How To: Dress For Winter Bike Commuting

The time has come to talk about winter. Winter cycling is a wonderful experience because I enjoy the outdoors and all of its snowy beauty every day while most people hibernate.  I’m really excited about my second winter cycling. Last winter was all about learning the ropes and testing my limits. (See my photo synopsis of winter 2008-09 here.) Now I know what to expect.

Me and Trisha, February 2009

Me and Trisha, February 2009

Here I share my wisdom on how to dress for winter bike commuting. This advice is based on my personal experience: riding 7 miles in snow with temperatures around 20 degrees to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Your individual climate and commute will dictate how you dress. The main take-away point is that you can wear the clothes you already have, but with more protection for you fingers/toes and less bulk for your torso. If you can walk around in the winter, you can bike in the winter.

In this video I demonstrate how I dress for winter. (You know the sheepish feeling you get when you’re leaving a voice message and the phone cuts you off because you’ve talked too long? That’s what happened with this video and my memory card, but I said everything I needed to say already.)

Let’s break it down one more time:

Hat. You’ll need something to keep your head and ears warm. I wear a Bern winter helmet, complete with neoprene liner and ear flaps. I do not need to wear a hat or earmuffs under the helmet. Charlotte of Chic Cyclist loves earbags with a regular helmet.

Eye protection. These are regular safety glasses to protect my eyes from the freezing wind. Some people need special goggles because regular glasses fog up, but I rarely have that problem. I’ve seen some cyclists without eye protection, which I can’t imagine. Experiment and see what works for you.

Scarf. A wool scarf will keep your neck and face warm. I pull mine over my lower face when needed, but usually keep it around my neck. Some people swear by balaclavas (Mr. Dottie has one) but I would be hot and itchy. Reader Jody recommends this polar scarf.

Leggings. You’ll need extra protection for your legs. I wear wool leggings every day. If I’m wearing a skirt, I wear the leggings over tights. If I’m wearing jeans, I wear the leggings underneath. The only time I don’t need leggings is when I wear my flannel-lined khakis.

Socks. Toes can get extremely cold if not protected properly. I wear two pairs of wool socks. Smartwool is my favorite.

Boots. You’ll probably have to carry regular shoes in your bag and wear boots. I have to wear these heavy duty leather snow boots everyday. My regular fashion boots won’t keep my feet warm enough.

Gloves. Cold hands are my biggest problem. I never found a solution last winter and spent time at red lights blowing on my fingers. This year I’m prepared, I hope. I have silk/wool blend glove liners from Winter Silks and huge gore-tex and goose down mittens. Mittens are better than gloves because your fingers can spread the warmth to each other and there’s more room for pockets of warm air to form. For the coldest days I’ll be trying out the Grabber hand warmers that Elisa gave me.

I wear all of this with my regular clothes, plus depending on the temperature a combination of wool sweaters, a windbreaker and a coat. I said in the video that I only wear my overcoat at 0 degrees, but it’s probably more like 15 degrees. Many days I stop to remove a layer during my ride when I get hot. I never shiver or feel unreasonably cold on my bike – something about pedaling and watching out for traffic takes my mind off the temperature.

Other than my mitts and windbreaker, I don’t wear any technical, synthetic materials. Wool and cashmere are the best fabrics for coziness. Unlike my dad’s old Army blankets, today’s wool is soft and itch-free. My wool collection contains a lot of Ibex, Icebreakers, Smartwool and Patagonia for underclothes, but high-quality wool and cashmere sweaters and scarves can be found for super cheap at thrift stores.

We will post more about winter bike commuting soon, including riding tips. Questions? Leave them in the comments!

  • http://stileswolfmobile.blogspot.com/ Tim

    Great wrap up. Do you wear that helmet year round? I’m in the market for a new one. Are those available in store in Chicago or did you get it online? I usually wear a balaclava on very cold days, but maybe the Bern would kill two birds with one stone.

    I find I have the most trouble with my feet in the winter. I don’t have a good pair of boots so I’ve thought about something like this to cover them. http://www.rei.com/product/788081
    I think these are mostly made for clip in shoes though. hmm…

    • http://freckleddiaries.typepad.com Catherine

      Great video, and very helpful. We don’t generally get nearly as cold as you do (though we had a good long stretch of below 10 degrees last winter that was pretty impressive), but I’m sure most of those tips will come in handy for me.

      That cat cracks me up. My Penny would do the same thing (she’d actually probably start rubbing her head on the pile of clothes and/or try to jump in my arms).

    • http://bikesovercars.blogspot.com/ Zweiradler

      I have never felt the need for eye protection. But I tend to get cold fingers, too. I’m probably riding too slow. :) Time to look for better gloves.

      Nico

    • http://letsgorideabike.wordpress.com dottie

      The helmet is way too hot to wear year-round. Copenhagen Cyclery is the only Chicago store I know of that sells Bern, but I don’t know if they sell the winter ones. I bought mine online.

  • Jen

    Thanks for the great advice Dottie. Could you comment on whether the Bern helmet is light enough to be comfortable from your perspective? (I am guessing it is if you wear it so often!) I just bought a helmet similar to Bern in style but it feels so heavy on my head compared to my “racer” type helmet that there is no way I would wear it. It only cost a third of the Bern and I’m wondering if the low price is due to its weight or if the weight is just a feature of this hemet style.

  • http://www.workbike.wordpress.com Andy in Germany

    It never occured to me to get eye protection -is that from mud on roads? I remember last winter going out without gloves and realising that it was below freezing about 500m later. You don’t make that mistake twice…

    • http://www.pedalandcoast.blogspot.com Sox

      I wear safety glasses to keep branches (and other stuff) that I may not see in the dark from poking me in the eye.
      It isn’t cold here yet, so I am not sure if I will switch to goggles when the temperatures drop.

    • http://proletarianmachines.wordpress.com dukiebiddle

      Some riders, myself included, find the cold winter wind very painful on the eyes. I can cope in my environment, but I can’t imagine riding without eye protection in a place like Chicago or Moscow or something.

    • http://letsgorideabike.wordpress.com dottie

      The safety glasses protect my eyes from the freezing wind. Riding without them in the winter is pretty impossible for me. My eyes (which are already sensitive) would water and water and water, and then all those tears would probably freeze on my cheeks. I wouldn’t be able to see much.

      • http://www.chiccyclist.com Charlotte

        This happens to me too, I think it may be related to my contacts as I haven’t had the problem when just wearing my glasses (though that doesn’t occur very often).

        • http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/ Lovely Bicycle!

          This post makes me so excited for winter! Last weekend in Vienna was the first time I rode with a long wool coat on – and to my surprise it was fine, not at all uncomfortable.

          As far as boots go, I can recommend pretty much anything by Canadienne if you want something that’s both fashionable and rated for below freezing temps.

          • http://letsgorideabike.wordpress.com dottie

            I’ll check out Canadienne – thanks!

  • http://letsgorideabike.wordpress.com Trisha

    Great summary! It is amazing how much heat a pedaling body can generate. I typically just wear my sunglasses in winter, even on cloudy days. I have to wear them every day in the summer, too, to prevent pollen, hairs, etc. from getting in my contacts.

    • Pingback: Streetsblog Capitol Hill » How to Get More People Walking in Cincinnati?

      • donna

        Dottie, is your helmet a snowboard helmet or is it bike specific? When I google them they come up as “snow” helmets. I think they are intended for snow sports too which would be ideal for me as I bike and board.

        • http://letsgorideabike.wordpress.com dottie

          My helmet is rated for biking and snowboarding.

  • Patrick

    One piece of advice on hands/gloves: no matter how many pairs you wear or how awesome your gloves are, make sure they fit properly. If they’re too tight, or you wear multiple layers that end up being constricting, your hands will be cold. Cutting off blood flow is the last thing you want to do.

    Luckily, my commute is only two miles to work (and in milder DC), so I can experiment with different things without being too uncomfortable. Last winter I got through with nothing fancier than wool sweaters and a windbreaker. Keeping the wind off was key.

  • Pingback: How to Get More People Walking in Cincinnati? | NYC No Fee Apartment Rentals

  • Dean Peddle

    Great post. I’ve commuted for many years in harsh Canadian winter so I will throw in a couple of tips. As you’ve pointed out the main areas of concern are your heat loss areas…feet, hands, head. My commute is a little longer so I’ve always had trouble with feet….even with sheepskin lined boots made specifically for winter riding. I got a tip last year from roadbikerider.com so I will pass it along as I’ve seen several comments here about what to do with cold feet. Get those Hot Packets from hunting or REI stores. I get them here in Canada at MEC….they are about $1.50 a package. I wear 2 pairs of socks and put the Hot Pack right between the 2 layers on the top of my toes. Don’t put directly on skin as you may burn your feet. This was the best tip I’ve ever got….they work wonders. I used to get off my bike and run 3 or 4 times during my commute to warm up my feet but no more. Another great tip, after your ride, store the Hot Packets in a zip lock bag. This will deactivate the heating element and then you can re-use them 5-10 times depending on the times of your ride. I’ve tried both sealing with foodsaver and zip locks and the results are about the same so just use zip locks.

    As for hands, I think this is where you can take a page from the bike riding specific clothing line. I use those lobster gloves they make for bike riding and they are great. And for very figid temps, a friend gave me a set of Ski Doo gloves and they are so warm it’s incredible.

    I usually wear a touque but I like your tip on the Bern Helmet….I think I’m going to look for one for me and especially the kids as it’s such a pain to put their helmets on with hats underneath.

    • http://proletarianmachines.wordpress.com dukiebiddle

      That zip lock trick for the hot packets is a great tip. I always thought those were one-and-done and at $1.50 a pack I thought they were prohibitively expensive.

    • http://proletarianmachines.wordpress.com dukiebiddle

      Also, those foodsaver bags are so expensive you wouldn’t really be saving anything if you kept using them to seal the hot packs.

  • http://www.academichic.com Academichic

    Great video! I’m impressed how cute you still look even with all the layers! ;)

    I run outside all through the winter (I hate the gym too) and the coldest I’ve tackled was -12 F! Like you, I believe that any outdoor activity is doable in the cold given that you have the right equipment. I also swear by Smartwool! and layering gloves and lightwight (non-bulky) but rain proof or wind proof fabrics. I hope your video encourages more people to give cycling in the winter a try! Well done!

    S

  • Pingback: Streetsblog San Francisco » How to Get More People Walking in Cincinnati?

    • http://suburbanbikemama.blogspot.com/ Mamavee

      I saw the vid before this post! I love the video. I want those patagonia tights. ( I have a pair of fleece patagonia tights that I only wear at home. they are slightly too small ( dad was buying for my pre-mama body) and that patagonia navy color which I kind of hate. ( although I’m wearing the matching mock t-neck zip top now and routinely wear both together as lounge wear) but wool black tights would be awesome!

      I wear glasses so I am hoping that adds to my eye protection. I do remember squinting last year against the wind, although I only started in early march at 25 degrees F.

  • James

    Great video, you left out one of the most important things. As a cat owner myself no outfit is complete with out my cat rubbing up against my pant legs to add a layer of decorative cat fur.

  • donna

    Try gloves/mitts meant for snowboarding. Actually, I have a lot of snowboarding gear which I imagine I can repurpose for cycling over the winter months. It’s another sport that’s all about keeping the extremities warm and dry. I’ve always wished they’d take the technology from snowboarding boots and apply it to fashion boots because my feet are never cold when I’m snowboarding wearing my Burton boots.

  • Scott

    This is very similar to the way I dress to get through the Chicago winter. Last year (also my first winter riding every day) I wore my dress shoes and neos overshoes. My toes were numb a few times on the coldest days. This year I may get some insulated boots and carry my shoes in a bag.

    I can testify that the Bern helmet with lining is super warm (although mine has no air vents). It’s so warm that I had to open the air vents on my jacket even though I only had a dress shirt underneath on a -20 windchill day last year.

  • Jean Smith

    I think I settled on the exact same boots, square toe and all.

    I do have one bike component comment, I find bar-end shifters to be fair easier to use when wearing mittens. They are meant to be used with the heel of your hand to push down and all fingers to lift up. My preferred mittens for really cold weather are leather choppers over heavy wool mitts.

  • Melissa Hope S

    Aw, Ollie! Great post too!

  • http://abasketcase.wordpress.com cloudsofviolet

    when i lived in NYC, i was actually more worried about road conditions in winter (ice, uncleared snow, etc.) than the weather in terms of biking. how do you deal with the bad road conditions? Do you use studded tires? I didn’t ride alot in January and February because of the snow.

    • http://letsgorideabike.wordpress.com dottie

      I’ll share winter riding tips in a future post. (I do use studded tires.)

  • http://rowdykittens.com/ Tammy

    Fantastic post! I’m going to add this to my simple living news update. :)

  • lorenza

    Dottie!!!! That is the CUTEST!!!! video ever :D and may I say your cat is super cool ;) I dress in layers similar to you, but thankfully temperatures here don’t go below -10 degrees celsius (=about 15 fahrenheit)… I do wear a different top and fleece jumper to ride though, I get too warm, then freshen up in the ladies at the office, put on a nice top and voila` I am ready to sit at my desk.

    My new commute now is 8mile round trip, so much quicker than buses I could not believe it :D

  • Maria

    I’m really lucky to have a very short commute (2.5 miles each way) but my toes sure can get cold during that time. I agree on the two layers of wool socks. Makes all the difference. I typically wear my red chuck taylors year round on my bike….after an infortunate incident with my healed boot getting stuck wedged on my pedal. Thank maude someone was at the office bike locker when I got there. LOL!

  • http://www.welshcyclist.blogspot.com welshcyclist

    I’ve been reading your blog and watching you on u-tube and am really impressed that you cycle through the winter. Last December I took a bad fall on ice, how do you cope with ice covered tarmac?

  • Pingback: Simple Living News Update: Week of November 16th

    • http://www.girlcanbike.com Fiona

      Dottie,

      Thanks for this blog (though I’m late in reading it) I’m pre-planning for riding this winter as I know some cyclists up here do so I figure why not..I hear the Pashley PS is a good winter bike so I’m going to go for it!

      Fiona

    • Pingback: The Winter Ride: What to Wear | BikeSource Columbus News and Events

  • Pingback: Winter-eyes « Honking In Traffic

    • http://cyclingauckland.co.nz/ Su Yin

      I just noticed … the link to Icebreaker should be icebreaker.com instead of being plural!

      Hurray for Icebreaker—merino wool rocks. Especially when they come from New Zealand :)

  • Pingback: cycling chicago in november « Simply Bike

  • Pingback: A Guide to Winter Bicycling « Rather Remarkable Blog

    • Tinah2751

      Personally, my most vulnerable area is my neck. A friend forced me to buy a neck gaiter when I went skiing for the first time quite a few years ago. It can be slipped up over mouth and nose in really cold times. It’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

  • Pingback: JoyCreation is growing! « JoyCreation

  • ES

    Where did you find wool tights?

    • http://letsgorideabike.com LGRAB

      Smartwool tights, online at Uncle Dan’s.

  • Pingback: Dress For Winter Bike Commuting » Queen City Bike

    • Lipska L

      Just found your blog – love it! My commute is a little under 9 miles, or 40-45 minutes, and my biggest problem in winter is compensating greatly varying body temperatures. About halfway to work I have to stop to take off clothes, open zippers, etc., because I’m literally steaming. I always face the problem how to properly vent without cooling out in freezing temps. So my ambition is to find good-looking, functional winter clothes that zip open or unbutton easily, can be taken off and tossed into the basket quickly, etc.
      Visibility-wise I swear by spoke reflectors – long thin reflective tubes that you click-slide onto the spokes. I was smitten the moment I saw a distant car brake in a side street I was crossing in pitch dark night. Amazing to see how drivers react to enhanced visibility – oh hey, a bike!! Need to watch out!!
      They look really cool, too.

      Next winter I want to try studded tires – have to admit that until now I have been too chicken to ride in ice and snow…

  • Tinah2751

    Personally, my most vulnerable area is my neck. A friend forced me to buy a neck gaiter when I went skiing for the first time quite a few years ago. It can be slipped up over mouth and nose in really cold times. It’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

  • Pingback: Slushy streets no place for this cyclist | Times Colonist

  • Pingback: Winter bike commuting with child « « Bikes As Transportation Bikes As Transportation

  • Lipska L

    Just found your blog – love it! My commute is a little under 9 miles, or 40-45 minutes, and my biggest problem in winter is compensating greatly varying body temperatures. About halfway to work I have to stop to take off clothes, open zippers, etc., because I’m literally steaming. I always face the problem how to properly vent without cooling out in freezing temps. So my ambition is to find good-looking, functional winter clothes that zip open or unbutton easily, can be taken off and tossed into the basket quickly, etc.
    Visibility-wise I swear by spoke reflectors – long thin reflective tubes that you click-slide onto the spokes. I was smitten the moment I saw a distant car brake in a side street I was crossing in pitch dark night. Amazing to see how drivers react to enhanced visibility – oh hey, a bike!! Need to watch out!!
    They look really cool, too.

    Next winter I want to try studded tires – have to admit that until now I have been too chicken to ride in ice and snow…

  • Pingback: Simply Bike » cycling chicago in november

  • Pingback: Wimpy girl’s guide to staying warm during the winter commute | Bicitoro: bikes and crafts

  • Pingback: A Freezing Start to 2013 « Let's Go Ride a Bike – life on two wheels: simple. stylish. fun.

  • Pingback: The Winter Ride: What to Wear | BikeSource Charlotte News and Events

  • Carolyn

    Great video. Like the outfit. I def need gloves like that! ;) Snow is here now…tons of it!

  • G.E.

    {giggle} I like the assistant, Ollie (sp?) I am definitely looking forward to the future videos, especially about the actual riding in the snow. Thanks so much for doing these – it’s really great information!

  • http://zachsbicyclecommuting.blogspot.com/ Zach’s Bicycle Commuting

    I hear you about hands being cold. I actually own four “levels” of gloves (though the first pair is for warm riding, to keep my hands comfortable). The Navy helped me out a lot. The uniform exchange carries the ear warmers that strap around your forehead, and winter gloves.

    I’m sure there will be a million different (& same) pieces of advice for your readers from these comments, but my 2-cents is that protecting from wind is even more important than general temperature, that’s why layers are so important.

  • http://girlsandbicycles.blogspot.com miss sarah

    I haven’t watched the video yet, so can’t comment on it. The baby is gone and Don is blasting his music so loud there’s no point in watching the vid unless it had captions.

    I feel so unprepared next to you! I don’t do the special socks or leg coverings. Maybe I just think it’s normal to feel cold? WIll report back once I give it some thought. I usually just wear whatever I have to wear when I’m out and it’s cold.

    I’m with you on the hands and face covering, though. Having wind burn on one’s face is not a fashion statement.

    S*

  • http://www.rocketfuel.net.au Susan

    Heading from Australian summer into a European winter for Christmas I’ll be needing all this advice to make sure I have enough to keep me warm.
    If your looking for a cute cap to help keep you warm we have some for sale here http://www.rocketfuel.net.au/winter-caps.html and we will make one to match your helmet, bike or jacket if you want one in a specific colour too. They keep you toasty warm and are cute enough to wear on and off the bike.