There are few places in the world where, if you reside there and regularly spend a lot of time in the outdoors, you quickly become qualified to discuss cold-weather gear. Not due to in-depth research but the necessity of not losing any appendages you’d like to keep. Minnesota is one of those places. As a life-long Minnesotan who enjoys cross-country skiing, snowboarding, and biking year-round, I’d argue I’m qualified to give you some tips. I’ve cycled through five winters now, but have lived 37 years of winter – and I still love it. My coldest bike ride to date? -56°F. You become more savvy every time you push yourself in the frigid elements, and I like that sort of challenge. Here are my tips for winter cycling clothing, which may work for you too.
Hands & Feet
Keeping your hands and feet warm is one of the most vital techniques for winter cycling. If one of those are frozen, it’s a guarantee you will not discover a whole new type of cycling misery.
I own many different gloves for varying conditions. When temps are in the 40s, I rock a thinner glove or liner glove primarily for cold wind (unless it’s raining and I’ll go for a heavier glove). For temperatures in the teens-30s, I sport this REI, water and wind-resistant, insulated glove. Most will confess that as you approach single digits and negative temperatures, no glove will keep your hands sufficiently warm. It is common to switch to mittens at these temperatures. Alternative options include bar mitts (also called pogies like these from Revelate Designs) with a wool glove inside or a leather chopper mitten, also partnered with a liner. (Also, purchased at a store like Fleet Farm, these are easy on the wallet.) Mittens have suited me the most, and I rock a pair of Dakine Sequoia mitts. When temps drop into the negatives, I add a thin liner glove inside. My #1 rule for gloves or mittens? They must have a long cuff with a cinch cord! I can tuck my jacket sleeves in and keep the cold air out!
Throughout winter, I pedal on platforms and sport Smartwool socks and snow boots. Smartwool is my recommended sock. They are thick, wick away moisture and prevent odor. Until temps drop to the teens and below double digits, Bogs Waterproof Leather boots with Smartwool keep me toasty. When true Minnesota winter hits, a snow or hiking boot is my go-to. I recommend the following characteristics for winter cycling footwear: flexible upper with a height that meets your mid-calf to prevent slush from entering, waterproof, and well-rated for low temps. Currently, I’m rocking the Columbia Heavenly Omni-Heat Boot. If you are looking for clipless boots, many swear by the 45North brand. These are a bit too spendy for me, and I’ve always kept warm in a non-cycling specific boot. If you are cycling on a minimal budget, there are many great options for warm boots at a lower price point.
Suffering from rosacea, keeping my face covered is pertinent. I use buffs and neck gaiters to keep my neck and face covered (but also to complete my metamorphosis into a bike ninja.) One of my favorites is from the Buff brand and has a Goretex neck portion to block wind. I also have a Columbia neck gaiter with heat reflective material and a drawstring cord (which keeps it from falling and provides that red line across your face to show your coworkers that yes, your bad self did bike to work.) When it gets brutal outside, and you go for a longer ride, the part by your mouth will freeze into an ice chunk from moisture. When I layer these two buffs, it prevents that from happening so quickly.
Wool cycling caps are my winter treasure – mainly due to their ear flaps. My buffs and gaiters also get pulled over my ears, but together they provide ample ear coverage. This hat by Red Dots Cycling and this one by Pace are my favorites.
Some folks are fans of winter-specific helmets. In the past, I’ve used helmets of all seasons and haven’t noticed a difference. Using a winter hat, I feel sufficiently covered and warm. My winter helmet is a Bern Berkeley helmet, which does provide more cover. They also sell a winter kit you can insert into the helmet, which some find useful.
For most winter-cycling attire, be sure they offer two elements: water-resistance and wind-blocking. I tolerate a fair amount of cold on my legs, partially because I’m accustomed and also because I possess a strong aversion to double-layering on my gams. For much of the winter, I wear jeans (the stretchy, lycra-blended ones.) When bitter cold commences, I pull out my technical gear. My favorite pair of pants were purchased at REI probably five years ago now. They are straight-leg, with a zipper at the ankles, water-beading, and wind-blocking. Made from a flexible fabric, they don’t limit my movement. Admittedly, during my -56°F ride, my legs burned more than I desired, and I’ve been scoping out new pants. Soon, I hope to put some to the test, and I’ll share my experience. Layering is a crucial winter skill, and a reliable base layer is key. They offer both wool and synthetic options (I’m a fan of the latter), and I don REI’s medium base layer when we hit single digits and negative temperatures.
Cross-country ski and cycling companies need to unite forces. I swear by cross-country ski jackets for winter riding. They offer all you desire in a cycling jacket: a little quilt, wind-blocking, water-beading, venting, and a back storage pocket like most cycling tops. Becoming overly-sweaty in freezing temps is a no-no. Sweat = water. Water + cold temps = hypothermia. This Swix ski jacket has been my dream come true. In single-digit temps, I pair it with my base layer. Into the negative temps, I also add a thin, wool sweater I purchased from Target eons ago. Combined, these keep me toasty.
Tips for Newbies:
If you are new to winter cycling, understand that what functions for me may not for you and vice-versa. We are all unique, and often you must experiment to discover your optimal warmth combinations. I suggest testing gear during short rides near your home before adventuring further. Additionally, expect the first item you buy may not be sufficient for you. One reason I prefer purchasing from REI is their return policy. Finding clothing that works well is crucial and will encourage you to keep pedaling in all temperatures. Don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t work immediately. Winter cyclists are continually adjusting and testing. Naturally, it’s part of the process (and some may argue it’s their favorite part).
Lastly, my dad taught me what most Minnesota dads teach their kids: always bring additional attire with you. “If you get hot, you can take layers off, but if you get cold and don’t have anything, you are stuck,” – the phrase often replaying in my head. Temperatures can sometimes drop throughout the day. I always carry spare gloves, buffs, hats and a sweater with me. I can swap out any wet clothing to avoid getting cold. If I’m not sufficiently warm, I can put on another layer. Being prepared, especially in more isolated scenarios, is core to successful, safe, and pleasant winter riding.
If it’s your first attempt at winter riding, I hope you find it as enjoyable as I do. Feel free to comment what works for your winter riding or what you found helpful.
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