Comfort is a big concern that keeps many people from riding their bikes all year long, but cold weather doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Just like other winter athletes, all-season cyclists need apparel that’s comfortable, functional and suitable for a range of potential weather conditions. With that being said, outerwear designed for other sports, such as skiing, is usually not ideal for cycling. Unlike jackets and pants built for the slopes, winter cycling clothing is less bulky and more streamlined for spending time in the saddle. If your winter bike commute is less than ten or fifteen minutes, you may not need special gear. However, if you plan on enjoying longer rides during the off-season, it’s definitely worth investing in winter cycling clothing.
In order to stay comfortable on your bike in brisk weather, layering is a fundamental strategy. By combining the right elements together, it’s possible to maintain an optimal temperature range in all but the most extreme weather. There are four primary components in your layering arsenal:
Choosing an appropriate base layer will have a significant impact on your overall comfort level during rides. Most importantly, you should always choose base layers made of moisture-wicking, quick-drying materials like polyester or merino wool. Avoid cotton fabrics, which retain moisture and dry very slowly.
Because cycling is an aerobic activity, a lightweight base layer is generally best for most weather. If you have trouble staying warm on very cold days, you can try a midweight base layer, but many people will find these too hot for cycling. Usually, it’s best to add insulation as a second layer or outer layer, which will be easier to take off once you’re out riding. Definitely avoid heavyweight base layers, which are intended for non-aerobic winter activities. Check out our Layering Guide for more info.
Your second layer should consist of a cycling jersey and a pair of cycling shorts, cycling knickers or cycling tights. If you choose a short-sleeved jersey, consider wearing arm warmers or a long-sleeved base layer underneath. Otherwise a long-sleeved jersey is generally best for colder conditions. Bike shorts can be combined with leg warmers, or you can choose tights for full coverage. Cycling knickers are a good compromise between shorts and tights, but are best suited for cool to moderately chilly conditions. For conditions under 50°F, you’ll likely prefer a thicker pair of cycling tights with a soft, brushed interior surface for extra warmth. These are sometimes called “winter-weight” bike tights.
The outerwear you choose will vary depending on the conditions. For cool weather, you may not need any outerwear, unless it’s raining or very windy, in which case you can choose a lightweight, water-repellent shell or cycling vest. For colder weather, a winter cycling jacket offers additional insulation and protection from wind. For maximum versatility, convertible cycling jackets allow riders to adapt to changing conditions on the fly.
For days that are cold and wet or snowy, a water-repellent or waterproof cycling jacket is a must. Alternatively, you can layer a lightweight waterproof breathable shell over your non-waterproof cycling jacket. The primary advantage to owning a cycling-specific jacket is the fit. These jackets are designed to eliminate excess bulk and are cut longer in the back hem for full coverage when you’re leaning forward on your bike.
Bike gloves are an essential accessory for winter cycling. All-season riders should have at least one pair of full-finger cycling gloves. Wind-resistant gloves are the best choice. Some riders wear a pair of latex gloves over or underneath their full-finger bike gloves in wet or snowy weather. Just be aware that latex is not breathable, so gloves with a waterproof breathable membrane like Gore-Tex® are a better choice.
If you wear cycling shoes, you’ll benefit from owning a pair of cycling overshoes (a.k.a cycling booties), which slip on over your bike shoes for additional weather protection. Cycling overshoes are compatible with clipless pedals. If you prefer to wear a short-sleeved bike jersey and bike shorts for cool weather, consider carrying arm warmers and leg warmers, just in case the temp drops mid-ride. Alternatively, you can begin your ride with warmers and strip them off later if you get too warm. Arm and leg warmers are lightweight and can be easily stashed in a jersey pocket or seat bag.
As always, a bike helmet is the most important piece of safety gear, regardless of the weather. Some helmets may include a winter liner, but most don’t. If not, you can wear a thin beanie or skull cap underneath your bike helmet on colder days. If a hat keeps your head too warm, a fleece headband is a good alternative.
Below are apparel recommendations for a range of winter riding conditions. Keep in mind that some people require more insulation than others. What’s “cool” to one person could be “chilly” to another person, so these recommendations are just a starting point. You’ll want to make slight adjustments to your winter cycling clothing wardrobe to achieve an ideal comfort range.
Cool and Dry (60-70°F)
- Wicking, quick-drying underwear
- Sleeveless or short-sleeved base layer top and long-sleeved bike jersey; or short-sleeved base layer top, short-sleeved jersey and arm warmers
- Cycling shorts and leg warmers; or cycling knickers; or cycling tights
- Full-finger cycling gloves
Cool and Wet (60-70°F)
Same as cool and dry, plus the following:
- Lightweight water-repellent or waterproof shell
- Cycling overshoes
Chilly and Dry (50-60°F)
- Wicking, quick-drying underwear
- Short-sleeved or long-sleeved base layer top
- Long-sleeved cycling jersey
- Cycling tights or knickers
- Cycling vest or cycling jacket
- Lightweight beanie or headband
- Wind-resistant full-finger gloves
Chilly and Wet (50-60°F)
Same as chilly and dry, plus the following:
- Lightweight waterproof shell or waterproof cycling jacket
- Cycling overshoes
- Waterproof, full-finger gloves
Cold and Dry (Less Than 50°F)
- Wicking, quick-drying underwear
- Long-sleeved base layer
- Long-sleeved jersey
- Wind-resistant winter cycling jacket
- Winter-weight cycling tights
- Warm socks
- Beanie and/or balaclava
- Windproof cycling gloves (add glove liners for more warmth)
- Cycling overshoes
Cold and Wet/Snowy (Less Than 50°F)
Same as cold and dry, plus the following:
- Waterproof shell or cycling jacket
- Windproof, waterproof and insulated cycling or ski gloves
Studded Bike Tires and Chains
Depending on where you live, your regular bike tires will probably be sufficient for most winter riding. Of course, standard tires are not ideal for riding in very snowy and/or icy conditions. Although mountain bike tires tend to perform better in the snow compared to road tires, they can actually be worse on icy roads because the aggressive tread pattern allows less surface area to contact the ground. If you live in an area that experiences frequent snow and ice, it may be worth investing in studded bike tires. There are several brands that offer studded bike tires in a variety of sizes, including Continental, Schwalbe and Nokian.
According to ICEBIKE.org, it’s possible to make your own studded bike tires using a pair of old mountain bike tires and a box of sheet metal screws. However, this method doesn’t really work with road tires, since the rubber is typically much thinner. If DIY isn’t your thing, bike tire chains are another option and don’t require any power tools. Of course, installing a set of bike tire chains still involves some elbow grease. Before you install bike tire chains, be aware that most will be noisy and clunky on hard surfaces. For these reasons, ICEBIKE only recommends using chains when there is a fairly significant amount of snow on the road or trail (i.e. more than just a couple of inches).
If you plan on riding in rain, snow or slush, a set of bike fenders is a worthy investment. Although some commuter bikes come with pre-installed bike fenders, most bikes don’t. Luckily, there is a wide range of aftermarket bike fenders available. These vary from rugged aluminum fenders to ultralight composite splash guards. Most are easy to install and fit a variety of frame sizes and styles. Just be aware that most bike fenders are designed for either mountain bikes or road/commuter bikes. Mountain bike fenders are noticeably wider than road and commuter bike fenders.
As the winter days grow shorter, your chances of being caught out during twilight hours will increase. With this in mind, every winter rider should be equipped with front and rear bike lights. It’s also not a bad idea to add a few lights to your spokes for enhanced side visibility. Bike lights are a relatively small investment, and they make a big difference in safety after the sun goes down.
Protect Your Hands
When it’s cold outside, your hands will take the brunt of the exposure. If your hands are too cold to grip the handlebars, you’ll be in for a very unpleasant ride. Make sure you choose wind-resistant, full-finger gloves for riding below 60°F. Check the forecast. If you might encounter rain or snow, make sure your full-finger gloves are also waterproof, otherwise they will probably become saturated and significantly less warm. If you don’t feel like splurging on waterproof, insulated cycling gloves, you can always wear ski gloves, although these will be a little bulkier.
Cycling jackets with zip-off sleeves are a fantastic choice for days that transition from chilly to cold, or vise-versa. A convertible cycling jacket will give you greater versatility, and the zipped off sleeves can usually be stored inside the pockets. Glove liners are another good accessory to carry on colder days. They don’t take up much room, and if you find that your hands need a little extra insulation, you can quickly slip them on underneath your cycling gloves for a boost of warmth. If you have room, you can also carry a couple of heat packs, just in case.
Plan to be a Little Cold at First
Don’t dress too warmly. You should feel a little bit chilly at the beginning of your ride. As your body starts to work harder, it will produce more heat. If you start your ride feeling nice and toasty, you’ll likely end up being too hot about twenty to thirty minutes into your ride.
Everyone has a slightly different comfort level in winter weather. Some people need more warmth. Others need more breathability. Your winter cycling gear will require fine-tuning, so give yourself time to create a system that works for you.
Slow and Steady
When riding in inclement weather, expect to maintain a slower pace, especially if the roads are slick with snow and ice. You may not even notice much difference in traction when riding in a straight line. Loss of traction is much more likely to occur when turning or braking. Just like in a car, your ability to stop quickly will also be diminished in bad weather, so leave yourself an extra buffer zone. Be vigilant for slick patches that you might not be able to see. Freezing drizzle and black ice can surprise you.
Air Down for Snow and Ice
If you’ll be riding on snow or ice, don’t pump your tires up to max pressure. In fact, you can run them about 10-15 PSI below full pressure, give or take. This will allow your tires to flatten out more and conform to the ground, creating a larger contact surface for better traction. Just don’t air down too much, or you’ll run the risk of getting a pinch flat.
Put a Cap on It
Our next tip comes courtesy of “irclean” on BikeForums.net, who recommends picking up an inexpensive plastic shower cap and storing it inside a pocket or seat bag. If it really starts raining or snowing heavily, toss the shower cap on over your helmet to help keep your head dry. Later, if you need to park your bike outside, the shower cap will double as a bike seat cover. Bonus!
Fatter is Better
When choosing bike tires for winter, wider is better. If you frequently ride in snow, especially off-road, the absolute best tool for the job is a fat bike. Equipped with extra-wide rims and beefy tires, a fat bike offers better traction on snowy, muddy and icy terrain compared to a more traditional bike. Although they tend to run on the heavier side, these bikes are fun to ride on the trails during the winter season. In fact, some mountain bikers prefer to ride their fat bikes all year long.
Clean and Lube Often
Winter rain, snow and slush will cause grime to accumulate on your bike much faster compared to the summer months. If you put your bike away wet and dirty, it won’t be long before your chain, derailleurs, hubs and other parts begin to experience wear and corrosion. To keep it running smoothly and safely all winter long, clean your bike regularly, especially after riding in crummy conditions. Pay special attention to the drivetrain and other moving parts. After cleaning, don’t forget to apply chain lube and bike grease to the appropriate components to repel water and help inhibit corrosion. For advice on how to clean your bike, check out this guide from Park Tool.