As a year-round cyclist, I get asked this a lot. My answer is always the same: There’s no such thing as bad weather. Only inadequate clothing.
But more is not always better. Too many thick layers can backfire and actually make you colder, especially if they’re made out of the wrong materials. It’s important to choose the right clothes, and to know how to layer them.
Dressing for winter cycling has an architecture to it. Once you get used to the basic structure, you can fine-tune it to your personal needs. Soon you’ll know exactly what to wear for particular temperatures and conditions, and you can just layer up without thinking about it.
* Two thin layers are always warmer than one thick one, because they trap air inside. And if you get overheated you can peel one layer off and be comfortable rather than freezing.
* In extremely cold weather, adding a thin layer underneath will often keep you warmer than putting a thicker one on top, especially on the hard-to-heat extremities. Glove liners and sock liners do a surprisingly good job of keeping the cold from penetrating.
Staying warm while riding a bike is as much about keeping moisture away from your skin as it is about having enough insulation over it. When we ride, we sweat, even when it’s cold out. Sweat that’s trapped against the skin it will do its job – cool the body down. When there’s a windchill of -15F, that’s a bad thing.
That’s why your first layer of clothing should be made of fabric that will wick the sweat away from you rather than trapping it against you – in other words, NOT COTTON. Look for wicking base layers that are made from synthetics, silk, or lightweight wool. Outdoor, camping, sports, and hunting retailers stock many kinds, and they’re widely available online, labeled wicking underwear, baselayers, or long underwear</a>. Some are even pretty!
On top of your wicking layer, add one or more thin insulating layers. I prefer lightweight wool or cashmere sweaters for insulation because they provide a lot of warmth for minimal weight. If you’re allergic or otherwise opposed to wool, polyester fleece makes a good substitute – though it’s not as warm as wool and is bulkier. Your outer layer/jacket should be wind and water-resistant. Though there are plenty of good winter cycling jackets on the market, you needn’t spend a fortune on a cycling-specific jacket. Waterproof-breathable rain jackets make fine outer layers – you can add as much insulation as you need underneath. In the very coldest weather (below 10F) I put a down vest over my jacket and I’m completely toasty.
Legs tend to stay warmer than hands and feet, so usually a pair of winter cycling tights worn over cycling shorts is enough. Why wear padded cycling shorts? Because the chamois pad prevents irritation from friction and makes your ride much more comfortable. In less frigid (or less windy) weather, I sometimes wear regular wool tights over my shorts instead of cycling-specific tights. They’re nice and warm but don’t do as good a job of blocking the wind as the lycra ones do. When the temperature drops into the teens or below, I just add a pair of base layer bottoms under my tights (but over my chamois shorts).
Optional additions: Calf-high knitted legwarmers, skirt or knee-length pants over the tights. In colder climates, skiing or snowboarding pants could be a good choice. Some people ride in jeans, but I find them too binding to be comfortable, and being cotton, they’re not going to be the best choice for warmth.
Hands and Feet
Hands and feet need special treatment because they’re taking the brunt of the wind, and also because they’re furthest from the warm core of your body.
Feet: I am a big fan of light- or mid-weight wool ski socks for bicycling. They keep your feet and calves warm and are still thin enough to fit into almost any shoes. In very cold temps, I wear thin (wicking) liner socks underneath and/or put adhesive instant toe-warmer packs on top of my socks. I also find that riding in Gore-Tex hiking shoes or other waterproof boots helps keep my feet not only dry but also warmer.
Hands: It’s not necessary to have fancy cycling gloves to keep your hands warm. As with other parts of the body, two layers of gloves are often warmer than one thick layer. I like Pearl Izumi lobster-claw gloves (like a mitten with the hand-part split into two) because you get the warmth of having your fingers together but still have some dexterity for braking and shifting gears. Some people swear by leather work gloves with a fleecy or Thinsulate lining. Others like ski or hiking gloves or mittens. Any of these work well, and remember that if your gloves aren’t warm enough, you might find that putting a thinner/smaller pair inside them makes all the difference. Army surplus stores are a good place to find inexpensive wool gloves that make great liners.
Head, Neck and Face
You’ll need to have some kind of hat under your helmet – my favorite arrangement is a close-fitting knitted cap with earflaps that tie under the chin. I wear that with a scarf or a pull-over neckwarmer (also called a cowl, which I can pull up to cover my chin and nose if I need to. Some people like balaclavas face masks), but I find I really only need that much coverage in the most severe weather. I’ve been known to wear two layers of hats, too – or a thin balaclava with a hat over it.
Riding in cycling or sports glasses, or even regular sunglasses can help block the wind and may keep your face a little warmer. It’s a matter of personal preference so try it out and find out what works for you.