Updated November 2019. Here’s a complete guide to how to dress to keep warm, dry, and comfortable while cycling in winter.
Keep Your Core and Head Warm for Comfortable Winter Cycling
It is absolutely essential to keep your core and head dry and warm. In my experience, cold hands and feet are almost unavoidable, especially on long commutes – but you can survive that. However, a cold core and head could very quickly send you into hypothermia.
Wear layers to keep your core warm for winter cycling
The key to dressing for winter cycling is to wear layers, because cycling warms you up quickly, so you want to be able to peel off layers quickly and easily. A good approach is three layers on the top half of your body, and two on the bottom.
Wear a warm and soft inner layer on your top half to keep your core warm
On the top half of your body, start with a thin but warm, sweat-wicking base layer, such as an Under Armour long-sleeved compression shirt. Tight-fitting is good on this layer, so that the sweat wicking fabric can work its magic and keep your skin dry.
Ideally this layer should feel soft and cozy against your skin. And it should be long enough to cover your butt. If you really feel the cold, find a base layer that has a polar neck or at least a mock neck, to protect the big blood vessels in your neck from getting chilled. Of course, it MUST have long sleeves. In cold weather this base layer keeps warmth in; as you heat up, it wicks sweat away from your body.
Wear a Warm Middle Layer on Your Top Half
Over the base layer, wear a fleece top to keep you warm (make sure it is also breathable, otherwise you could be soaking wet from sweat by the time you get to work). My favorite for this is my Sugoi Hot Shot jersey (reviewed here). It’s soft on the inside, very warm, totally comfy, and has lasted me for years of bike commuting. This Sugoi jersey has a fleece lining. Fleece is a fluffy synthetic fabric (made from recycled plastic bottles). It feels great against the skin and mops up sweat nicely.
Outer Layer for Comfy Winter Cycling: Your Outer Layer Should be a Great Cycling Jacket
Your outer layer should be a waterproof and windproof cycling jacket or shell.The weight of the jacket will depend on how cold it is. A good quality jacket is absolutely essential. By FAR the most popular winter cycling jacket with our readers is the high quality Gore Bikewear Power Goretex Active.
Your cycling jacket MUST have a high neck and long sleeves (usually cinched off with velcro at the wrist), so that no air can get in. Basically you are looking for windproof, waterproof, high insulation, and breathability. A jacket that offers all this is not going to be cheap, but it will be money well spent.
When wearing layers, remember that you are going to want to strip the layers off quickly – without having to stop for ten minutes in icy cold. To achieve this, make sure that all layers have zips for quick and easy removal (otherwise you have to remove your helmet AND your gloves!). Also, look for jackets that have underarm zips to enable you to release heat once you have warmed up. Some jackets also have removable sleeves, for the same reason. My post comparing 7 of the best waterproof cycling jackets compares all of these features in a handy chart.
Here’s a Gore Bike Wear 3-in-1 cycling jacket with removable sleeves that is extremely popular with our readers (and has never yet been returned) – the Gore Bike Wear Men’s Phantom 2.0 Windstopper Soft Shell Jacket.
Apart from stripping off the sleeves, you can also unzip the underarms on this jacket. I have often been surprised by how often that ability comes in handy! You can also buy removable sleeves to add a layer on your arms when you start off in the morning, and can then easily strip off.
Related: How to Cycle Safely in Winter
Keep your bottom half warm and dry with two layers
Inner layer for your legs
On your bottom half, two layers usually suffices – one warm layer underneath to keep your legs warm, and one over that to keep out wind and rain. For the inner layer on the legs, most people wear long johns or bib tights.
Bib tights have straps looping over the shoulders, and keep all of you pretty toasty. They have one IMMENSE advantage over long johns: they do not slip down and leave the top half of your butt feeling like a deep-frozen rump. The bib tights below have been selling well, no doubt due to their very competitive price.
If you want nothing but the best, you might want to check out the Gore Wear C7 Windstopper Bib Shorts. This is a windproof, water-resistant bib short that creates a breathable buffer between you and the rain and wind. A very welcome bonus for men with this bib short is the Gore WindStopper Cup technology, which simultaneously protects your most cold-sensitive bits from chilly breezes, while also relieving pressure.
If you just don’t like bib tights, you might prefer nice warm thermal long johns.
It comes down to personal preference, although more committed cyclists often choose bib tights as they don’t have a waist band to dig in, which can become annoying on long rides (and of course there is that whole avoiding-the-deep-frozen-rump thing).
Don’t forget your chamois pad!
Don’t forget your chamois pad , which protects your more sensitive parts from being damaged by your saddle. Last winter I exchanged my chamois pad for long johns, and forgot all about my chamois pad – and very soon had the saddle sores to prove my stupidity. The chamois pad also adds another layer to your groin area – which is another area that is much happier when it is not freezing. And of course, a happy groin leads to a happy you! Some bib tights and regular tights will have a chamois pad built in.
Outer layer for your legs while cycling
Choosing the outer layer for your legs depends on your local weather conditions. If you have to deal with rain and snow, then you need something that is 100% waterproof. The main problem with this layer is that because they are 100% waterproof, these kind of rain pants sometimes have low breathability. So your legs may get hot very fast. Of course, Gore pioneered the technology of making fabrics that combine breathability and waterproofness, so it is possible to get pretty effective rain pants. These Showers Pass waterproof cycling pants are designed to be both waterproof and breathable.
If you don’t have to deal with rain or snow (only cold and wind), then you can get away with pants that are windproof but not waterproof. Those are of course cheaper – for example, the 4ucycling Windproof Athletic Pants below are no. 1 best sellers on Amazon in outdoor clothing, yet are very affordable.
Keep Your Head Dry and Warm
Keep Your Head DRY with a helmet cover
As we all know, bike helmets are full of HOLES. This is to keep your head cool in summer. But what happens when rain or sleet or snow is pelting down on your hole-y helmet? Luckily, there is a very cheap solution for that problem – a helmet cover. This helmet cover is very highly rated and costs less than the two coffees you would need to warm you up if your head was soaked for 30 minutes during your bike commute!
Keep Your Head WARM with a Balaclava or a Skull Cap or a Gaiter
For your head, balaclavas are your best bet. Nothing will keep your head warmer – and they come in a dazzling variety of weights and designs. I did a lot of research on balaclavas, and wrote an in-depth post about how to choose the best balaclava. That post also compares the seven best balaclavas.
The single most important thing is to choose a balaclava that goes far enough down the neck to keep your neck warm. Also, I notice from reader feedback and from affiliate sales that of all the balaclavas I recommend, the Chaos CTR Tempest Multi Tasker is by far the most popular. And I have never yet seen a return on one of these!
Many other essential tips for choosing the best balaclava are included in my post about 7 of the best cycling balaclavas.
If You Don’t Like Balaclavas … An Alternative Option: A Snuggly Neck Gaiter
For those who don’t like wearing balaclavas, or for times of the year when it is not cold enough to need one, a neck gaiter is a great alternative. It functions like a scarf to keep your neck snuggly and warm, but does not have any dangerous dangly bits (you do NOT want to go the way of Isadora Duncan!). The best one I have tried is the Heat Holders neck gaiter. It is super warm, and also very soft against the skin, thanks to the fleece lining.
Another Alternative to Keep Your Head Warm – A Skull Cap
Another good alternative is a skull cap to wear under your helmet (or instead of, if you don’t wear a helmet). There are a lot of cheap options for this, and you should be able to find one that suits your needs. Here is one of the cheap options.
Below is my personal favorite warm and comfy skull cap, the Gore Bike Wear Universal SO Helmet Cap. It’s especially great if you don’t wear a bike helmet, because the bright color can be seen, and makes you very visible.
Protect Your Eyes while Cycling
For safe winter cycling, it is also essential to protect your eyes from icy winds (assuming you don’t want to spend the day with red, inflamed eyes). I use my Adidas cycling glasses (reviewed here). A cheaper option, especially if you don’t need prescription lenses and don’t mind the occasional odd glance from other commuters, are Bolle tactical goggles (reviewed here). These will keep out howling winds. However, note that howling winds are actually the one kind of weather you should try to avoid at all costs. A strong wind can blow you right over – not good.
Keep Your Hands Warm while Cycling
Your hands are tough to keep warm and dry, but if you want to enjoy safe winter cycling, you have to try! For extreme cold, go for lobster-style gloves or mittens – keeping your fingers pressed together will keep them warmer. If you can get away with it, five-fingered gloves are best. After years of trial and error, my Gore-Tex gloves are my favorite (reviewed here).
It’s great to layer on your hands as well – for example, silk glove liners make a great base layer, and make it much easier to remove your big gloves (if for example you need to use your fingers for something). Without glove warmers, what often happens is that you really battle to put your outer gloves back on again, when you are out in the cold and wet, and your fingers are sweaty. The silk glove liners make it much easier to slide your outer gloves back on again. Get the white ones, not the black ones – the black ones get lost really quickly!
For the ultimate in hand protection, consider cycling pogies (also called bar mitts). These fit over your gloves, your shifters, brake levers, and part of your handlebars to completely seal out the elements. I have one of these that I will be reviewing soon.
Keep Your Feet Warm and Dry
Forget about those 2 oz. cycling shoes with designer logos! For safe winter cycling, you need a strong, waterproof pair of boots. You might be able to get away with lightweight leather boots such as Chrome Cycling boots (reviewed here). These are comfortable and stylish, can be worn with and without cleats, and can be worn all day as they are just as good for walking as for cycling.
More likely, you will need a strong pair of leather boots of your choice. My personal favorites are my Blundstone boots, which do remarkably well as cycling boots, keeping out rain and snow pretty well. They come in a range of heel options – for cycling, you want something with less clunky heels, so they don’t hit the crank shafts.
If you prefer to wear cycling shoes, add neoprene shoe covers (cycling booties) to add insulation and keep in warm air. These almost always come with a reflective strip on the back, which is a nice little safety bonus.
Alternatively, add shoe covers over your regular cycling shoes. These just cover the front of your shoes, keeping your feet MUCH warmer by shielding them from oncoming icy air as you cycle.
It’s incredibly hard to keep your feet warm while cycling, and I have spent far too much time with freezing, numb feet. However, a combination of very warm, woolen socks, good shoes, shoe covers and lamb wool inserts will keep your feet warm even in extremely cold conditions.
There are a few companies, including 45NRTH and Lake Cycling, which sell insulated winterized bike shoes compatible with your clipless pedals. (Personally I would never go clipless in snow and ice, as I want to be able to get my feet down on the ground fast – but that’s just me). And I have to say, I kind of LOVE these cycling boots.
Woolen shoe inserts: These are a great way to increase the insulation between your foot and your pedals. And they’re cheap too. I especially love these lambs wool shoe inserts.
Socks: You also need really great socks. I have recently discovered some excellent socks, called Heat Holders and billed as the ultimate thermal socks, with superior moisture wicking and heat retention. Plus, they have this super soft, fleecy inner lining. Apparently the lining is a “unique, extra-long looped cushion pile to hold in more warm air.” These socks feel super soft on my feet, and my feet have never been warmer, even in sub-freezing conditions. I love these socks, and never actually want to take them off. Also, they don’t cut off the blood to my feet, which is important for not getting numb feet while cycling (which can be dangerous). I have chunky ankles, and most socks are uncomfortable for me, but these socks are just like wrapping my feet in comfort.
Maggie’s favorite socks are Woolie Boolies. She loves woolen socks because wool is warm and it breathes.
Tip for Keeping your Feet Dry: Try wearing a plastic shopping bag between your boots and your socks. This sounds odd, but it’s FREE, and you won’t even notice they are there – and they will guarantee that your feet stay dry. Check there are no holes in the bags you plan to use, as water will worm its way through any hole it can find. Then you will be wearing a bag of water on your foot … not ideal.
In the winter, you may be cycling to work in the dark, so make sure you can be seen by motorists. Of course, this means you need top quality bike lights.
Related: 7 of the Best Bike Lights
You can also enhance visibility by reflecting car lights. Apart from reflectors on your bike, have as many reflective bits on your body as possible. It is highly recommended to have reflective bands around your ankles, as their up and down motion makes it really obvious that you are a cyclist. Also wear a high-visibility vest: it doesn’t MATTER what it looks like – it just matters that you get to where you are going in one piece. These can be bought very cheaply.
Below are Links to Our Most Popular Posts on Winter Cycling Gear
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Stay warm and have fun!
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