What to Wear For Winter Biking if You're a Cold Weather Wimp
It's that time of the year when temps start dropping and lots of people start thinking that they can't bike any more. As an utter wimp when it comes to the cold I used to be one of them. My body can easily handle 100 degree heat, but at 60 F I'm shivering. Luckily, I learned how to pick out clothes to make cold weather biking really comfortable, even for a heat loving guy like me. Read on to learn how you too can bike comfortably, no matter how cold it gets.
What to wear
Most posts you find online about cold weather biking gear are all about pricey stuff for bike racing. That's all well and good for some people, but I primarily use my bike for taking my kids to school, going to the store, riding to work, etc. My cold weather biking clothes are ones that are equally at home both on and off a bike, and they're generally cheaper than cycling specific gear. Here I'll lay out the basics, explain their costs, and how you can mix and match them to ride comfortably even as the weather warms up.
One other note, every body is different. Some people are comfortable at far colder temps than I am (like this guy biking with rolled up pants in 30 F). You can drop my temperature recommendations down a few degrees if your body does better in the cold than mine. Just don't be one of those dudes that stubbornly wears shorts all winter long but refuses to bike then cause it's too cold.
Costs: Ski Goggles: $30 Helmet Cover: $8 Half Mask: $11 Hat: $22 Jacket: $150 Thermal: $20 Gloves: $50 Flannel Lined Pants: $42 Socks: $15 Shoes: $75 Total: $423
In the image above you can see what I wore biking on a cold 18 F day last winter (11 F with wind chill). The total price of all that gear was $423. That may seem pricey but most of that stuff has already lasted 10 years or more. That means cold weather bike clothes can cost under $50/year. As you'll discover below I did recently add a new jacket and puffer coat to my wardrobe, you replace my old fancy jacket with these the price drops another $50.
The bigger value comes from the fact that these clothes aren't just for biking. Outside of the helmet cover and the ski goggles I wear all this just walking outside on any normal cold day. This sort of clothing isn't a bike specific investment, it's the sort of stuff that anyone living in a cold environment should own. Living a climate controlled car centered life causes many of us to forget how to handle the elements. One of the great positives from biking is ensuring that you'll spend more time out in the real world learning how your amazing body can truly deal with it.
The first, and most critical thing you need to ride in the cold is a good coat. My go to for this over the past decade as been a 3 layer Gore-Tex jacket. It's great material, long sleeves, and hem that overlaps with my pants when I'm bent forward biking block wind great. This is critical on a bike when you can easily be going 20 MPH and thus creating your own 20 MPH wind. There's also a great pocket in the chest that I can store my phone in which I love. I didn't realize how amazing this jacket was until it lost its waterproofing and I had to buy a new one (I tried to refresh it with Nikwax, but sadly it still leaks, still great on dry days though).
Cabelas no longer makes my old coat, so I had to shop around. I settled on a REI Rainer rain jacket on sale for $70 as a replacement. I was originally disappointed that this 2.5 layer jacket held less heat than my old 3 layer one but I've made it comfortable in freezing temps by adding a cheap puffer coat under it (see below for deets). I also love how it's hood folds into the collar so it doesn't catch wind and block my rear mirror vision. I'm interested to see how cold this 2.5 layer jacket can go as 3 layer jackets are far pricier. So far with the puffer under it I've been comfortable down to 25 F, but we haven't had any days in the teens yet.
This jacket's lack of a chest pocket to store my phone is annoying, but not as much as the lack of elastic in the cuffs its sleeves. Biking in the cold requires a tight sleeve fit to keep wind from blowing up your arms, and the only way to get it with my new REI jacket is to tighten down the velcro on the ends of the arms after putting it on. This also means that I have to release this tightened velcro to take it off. It's a time waste, but at least when it gets cold enough for my big gloves that go over my sleeves I don't have to do it anymore. If I were buying a new jacket though I'd definitely want elastic in the cuffs along with velcro. Hopefully this info will keep you from making the same mistake I did.
Warmer Weather Jackets
The other jacket I ride with is a hi-viz yellow cycling jacket from Canari (similar to this one). This is one of the few cycling specific pieces of clothing that I own, but I've enjoyed it. The main feature I love about it is its zip off sleeves. If you get a little warm on your ride you can zip open the pits, and if you get really hot you can just remove the sleeves entirely and convert it into a vest. This was really useful back when I would commute to work on cold mornings, but then ride back in the heat of early evening. As a cycling specific jacket it also has a little pocket on the back. This feature is great when you're riding a road bike and don't want junk in the front pockets hanging low and brushing your knees. If its not raining this jacket is what I throw on between 50 and 75 F. Given how light my new 2.5 layer rain coat is though, this one is really a luxury, not a necessity.
Under the Jacket
You can layer all sorts of things under the jackets listed above to make them feel good as the temperature drops. I generally start with a t-shirt, then add a flannel shirt over this when it gets colder. I recently found a puffer jacket on sale from Land's End for just $33. That's honestly less than the $40 I paid for a thick flannel from them and it's both lighter and warmer.
Of course if it gets really cold I could layer the flannel under the puffer, but a cheaper thermal shirt would do just as well if not better. The tan thermal shown in the picture at the top is a unbranded one my dad gave me years ago that I assume cost around $20. It's nothing pretty, but it gets the job done. The best thing about it for me are the extra long sleeves that truly cover my wrists. This is critical for biking below freezing, as you really don't want any gaps in the insulation around your body. To keep warm on a bike on a budget a cheap thermal like this with a puffer and a wind breaker/rain coat on top can't be beat (note for Land's end shoppers, wait for sales there, everything eventually sells for 50-70% off).
The final thing you need to keep a jacket warm is a great pair of gloves. I've used a lot of bad gloves over the years, and I thought that my fingers were just destined to always be freezing in winter. Then my wife bought me these amazing, thick, Goretex gloves from Cabela's and changed my life.
This exact model isn't made anymore, but any waterproof glove with lots of insulation and a gauntlet that goes back over your sleeves and cinches tight would do. If I had to replace them today I'd look at these $70 Burton or Dakine gloves. They both have the added benefits of touch screen compatible fingers and removable glove liners, which is nice. It's also possible that some $25 gloves off amazon would work too, just make sure they totally cover your wrists.
You can also get gloves with rechargeable hand warmers, or you can insert chemical warmer packs into the ones above. That's the sort of thing I would have been tempted by as a kid when all I'd used were terrible cheapo gloves. Now that I've seen how warm a good pair can keep my hands I don't feel any need for warmers. They might be useful if you're just sitting still, but on a bike you're pedaling enough to warm up, so you just need gloves with great wind protection and insulation, not their own heaters.
Hats & Helmet Covers
Along with your core, the other big thing you need to cover for cold weather cycling is your head. When temps start dropping below 70 F I throw on my helmet cover. I got mine free at the 5 borough bike ride in NYC years ago, but you can find an even better waterproof hiviz cover on amazon for just $10.
When it drops into the 50s I add a thin fleece helmet liner under my helmet. The feature I love for my liner are its ear flaps as cold wind on your ears really sucks. My liner is so old I have no idea where I got it or how much I paid for it, but I'm pretty sure it was cheap, maybe $10? It is pretty thin so I can wear it when it's a little cold without overheating.
For the 40s and below I switch to my thick turtlefur beanie. I'm not sure what it is about this hat that makes it so much better than other beanies I've tried, but with the helmet cover mentioned above it, it gets me through just about anything, even 0 F days. The other option is to get a full on insulated ski helmet. I've bought these for my kids and they love them, but adult ski helmets are more expensive and I'd have to buy a 2nd helmet mirror too, so I just stick with my layered approach.
Below the hat, you'll also want to cover your face. Leaving little to no skin exposed is crucial to biking comfortably in the cold. One of the few benefits of COVID is that it's now considered normal to walk around with a face mask on. I expect to keep biking in my XL Enro face masks whenever it's 50's or below even after the pandemic ends. They totally eliminate chapped lips and wind burn and keep my face nice and warm even when the outside air is freezing.
The big issue with masks is fogging glasses. I avoid this by keeping the top of the mask pinned to my face under my glasses nosepads. Somehow this isn't common knowledge almost 2 years into the pandemic, but if you haven't heard it yet now you know.
Down in the 20s I'll cover my mask with my old insulated half mask. The must have feature for a half mask is velcro in the back so you can take it off while riding. Someone gave me a turtlefur neck gaiter once, but since I have to pull it over my head to remove it when I get hot I just can't ride with it at all, it also ruins your hair when you take it off to go inside. Just say no to neck gaiters.
When you're riding you'll start out cold and heat up as your body works. The first thing I remove is my half mask. After that it's time to unzip my coat or even start removing entire layers. If you can't take off your half mask easily first, you likely won't be able to get your whole body to a comfortable temp again though since so much heat comes out in your breath.
When it's really cold you're going to want to cover your eyes too. Having little to no exposed skin is the key to riding comfortably in cold weather. If you don't need much warmth and like looking "unique" you can try these Mach Schnell eye covers from Portland Designworks. They aren't really gonna cut it below freezing though. For that you're really going to want some ski goggles. There are endless options for that, so I'll just say find a pair that works for you.
The new option I've added this year is a pair of Wiley X Tide prescription glasses with transitions lenses. These have a thin removable foam seal on the inside of the lenses and an elastic strap that hooks into the glasses arms. I bought them primarily as safety glasses to use with woodworking, but these features let them function like slimmed down ski goggles too. The coldest I've ridden with them so far has been around 25 F, so I may still switch back to my real ski goggles when it gets super cold. But so far I've been pretty impressed with them, the only real issue is that if I'm stopped at a light for a while they can start to fog up, but once I get moving again they clear up quickly. Recently I've started wearing them without the elastic strap and sliding them down my nose a bit when I'm stopped to prevent fogging. It's definitely colder on my eyes without the strap, but the less fog is worth it. I'm excited to see if they can get me through a full winter without using my ski goggles.
Everything Below the Waist
The most neglected part of winter cycling wear is found below the waist. Since you're pedaling with your legs they can stay pretty warm on their own, but I still prefer to add some insulation and wind blocking to them. Feet are the last piece of the puzzle and you'll definitely want to keep them warm as well.
The first thing most people think of if their pants are too cold is long underwear. Mr Money Mustache wrote a lovely ode to this in The Oil Well you can Keep in your Pants, but my leg hairs distinctly do not like tight long underwear so it's a no for me. Instead my secret weapon is flannel lined pants. These look just like normal slacks unless you roll up the cuffs to show off whats underneath. I have two pairs of flannel lined pants that I rotate in winter, one from Lands End, the other a discontinued Eddie Bower pair. You can also get flannel lined jeans if you want a bit more durability or a slightly different look. Whatever you do, make sure your legs have enough insulation for the conditions you're riding in.
Rain Pants Rule!
I'd never heard of breathable rain pants before I met my hydrologist wife, but now I never want to live without them. The rain pants I have are from Marmot and they're starting to degrade a bit after about 6 years of use, but are still keep me pretty dry. The area where my legs rub against the seat is the worst and I'd like to try the bike specific ones from Showers Pass, but sadly they don't offer long sizes. They might work for you, but for a tall guy like me they're unusable since rain pants that don't come down to your shoes suck.
Rain pants are great in the cold too. If it's below 18F I'll throw a pair on top of my flannel lined pants. This basically makes some DIY snow pants that are perfect for biking. Even if when its dry the rain pants act as a wind break and add a tiny bit of insulation that keeps my legs comfortable all the way down to 0 F. They're also great if it's warmer and raining and a worthwhile addition to any closet.
Speaking of shoes, they're another critical detail for cycling. I prefer my shoes to not have laces for easy on/off, and the added benefit of never getting a lace caught in your chain while pedaling. I don't like being locked in while riding my kids around either and walking on clipless pedals is just a pain so I look for regular shoes that also work for biking.
During warmer weather I wear the wonderful Five Ten Sleuth slip ons because of their sole's amazing grip on my pedals (just make sure to order 1/2 size smaller than usual). I added a Power Grips strap to my left pedal to make it easy to reset the pedals at a stop. I didn't put one on my right so I could still instantly put that foot down when I stop. They sell these in pairs so doing it this way means you can equip two bikes with just one set.
Once it gets cold I break out my Merrell Coldpack Ice+ Mocs. I love that these are both waterproof and insulated, but I'm a bit disappointed in their durability. They're only 3 years old and the leather is already detaching a bit. On really rainy days I also wish they went up to may ankle to eliminate water sliding off my rain pants into them. Their soles don't grip the pedals nearly as well as my Five Ten's, but the Power Grips strap ensures that at least my left foot will never slide off the pedal.
I was planning on replacing my Mocs with Xtratuf Wheelhouse Boots that go up to the ankle to solve these problems. Then I saw Staheekum selling a similar boot to just $36. Every rubber boot of this kind has pics in amazon reviews showing it falling apart, so I still worry about the quality of those, but we'll see. So far it's working well. I wish the ankle was little taller, but it's tight around my leg and I haven't gotten any water in them yet. They're a tiny bit colder than my Merrell's and I may resort to wrapping my socks in plastic bags in them to keep my feet warm enough when it gets really cold.
I'd love it if some rubber boot company offered a warranty like Xero does or if Xero would start selling an insulated slip on waterproof boot. Add in a tread that grips bike pedal's like Five-Ten's and my dreams will truly have come true.
The right socks are the final important item for cold weather biking. I mostly use some generic thick wool + acrylic mix socks I got for Christmas a decade back. These are starting to wear a bit thin though, while my fancier and older Smartwool pair is still nice and thick. When the cheap ones wear out I'll replace them with Darn Toughs as their lifetime warranty seems well worth the money. Some cyclists recommend wearing sandals with waterproof socks in the winter, but that's a bit too out there even for me. I'll stick with the warmth of thick wool socks under waterproof shoes, then switch to thinner socks as the weather warms up.
Car culture has brought many people to a point where they simply don't dress for the weather any more. Wearing a t-shirt and shorts in December may work if you're inside a climate controlled box all day, but cycling forces you to actually engage with the weather. Luckily there have been great advances in clothing technology that make this easy, comfortable and cheap. Hopefully the above advice will help you get the clothes you need to be comfortable biking no matter the weather, and we can profit greenly together.
Incredibly janky port of comments from my old WordPress site:
2022-01-13 at 4:41 pm
Love your post! I’ve spent the past few months stepping up my winter wear game so it’s comfy to ride… but it still isn’t there (yet).
Your advice about lined pants and eyewear is exactly what I need to get myself out there on the coldest days of the year (windchill of 0-10 F or so)
Incredibly janky port of comments from my old WordPress site:
2021-12-17 at 5:08 pm
Solid advice, though the temperatures you cite do certify you as a cold weather wimp. 😉 For a different perspective, I’m a furnace when I bike. My keys from 10 years of Alaska are: layer up and start cold. Zipper layers and especially pit zips in your wind layer are key to maintaining good temperature. I usually end rides well vented, even when below 0F. Your hands and feet are critical as they aren’t moving. I wear full on winter boots to solve the feet (many use toe warmers). Pogies are excellent and I often go barehanded on the bars at 10F in them once I’ve warmed up, and mine are just the lightweight neoprene ones. I’ve never found eye coverings to be worth it (though I’m under 10 mph on my fat bike) and I embrace the ice beard and usually forgot face covering too. The key is to experiment with what you have and take note at different temperatures what works for you. Buy new things last.