What YOU Need to Bike to Work in Winter

In the previous post, I wrote about reasons and rewards of biking to work in the winter. Safely and comfortably commuting in winter requires some personal preparation. Today, we’ll look at what you can do to prepare your mind and body for a great commute.

Picture of biking to work in the snow
Preparation makes it possible (and fun). Photo by TCP.

A week or so ago, I met up with a friend who shares his ride to work with me. It was one of the first “cold” mornings of autumn with temperatures in the low forties. As we met up, he noted that it wasn’t as cold as he thought it would be.

It never is, especially if you are prepared.

Mental Preparation

If you’ve never ridden in the winter before, or if it has been a long  summer and you forgot what winter is like (happens to me every year), you can benefit by getting ready mentally for the changes that are coming.

Set Rules
I suggest you start by giving yourself some rules about when and how you will ride, what you are willing to accept, and how you will deal with the unexpected. Rules will give you control by incorporating even variables like the weather into the service of your commuting goals and priorities.

For example, I ride for 1) enjoyment , 2) health, and 3) economics. I have set a rule that I won’t ride on a red air alert day (health), I won’t ride if the temperature is below 15 degrees Fahrenheit (enjoyment/health/economics — I don’t have the gear for those temperatures), I don’t ride if there is packed ice in the bike lanes (enjoyment). These three rules combine to eliminate about 15 mornings over the course of the winter (only mornings — on below 15-degree days, I bring my bike on the train in the morning, then ride home in the afternoon). My rules allow me to be at ease with the exceptions I have to make.

Steel Yourself Against Darkness, Cold, and Change
This week in my city, we will lose 17 minutes of daylight. Be prepared for the morning when your brain tells you you can’t ride because, “What the heck happened to the sun!?” You should similarly imagine it being cold, and give yourself permission, in advance, to change your route or your timing to accommodate changes in the weather.

Physical Preparation

When most people think about preparing for winter, they think about staying warm, but on a bicycle, staying cool can almost be a bigger problem. Heat is lost through two methods: radiation (heat moves under its own energy from hot areas to cold), and convection (heat is carried away by moving air or liquid). When you are on a bike, convection is the one you want to work with because, if you’re doing it right, there is a lot of air moving around you.

You can stop a lot of convection by wearing a wind breaker, which largely keeps air from circulating from the outside to your skin and back. Depending on your circumstance and body, this may be ideal, but if you are like most people, you want some convection.

My winter bike to work clothes
What I wear between 15 and 25 degrees. This is the product of seven winters of experimentation.

Another option is to rely on layering, which gives you both flexibility and finer control of convection. You can think of multiple layers as providing multiple microclimates, one on top of the other: the layer next to your skin has limited convective interaction with the layer above that, which has limited interaction with the layer above that. Varying the thickness and material of different layers lets you tune your outfit to the exact conditions you desire.

Every person is different, and the best way to figure out how you relate to temperature is experimentation: pay attention to the temperature, what you’re wearing, and how you feel; trust me, you’ll quickly get a good idea of what needs to be warmer and what needs to be cooler. And yes, humidity does make you feel colder. (For the best explanation I’ve read on this phenomenon, click here.)

In today’s world, we have all kinds of specialized clothing to keep warm that specific are that gets cold on you. Mix and match to suit your needs and conditions:

  • Helmet cover
  • Skull cap
  • Headband
  • Neck warmer
  • Balaklava
  • Earmuffs or ear covers
Upper Body
  • Jacket
  • Wool sweater
  • Long sleeve undershirt
  • Vest
  • Arm warmers
  • Gloves
  • Mittens or lobster claws
  • Bar Mitts
  • Chemical pack hand warmers
Lower Body
  • Leg warmers
  • Tights
  • Knee warmers
  • Wind resistant trousers
  • Wool socks (carry extras in the rain — even with fenders your feet get wet)
  • Toe covers
  • Shoe covers/booties
  • Chemical foot warmers

In addition to clothes, don’t forget to stay hydrated. Our bodies rely on water to help regulate temperature; a dehydrated person gets cold faster than a well-hydrated one.

In the next post, we’ll look at what you can do to prepare your bike for winter riding. Until then, consider this question: What concerns you most about riding in winter, or what bit of preparation has been the most helpful to you? Enter your thoughts in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “What YOU Need to Bike to Work in Winter

  1. Your don’t say whether you cover your head. Since this is where we lose so much our our body heat, I assume you use a skullcap or something?

    1. Keeping your head covered dramatically cuts heat loss, but I need to lose heat so I don’t wear anything under or over my helmet. Your mileage may vary, and you can always pause mid-ride to add or remove layers.

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