Cold Weather Cycling Gear: How to be Prepared

Autumnal weather is now fully upon us in the northern hemisphere, and along with the constantly receding daylight comes ever-dropping temperatures, which may have you wondering: what’s the best way to survive the fall and winter to keep riding all the way into spring?

In the years I’ve been cycling I’ve realized that with versatile gear and layering it’s easy to dress for warmth while maintaining needed freedom of movement, but without the need to spend a fortune on clothes.

I’ve also found that it’s best to start your ride a little chilly, as your movement will warm you up quickly; if you start out your ride warm you will quickly overheat and sweat, which will just make you colder!

Here’s the plan that I’ve been fine tuning over the years (in degrees Fahrenheit) that can help you plan your own winter months:

60-70 Degrees Fahrenheit

When the temperature drops towards 60 degrees I start to think about lightweight layers to go along with my standard shorts or bibs and jersey since a morning that starts at this temperature won’t always stay that way for long, and my goal is not to get hot and sweaty. I’ll be considering arm warmers, knee warmers, and a wind vest.

These items keep your core and legs warm but are easy to peel off and stuff in a jersey pocket if you start getting too warm. It’s not uncommon for me to leave the house wearing all three and come home a few hours later with them in my pockets.

Vest and WarmersArm and knee warmers don’t need to be anything special unless you’re going for a specific color or design, and I think basic arm warmers (amazon link & others below) or knee warmers work just fine.

As for the vest, I’d go for something thin and light so that it’s easy to fold up and stuff in a pocket.

50-60 Degrees Fahrenheit

Convertable JacketAs temperatures dip below 60 I may consider an extra base layer under my jersey and vest, and the cooler it gets I may even swap the vest and arm warmers for a lightweight jacket instead.

If you’re on a budget, a convertible jacket is an excellent alternative here as you can zip or snap the sleeves off to turn a jacket into a vest!

Leave the open finger gloves at home, because lightweight full-fingered winter gloves get worn in this temperature range, and I may switch from knee warmers to tights or leg warmers, but not much else will change.

Jacket and Gloves

40-50 Degrees Fahrenheit

Cycling HatsOnce the temperature hits 50 I make sure to wear a hat or a cap that covers my ears. You can wear something lightweight and cycling specific like a skull cap, or just a regular knit hat that fits underneath a helmet.

This hat on the left that I wear on very cold days has been lovingly used for well over fifteen years, long before I even started road cycling!

The vest most definitely gets switched to a lightweight jacket, but you need to make sure it’s good at blocking the wind or you’ll constantly feel cold.  I don’t find multiple base layers necessary, although I personally still wear a jersey as opposed to another shirt so that I can still have pockets for my phone, keys, and food.

Cycling TightsFor the legs, I switch to tights, but I don’t bother spending the money on cycling specific tights.

Normal tights like those designed for running can be pulled over your cycling shorts, which means that you only need one pair of tights for cycling rather than multiple pairs of cycling tights, and you can continue to wear your favorite shorts or bibs that you wear the rest of the year as well.

I always prefer versatility and saving money whenever I can, and this is one way you can have both without sacrificing performance (or warmth!).

Make sure to wear longer socks, though, as ankle socks that inevitably expose a sliver of skin will end up quite uncomfortable.

32-40 Degrees Fahrenheit

SocksThis is the temperature range where I find most people call it quits for the season, but it’s really not that bad!

As always, layering is key. The jacket may get switched to a heavier weight jacket, or I may keep the lightweight jacket and add an extra layer underneath.

The tights stay, but the socks get switched to heavyweight wool socks. No need for expensive cycling specific socks here, as heavy wool “boot” socks found at outdoors-oriented stores targeted at hunting or hiking work great at a fraction of the price.

Shoe covers or toe covers do serious work here as well, blocking the vented fabric in your shoes meant to keep your feet cool in the summer.

Toe Covers

For my hands, I switch to “lobster” gloves at in this range, but that’s because I, unfortunately, have incredibly poor circulation in my hands and my fingers get cold and numb easily, but most people don’t need them until much colder temperatures.

Lobster gloves are great because they keep your actual fingers paired together in the same glove finger, which helps insulate heat better to avoid numb fingers and hands, and have longer overall lengths which means the wrist area of the glove tucks into (or over) your jacket sleeve, blocking your hands, wrist, and forearm from cold air completely.

There are two common styles: the 2+2 style (on the left) that I prefer for road bikes, and the 3+1 style (on the right) if you need a little more index finger dexterity, such as for mountain biking.

Toe Covers

32 Degrees Fahrenheit and Below – Literally Below Freezing!

Winter ShoesEven below the freezing point, I may add an additional base layer to my core, or wear two layers of tights instead of one, but the general strategy continues until you start getting to temperatures where frostbite is possible, and that’s far beyond the scope of what I’m talking about today!

The only additional change I make is the switch to dedicated winter shoes, which I highly recommend if the budget allows.

They insulate your feet far better than regular “summer” shoes with covers blocking the vents, and are often waterproof and windproof as well, but are unfortunately probably the only item I’ve mentioned here where a worthwhile version cannot be found cheaply.

Wrapping it Up

The gear listed above works for me at these temperatures, but each person’s body adjusts to the cold a little differently and these loose guidelines might not work for you 100% of the time.

Besides your own physiology and tolerance for cold, how warm you feel can change when it’s sunny or dark or if you’re on a fast road ride or a slow trail ride. Just make sure you don’t dress so warm that you sweat.

A little trial and error are all it takes before you’re developing your own winter plan to keep cycling year after year!