers free to shift and brake.
Bar mitts (also known as pogies) are a popular addition to most fat-bikers winter arsenal. There are options for both road bikes and mountain bikes, but the flat-bar option is by far the most popular.
Bar mitts affix to the handlebars to provide protection in frigid temperatures. Hands still have full access to braking and shifting, just inside the comfort of a neoprene bubble.
Gloves We Like:
- Shower’s Pass Crosspoint Gloves* (these work great to just about freezing and they are waterproof too)
- Bar Mitts
- Pearl Izumi Lobster Gloves*
#4: Choose Warm Cycling Tights Or Pants
Legs are tough to dress appropriately for cold weather riding. It can be hard to find tights that are warm enough while still comfortable to pedal in. While the materials are very similar, opt for a cycling-specific winter tight over a running or exercise pant.
Cycling tights are stitched specifically to allow for comfort throughout the pedal stroke. You can find either tights or bib tights, and options with a chamois, or without.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can always throw on a pair of inexpensive fleece-lined leggings over your cycling shorts or cycling underwear. They won’t have the same compression as cycling tights BUT it’s a good way to get started with winter cycling.
If you prefer a “pant” rather than a tight, that’s an option too. For pant recommendations, check out our list of the best women’s mountain bike pants.
Our Favorite Winter Tights:
#5: Try An Embrocation Cream
While there are many options for winter tights, some riders just can’t get behind the idea of pedaling long hours in pants. Embrocation is a great alternative for those who cannot seem to find the right pair of pants. Embrocation is a rub designed to be used on your legs and back and provide a lasting, warming feeling.
Several companies offer varying levels of heat. Mad Alchemy* makes an embrocation cream ideal for temperatures below 40 degrees. Since this cream is designed for such low temperatures, it is not recommended for first-time users. For those first time users, here is a guide on how to remove embrocation after the ride.
Since reactions to embro can vary from person to person if it starts to feel too hot, use the removal tips from Mad Alchemy for relief.
#6: Pick Tires That Will Keep You Safe
One of the biggest deterrents to riding in the winter are snowy or icy roads. While there may be days where the conditions are truly too dangerous to ride, with the right tires you should be able to ride most of the winter.
For light snow or sparse icy patches, simply try lowering your tire pressure. This will give you more traction and better contact with the road.
If you usually ride with slick road tires, swap them out for something a little knobbier. Similarly, a gravel bike can be a great substitute for winter riding.
Or, for riding on the road in truly treacherous conditions, swap out your regular tires for studded tires in the winter. This can keep you riding safely year round.
Finally, trying a fat bike is also a great option. Big tires provide great traction in snowy conditions. While most people only think of riding fat bikes off-road, they can also be a tool for continuing to ride around town in the snow. If you’re interested, check out our beginner’s guide to fat biking.
#7: Make Sure To Eat And Drink
When it’s cold outside it can be easy to forget to drink. You simply don’t get the same thirst cues you do in hotter weather.
Still, you need to make sure you’re drinking while you ride. If it’s super cold, you may want to fill up your bottles with hot water, and use insulated bottles to keep your water from freezing.
You also need to eat. Biking in cold weather burns a bunch of calories, and riding in the snow makes a ride extra challenging. If you can, consider bringing hot food wrapped in tin foil. Boiled potatoes with salt and butter are a great option, or put hot soup in a thermos to stash in a bottle cage.
#8: Plan Your Ride Around A Place To Warm Up
During warmer months we tend to focus on riding as far as we can as fast as we can. In winter, you may need to take things a bit slower.
Planning a ride around a destination can make the ride both more comfortable and safer. Can you stop at a mid-point coffee shop for a warm drink? Or a nordic ski warming shelter? Sometimes stopping even for 10-15 minutes can make finishing a cold ride more realistic.
#9: Add Fenders And Lights To Your Bike
Fenders (also known as mudguards) are key if you plan to ride in wet weather during the winter. Even if it’s not actively raining or snowing, slush left behind on the road can splash up. Fenders are cheap and can make a big difference in keeping you dry and comfortable.
Another accessory you should add are lights. The days are shorter in the winter, and even when it’s not pitch dark, the light is likely to be dimmer.
Bonus Tip: Take Care Of Your Bike
Winter riding is hard on your bike. Rain, mud, snow, salt, you name it, there’s generally a lot more grime in the winter.
This is complicated by the fact that you may not have an outdoor hose to wash your bike with in the winter. If you have a big enough shower, you might consider bringing your bike indoors to wash it. If not, we’ve had great success using a bucket of hot water, and a garden sprayer (the type you’d use to spray chemicals on your lawn).
Grab a friend and get after it!
Not that you’re nice and bundled up, grab a fellow dedicated friend and get out there! It can be hard to motivate to get out on those cold, dreary days. Having a solid plan with a couple of friends will be the best way to stay on track throughout the winter.
Winter is typically the time to build your base fitness for next season, so rides will be more focused on endurance than speed. There’s nothing better after a long, cold day in the saddle than a nice cup of coffee with friends.