Guest post: How to dress for winter

This is a guest post by Jacob Musha, sharing his advice for riding all throughout winter in relative comfort. As you'll see at the upcoming Bike Winter Fashion Show, everyone's approach to this is a little different, and a lot of it depends on where and how far you're riding. If you want to share your tips, you can do so in the comments below or write your own guest blog post! Just contact us at winterbike@madisonbikes.org.

Photo credit: Kierstin Kloeckner

I’ve been bike commuting daily in Wisconsin winters for eight years. The response I get from nearly everyone, even fair-weather cyclists, is “you’re crazy,” followed by, “I don’t know how you do it.” The truth is that you don’t need to be a polar bear to bike in the winter. I’m so averse to cold that I shiver in swimming pools when the water temperature is below 80F... The key is to dress correctly.

 

The most important thing is to protect the extremities. Your body is good at keeping itself warm during exercise, but if your fingers, toes, and face are cold, you’ll be miserable.

I’m particularly frugal and only spend when I decide it’s absolutely necessary. The things on this list are worth every penny, in my opinion. And what's even better, if you live in Madison, you probably already own many of these items. Keep in mind that the following is based on what works for me – personal preferences vary. I have no relation to any of the businesses listed and I’m not getting any benefit from mentioning them. I’m only including specific products because I know they work.

The Hands: I like mittens. Mittens keep your hands warmer because your fingers are all together. I wear a pair of thin wool mittens covered by a heavier pair of “chopper mitts.” Last year I found a great pair that also have a 100g Thinsulate liner. Thinsulate is a magic material developed by 3M that seems to act as a wind breaker more than anything, making it perfect for winter biking. I’ve used mittens with and without Thinsulate, and the difference is immediately noticeable. I always buy mittens in the largest size available so I can fit smaller mittens inside.

For truly cold weather I have a pair of IceArmor Extreme mittens. These have a 150g Thinsulate liner. They are bulky and not fun to wear, but they kept my hands warm on a 30-mile ride at -18F. Actually I can’t wear them when it’s above 0F because they make my hands sweat...

The Feet: Normal winter boots work, but I find them heavy and bulky. I also like to be clipped in which requires a cycling-specific boot. Whatever you buy, I suggest getting them big enough that you can fit two heavy wool socks inside with plenty of wiggle room. Trying to stuff a thick sock into a small boot reduces its thickness and therefore its ability to insulate. Don’t do it. When I bought my 45NRTH Wölvhammer boots last year I brought my socks with me to try them on. I ended up getting a pair five sizes larger than my summer road shoes! They kept me warm on that same ride at -18F. To be honest though, they are overkill for most conditions and they’re quite expensive. For most rides including daily commuting I have a pair of Northwave Celsius Artic boots (that seem to be discontinued, or different than the ones I bought years ago) that are big enough to fit one pair of wool socks. If I’d bought these in the correct size they might be as warm as the Wölvhammers, but I will never know since I bought them too small. They are okay down to about 10F.

I mentioned socks. Thick wool socks are available at Fleet Farm and similar stores, but my favorite is the SmartWool Extra Heavy, which I bought online. I think they’re intended for hunting and they’re the thickest and warmest socks I’ve come across.

The Face: A face mask/balaclava is a must for me. I usually wear two: a thin one covered by a thicker one. Last year I finally bought a pair of ski-goggles and the helmet to go with, something I wish I would’ve done years ago. Bring your hat/mask when you try on helmets and goggles to make sure everything fits together.

The Legs: Lots of things can work here. I often wear jeans on top of generic long underwear. Last year I found a pair of casual dress pants at a thrift store that are more comfortable than jeans, just as warm, and seem to last longer. When it’s very cold I’ll wear two pairs of long underwear. I’ve never needed anything more than that.

The Body: Anything that keeps you warm without being so warm that you sweat. Not only is sweating uncomfortable, it’s dangerous if you stop exercising because the excess moisture can cause hypothermia. I generally wear a t-shirt, sweatshirt/sweater, and light jacket. Only when it’s very cold do I use my winter jacket. Note that this depends on your riding intensity. If you’re just puttering along, you will have to dress warmer. If you’re racing, you’ll want to wear less. Layers are good and having a saddle bag to stuff them in if you get too hot is nice.

Note: if you do research online you’ll see things like “cotton kills” and “never wear a t-shirt!” but in my experience that advice is overblown. A fancy wicking base layer might be more comfortable but as long as you don’t let yourself get sweaty a t-shirt is perfectly fine. If you’re getting sweaty, you’re dressed too heavily and you should take something off anyway.

Photo credit: Kierstin Kloeckner

The Bike: Your bike will likely need some preparation. It should be in well-maintained condition. If it’s not, winter will quickly expose its weaknesses. Tires with some kind of tread or knobs are a must – completely slick tires simply don’t work in snow. Studded tires are popular due to their added traction on ice, but they are also heavy, slow, and expensive. After crashing on ice several times last winter I’m giving studded tires a try for the first time this winter. Lights are another must have since winter is the darkest time of the year. Full fenders (not the cheesy half fenders or clip-ons) are really nice and I won’t ride without them. They not only protect you from nasty road spray, but they also protect your bike and help the components last longer.

Conclusion: The goal of my winter gear is to keep me sustainably warm for as many hours as I’m out in the cold. I don’t use throwaway chemical hand warmers because I want my clothes to keep me warm on their own. If you have a short commute to work you can probably skip over some of this. For example, you won’t need serious winter boots because it usually takes half an hour for the feet to become cold. By that time you’ll be at your destination. 

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