Ask LH: How Should I Dress For Cycling In Winter?

Ask LH: How Should I Dress For Cycling In Winter?

Dear Lifehacker, I share a car with my soon-to-be-wife. She usually takes it for work and I ride my mountain bike or take the bus. I’ve now started thinking about the gear I need to keep me riding during the cold/dark winter months. What do you think is the best gear for commuting to work during cold, wet and dark weather? Thanks, Cold Comfort

Cyclist picture from Shutterstock

Dear CC,

You can buy all manner of specialist bike wear designed to combat the cold, but you’d have to be a pretty hard-core enthusiast to ride around in this stuff. Plus, it means you need to change into a spare pair of clothes every morning at work, which is probably more hassle than it’s worth.

On dry, wintery days, we’d plump for thermal underwear and a lightweight winter jacket — you won’t exactly be warm ‘n’ toasty, but at least the essentials will be protected. As it gets colder, add an extra layer (such as a jumper) plus a beanie under your helmet and some rider’s gloves.

In wet weather, it’s essential to protect your eyes to ensure you can actually see the road and surrounding traffic. At the very least, you’ll need some wraparound sun glasses that don’t let any rain in. You can also buy eyewear specifically designed for this purpose from cycling shops.

In addition to eye protection, you’ll also be wanting a more heavy-duty jacket made from waterproof material, such as leather, Gor-Tex or other polyesters. These jackets do not need to be specifically designed for cyclists, but if you do buy something generic, it’s probably a good idea to go for a bright, reflective colour for added safety.

Do any bike-crazy readers have some suggestions of their own? Let us know in the comments section below.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I ride to work year-round in Brisbane.
    Winter is the best time to ride – summer is such a sweat-fest.
    Firstly, it’s important to keep your belongings dry. Focus on that first.
    If you ride more than 2km even on the flat, slowly, you’ll perspire. So I consider trying to keep myself dry a futile task, therefore rain doesn’t require much special attention.
    When you’re wet and it’s cold and either it’s windy, or your ride takes you over 20km/h often, you’ll need to deal with wind-chill. A wind-breaker that can be easily zipped open and closed is helpful for example when you ride up hills (thus get hot) and down them (cold and wind-chill). Wind-chill can still be an issue in the dry.
    Full-finger gloves are recommended as are clear glasses to keep rain out of your eyes,
    Don’t be too concerned about being cold at the start of a ride. I am often shivering uncontrollably when I set out, but 5 minutes later am comfortable. If you have too much warm clothing on, it’s a pain to stop and take layers off, so don’t overdo it.
    A warm beanie or hat that can be worn under a helmet is useful as the head gets a lot of airflow but doesn’t generate warmth.
    Back to wet weather: Cycling shoes will take a couple of days to dry out, so make sure you have at least 2 pairs. Gloves take a while too.
    You also need to keep on top of batteries and recharging bike lights. In Brisbane I need lights morning and evening in winter. I recommend against riding with traffic when it is both dark and wet. Visibility for drivers is so much reduced that cyclists are at great risk.
    For wet weather, consider road tyres with extra tread. Any sort of mountain-bike tyres except slicks will be fine.

    • +1 on all fronts. the ones I learned the hard way:
      -Gloves. gloves gloves gloves gloves gloves. GLOVES.
      -Reflectors and lights. when you’re cycling in the dark and rain, you want to be pretty visible.
      -Check the BOM radar. It helps you choose the best time to leave to avoid rain.
      -You will get wet, from rain and puddles. Keep spare clothes at work.
      -If it’s getting properly stormy, get off the road. A strong gust can push you out into traffic or into the kerb.
      -Waterproof backpack or Saddlebags. You will be very glad you bought one.

      As to the rest, I’m in Perth. It doesn’t get too chilly so I only wear a jacket on the coldest mornings, the rest of the time I’m my usual gear. A poncho/raincoat can prevent getting wet and wind chill, but it’ll turn your clothes into a sauna.

    • re: clear glasses for riding.
      They are definitely a must! they don’t have to cost much though. Check out your local hardware store and you might find a pair of clear plastic glasses pretty cheap. I use them mtn biking and commuting and don’t have to worry too much about scratching/losing them as they are cheap and easily replaceable.

      Also definitely full finger gloves and a breathable water-resistant jacket that zips up to the neck and has ‘pit-zips’ to let out heat from under your arms. (and somewhere at work where you can hang your gear up to dry out during the day).

  • Here in Launceston, Tasmania it gets down to around zero degrees on a winter morning. the advice I was given was to “layer up” I wear a couple of long sleeve merino wool tops (the fabric lets your skin breath as well as keeping you warm) with a windproof, splash proof, high viability jacket with no extra lining. That is enough for those temperatures, you get quite warm cycling. You can buy these at most outdoor shops. Also a couple of pairs of woolen socks, beanie, something around the neck (some of my colleges wear balaclavas) and full length tights. My hands are what get coldest. I have a pair of full fingered winter gloves, but my hands still end up very cold.

  • When it’s crazy cold like it seems to have been here in the UK for months I go with all of the above, but always the following;

    -balaclava under the lid. It’s the ears that get coldest.
    -always long thermal trousers under bib tights.
    -shoe covers. Can’t recommend these highly enough. Keep your feet warm(ish) but more importantly dry. And they stop your expensive SPDs from getting mucky!

    And I always, without fail, get all that on then remember I haven’t put on the heart rate monitor!

    The irony is I’m hoping to move to Perth WA soon, so I hope to throw most of this away!!

  • All good suggestions above.

    I’d stress the importance of being visible when it’s dark. Which means wearing specific high-viz wear in addition to using lights. This doesn’t necessarily mean buying the most expensive jacket/top but just making sure you have something reflective from any angle. A cheap solution is Scotchlite tape that can be stuck on bags/helmet/bike/etc.

    Some motorists have a blind spot for cyclists, esp at night or in lousy weather. I’ve almost been on the delivery end myself by nearly piling into someone wearing dark clothing on a dark bike and no lights in heavy rain at 3am one night.

  • If it’s raining, you will get wet. Either from the rain, or from the sweat that your waterproof gear will trap next to your body. Get a good waterproof bag or panniers, and pack clothes for your destination, or keep some at work. I use a very light weight rain jacket from aldi; it strikes a good balance between waterproofness and breathability, but in a downpour it does get wet through. Also, get some full length mud guards. These keep you dry when the road is wet.

  • I’m in Melbourne, so winters can get pretty cool. The best item I’ve ever used is a merino baselayer. Short sleeved in cool autumn mornings and then long sleeve in winter. They breathe really well and even if wet, your skin feels dry.

    Otherwise, a lightweight jacket, gloves and perhaps earwarmers/beanie under your helmet if it’s really cold. I wear shorts all year round – your shins don’t really care if it’s cold, so let them breathe! Ride faster if you’re feeling cold…

  • On my ‘must-have’ list is waterproof overbooties. These keep your feet (mostly) warm and dry, instead of cold and squelchy.

    You can get these from any bike shop for about $20 – neoprene ones are best but can be overkill for all but the coldest of days.

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