The critical thing to be aware of when you’re out in cold weather (as my old Scout master used to tell me) was to make sure you wear lots of thin layers rather than one thick bulky layer. He also used to berate me and my fellow scouts about wearing denim jeans on rainy hikes, so we’d best steer clear of those too.
He was absolutely right on both counts and there’s a couple of reasons for wearing thin layers. One is that each layer of clothing will trap a layer of warm air next to your body. The more layers you have on the warmer you’ll be. The other is that, if you’re wearing multiple thin layers, you can adjust your temperature by taking off or putting back on one of those layers. That can make a big difference for cycling because, when you start cycling, you won’t be warmed up so will likely feel chillier. After a few miles of pedaling though your muscles will have been working hard and you’ll feel much warmer and can take off a thin outer layer. If, instead, you were only wearing one thick layer you’d have to choose between sweating profusely for the rest of the bike ride (yuck) or taking it off and rapidly getting cold. Neither is great.
So, plenty of thin layers and no denim jeans.
In this article I’m going to take you from head to toe and look at the best options for each part of the body. Along the way I’ll also give you some recommendations for my favorite pieces of cycling clothing to keep you warm and cozy on the chilliest of days.
How to dress for cold weather cycling
I don’t know about you, but I find that it’s the ‘sticky out’ bits that I feel the cold on most. These being my ears (particularly the tops), my fingers, and my toes. If I can keep these warm then I’m happy cycling in the coldest of weather. I’ll cover these off (literally!) below and I’ll also look at the five main body areas (head, torso, hands, legs, and feet) and the best cycling apparel to wear for each.
Cold weather headwear for cycling
Cycling with cold ears is never fun, but clearly there are plenty of other parts of our heads that feel the cold too. My nose also gets cold when I’m cycling and I’ve tried various ways of keeping it warm from balaclavas to buffs. The trouble is that, when you combine it with cycling glasses, you tend to find that they get steamed up pretty rapidly making it very difficult to see. That’s dangerous so I’ve tended to just put up with a slightly chilly nose.
My favorite way of keeping my head warm is to use a thermal headband teamed up with a buff. The headband tucks neatly under the bike helmet and doesn’t get in the way of it like a beanie hat would do. The buff stops the neck from getting cold and you can pull it up over your chin on really chilly days. Because I’m quite childish, I tend to wear a buff with a grinning skull printed on it. This amuses me although my wife has yet to see the funny side.
I’ve also got some more thoughts on keeping your head warm when you’re cycling in an article I wrote here.
Best cycling jacket for cold weather
On my torso I wear three layers: base layer, thermal jersey, and windproof jacket. These give plenty of layers for trapping warm air and I’ll also look out for jerseys and jackets that have a variety of zippered openings – at the chest/neck and also at the armpits. These allow plenty of opportunity for micro-regulating my body temperature.
Windproof jackets tend to be cheaper than good waterproof jackets. If you have the budget available (and live in a rainy climate) then I’d recommend going for a jacket that is both windproof and waterproof.
For the base layer you can either go with short or long sleeved, depending on the air temperature you’ll be cycling in and your own personal preference. I tend to go with a short-sleeved layer as this gives me the insulation I’m looking for, particularly when teamed up with the jersey and jacket.
Best cold weather gloves for cycling
My fingers always tend to be the coldest when I’m cycling. I’m not sure why this is the case. Obviously they don’t have much of a fat layer insulating them but they’re also fairly still when I’m cycling (in comparison to my legs, say). I’ve written an in-depth article here about the various gloves options for different extremes of cold weather. The upshot? My favorites are lobster style cycling gloves which keep your fingers paired up for warmth. If it’s really, really cold then I’ll team these up with a pair of neoprene pogies.
Cycling pants for cold weather
I can often be fine cycling in fairly cold weather wearing just shorts on my legs. Because your legs are doing plenty of work on the bike, it tends to be the case that they’ll get warm quickly and stay that way. Even if they can start off a little chilly.
On really cold days though I go with a pair of close-fitting thermal bike pants. These keep my legs nice and warm, but don’t get tangled in the gears and chain like a standard pair of pants would.
Cycling toe warmers
And finally we come to the toes and feet. You’ve got a couple of options for your feet. One great option is to go with shoe covers. These cover the whole of the foot and ankle and go over your shoes. They’re very good but can be a little cumbersome. The other option, which is the one that I prefer, is to use toe warmer covers. If you use cycling shoes with cleats, you can get toe covers that slip over the top of the shoes. But the ones that I like best are neoprene ones that go onto your toes and inside your shoes.
The only thing worse than cycling in cold weather when you’re not wearing warm enough clothing is to be shouted at (again) by your scout master for wearing denim jeans on a winter night hike. Sigh…
It doesn’t matter where on your body you feel the cold when you’re cycling, there’s a great option for you. From headbands keeping your ears toasty to toe covers that stave off the frostbite, you’ll find loads to choose from.
Just remember: lots of thin layers, not one big thick layer.
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