7 Tips for Biking in Cold Weather Plus Cold Weather Cycling Gear

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 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.

fat bike suspension

#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.

I have a lot of pieces that pack down small enough to fit into a jersey pocket or keg. One of my favorite jackets is the Specialized Deflect Wind Jacket. This jacket is great for both road and mountain descents. Since it is so packable, it is easy to keep with you just in case you need that extra layer to protect yourself against the harsh wind.

Base layers are another important layer throughout the winter. Look for a material that keeps you warm while wicking moisture, such as Merino wool. Many base layers use materials that are a mix of Merino wool and synthetic fabrics. This blend helps pull moisture away from the skin and dissipate it for quicker evaporation.

Kira riding mountain bikes in American Fork.
Pack a light jacket, headband, and neck gaiter for crisp fall days. Even if you’re warm on the climbs, you will want extra layers for the descents.
Photo by Ashley McElroy

#2: 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.

#3: 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.

buff while biking

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.

#4: 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.

Feet

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.

When riding in the snow, make sure your footwear is waterproof in case you need to plant a foot around a snowy turn. Photo by Kyle Phillips.

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 may be the best option. I have ridden in the Specialized Defroster shoes down to 6 degrees Fahrenheit with wool socks, and had no issues with cold feet.

Hands

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.

Parleys Trail
Leg warmers are a great option between 45-60 degrees. They help keep your joints warm and pedaling efficiently. Photo by Matt Grummer.

#5: 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. 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.

A neck warmer, or gaiter, is another versatile piece to add to your winter gear. Like gloves, gaiters come in many materials to cover a wide range of temperatures. Merino wool blend neck warmers are a very popular option.

Most of these gaiters are long and stretchy enough to pull up over your face and cover your ears. The thinner material allows the gaiter to be worn lower, and more out of the way after you start heating up.

#6: Choose Cycling-Specific Tights

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.

The 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.

winter tights

#7: 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.

Winter riding in SLC
Sometimes it is hard to motivate to get out in the cold. Find a riding buddy to brave the weather with!

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.

More Articles To Help You Survive The Winter

About The Author

kira maicke author

Kira Maicke has been an avid cyclist since 2010. She started racing road bikes in college for the University of Georgia and switched over to mountain biking after graduating and moving out west. When she’s not on one of her bikes, she’s out playing in the mountains with her husky, Semenuk. 

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