How to Bicycle Through the Winter

This is the coldest day of the decade. -14F, NOT including the wind chill.

This is the coldest day of the decade. -14F, NOT including the wind chill.

Biking through the winter can be fun AND exciting. I biked every week this winter, with the exception of when I was visiting family out of state. To say that this winter in Milwaukee was extreme would be an understatement, but with great access to
clothes, roads, paths, snow, and bikes, it was successful.

Most people will tell you that the hardest part of bicycling is the cold, or figuring out what to wear (which I will get to in a second). Looking at it as a challenge, however, the details fade away and the most difficult thing is just deciding to do it.  No matter how cold it is, you buckle up your balaclavas and get out there. Once you get past the decision to ride through winter, you will be set. You just need to get past the initial fear of bicycling through new kinds of weather!

I was initially apprehensive. However, after attending the Winter Bike Forum hosted by the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective and the people over at Coast In Bikes, I was confident that I, too, could join the dozens of people who bike through the snow, salt, and slush on the streets of Milwaukee.

What I learned at the winter bike forum, and what I want to teach you today, is about layering.

What you wear depends on the weather. But, since you will be layering, we will go with the coldest situation possible, starting from the inside out.

INNER INNER LAYER: Socks, underwear, tshirt. Underwear is not important, but socks are. You want wool socks. Your INNER INNER LAYER will need a thin or medium grade 100% wool hiking sock. Since I rarely wash my button down shirts, I treat my tshirt as underwear too – it absorbs odors and things.

INNER LAYER/BASE LAYER: You start by adding another pair of socks, and depending on how cold it is, maybe a grocery bag between socks. However, I tried the grocery bag and had mixed results. Your 2nd layer of socks needs to be thick. I rocked the Lifetime Warranty socks from Bass Pro, which are super thick, and of course, have the benefit of being something I bought for life.

Besides socks, you need a baselayer. You will want something preferably non-cotton. I used a pair of Duofold Thermal tops and bottoms I got at Goodwill. They are actually womens, so they fit me kind of weird, but any pair will do. You probably don’t want 100% cotton long johns or you will get wet and cold quickly.

Thin gloves, preferably ones you can use your phone with and lock your bike with.

You want a balaclava for your head, and you want it to be 100% merino wool. I got mine from REI, and totally love it. I am convinced that having this balaclava made my entire experience fun and enjoyable instead of miserable. And, I wore it in -14F and was still NOT COLD. These things rock, and I wear the balaclava+ski goggle combo basically anytime it is below 30F.


OUTER LAYER: Shoes over socks. I use the equivalent of Merril hiking shoes from Wal-Mart. They are fairly waterproof, AND windproof, which is important. Of all of my body parts, often the only part of me that would get cold would be my feet. In the future, I will upgrade to some sort of neoprene footy.

Thin glittens over your gloves.

Jeans over your baselayer.

Thin long sleeve shirt, with a thin zip-up hoody over the long sleeve shirt. The zip up feature is nice, because if you overheat you can unzip it while riding or stopped at a stop sign.

Hat over your balaclava on your head, far enough down to cover your forehead. I used a cheap acrylic beany. Ideally, something wool would be nice, because this would sometimes frost over on the outside after riding long enough just from the steam coming off of the top of my head!

OUTER OUTER LAYER: Neoprene footies and bar mitts. I did NOT have these, but I will have them for next winter. They seem like a nice luxury, especially if you treat your bike like most people treat their car, which you should.

Leather mittens. The hardcore ice fishers of northern Wisconsin call them choppers, like the kind of thing you expect to see on the face of a motorcyclist. Or something Arnold would yell out loud. You, too, now have the opportunity to yell, “PUT ON THE CHOPPER” with an Arnold accent every day in the winter.  You don’t need to spend $70 on weird-looking lobster gloves. I got my mittens for free, but I found out that you can get an equally hardcore pair here for like $15. I bought a pair of lobster gloves at the beginning of the winter, and they were cold around 15F. You want something that will keep you warm below 0F. I also tried deerskin mittens from Farm and Fleet, at the recommendation of a Minnesota biker.  While fuzzy, I found the deerskin mittens nowhere near as warm as the leather mittens I know and love now. The thicker, the warmer, the better. Keeping your hands nice and toasty is important.

Windbreaker pants. Yes, these go on the outside of your jeans. They don’t need to be super warm, but they need to keep snow and slush off of your jeans, and block any wind getting to your knees.

Windbreaker/rain jacket. I have a North Face rain jacket, but I believe any rain jacket would work well. You don’t want a thick coat because, to be honest, you will overheat much more quickly than you think you will. Plus, the jacket has a nice feature of having slits for air under the armpits, which lets lots of steam and heat escape the back of the jacket.

Ski goggles. That don’t fog up, and that you can push your balaclava into, because when it is -10F YOU DO NOT WANT ANY SKIN EXPOSED. Trust me on this. The smallest bit of skin showing will hurt after about 2 minutes on the ride, and it is dangerous.

Helmet. I typically put my headgear on in this order: Balaclava, hat, helmet, ski goggles.

I will do a separate post on lighting, but the gist is this. Have super bright lights & consider wearing a stupid ugly neon vest.

Consider getting bigger, fatter tires, and getting them studded.

There you have it, what to wear while bicycling in the winter. I’m sure you have some ideas and experiences of your own, so please feel free to share.

The most important thing is to KEEP ON RIDING.

Keep on readin’ on.




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