06 January 2015

Winter Biking: Gear List

A friend writes that she hangs up her bike in the fall because she doesn't have the warm clothing to bike in the winter. She's thinking it might be nice to ride, but says she doesn't know where to start in terms of buying the gear.

So, if you'd like to lengthen your riding season, here's a suggested list. You might already own things that you can use for biking; a lot of my gear does double- or triple-duty for hiking, biking, and jogging. Some items are very bike-specific.

First off, safety. Winter is wetter and darker than summer, and drivers are less attuned to seeing cyclists.
  • Traction. Make sure your tires still have good tread and make sure they're pumped up appropriately so you don't slip on roads that will stay wet longer after rain or frozen precipitation. If you want to ride on snow or ice, consider studded tires. If you've never ridden in wet conditions, start slow and brake early: wet brake pads take longer to work.
  • Visibility. Motorists notice motion, so make sure you have good pedal reflectors, and wear reflectors on your ankles. Get a brightly colored vest with reflective stripes, in a size big enough to wear over all kinds of warm layers. Add reflective tape to the front, sides, and back of your helmet. (You have a helmet, right??) Get blinky red lights and put them all over your back: on the bike, on your helmet, on a backpack if you're wearing one. Use a white light for the front of your bike.
  • Vision. If you're going to be riding on roads or paths that aren't lit at night, get a really good light for the front of your bike. This is a place to spend money to get a very bright light with an internal, rechargeable battery. (AA batteries drain fast in cold weather, and drained batteries produce poor light).
Secondly, comfort. Winter is also colder than summer, and wind sucks the warmth right out of your body. The tricky part is keeping the extremities warm without overheating.
  • Hands. Lobster claw gloves divide your four fingers into two, providing better warmth than standard gloves and better grip on handlebars and brake levers than mittens. If in doubt about size, opt for slightly larger; the air inside will warm up and help insulate. Whatever you wear, make sure the palms and fingertips are covered with material that grips, not just plain fleece or wool, which will leave your hands sliding all over the place. If it's *really* cold, a pair of breathable-waterproof mittens large enough to fit over your gloves/mitts is helpful. Or you can do like New York City delivery guys, and tape plastic bags around the ends of your handlebars.
  • Eyes. Need to be protected, night and day. Biking gear manufacturers make glasses with interchangeable lenses that you can swap out with clear ones for night riding. If you wear glasses anyway, you might want to consider a pair with transitional lenses that go dark in bright sun.
  • Ears. Depending on temperature, a thin headband or a thin hat to go under your helmet. A gore-text helmet cover (and again with all the reflective stripes) will also keep your head warmer as well as dryer.
  • Feet. Hiking boots or knee-high boots with thick wool socks will work, as long as they're not too bulky and as long as it's not too cold. Another option is neoprene shoe covers, which will also protect street shoes from salt and damp if you're commuting to work.
  • Legs. You want both warmth and protection from precipitation or road spray, and the amount and the layers will depend on temperature and your own body. Lined hiking pants are a good starting point. Look for a pair that provides warmth, protects from wind, and resists water. Depending on conditions, you could add long underwear (non-cotton!) and/or rain pants.
  • Upper body. Here, you want layers as well as the ability to zip easily at the neck as you warm up, or turn into or out of the wind. Avoid cotton like the plague. Start with a light wicking bottom layer, add layers of fleece or wool, top with tightly woven wool or a breathable waterproof.
  • Face. You can get a fancy neoprene mask, or a cheap light-weight balaclava, or tie a bandanna over your mouth and nose, or pull up a scarf. Whatever you do, your glasses will fog up. Once you've been riding for 10 or 15 minutes, you'll probably generate enough body heat to keep your face warm, unless it's well below freezing.
Again, if you're already walking or jogging outdoors (or, who knows, cross-country skiing or canoeing) in cold weather, you may have some gear you can repurpose for winter biking. I've acquired most of the stuff I use for winter biking over several years. I see fastest wear on gloves, but other that (and bike seat and tires), I very seldom need to replace anything because of wear.

But chances are you'll need to buy at least a couple of items. If you're on a budget, the first place to spend is on a good headlight; you can get away with a dirt-cheap vest or pinney and inexpensive tail-lights. Money also helps buy warm gloves.

I've deliberately left off the names of shops or manufacturers from the above list. But I will say that everything I've ever bought from Pearl Izumi has been great quality and very long-lasting. Schwalbe makes great tires, including studded ones; having used their punctureless tires, I'll never go back. If you're wondering where to shop, US readers could try Eastern Mountain Sports, Campmor, Sierra Trading Post, Bike Nashbar; I don't have enough experience with shopping elsewhere to make recommendations.

Questions? Anything I've forgotten? Let me know. And happy riding.