If you find yourself on Singletracks, odds are that you have more than a passing interest in mountain biking. Further still, odds are you’ve found yourself out on the trail when most sane people would be huddled up indoors, complaining about the weather while sipping on tea and watching TV (or doing whatever non-outdoorsy people do, like crocheting or crossword puzzles… I don’t really know). There’s an adage that I’m truly fond of when confronting naysayers: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.” In no case is this more true than when you’re trying to convince yourself or others to get outside and pedal when the snow is flying and the thermometer is looking a bit more pessimistic than usual.
There is a good article on our site, available here, that covers how to prepare for winter in the more forgiving parts of the country… this article, on the other hand, will cover how to prepare yourself for the really nasty stuff. Additionally, not all of the gear here is cycling-specific, so if you’re a bit of a cheapskate like me, you can use it for a variety of winter sports and make it easier to justify getting some new gear. The main thing to remember is that it’s entirely possible to ride during the nastiest parts of winter–get creative with your gear and piece something together that will get you back on the trail, where you belong.
Just for a reference point, your author is a dainty little guy, weighing 135 lbs at 5′ 9″, so while this list may work for me, it could be too much for a more robust rider. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but the worst thing to be in cold weather is too hot – once you get moving and start to break a sweat, you’re making yourself vulnerable to a whole mess of weather-related maladies. So when planning your kit for the day, err on the side of being a little uncomfortable at the start of the ride and trust that once you get the tires rolling, you’ll be a happy rider.
1. Base and Mid Layers (Bottoms)
The key to venturing out in to inclement weather is layering. On days with temperatures around 30 degrees Farenheit, I typically get away with just wearing insulated cycling tights. Sure, I may get a little uncomfortable and my body may try to reverse the effects of puberty by forcing my boys into retreat mode, but I’m usually pretty alright once I start pedaling.
Once temperatures dip a little further, I tend to change my strategy a bit and go to a cycling chamois + base layer combo. I’ve had great luck with Patagonia’s Capilene 3 Synthetic Mid-weight as my go-to base layer when playing in the cold. They’re comfortable, don’t break the bank (despite the “Patagonia premium”), breathe well enough, and, since they’re synthetic, resist funky odors so laundry after every ride isn’t a requirement.
On days when one base layer isn’t enough, I’ll double up on layers to increase my chances of keeping my legs from turning into popsicles, and throw on my trusty cheap-o long underwear over the Patagonias for a little added warmth. Ideally, one would layer another Patagonia Capilene to stick to a layering “system,” but if you’re not baller enough to replace all of your gear at once, there’s no shame with a mixed approach. Another option would be to use a pair of Merino wool base layer bottoms, from a brand such as SmartWool; however, these tend to be a little pricier since they are made from wool, rather than recycled underwear and Mountain Dew bottles.
Whatever you do–and this applies to all winter time athletics–remember that cotton kills! Cotton doesn’t wick moisture or dry effectively, and once you soak a cotton layer, you have the potential to freeze yourself to the core. Once you’ve settled on a base layer setup, put on your favorite cycling chamois, and you’re set for step 2.
2. Outer Layer (Bottoms)
The best thing you can do to your body in winter is protect it from the wind. If you leave any part of yourself exposed to the elements, you’ll be putting yourself at risk for hypothermia and frostbite, both of which have never had positive reviews form people who have tried them. To maintain and regulate the warmth that you’ve worked so hard to create, you’ll want to use a windproof, waterproof pant that also has a venting system to bleed off excess heat.
This season, I’ve had great luck with a pair of Eider Motion softshell pants, which I originally purchased for alpine touring, but have since repurposed for cycling duty as well. Since alpine touring demands that skiers have a wide range of motion while skinning the backcountry, there has been a shift in pant design toward slimmer fits (the hipster in me is overjoyed here) to prevent skiers from snagging pant legs during the ascent. What’s great about this style of pant is that they are relatively cheap, aren’t overly insulated like traditional ski pant setups, have great venting systems to allow you to regulate your body temperature, and have integrated gaiters that keep a tight fit around your boot, preventing you from putting your pants into your bike’s drivetrain. Also, alpine touring pants work great when hiking, snowshoeing, ice climbing, or making snow angels – here’s to multipurpose gear!
3. Base and Mid Layers (Top)
Layering your upper body is a little trickier since so much of your heat is generated by your core. I still like to use a synthetic base layer for starters, but depending on the weather, my approach for my upper layers is a little different. On a milder day (30 degrees or above), I’m able to get away with two thinner layers and stay relatively warm. However, when I venture out in more frigid temperatures, (20 degrees or below) I find myself adding my fall cycling jacket, an older Pearl Izumi Thermal Long Sleeve, to my layering system, bringing my layering up to 3 levels.
The benefit to layering with tops of different thicknesses is that you can truly dial in your warmth level during the ride. Too hot? Shed a layer. Too cold? Put a layer back on. Much like with the bottoms, you can use this base- and mid-layer system for other winter sports, like cross country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, or running. Not that I would condone anyone taking up running because, ew, running.
4. Outer Layers (Top)
This is where the multipurpose/money-saving aspect really shines – you know that puffy winter jacket that you wear whenever you leave the house in winter? The one that fulfills your everyday needs, along with your apres-ski, hiking, and climbing duties? Throw it on over your base layers from step 3 before you head out on the bike, and you’ve got yourself a complete winter-proof system. In staying true to my modest/shoestring budget, I have an older 800 fill synthetic down jacket from the late, great Go Lite that I picked up several years ago for peanuts at an end of season sale. Since Go Lite is now out of business, consider picking up a similarly budget-friendly jacket from your brand of choice and use it for any and all things winter-related.
If you want to take things one step further, throw on your spring rain jacket for use when the snow and sleet are doing their best to impede your ride. Again, no need to have overly-specialized gear when you’re out going toe-to-toe with Old Man Winter. The trick is keep yourself shielded from the wind and well-insulated, even if your kit doesn’t match perfectly and you look like a gumby.
5. Finishing Touches
The cherries on top of this multipurpose layering sundae are some of the most common articles of gear you may have, and also some of the most important for your winter kit. If you have a cycling beanie for fall riding, odds are that it will do just fine under your helmet. If you need to insulate your noggin a little bit more, there’s always room under your brain bucket to squeeze in your winter hat.
The biggest game changer though, in the realm of warm faces – ski/snowboarding goggles. I’ve spent years riding in the cold in my normal glasses and have always found myself tearing up (I’m sensitive) while in the saddle. The ski goggle revelation came while talking to a fellow rider at a local bike shop who excitedly expounded the virtues of using his ski gear to increase his riding season. If you find yourself still wanting for more in the facewarming department, pick up a neck gaiter for about $10 – $20 and bask in the warmth. Sure enough, when you block off the majority of your face from direct winds, your body temperature stays in a warm, happy place.
For protecting your feet, there are three approaches. As Greg mentioned in his winter riding gear article, shoe covers are an excellent way to keep the elements from giving your toes some nasty frostbite while still allowing you to wear your familiar clipless shoes. Shoe covers are typically cheap, hovering anywhere from $15 – $60, and the ability to use your clipless pedals is a great thing. Additionally, you could always opt for a dedicated winter riding shoe, but that doesn’t quite jive with the resourceful and multipurpose approach of this article. The third and cheapest approach is to just rock the boots that you wear in the snow already. It may make you less efficient on the bike, but if you’re tracking watts while riding in the snow, you may be too serious for your own good.
Finally, when trying to keep your digits warm, there are two camps. On one end, the smarter rider will opt for a set of pogies from a company such as Relevate Designs. This allows more natural manipulation of your bike’s controls and is also the warmest way to ride in winter. However, a pogie is a specialized piece of equipment and if someone sees you roaming around with pogies on your hands and no bicycle, they may think you’re crazy and call the cops. My approach thus far has been to use a pair of burly winter mittens, that I picked up for skiing and mountaineering, along with a pair of liners that I poached from an older pair of gloves that have seen better days. They get the job done but, if you have cute little hands like mine, you may still find yourself feeling the cold towards the end of your winter rides.
It’s easy to let inclement weather keep you off the bike and on the couch. However, if your cabin fever becomes unbearable and you think that the only relief for your riding-based depression is spring time, take a minute to scrounge through your gear closet and build a winter riding solution. For me, that meant gathering some of my favorite bits from ski gear, hiking gear, climbing gear, and cycling gear to make a weather-proof setup. It may not always be the most elegant of solutions, but the ends justify the means in this case. Besides, everyone else will be off the trails, busy with marathon Netflix sessions, so they won’t spot your mismatched gear anyways.