January 9, 2010

Cold Weather Cycling

Let me encourage all you fair-weather riders to get out there and ride. Don't let the cold scare you off. With a little know-how and a few simple layers, you can ride comfortably in cold weather. See, I've done the research for you. I've braved the chill and learned from a few mistakes. And so I present to you what I wear in cold weather.

You will, of course, want to make adjustments for differences in your metabolism and in whatever clothing you have.

I at times still have second thoughts before going out in the winter, but once I get out there I'm always glad that I did. Give me your feedback so I can improve this, particularly if you can fill in the blanks below 22 degrees.

temperature< 22ºF22º - 29ºF29º - 36ºF36º - 40ºF40º - 45ºF46º - 52ºF52º - 56ºF56º - 62ºF62º - 65ºF65º+temperature
shoe cover booties booties booties booties booties booties booties toe warmers toe warmers shoe cover
feet warmest wool socks & 2 chemical toe warmers warmest wool socks & 2 chemical toe warmers warmest wool socks & chemical toe warmers warmest wool socks & chemical toe warmers warmest wool socks warmest wool socks warm socks good socks good socks good socksfeet
legs 2 layers: tights & outer-wear 2 layers tights & windstopper underpants tights tights tights shorts &
knee warmers
shorts &
knee warmers
shorts shortslegs
torso 4 layers 4 layers 3 layers 3 layers 3 layers 2 layers 2 layers 2 layers 2 layers 1 layertorso
arms 3 layers 2 or 3 layers 2 layers 2 layers 2 layers 1 layer 1 layer optional arms
wind breaker jacket, outer shell, microfleece or ?? vest with mesh back vest with mesh back vest with mesh back optional wind breaker
hands lobster mitts, liners & chemical warmers lobster mitts, liners & chemical warmers lobster mitts, liners & chemical warmers lobster mitts winter gloves full fingered full fingered finger-less gloves finger-less gloves finger-less gloveshands
head 2 balaclavas? 2 layers: balaclava & winter skull cap (beanie) 2 layers: balaclava & winter skull cap balaclava ⇐either⇒ winter skull cap ⇐either⇒ light skull cap light skull cap summer skull cap for sweat head
eyes ? glasses (always) glasses glasses glasses glasses glasses glasses glasses glasseseyes

This chart works equally well if riding at dark with little wind, or in the daytime with 5-10 MPH winds. If it's windier or cloudier than normal, I'll go with the extra warm options or I'll shift one column to the left.

Decide for yourself whether to take wind-chill into account. I used to when I was just learning to ride in the cold, then I stopped adjusting when I was in peak fitness. If you find that the prescription in the chart is a little too cold for you, a simple adjustment would be to use the forecast "feels like" temperature. I'm starting to use the "feels like" forecast more and more now that I'm a bit older (50s) and not as fit.

There's nothing really special here. I try to stay away from mentioning specific products, but I'm fond of really good, thick, wool socks such as Defeet Blaze. The idea is that you can ride in the winter with very little special gear. There is no need to go search out the product I use. With that said, let me give some explanation of some of the items in the table.
  • My booties are just neoprene booties (shoe covers) with a fleece inner liner that you can get in many different brands. Winter cycling boots are better but more expensive.
  • I mention two kinds of toe warmers. In the 30s and below, I'm talking about chemical toe warmers such as the Grabber brand. These are thin pads you stick in your shoe. They produce heat when you take them out of their wrapper. Simply wonderful. I don't care for two pairs of socks. Too thick. Use the chemical toe warmers. It's worth it.
  • In the lower 60s, however, when I mention toe warmers, I'm talking about simple, light shoe covers. Maybe they cover just the toe. Maybe they cover the whole shoe. But I'm thinking of something lighter and cooler than booties.
  • When I say "tights" I'm referring to what is probably a mid-weight tight. Mine is one of the Performance brand tights, but any brand will do.
  • "Baselayers" are great if you have them. If you don't just wear multiple regular old jerseys. I did that for a while. But I now prefer using a product actually positioned as a base layer. They are often a little thicker, maybe more snugly fitting. I have a sleeveless crew and also a long sleeve base layer. I also have some shirts designed for jogging that work well as base layers. Anything will do as long as it's not cotton.
  • My balaclava is old, plain, and thin. Nothing high-tech about it. That's why I double up with that and a Headsweat skull cap (beanie) when it is freezing. If it warms up while I'm riding, I can remove a layer. If you have something thick or high-tech, doubling up might not be necessary.
  • In this table, I used to mention hunting gloves because that's what I had lying around. The fancy lobster mitts I subsequently bought are a little better. But try to use what you have before you spend money on more stuff. A variety of gloves are useful however because sweaty hands are bad when it's cold: fingerless, full-fingered, a little warmer (lightweight winger gloves), even warmer (thick winter gloves), and as warm as you can get (lobster mitts)! Layering in a pair of very thin glove liners is a really great idea. I think mine are Arc'teryx Rho Glove Liners.
  • I found that my fingers were cold only when I didn't have the rest of me fairly well covered. If my toes are hurting, my fingers are going to have sympathy pains. If I take care of my head, my core, and my toes, my fingers will be fine. 
  • I haven't found a jacket that breathes well enough. A jacket that traps any moisture at all is going to be a real problem for you. Anyway, I haven't found that I've needed a jacket, even when the temp is down in the 20s. Just layer on the other stuff. If you already have a vest with a mesh back, that would make a great windbreaker. By all means, use it. If you don't, then slip a couple sheets of newspaper up under your outermost jersey. That worked for me for a long time.
Disclaimers: For all of this I'm assuming the pavement is dry. Also, I'm mainly a roadie. This applies to mountain biking, but I generally dress 1 column to the right when mountain biking.


  1. Great table, Andrew. Since you gave me this last year, I use it all the time.

    As far as a jacket, you would be amazed how much a difference a good, thin , breathable jacket makes. I love the Descente Element.

    Also, if you ever want to find a great deal on cycle clothing, check out bonktown.com. They sell heavily discounted items one at a time until they are gone and move on to the next item. Most items last an hour or so. I book mark the site but you can add it to your RSS feed.

  2. Here's the more simple and less granular approach of Wallace McRoy, the SBL President and a cycling buddy of mine:

    65 to 55 - knee warmers and arm warmers
    55 to 45 - leg warmers, and long-sleeve base layer and jersey, and toe covers (and a vest if I don't think it will make me sweat)
    45-to-35 - warmest tights or leg warmers and long sleeve base layer, mid layer, and outer layer and full shoe covers
    below 35 - everything I own. Seriously, I have some Goretex rain pants, rain jacket, and socks that fit over my 35-to-45 gear.

    My warmest tights are Pearl Izumi Am-Fib tights.
    My leg warmers are warmer than my simple tights.
    I calculate what to wear by what the temperature will be at the end of the ride. I have weather.com bookmarked and I look at the hourly forecast.

  3. Another good page of info: http://www.commutebybike.com/2006/11/01/how-to-dress-for-cold-weather

  4. I've just updated the table to recommend knee warmers instead of arm warmers in the 55-62 degree range. I think that's a better recommendation and it allowed me to simplify the chart.