When I was a little boy being dragged off to the grocery store with my mom one of my favorite things in the whole store was the open topped freezers at the end of the frozen goods aisle. I would step on the vent at the bottom and pull myself up over the edge so I could take a deep breath of that crisp cold air. I loved how clean it smelled, how the cold air bit into my nose and the way the dense air filled my lungs with a refreshing power that the warm humid air failed to match. I continued to enjoy that arctic blast even after I had grown tall enough so that I had to bend over to put my face into the open freezer and I continue to enjoy it today everytime I step outside into the frigid Colorado winter. That cold air has never ceased to invigorate me and I love it so, but there is always the rest of my body which needs to be bundled up correctly so that I neither freeze to death or soak in my own sweat.
After 25+ years of committed winter cycling I offer you this list of accessories and strategies to keep you riding in the cold. I won’t go into the whole art and science of layering here, but I can say that you probably won’t need as much insulation as you might think. The important thing to remember when dressing for winter conditions is that the clothes don’t make you warm, you make you warm and the clothing is there just to hold it in. My other important bit of hard earned knowledge is that if you are warm right after you have left the house you are overdressed. Those first 3-5 minutes of your ride should be a little chilly or you are going to have to stop and take some clothes off.
Everyone has their own level of cold tolerance and this guide is meant to be my own personal reference since I tend to forget how to dress after a hot summer. Some people may find my temperature ratings completely off the mark and you should feel free to bundle up or dress down depending on your personal preferences. This is meant for everyday winter riding, going to work, the store or a casual hour around town; if you are going fast out on the pavement I would bundle up and if you are riding snow packed trails on a mountain bike you can probably dress way down.
Starting the guide at 30 degrees fahrenheit I am assuming that you are already wearing a jacket, pants, gloves and a hat. A hat that fits under your helmet is a must have. After crash testing my head both with and without a helmet I prefer with. If there is ever a time of year when you could have a sudden unexpected crash it is in the winter.
30 Degrees – Helmet cover.
A helmet cover adds a tremendous amount of warmth to your riding kit for such a small amount of material. It lets you wear a more breathable hat underneath your helmet and is great to have for riding in the rain year round.
25 degrees – Shoe covers or winter shoes
While you may choose to go with some warm boots and open cage pedals for the winter, those of us who like to stay clipped in will need some help. Some full coverage booties will let you use your regular shoes year round while a pair of winter shoes are a game changer in terms of warmth and comfort.
20 Degrees – Face mask, balaclava or neck gaiter
Your face is going to be the only exposed skin on your body and having something to cover it up makes the riding much more pleasant.
15 Degrees – Warm Gloves or Pogies/Bar mitts
Your hands are very exposed out on the handlebars.
10 degrees – Goggles
Goggles are good to have anytime that it is snowing hard but at temperatures below 10 degrees they help keep your face warm.
0 Degrees – Extra Jacket
Wearing a lightweight jacket underneath your heavier waterproof jacket can help prevent the cold from leaking in. At sub-zero temperatures you’ll be surprised at how much leakage you get from your zippers, pockets and seams. A thin windshell is all you need.
-15 degrees – Extra Pants
Just like wearing an extra jacket an extra pair of wind shell pants will provide a better vapor barrier to keep the cold out and keep you from having to wear extra bulky insulation.
-20 degrees – Pre-heating
At these low temperatures I like to make sure I’m warm, if not hot, before I leave the house. I like to get fully dressed and then do 10-15 push-ups before I hit the door. At -20 I also like to tuck my facial covering up underneath my goggles so I have no exposed skin at all. This doesn’t last too long since exhaling through the fabric will create an ice patch, but by the time it is covered with ice I am usually warmed up enough to bear some skin.
Using this layering guide I’ve ridden in temperatures of almost -40 degrees before in relative comfort. Creating a good seal against the outside air is often more important than the amount of insulation that you are wearing.
Other things to keep in mind when riding in the winter:
Frostbite: You won’t feel yourself getting frostbite. The affected area will have lost feeling by the time damage begins to occur. The only sign is visual with the skin turning white or bluish in color. Cyclists should pay close attention to the exposed skin on your face, the tip of your nose and your cheeks just below your goggles are prime areas for frostbite.
Numb hands and feet: Sometimes you may need warmer gloves and shoes; and sometimes numb hands and feet are a result of low body temperature and reduced circulation. My first line of defense is to pedal harder. A higher intensity will raise you core temperature and improve your circulation which may even make up for your poor choice of gloves and shoes. Once your hands and feet have gone numb you need to take action to prevent doing permanent damage. If retreating to somewhere warm is not an option try getting off of the bike and doing jumping jacks. The centrifugal motion will help increase the blood flow and you should do them with some serious effort. Once you start to break a sweat your hands and feet will be back shortly.
Acclimatizing: The more winter riding that you do the easier it will become. You can improve your circulation to your hands and feet, improve your overall tolerance to cold and improve your attitude as well, so that weather that once kept you inside is now another pleasant winter day.
There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices! Choose well!