Winter Riding Part II: What to Wear

The story continues from Winter Riding Part I: How to Ride Hello, and welcome back. We hope you all enjoyed yesterday’s article about what to watch out for out there on winter roads. Today, we want to talk about what to do before you even get on the bike. Winter riding is all about preparation, and a big part of that is knowing how to dress correctly. The key lies in layers. When it comes to clothing your body, you want (at least) three of them, and they all start with “W”: Wicking Layer Also called the “base layer,” this is the innermost layer, against your skin. The idea behind the wicking layer is to use a fabric that will absorb sweat from your skin through capillary action, or wicking, and transport it through the material to the space in between the wicking layer and the warmth layer (or all the way out to the open air), where it will evaporate. Since evaporation cools the skin, getting moisture away from the skin before it evaporates will keep you warmer and more comfortable. Merino wool is a good natural fiber that is very warm, has excellent wicking properties, insulates even when wet and is naturally odor-resistant. SmartWool makes amazing socks and other garments, most of which are 100% wool, and is available at REI, among other places. Many synthetic materials and blends like Patagonia’s capilene will also wick very well, and are generally cheaper than the wool garments. Silk is not as warm as wool, but wicks decently and is supremely comfortable. Cotton is commonly used, but it does not regulate temperature or wick, and it will not insulate at all when wet (in fact, it will suck the heat from your body when wet).  So, stay away from cotton as a base layer. Warmth Layer(s) Just like the name says, this layer is all about keeping you warm, but one of the key ways it does that is simply by trapping air between it and the wicking layer underneath (or between multiple warmth layers). That air acts as an excellent insulator all by itself. The key to the warmth layer is flexibility. You don’t want it to be too tight or it will reduce air circulation. Too loose and the wicking process will be interrupted. Multiple thin warmth layers often work better than one thick warmth layer, and you have the added benefit of being able to remove one layer if you are overheating. Again, here, wool is one of the best options out there, but you can also consider down fabrics and any of the wide variety of fleece and fleece-type synthetic fabrics on the market. If you have to use cotton, use it here, but only when its lousy insulation ability won’t be a big drawback. Waterproof Layer Finally, on the outside you’ll want to wear something that can stand up to whatever winter is dishing out. Waterproof fabrics come in two major varieties: waterproof and waterproof breathable. Basic waterproof shells are cheap and are typically made of some variety of plastic and will do an amazing job of keeping you dry, so long as the water is coming from the sky. The downside is that they are just as good at keeping sweat from escaping. Many waterproof shells have vents under the arms or on the back to help with this problem, but on a longer ride (or if it’s really coming down hard), they may not be enough. Waterproof breathable fabrics, on the other hand, are designed to block liquid water (rain/sleet/snow) from getting through while allowing water vapor (evaporated sweat) to escape. The most famous of these fabrics is Gore-Tex. They tend to be quite expensive. Oh, and don’t forget the pants. Head & Neck For your neck, start with a buff or thin scarf and graduate to a thick scarf or neck warmer when it gets colder. Any of these options can be stretched to cover your chin or nose in a pinch. For your head, try a helmet liner–a thin cap that fits under your helmet to keep your head warm. If your helmet is the type with lots of vents designed to keep your head cool in the summer, you could buy a less-drafty one, or you can just cover the holes with a helmet cover (or even a shower cap). Try not to use a hood, as many of them will impede your peripheral vision. For your ears, a 180s is a great choice if the helmet liner doesn’t quite cover your lobes, but be aware of how it affects your hearing. Or, if you’re more of an “all-in-one” type of person, go for the windproof-fleece balaclava. For your eyes, sunglasses are a must-have. They’ll stop the snow-glare, of course, but they’ll also keep you from tearing up at the wind and will keep grit, sand and salt away from your sensitive peepers. Get a pair with clear lenses (or safety glasses) for after dark. Hands & Feet Gloves are a no-brainer, and there are lots of options to choose from. For the budget-minded, you can slip your fingerless summer bike gloves over a pair of thin winter gloves or even glove liners and be mostly fine. For your feet, good socks are key. We like SmartWool socks–they’re amazingly warm, your feet won’t get clammy and they come in a huge range of styles and colors. For shoes, you have three options. You can buy winter cycling shoes, many of which will work with whatever pedal technology you favor. Or you can use your regular shoes and cover them up with something like these cycling gaiters. Or you can try some combination of doubling up on socks, keeping spare socks/shoes at your destination, using waterproof hiking boots, or the old “plastic bag over your socks” trick. Keeping your feet dry is an inexact science, but wool socks will at least keep them warm. Know Your Body Unless you just started cycling, you probably know how quickly you can heat up while on your bike. Learn how to adjust your layers to make sure that you stay warm and stay cool. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes people make when they start winter riding is actually overheating!
  • A good rule of thumb is that you should be a little cold when you first hop on your bike.
That way, as you ride, you will work your way up to a comfortable temperature that you can maintain for the entire duration of your trip. If you’re already toasty warm when you start pedaling, you’ll be way too hot in ten minutes or so (and sweating your base layer wet).  This can take some trial and error to get right, so go slow and maybe do a few test rides with different combinations of clothing. Extra tips from the WABA Staff From Chantal, Events Manager – Tuck a couple of tissues into your gloves to help with the inevitable runny nose. Oh, and while you’re tucking things, remember to tuck your base layer into your pants! Nothing says “good morning” like that first draft on your lower back. From Greg, Outreach Coordinator – Grow a beard! It’ll protect your face from the wind and give you a little extra insulation in the process. From Henry, Bicycle Education Coordinator – Perfect your snot-rocket technique. Avoid the whole runny nose thing and impress people at the same time!