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How to Dress for Winter Bike Riding

written by: rdubas • edited by: KJ Fitness,Ink • updated: 4/7/2009

Winter biking is actually a lot of fun. Once you leave the parking lot and start pedaling, you'll warm up in no time. Yet, it still pays to put some careful thought into the clothes you wear.

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    Winter bike riding?! Who in their right mind does that kind of craziness? Actually many people are surprised to find they don't need as much clothing as they might think. The rule of thumb is, "be slightly cold in the parking lot." As long as you keep moving, the core of your body will always be warm.


    There are many choices for the fabric of cold-weather clothing. The most important thing is -- no cotton. Cotton retains a lot of moisture that it then holds against your skin, rapidly drawing heat away from your body. Nice in the summer, but hazardous in rainy or cold weather. Instead choose fabrics such as nylon, polyester, wool, or silk. Commercial fabrics that are common include Capilene (a polyester treated for water-resistance in Patagonia clothing), Thinsulate (a thin but warm composite material made by 3M), SmartWool (treated merino wool said to be less itchy), and Coolmax (a special polyester made by INVISTA said to have more wicking properties).


    Most important is covering your head with something, but don't overdo it. Wear a thin polyester hat that just covers your ears. When it's colder, instead wear a thin balaclava to also cover your face and neck. Forget a thick hat as it won't fit comfortably underneath a bike helmet. You have a lot of control over your body's temperature through your head. Get too hot, then remove the hat and vice-versa.


    Your upper body will rapidly heat up after a few minutes of cycling. Wear a thin base layer and a loose-fitting, thicker layer over that. Wear two to three layers. The first is a long sleeve, thin polyester shirt. You will want something that will breathe and not hold sweat against your body. Over that, wear a slightly thicker long-sleeve turtle-neck. The two of these together keep the heat in and blocks all but the worst cold winds.

    If it is raining hard or really windy, wear an unlined raincoat, often called a hard-shell. Rain and winds will quickly rob heat from your body, especially if you are standing still. Despite the claims of many products, they don't breath well. While you'll stay warm on the inside, you'll also be a sweaty mess, so take it off when you don't need it.

    Another option is a fleece vest. This is a nice compromise of an extra layer without being too much. Also, choose clothing with zippers and vents to help control overheating.


    Arms generally don't get that cold. In most cases, long sleeves are enough. Another nice choice are pull-on arm warmers. These nylon or polyester sleeves can be taken off and quickly stashed in a backpack once you warm up.


    Your quads and hamstrings do the majority of the work while biking, so of all your body parts your legs should never get cold once you leave the parking lot. Nylon tights are enough for many mountain bike riders where trees offer wind protection. Riding on the open road, where wind gusts are more common, may require thicker tights made of polyester.

    Some tights have a built-in chamois pad. Others will need paired with regular bike shorts, either over Lycra shorts or under baggy mountain bike shorts. Instead of shorts, some riders wear rain pants over their tights. These hold in heat during wet rides, but make sure they aren't baggy enough to get caught in the chain or on the back of the seat.

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    Dressing for Winter Bike RidingBeing comfortable while cycling in cold weather is really just a combination of good sense and careful clothing choices. Learn how much to wear to keep those more vulnerable areas of your body warm warm during winter bike riding. cold, clothing, biking, bike riding, cycling, balaclava, wool socks
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    Now we are getting to the body parts that do need some extra winter clothing. When the wind is howling or snow is falling, wear the thin balaclava to protect face and neck. If you don't always want it over your face, it's easy enough to pull it down under your chin. However, when your mouth is covered, the air that you breath in is already warmed from your body heat so your throat and lungs won't dry out as much from the cold.


    Your hands may get cold, sometimes numb for a little while at the beginning. Hands are a trickier area to cover because gloves must be flexible enough to manipulate the shifters and brake levers, but thick enough to keep out the chill.

    There are a number of winter bicycle gloves in varying thicknesses. Use a thinner pair for cool fall and spring rides, but for true winter conditions you will want thick gloves. One option is wearing doubled-layer ski gloves. Sweat moves through the first layer so it doesn't stay against your skin and cause blisters or clammy hands. Plus, many ski gloves have a small pouch for a hand warmer. Some new bike gloves are two layers that can be worn separately, a thin liner and a water-proof outer shell, perfect for managing how warm your hands are. Also, pack an extra pair of gloves in case the first set gets wet when going on long rides.


    Before I took the plunge and purchased winter bike boots, my feet were often uncomfortably cold. That surprised me since when I run in even the coldest weather, my tootsies stay toasty. Not so at the faster speeds of biking. Boots are pricey (often $200 and up), but a worthwhile investment if you plan on doing frequent winter biking. For road riders, shoe covers are a cheaper alternative, but for mountain biking these don't hold up well. If you buy boots, make sure to try them on with heavy or two pairs of socks. An overly tight fit reduces blood circulation and will lead to cold feet.

    Wear different socks depending on the conditions. For wet weather, a pricey but waterproof option is Sealskinz waterproof socks (a wool liner with an Acrylic outer). When it's just really cold, wear wool-blend socks. For all other winter cycling, normal non-cotton athletic socks may be enough since most winter boots are well-insulated.

    Hand and Feet Warmers

    These help a lot for those cold rides. If your gloves have a pocket or two layers, slip a heat pack in there. Before putting your boots on, duct-tape one on the top of your toes, outside the sock. Don't place warmers against bare skin as they may get too hot.

    Most heat warmer activate in air. They also work off of ambient heat, so a trick is to put them against your car's heat vents or between your legs as you drive to a bike ride. They can take half an hour to warm up initially, but should last around four hours.

    Final Thoughts

    When biking in the winter, the hardest part is always standing around in the parking lot. Once you start pedaling, you'll warm up in no time. As long as you keep moving, that is. A bad wreck or extensive mechanical problem where you will be staying still, will cool you off rapidly. Therefore, I strongly advise to not ride alone in the winter, carry a cell phone, and have a spare layer to throw on in the case of emergency. Be safe, but have fun and enjoy the season.


    Cape Breton District Health Authority, Cold And Winter Facts

    Center for Desease Control- Temperature Extremes