As previously mentioned, this is my first year cycling through the winter. The crazy thing is we’re having the warmest winter I’ve ever seen, especially for Winnipeg! As I write this, it’s +4°C out and the normals for this time of year are -13 to -24°C! In fact, it’s too warm to ride my bike, because of slop and slush, so I drove today.
I had planned to write about my winter gear and how it changes as the days grow colder, but we really haven’t had a chance to see it get colder. So far the coldest I’ve ridden in is about -14°C: pretty balmy compared to what I thought I’d have to endure. I figured I would list the items and layers I wear and the approximate temperature ranges I wear them, and maybe some informal reviews of particular items. Also, I’m trying to do this season as cheaply as possible because gearing up for winter can be pretty expensive. Wherever possible, I use what I already have before buying something specialized.
It seems that my gear selection is just a product of always improving the next weakest link, or learning the coldest parts of me for each successively colder ride. So here it is:
As most people are aware, doing any exercise outside should prompt a person to use layers. That way, you don’t get too hot or too cold and you can change as you get warmer. A general rule of thumb is: dress so that you’re cool before you start exercising but not uncomfortable. I usually get mostly dressed up then go outside to the garage to get my bike; that way I can judge the temperature before I set off.
The main issue with layering is if you get cold because you didn’t start with enough layers, you only have a couple of (reasonable) choices:
- Turn back, wussy, before you freeze your favorite appendages off! Go home and take the car. Or, call for a ride if you have a phone. If you’re more than half way to your destination, consider Item 2.
- Keep on truckin’ but put a move on to warm yourself up. Crank up the cadence or push yourself a bit to get the blood flowing. Often I’ve found I don’t really warm up till about a third of the way there.
- If your nose, toes, or fingers are numb, stop in at a gas station or somewhere to warm up for a bit. Most places probably won’t mind terribly.
- Lock up your bike and take the bus the rest of the way. Many cyclists use the bus when they’re not riding anyway (but I don’t).
Becoming too warm is no big issue, you just take off a layer if you’re on a long ride and throw it in your bag, or if you’re on a shorter ride, wear one less layer on your way home.
I tend to want to be prepared so I err on the side of too many rather than too few layers. When I get to work I use up about 4-5 hangers in our coat rack with shirts, pants, mid layer, coats, etc. My friend who cycles through the winter does the same, so we collectively use about half the coat rack 🙂
Down low I wear cycling shorts for warmer weather (down to about -9 degrees), and cycling shorts + long johns for colder weather. Up top my base layer is either a technical tee (moisture wicking) for warmer weather (down to about 0 or -4 degrees) or a long sleeved compression shirt. I have a couple different thicknesses of these, which have helped me ride down to -14°C. My socks’ base layer is a moisture wicking sport sock that goes about halfway up the calf. I don’t use ankle socks because I don’t want exposed skin when I ride. Leave these for summer.
Keeping in mind, I haven’t ridden below about -14°C, I haven’t tested my mid layers in very cold weather. All mid layers are worn over the above mentioned base layers.
Lower body has been sport shorts or nothing (i.e just base layer long johns). Sport shorts keep me going to around -4, then I use the long johns below that. As it gets colder, I will probably add in sweat pants over my cycling shorts, then sweat pants over my long johns. I figure this will get me down to the -20’s at which point I’ll probably find the next weakest link in my plan. I think I wore sweat pants once and really sweated (go figure)! Haven’t had to wear them since.
Upper body has been nothing (base layer only, down to about 2°C), then base layer + breathable jersey (down to about -14°C). I basically use the jersey as my final layer below my outer layer, no matter how cold it is. I haven’t needed any more layers so far. As it gets colder, I may add in a sweatshirt or fleece sweatshirt.
I only have two layers for socks: the base layer and when it gets colder, a thick wool sock on top.
Early on, I decided I will not ride in rain, sleet, or slush because:
- I have a nice mountain bike that I would like to keep nice (I know this is contrary to just about all advice out there, but my beater bike will not reliably get me anywhere)
- I am only riding for enjoyment. Period.
With the above points in mind, my mid layers should take care of most insulating jobs, while my outer layer is mainly for wind. Up to today I have only worn one outer layer: A thin windbreaker jacket and wind breaker pants with mesh inside. I wore these in -25 one day but it doesn’t count because I fogged up and had to turn back. I think I would have made it if not for that. We’ll see what happens when it gets colder than -14, which should be this week. I have yet to put on my winter jacket that I wore last year in November, but I believe that will be the next layer. So far with the layers, even on the coldest days, when I arrive at work my wind breaker jacket and pants are wet on the inside, meaning I always work up enough of a sweat to stay warm.
Head and Face
I’ve learned that since I have asthma, I develop a wheeze when I get to work if I’m not wearing a face mask in any weather below about 8°C. This is the first item to go on after my coat. I bought a Serius neoprene face mask from MEC that does this job nicely.
I have two different thickness head bands that I also bought from MEC, but so far have only used the lightest one. The thicker one keeps out all wind and if combined with the hood of my windbreaker under my helmet, will probably get me to below -20°C. I have a thin toque for even colder weather that may fit under my helmet.
I wear glasses and have had problems with fogging this winter. I have settled on the Scott Heli OTG goggles when the air temp is below 4 degrees (see my post on fog management). These goggles have been working great for me, but again, about two days after I bought them I haven’t seen any low temperatures. The goggles also come with a barely-tinted brown/grey lens (called natural) that is great for winter/night riding. The orange tint on the goggles I used before was good only for dusk/dawn riding.
I am not generally riding in the rain, so I don’t have a helmet cover. So far, I’ve put on my thin wind breaker hood under my helmet on the coldest days and still arrived with it wet (on the inside). As for helmets, I bought a new helmet this summer that is lighter, with lots of ventilation. I don’t use this one for winter. I went back to my previous helmet that has smaller vents and I removed the visor due to interference with the ski goggles. It was also fitting a little loosely on me, which works better with head bands and face masks under the straps.
Right now I have narrowed my gear down to three mitt/glove combinations. For warmer weather, I have a thin pair of Champion spandex/nylon gloves from Target ($15). They have a rubberized web on the palms for grip. These don’t do well below 0°C. Next is some Hot Paws run-of-the-mill gloves ($15) from Wal-Mart that have done me well down to -12 or so. Finally, and I’ve only worn these once, I bought some Dakine Blazer snowboard mitts ($40) that have an inner fleece glove, long cuffs with draw string, and a central velcro strap for tightening them up. I wore these in -14 and got to work totally toasty! I wore them in -25 too, but it was only 10-12 minutes, so it doesn’t count (toasty still). I actually can’t wait for it to get colder so I can try these out more; I don’t think I’ll need anything warmer.
I had previously bought some Hot Paws mitts with inner fleece liners ($22) at Wal-mart, but they didn’t work at all. I returned them after my first ride. It was only -10°C out.
I have only three choices of footwear: running shoes, low-top hiking shoes, and winter boots. The running shoes and hiking shoes are both only good down to about -8°C, but the running shoes are really only good in fall before first snowfall. My winter boots are Solomon brand and really good for cold weather. They’re not bulky at all and pretty flexible, so I’ve had no problems wearing them while riding. I haven’t hit a low temperature yet where my feet have been cold in these boots.
A note about pedals: I have standard MTB pedals on my bike which are pretty flat, no straps or clips attached. I haven’t slipped off the pedals once, even in snow, so I wouldn’t worry if you can’t afford special shoes, clips, or straps. I’ve also had to stick out my foot to stop a fall a couple times on ice, so I think it’s better to be able to quickly get your foot down.
There you have it. My winter cycling gear for what has so far been a weird, warm winter for Winnipeg. As I look at the forecast, we’re about to get down to -25°C at night, so I think I’ll be updating this post soon with some colder gears. I also want to take some pictures of me all geared up, Ninja-style, so I’ll update with those too. Stay tuned!
For more information, check out this great article by Kevin Miller, a seasoned pro: http://biketothefuture.org/commuter-cyclists-resources/tips/winter-cycling-in-winnipeg-can-be-successful-and-rewarding
Also, Icebike.org has good advice, gear reviews, etc.