warm winter bike riding

warm winter riding
there are a few ways to be a warm winter biker

wool is like the best stuff
but you do not need to have very much to do

you could get by with only having cheaper stuff

basic principles

what are the types of layers you should be wearing?

this conceptual framework is the basis of the entire body warming clothing system.

  • nothing
  • wicking layer
  • insulating layer
  • windproof layer

these four options are how a warm winter cyclist can organize their wardrobe. clothing functions better or worse as a specific type of layer. oftentimes, you will have layers that have multiple properties. for example, a softshell, might be a windproof layer, but is also has insulating qualities. if it is a moderate temperature, you might just need that and a tshirt. however, when it gets colder, you might want to shift to a warmer insulating layer (add a fleece). alternatively, when it gets really windy, you might keep the t shirt and softshell, but add a rain jacket.

what is nothing?

skin, glorious bare skin in the sun on a 70F degree day is a joy to ride. san francisco, on the rare sunny warm day, even has underwear rides.

wicking layer

the best wicking layers are baselayer clothing. the main function is to move sweat from the skin, into a higher layer. that way, you avoid getting drenched in sweat and freezing.

  • these can come in synthetic or natural fibers.
  • synthetic fibers can be warm, they can be cooling. they are typically cheaper than natural fibers, and can be tougher, which makes a difference with all the friction from biking.
  • the king of natural fibers is merino wool. the downside is that merino yes even merino can be less comfortable on the skin, and it is more expensive.
  • cotton does not wick well. actually cotton, on a dry day, is an okay outer layer.
  • for the coldest days, merino is unbeatable, though, especially given the extra warmth factor and the antimicrobial properties.

what do i use? i use synthetics until it gets down to like 15F, then i'll switch to my merino.

insulating layer

cotton disclaimer: okay, cotton can come up multiple times, but i would generally avoid cotton. 'cotton kills' is a common refrain in backpacking guides, but i want to add one exception that i have not seen mentioned. as an outer layer on a dry, windless, cold day cotton can be nice. it is comfortable, breathable, and actually will transmit moisture out from the depths of your layers. i will not talk about cotton any more.

cotton is not a good layer because it holds on to moisture, and when it is cold, well that can be problematic for an inner layer, wicking layer, outer layer, etc.

  • fleece - my favorite insulating layer. it moves moisture, it is reasonable in price, it is warm enough and the price/warmth ratio is better than anything out there. plus, it is comfortable and can even be fashionable.
  • wool - my second favorite for insulating, it loses to fleece primarily on comfort against skin and price/warmth ratio. if you can mitigate those two factors, it is fantastic. you can do this by wearing a comfortable base layer so your skin does not touch the wool, buying softer wool (ex. merino), and getting it cheaper.
  • down - love/hate, but for biking mostly a pass. why? it holds moisture. however, if it is really cold, i'll throw a down layer in there, and just have to be really, really cognizant of it getting wet. if it gets wet, down loses a more of its warming ability, plus, then you are stuck with something wet. it does not move moisture at all, which further adds to the clammy feeling. where it shines are two situations: when you stop and when you messed up. i will almost always have a packable down jacket in a bag because for the space/warmth ratio, it is as yet unbeatable. when you stop biking, you stop generating heat, and can suddenly find yourself searching for the closest spot to the campfire. a down jacket outperforms at being a small layer that you can just throw on. a fleece does the same with a better price/warmth ratio, but it is bulkier space/warmth ratio.

windproof layer

your main options are rainjackets and waxed cotton
there is something called a windjacket which is windproof like a rain jacket, but way more packable, but i never bought one because, well, i have so many rain jackets. and wind sometimes brings rain, and i mean, i'm usually wearing it instead of packing it anyway.

i like rain jackets that are just rain jackets. shells. no insulating layers built in. that way i can adjust. plus i think they just work better.

waxed cotton is nice, but it is heavier, it can be more durable, but it is heavier, and i have not 'worn through' a rain shell so i think it is unnecessary. if there is a really cold day, i might switch to a heavier flannel lined, waxed cotton jacket, but for the most part...rain jackets. they can look nicer, for sure, so style points? is where they would win.

temperature ranges

there are a few different temperature ratings for what is good while biking.
For ranges that are not covered, just add or remove a layer from the previous level.

  • >-10F - bring a puffy jacket too
  • -10-0F - same, but wear wool tights instead of synthetic tights, also go to choppers with wool inserts instead of lobster mittens,
  • 0-15F - same, but wear a thick wool sweater as an insulating layer, add a windproof layer on pants, lobster gloves and pogies, add beanie on the balaclava, add another buff
  • 25-35F - my most common winter setup boots, wool socks, tights, pants, baselayer longsleeve, light fleece, bring along warmer layer ex. down jacket, windproof layer like a rainshell, light gloves and pogies, buff, balaclava
  • 40-60F - tights or just pants depending on temps, here you have to really start considering rain, though
  • 70F+ - summer riding temps, have fun =)


wool is king
i like having synthetic baselayers sometimes, because they are comfortable against the skin, but you can get merino wool that is comfortable too

where to buy frugal winter bike gear

go to your local thrift store, goodwill, salvation army or other place. look for thick wool sweaters. look for any wool sweaters. merino wool is really nice. that is great stuff to ride in because merino wool is warm, antimicrobial, and comfortable against the skin.
local facebook marketplace and craigslist seem to work as well
ebay seems to be overpriced

winter bike gear upgrades

the gear listed here is stuff you can buy in a store

wolfhammer boots
naughtvind bike pants
basically anything made by 45nrth

another option is gear made by cross country skiing companies. this recommendation is common, but in my experience, the gear is still expensive, so i might prefer to get stuff made specifically for biking.


here is how to mitigate the two cons of wool compared to fleece [LINK]
aerogel and how it could be the new down [LINK]
gloves and mittens and pogies, oh my! [LINK]

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