Bicycling in winter can be a lot of fun, but wearing the wrong cycling clothing can turn your mountain bike ride into an unpleasant experience. Once while we were mountain biking in late fall at Minnewaska State Park, less than 90 minutes from New York City, an unexpected snow flurry and sudden drop in temperature to 32 degrees left a member of our biking party BLUE and on the verge of hypothermia. Even though he was wearing a light-weight micro-fleece, it did not stop the biting cold wind from penetrating.
Wearing the right clothing will keep you comfortable and allow you to continue comfortably on your planned winter bike ride.
A common mistake people make is to overdress which leads to increased sweating. The key is a series of lightweight layers with fabrics designed for temperature regulation that allow you to easily manage the excess heat and sweat that cycling generates as well as adjust to changing weather conditions. We find that layers with long zippered fronts work best for temperature control as you can adjust ventilation as you ride without having to actually pull something off.
Base Layers are usually wicking layers, designed to transport sweat away from your skin, keeping you drier.Quick drying high-tech sports materials made from polyester or polypropylene are best. They come under several guises : polypro, drilete, thermax, capilene. Avoid T-shirts or anything made of cotton. When cotton gets wet, it stays damp and sucks the heat right out of you.
Middle (or insulation) layers
Designed to provide insulation in cold weather and basic protection when worn alone in warmer conditions. When bicycling, you don't want to be bogged down in lots of heavy clothing. Modern lightweight synthetic fleece layers provide lots of warmth without a lot of bulk or weight. The warmest insulation layers you carry will probably not be needed since pedaling generates a lot of body heat. But keep them close at hand in a waterproof pack or bag, for sudden weather changes. It's also easy to get chilled on long downhills or when you stop for breaks.
Designed to protect you from the elements -- wind, rain, snow. A bright color is important for greater visibility and reflective material won't hurt. Wind vests are a good choice as they tend to keep your core warm thanks to technical wind-proof material that blocks cold blasts and allows for ventilation. On the other hand, the same rain/wind shell layers you use in moderate conditions should be fine for biking in colder conditions.
The key is to find outer layers that stop the wind from stealing warmth, while still providing enough ventilation to keep from overheating while pedaling hard. Make sure the outer layers you use for cold weather riding are roomy enough to be comfortable with lots of other layers on underneath. A lightweight waterproof rain shell that rolls up compactly,will block rain and hold in body heat in a pinch.
For the bottom half, choose comfortable winter tights that move with your body, preferrably made from a high tech wicking and insulating material.
Arm & Knee Warmers
These are very versatile. Easy to pull on and off. They roll up small and can be easily stuffed into a Jersey pocket or pack. Arm warmers can convert a short-sleeve Jersey to long sleeves instantly or can be worn under a rain shell as a jacket liner. Knee warmers or full-length leg warmers can be added for those cool early morning rides late/early in the season. They come in handy when the weather turns suddenly cool or when you face major temperature differences due to winds or hills.
The head and neck lose heat faster than any other part of the body. Thin wool or polypro hats, balaclavas, ear warmers or helmet liners can be worn under your helmet. High tech material wicks away moisture keeping your head and neck warm and dry in cold weather. You may need to adjust your helmet accordingly to fit your winter headgear. You can adjust the size of your helmet padding or remove them as needed. The goal is to end up with a snug fit and remember to readjust if you decide not to wear or remove your winter headgear.
Bike gloves can cut down on blisters, finger cramps, discomfort and injuries. In cold weather numb cold, fingers impair your ability to control the bike. There are cycling gloves for just about any weather condition or temperature, from lightweight waterproof cycling gloves to insulated gloves geared for 32 degrees or below.
In early fall or late spring, tull fingered cycling gloves with light insulation can help fight off the chill. If you already have a pair of short-finger cycling gloves, a set of lightweight, inexpensive polypro glove liners can be worn underneath regular cycling gloves for extra protection in dry conditions. A nylon/GoreTex pair will be excellent for a wet weather emergency. Just pull them on over your cycling gloves so hands stay warm enough to brake, shift, and most importantly, control the bike.
Most cyclists wear some form of eye protection every time they ride, whether it's sunglasses, regular eyeglasses or special cycling goggles. In the Autumn when the trails tend to be more overgrown, these barriers protect your eyes from dust, dirt, cold wind, pebbles, bugs and low hanging branches and more. Unless they fit extremely snugly, glasses and goggles should be worn with some type of restraining strap to keep them from falling off while you ride.
In cool temperatures cycling glasses tend to fog, as your warm breath mixed with cool air creates condensation on the lenses. Unless you have cycling glasses with anti-fog vents along the side, there are several anti-fog products out there that you can apply to the lenses. Be sure to read directions and warning labels as some products may damage special lens coatings.
There is nothing more uncomfortable than trying to bike with numb, frozen feet and toes! There are several footwear options depending on what bike pedals you use and your personal preference. In any case, the first line of defense is socks. A lightweight wool sock goes a long way towards keeping your feet toasty. Then over those you can pull on a pair of Gore-Tex or Neoprene socks which add an extra layer of warmth and water/windproof protection. It is important that your shoes have enough toe wiggle room left. Too tight, and your feet will feel colder due to constricted circulation.
If you use clipless pedals, look for winter cycling boots or shoes which are compatible with your pedals. You can always opt to switch pedals for the season and use clips. Then your footwear choices grow and you can wear a pair of lightweight waterproof hiking or winter boots. If you are like Peter, whose toes feel cold even in the summer, you can put on some kind of fleece-lined neoprene boot covers.
Note: Wear brightly colored clothing during the fall or early winter hunting season -- to avoid the possibility of being mistaken for a deer or a wild turkey and getting shot. Better yet, just don't bike in those areas during those times (in our humble opinion, a good idea). Some places do not allow hunting on Sundays, so that would be the best time to ride there. It's up to you to find out these details before you go.
Disclaimer: Bikekinetix uses reasonable efforts to include accurate and up-to-date information on this web site; it does not, however, make any representations as to it's accuracy or completeness.
Prepare For Winter Biking Part 3: Cold Weather Cycling Emergency Kit >