I’ve never seen a big, comprehensive guide in any of the cycling forums about how to accurately dress for cold weather riding – and I just broke my toe so I can’t ride!
As such, I have compiled what I consider to be a fairly comprehensive covering of all the clothing and equipment you need to ride down to around 15F/-10C. I left out things like cold-weather specific shoes – my goal was to provide a guide that helps you to pick out what gear you need to ride back home!
I hope you guys like it!
OK! So, in the name of teaching you how to ride in cold weather, I’ve compiled a list of pretty much everything you could ever need or want cold-weather-wise, with some examples of each item. I have tried wherever possible to link to Competitive Cyclist; there are absolutely cheaper places to get everything I’ve listed, but CC has great descriptions of each product, to give more of an idea of what each thing is/does.
I’ve broken down each part of my list into several categories: Feet, Legs/Bottom, Upper Body, and Hands/Head.
The big thing you’ll see in my lists is lots of redundancy – multiple things that do the same thing, in just a slightly different way. That’s useful, if only because it allows you to make small adjustments to your entire inventory.
You will probably notice that each one of these links I give tends to be to higher-end brands; no Performance brand shit here. I have no problem with cheap clothing clothing in the summer; the expensive stuff is only slightly better. This is NOT the case for winter gear. Paying for the better brands gets you a hugely better product – warmer, more windproof, materials that stay warm when wet, and materials that last MUCH longer. DO NOT CHEAP OUT.
The brands I prefer for cold weather are (in order) Capo, Giordana, and Assos. All of these are premium brands – but your body will thank you.
Toe covers: Toe covers are one of my favorite pieces of riding equipment – and they’re one of those pieces that nobody ever buys because they seem superfluous. Below 50 degrees, you can get a really bad case of numb feet, even if you’re wearing wool socks. However, putting on a full booty is a recipe for sweaty feet – which aren’t only gross – they’re cold. Toe covers bridge that gap: You can wear them with summer weight socks for the high 40’s, or you can wear them with wool socks till the mid 30s. Down around 25 degrees, put on the toe covers underneath the booties, and you can go even cooler!
I prefer Assos toe covers, however they’re painfully expensive. Here’s an alternative from Sugoi, Castelli, and another from Giordana. If none of these three work for you, try looking for something made out of neoprene or a treated Roubaix-type fleece. I prefer Roubaix fleece, as it’s thinner; it’s less likely to rub against your crank arm and you feel a lot more free on the bike. Do NOT get the Performance toe covers – they are not warm, and they are VERY bulky.
Shoe covers: Shoe covers cover the entire shoe save for the cleat. These are great for really cold weather, but above 35 degrees, they can absolutely melt your feet. Here, it’s absolutely vital to get something that is both waterproof and windproof. With the rest of my kit, I don’t mind getting wet, but I always prefer dry feet; if your feet get wet, they’re going to be cold.
Sugoi makes an incredible bootie. I have heard good things about Capo and Craft. If none of these work for you, try looking for something made out of neoprene or a treated Roubaix-type fleece. I prefer Roubaix fleece, as it’s thinner; it’s less likely to rub against your crank arm and you feel a lot more free. Again, do NOT get Performance shoe covers – I’m sure other people will tell you otherwise, but they’re super thick – rubbing against the crank – while not providing near the warmth of other brands.
Wool socks: Wool socks are a cyclist’s best friend. Normal cycling socks are designed for as much ventilation as possible – they’re thin, made with CoolMax, and often even have air vents in them! It’s great for summer, but terrible for winter. Wool socks are thicker and warmer – and in my opinion, the single most important (and cheapest) upgrade you can make to your wardrobe. I recommend owning at least 3 pairs.
Cannondale makes my favorite socks – they’ve got two kinds; one with carbon fibers, one without. There is no difference in warmth, however the one with carbon fibers is thinner. I prefer them, because the thinness means that when it’s REALLY cold, I can put on two pairs. I also like Sugoi socks – they’re not nearly as warm, but they’re REALLY thin; I can easily layer them over a pair of Cannondale socks for that extra warmth, without really filling up my shoes.
Knee Warmers: Just like toe warmers, these are one of those items that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as they should. Knee warmers are wonderful – they keep your knees and legs warm without the potential to bake you that leg warmers have. Knee warmers are amazing for that 55 degree to 35 degrees range, where just a little bit of extra warmth is nice.
I absolutely adore my Capo knee warmers. I have Pactimo ones that are nice, too – and a lot cheaper. Here, look for a Roubaix-type fleece and a silicone leg gripper. Don’t worry about waterproofing – the idea with the Roubaix fleece is that even when it’s wet, it still keeps you warm. A silicone leg gripper is nice because it doesn’t pull at your skin nearly as much, and they generally require a lot less adjustment – they’re just more comfortable.
Leg Warmers: Leg warmers are like badass knee warmers. They cover your entire leg and really extend your ability to ride in cold weather – I like them for 40 degrees down to about 28. Everything I have to say about leg warmers is up there about knee warmers.
Roubaix fleece is really nice – Capo makes a great leg warmer.
Unpadded Tights: There are 2 kinds of tights – padded and unpadded. Padded tights have a chamois in them, and you wear them just like normal shorts. They’re much more expensive – you’re not only buying tights, you’re buying a chamois in them – and it’s usually a very high end chamois. Unpadded tights are just a pair of tights with no chamois – you wear them over normal bike shorts. They’re a lot cheaper, because there’s no chamois. Additionally, since you wear shorts under them, you can use your nice shorts – AND you can wear unpadded tights multiple times between washings – a padded chamois pair will grow all kinds of nice cheeses if you wear it multiple times.
These will probably be the most expensive part of your wardrobe. Giordana has some great stuff (yes, that has a chamois), and Castelli does too. If these are giving you sticker shock, UnderArmour ColdGear does a great job too. When shopping for tights, look for a Roubaix-type fleece. As you get into really low temperatures, you’ll need higher-end stuff (like the Giordana tights) – there, look for windproofing and neoprene in addition to fleece. AVOID NEOPRENE FOR YOUR FIRST PAIR OF TIGHTS. Neoprene is seriously warm, and I have tights that I can’t wear above 25F – while they’re wonderful tights, if they were my only pair, I’d be fucked!
Windproof Underwear Some people have serious issues with their crotches getting really cold in winter. Honestly, I think the easiest way to solve this is to lower your bars – lowering your body protects your crotch more. However, if you’re still having issues, get some windblocking underwear.
III. UPPER BODY
Base Layers: These are one of the most important parts of not only cold-weather riding, but general riding. Base layers allow you to layer up and fine-tune your kit to the temperature, and if you crash, they provide an extra layer of protection. There are 2 general kinds of baselayer; winter and summer baselayers. Both are important for winter riding – when it’s 36 degrees out, a long sleeve jersey and a winter baselayer will cook you; a summer baselayer is just right. A good summer baselayer will give a tight fit, wick moisture away, and generally make you a happier, better person – look for synthetics, and avoid cotton like the plague. A good winter baselayer will provide shitloads of warmth – roubaix-type fleeces are, again, what you’re looking for!
My favorite summer baselayers are made by SockGuy and Pactimo, however UnderArmour makes some great stuff too. For winter baselayers, I’ve honestly never found anything better than UnderArmour ColdGear.
Long Sleeve Jerseys: L/S Jerseys are expensive – but absolutely worth it. I recommend getting 2 or 3 – with the baselayers and whatnot underneath, you’ll usually be able to get 2 or 3 wears out of each one, and then do laundry once a week. Here, I look for wind-proofing, a fleece of some type, and a slightly baggier fit than a normal race jersey; my winter gear should be baggy enough for me to put on a baselayer & short sleeve jersey on underneath.
Capo jerseys are the nicest I’ve ever worn – I am in love with the Riserva jersey – but it’s very hard to find. Alternately, Louis Garneau makes some fantastic long sleeve jerseys – their basic long sleeve jersey through their custom program is fantastic, and comparatively cheap – 8$0 if I remember correctly. If your team doesn’t do LG, here’s another option from them. Cannondale has some very nice winter jerseys and you can normally get them at pretty low below list since nobody buys them, but their website is a clusterfuck – I’d go look at them in person in a C’dale shop.
Vests: Again, this is one of those underappreciated accessories. I never wanted a vest until I got one; before that, I thought they were a waste of money. However, they really aren’t! A vest adds a ton of versatility to your closet; if you put it over a summer jersey w/ baselayer, you’re good down to 35 degrees. When it gets really cold out, a vest over a long sleeve jersey provides just that little bit of extra protection to really make a difference. A huge advantage of vests is that they’re designed to scrunch up – so if your ride starts out at 40 degrees and ends at 60, you can take the vest off and fit it in a jersey pocket.
Pactimo makes a good fitting vest with pockets – Capo makes an amazing fitting vest, although it doesn’t have pockets.
Jackets I love jackets. Jackets go over EVERYTHING, and they make you warm and happy.They also often cost a fucking arm and a leg. There’s not a lot to look for here – find something from one of the prestige brands – Capo, Castelli, Hincapie, Giordana, etc – and you’ll be fine usually. These are basically bigger, heavier duty long sleeve jerseys. These work wonderfully for layering when it’s REALLY cold out, or if there’s ever rain out. There’s 2 kinds – there are cold weather ones, and then there are other kinds that are closer to vests with sleeves – I prefer the latter, as they’re more versatile.
Here’s a heavily insulated jacket from Capo I love, and Louis Garneau has a wonderful custom jacket for somewhere in the neighborhood of $90. If not going custom, I would recommend something like this instead.
Arm Warmers: These things are vital. Most people get cold arms before cold legs – starting around 55 degrees, I like to bust these guys out. Combined with a vest and a summer jersey/baselayer, I can get all the way down to 35 degrees no problem. Look for a Roubaix fleece, and if possible, a silicone gripper. It’ll stay in place better and you’ll have to fight it a lot less.
Capo makes some great stuff, as does Pearl Izumi. If you can find Nike stuff, I swear by it – but good luck, they’ve been out of the cycling business since 2005.
Hands and feet are the two most important things in cold weather riding. If your feet go numb, your life becomes hell – and if your hands go numb, it’s even worse – then your life is hell, you can’t shift, brake, or steer. Similarly, if you’re wearing gloves that are too heavy, you get sweaty and clammy – it’s disgusting & you have to wash your gloves more often. Even worse, once you sweat, your hands get cold.
Given the delicacy of your hands, I recommend a variety of gloves:
Light gloves: Single finger gloves are really nice. They’re light and thin, which means awesome dexterity – easy shifting, unzipping, opening energy bars, etc.
Look for windproofing and insulation. No windproofing is a dealbreaker – those $15 fleece North Face gloves keep you nice and warm off the bike, but as soon as you’re going 15mph, the wind cuts right through. The main purpose of these gloves is to hide your hands from the wind. Look for a leather palm – it will last a lot longer.
Cannondale makes some great single finger gloves. Pearl Izumi does as well.
Mid-weight gloves: Getting down in the 30s, or even the mid-40s with rain, the light gloves don’t really cut it anymore. As such, you need something a bit heavier. Again, wind-proofing, but a bit chunkier gloves. Single finger gloves allow better shifting, and you can flip off cars, but they aren’t as warm. Lobster gloves are a split mitten, providing a lot more heat, but a lot less dexterity.
Pearl Izumi has great gloves – single finger and lobster alike.
Heavy-weight gloves: Cycling gloves are pretty wimpy, honestly. Below 32 degrees, people start telling you to wear chemical warmers -which is just stupid. They cost $1 per warmer, per ride, and they keep the middle of your hand HOT while your finger tips still are kind of cold. It’s just dumb.
As such, for <32 degree weather, I recommend getting something "real." I love the Kodiak from Outdoor Research's military supply. Go on the site and find a glove that looks good to you - then google search for military surplus and you can get the gloves for a lot less than list price.
If not those, go for skiing gloves. Here's a good one from OR. The important thing is that you get a glove that is a shell. By having a shell, you put your own glove on the inside as a liner, and it keeps you WAY warmer; you can wear your lightweight cycling gloves in your shell, and you are able to adjust to the temperature by taking the gloves off/putting them back on.
Bar Mitts: As an alternative to gloves, another option is Bar Mitts. I've heard really good things about them, though I've only personally used them for one ride. They do a great job of blocking wind and allowing access to the hoods, keeping you nice and toasty fairly cheap. However, they take up a good portion of your handlebars and limit access to the drops - as such, I'm not a huge fan of them.
PART IV.V. Head
Cold ears hurt. Let's avoid them!
Skullcaps: These are one of my favorite cycling accessories. A skullcap covers your ears and the top of your head, keeping you nice and warm. They can change the temperature of your entire outfit - a few extra degrees, just by putting on a different hat!
Pearl Izumi has a billed skullcap to protect from rain, etc, but SweatVac has pretty much the nicest (non-billed) caps on the market.
Headbands: Sometimes, a full skullcap is just too much - a headband covers your ears without baking the hell out of you.
Pearl Izumi has 2 great options - a summer-weight one and a winter one. The summer one is absolutely useful in cold weather - it still covers your ears and protects against wind, so either one is a great purchase.
PART V. Miscellaneous Cold-Weather Tips & Suggested Outfits
The final part - and the most useful part!
You should always start out a little bit chilly on your ride - that way you heat up to comfortable, or just slightly below comfortable. If you start out cold, you'll never heat up, and if you start out comfortable, you'll sweat. Sweat --> Screwed
Vaseline on any exposed skin – and even unexposed skin. Face, neck, wrists, ankles, ears all should get a nice coating of Vaseline in really cold weather. The oil makes a barrier – no windburn, and less evaporation = you feel warmer, too!
If your hands are cold, stick them down your pants. Yes, I’m serious.
Don’t put on so many layers of socks that you cut off the circulation to your feet. Then, they get cold and numb even faster.
Sunglasses. There’s a lot of glare in the winter, and windburn is hell on your eyes
Putting newspaper down your jersey is entirely reasonable. It makes great windproofing/insulating material. The same is true for trashbags – punch holes in it and you’ve got a baller poncho. *Put your gloves on before you walk out the front door. Keep that warm air in them! It makes a huge difference.
Tape up the little drainage hole on the underside of your cycling shoes. It does wonders to heat up your shoes. Take the tape off when it’s raining!!! *If you’re riding in normal shoes, toe covers and shoe covers still work. Additionally, putting a plastic bag over your feet (inside your shoe) is a really effective wind break.
Get a clear plastic rain jacket to keep at the office in addition to at home.
Fenders are amazing. Use them.
And that’s the guide! Now, please keep in mind that these are all my experiences; what’s worked for me may not work for you – the only way to find out is to go ride! So, use my lists as a starting point & Jump off from there!
With SS jersey
55 degrees: SS jersey, lightweight baselayer, lightweight gloves, arm warmers?, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks.
45 degrees: SS jersey, lightweight baselayer, vest, arm warmers, lightweight gloves, arm warmers, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks, toe covers
40 degrees: SS jersey, lightweight baselayer, vest, lightweight gloves, bibs, arm warmers, knee warmers, wool socks, toe covers
35 degrees: SS jersey, lightweight baselayer, vest, midweight gloves, bibs, arm warmers, knee warmers, wool socks, toe/shoe covers
With LS Jersey
55 degrees: Long sleeve jersey, lightweight gloves, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks
45 degrees: Long sleeve jersey, lightweight baselayer, lightweight gloves, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks, toe covers
40 degrees: Long sleeve jersey, lightweight baselayer, lightweight gloves, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks, toe covers
35 degrees: Long-sleeve jersey, lightweight baselayer, midweight gloves, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks, toe or shoe covers
Long sleeve jersey, cold baselayer, midweight/heavy gloves, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks, shoe covers
Long sleeve jersey, cold baselayer, midweight/heavy gloves, bibs, leg warmers, wool socks, shoe covers
Long sleeve jersey, cold baselayer, midweight/heavy gloves, bibs and tights, wool socks, shoe covers
Long sleeve jersey, vest, summer baselayer, midweight/heavy gloves, bibs and tights, wool socks, shoe covers
25 degrees: Long sleeve jersey, cold baselayer, vest, heavy gloves, bibs/tights, wool socks, shoe covers, toe cover
45 degrees: Jacket, lightweight gloves, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks, toe covers
40 degrees: Jacket, lightweight gloves, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks, toe covers
35 degrees: Jacket, lightweight baselayer, midweight gloves, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks, toe/shoe covers
Jacket, cold/warm baselayer, midweight/heavy gloves, bibs, knee warmers, wool socks, shoe covers
Jacket, cold/warm baselayer, midweight/heavy gloves, bibs, leg warmers, wool socks, shoe covers
Jacket, cold/warm baselayer, midweight/heavy gloves, bibs/tights, wool socks, shoe covers
Jacket, cold/warm baselayer,, midweight/heavy gloves, bibs/tights, wool socks, shoe covers
Jacket, cold baselayer, heavy gloves, bibs/tights, wool socks, shoe covers, toe covers
Jacket, cold baselayer, vest, heavy gloves, bibs/tights, wool socks, shoe covers, toe covers