You know the basics of dressing for cold weather rides, which boils down to wearing layers and avoiding cotton. But here are some tried and true tips I’ve learned after several seasons of winter fat biking.
Mostly I’m referring to riding in sub-freezing weather and dry conditions. Riding in the rain is another matter, which frankly, I avoid.
Keep in mind these things work for me, but we’re all a little different. I tend to be pretty cold blooded, but I’ve learned I can stay comfortable riding for a couple hours even when temperatures dip into single digits. Adapt what you read to your body type and experiences, and if you’re new to winter riding, it might take several rides to dial in your clothing.
If you’re an active outdoors person, you probably already own most of what you need. With a few exceptions, I don’t wear winter clothes that are exclusive to cycling, so they get a lot of use off the bike, too. I’m not discouraging you from buying cold weather cycling gear, I’m just saying you don’t have to in order to ride comfortably during winter.
Here are some pointers so you can tackle mountain biking at the bottom of the thermometer.
Concentrate on your core: It’s where you want to retain heat because if your core gets chilly, the circulation to your extremities decreases since your body is trying to keep your vital organs warm. Your legs produce a lot of heat because you’re constantly using your body’s largest muscles while pedaling. I honestly can’t remember a time when my legs felt cold, and the most I ever wear is a pair of brushed fleece tights and knee warmers.
It’s ok to start a little chilly: When you get out of a warm house or car and into freezing temperatures, your heart rate is low and you’re not producing as much heat as you will when riding. If you’re wearing so many layers that you’re warm at the trailhead, you’re more likely to overheat when you start riding, which can quickly make you damp and chilly.
Climb first: I try to start every ride with an easy-to-moderate climb to get my heart rate up, to produce body heat.
Give it 20 minutes: It surprises me how often I think I’ve underdressed and been ready to go back to the truck and add more clothes, then about 20 minutes into my ride, I’m fine because my body adjusts. I’m sure that length of time varies by individual, but 20 minutes is my rule of thumb.
Don’t just focus on staying warm, think about regulating heat: Your body will produce enough to heat to keep you warm when cycling, but you have to manage that heat. Overheating can make you as uncomfortable as being cold, and it’s surprisingly easy to overheat when you’re riding in cold temperatures.
Use your head: The quickest, easiest way to regulate heat is by putting on or removing a beanie. Anticipate changes in your body temperature by removing your beanie before a sustained climb, and put it back on when you’re resting, or before descending.
Moisture is the creeping insulation killer: Would you dump a bottle of water onto your base layer before a winter ride and expect to stay warm and comfortable? Of course not, but the average person sweats about 27 to 47 ounces an hour during exercise. Sweat gradually comes out, and if you don’t manage it with wicking clothing, it will saturate your clothes. If it does, you will be cold at some point during your ride, guaranteed. I opt for a breathable jacket, such as a soft shell, instead of a rain jacket, because a soft shell is better at venting sweat. Save the rain jacket for the rain.
Protect your hands and feet: If they get cold, you will be uncomfortable, even if your core is warm. To keep my feet warm, I wear wool socks (the best I’ve found is Smartwool), my regular riding shoes, and neoprene shoe covers. That combination keeps me warm in about any temperature above zero.
Hands sweat more than you realize, so make sure your gloves are breathable, too. Nordic ski gloves make good winter riding gloves. I’ve found that thick, waterproof gloves like those used for downhill skiing start out warm, but eventually get clammy from sweat, which means you end up with cold hands.
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Keep bare skin to a minimum: Pretty self explanatory. Some people wear a balaclava over their faces. I have a beard, so I don’t need one, but I make sure my wrists and ankles are well-covered, and stay that way. Any little gap in your clothes will make an uncomfortable cold spot.
Factor in daily temperature changes: It’s common for winter temperatures to fluctuate 10 to 20 degrees during the day, which means you may have to add or subtract clothes mid-ride. I utilize what I call “half layers,” such as arm warmers, knee warmers, neck gaiter, and windbreaker vest. All those items can be stashed in your hydration pack and pockets, and used to adjust mid-ride.
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Ride when its sunny: It amazes me how comfortable I am when riding on cold, sunny days, because radiant heat from sun makes a big difference. My favorite winter condition is when it’s sunny and windless with temperatures in the mid 20s. The air is dry, so my clothes easily wick moisture, and radiant heat keeps me warm.
Avoid the windy days: In some places, that’s not an option, but wind chill makes staying comfortable much more challenging.
Have an escape route: I prefer riding shorter loops over long loops because if something goes wrong, I’m never far from the truck. I would rather ride a 5-mile loop twice than a 10-mile loop, because then I’m never farther than 2.5 miles from my truck. If I have a breakdown, I can get back in a reasonable amount of time.
Make mental notes: Check the thermometer before and after your ride and remember exactly what you wore under those conditions (assuming you were comfortable). I have my go-to layers for typical winter conditions, and I know when I need to adjust if it’s warmer or colder. If you pay close attention to conditions and know what you wore previously, after several rides, you will know what works, what to carry with you, and have the confidence that you will be comfortable.
Your Turn: What tips do you have for dressing for cold weather rides? Share them in the comments section below!