How To Dress For Cold Weather (2011 Update)

Editor’s Note: I was unaware of the #1 post from 2006 (which was before I was involved with this blog) until Shawn from Kansas City wrote me recently, asking me to thank Nick James for the article. “I first read it about a year ago and find myself referencing this article every year. I read a ton of material online trying to figure out how to commute year round and it wasn’t til I read this article that it all came together.” I contacted Nick to pass along Shawn’s gratitude, and Nick offered an update to the original post, which I have inserted at the bottom.

Thanks Nick and Shawn.


Every now and then I flip through a copy of Bicycling Magazine. Usually, there’s nothing in it for me. Lots of expensive toys, lots of talk about Lance and Floyd, and maybe some amateur-level maintenance tips, though I don’t know how many times you can advise your readership to clean their chains before the message is received.

This time of year, I start to see these ridiculous $300 cold weather cycling jackets. If anyone is preparing to extend their commuting season through the winter and is thinking of getting one of these, don’t. I’m sure they’re nice, but they are a waste of money. I commute year round, and I’ve never spent that much on winter gear. I totaled up the costs of all the clothing and gear you’ll see below, combined, including socks, underwear, gloves and helmet, everything pictured except my flesh, and the total cost was $211. For everything. That gets me through every season.

For the most people, the line for comfortable cycling seems to be somewhere around 50 degrees. Below that is where the ranks start to thin out. So, with that in mind, I’ve constructed some guidelines for cold weather riding.

How to dress for temperatures above 60 ° F
Above 60 degrees Farenheit (15 ° C) is pretty easy. This is what I usually wear, sometimes with a t-shirt instead of a beater. The rolled-up fatigues move nicely and are lighter than jeans. Puma Anjans fit perfectly into toe clips. Some people would wear a jersey instead of a cotton shirt, but I only use jerseys for long rides. I have a theory about sweat and hot weather, and I know I’ll meet with some disagreement here, but when it’s in the 80s and 90s, I want my shirt to be soaked. Sweat cools you off, that’s why it happens. Wicking it all away with skin-tight polyester might be nice if you’re on the bike all day, but for commuting, I appreciate the natural AC I get from my sweat-soaked shirt.

How to dress for temperatures in the 50 °'s F range
In the 50’s (10 – 15 ° C), I need sleeve coverage. You’ll also see that I’ve put on heavier, longer socks to cover my ankles. But there’s still a little ventilation in the legs, because constant pedaling warms them up. I really like thermals, and use them constantly in the winter. For this temperature, they’re the ideal top. They don’t wick away sweat, but they dry quickly, and I only sweat under my bag anyway. Make sure to tuck it in, or you’ll have a chilly back and everyone driving behind you will see what brand of underwear you buy. I’ve also traded in my fingerless gloves for light, full-finger biking gloves.

How to dress for temperatures in the 40 °'s F range
Now in the 40’s (4.4 – 10 ° C), especially when the wind kicks up, a thermal isn’t enough. In this photo, I’ve added a heavy windbreaker over the thermal, but in the high 40s, I might opt for a vest instead, which keeps my arms from overheating. You’ll also notice that I’m wearing thermal bottoms (known as long underwear to some) under my fatigues. Still the same heavy socks, same gloves. Look closely, and you’ll see that I’ve put some of those behind-the-head earmuffs on under my helmet. I scored this pair at a dollar store. I like those better than the headband and helmet liners because the headband never sits right and my hair keeps me pretty warm. If you don’t have any hair, you might want to go for a helmet liner at this point.

This is a good place to point out the fallacy of overdressing, one to which I fell victim at first. If you were to put on this outfit and stroll around, you would not be warm enough. But biking is not walking. You warm up much more and much faster on a bike, unless you are riding with zero intensity (Hey, show me some hustle, you). Some have said that if you are warm for the first ten minutes of riding, you are overdressed. This is true. I promise, if you keep a decent clip, this amount of clothing will keep you warm, and you will probably get there with a little sweat under your layers. Don’t worry about that, by the way. The air is always drier in winter, and your clothes will be dry in no time.

How to dress for temperatures in the 30 °'s F range
Here’s where it gets serious. Below 30 ° (-1 ° C) is where winter bikers are not only hardcore by reputation, but also in appearance. No, it’s not a ninja mask, it’s a balaclava, and you can get a good one for $15 – $20. You can also get a polar fleece tube for the bottom half of your face, which is good if you use a helmet liner, as long as you pull it up in the back so that it tucks under your helmet; it will slide down otherwise.

The concept here is to cover all of your skin. It doesn’t have to be thick – the thermals alone will keep your shins nice and warm, but that blast of chilly air on the exposed centimeter between your jacket sleeve and your glove will get old real fast. My trick here is wristbands, the kind you’re supposed to use to wipe sweat from your brow. When your arms are extended out to your bars, your sleeves pull back, and wristbands do a great job of covering the gap. Cold air will also get to your toes, especially if you wear shoes like mine, so an extra pair of socks helps. I just pull a pair of short socks – which I’m wearing in the first picture – over my thick socks. Under is fine too.

Finally, I have Thinsulate gloves, which keep my fingers warm. There are good cycling-specific options out there too, but they cost more, and these were $5 from a street vendor.

While “below 30 °” does technically describe the deadly coldness of outer space, this outfit is all I have ever needed here on earth, or at least here in New York City. I believe the lowest it got last winter was in the teens, and I was just fine. I’ve skipped riding because there was too much snow in the roads, but I’ve never skipped riding because it was too cold out.

You may notice that my eyes are uncovered in all of these pictures. I’m actually not a big fan of eye wear for riding. I find it distracting, even the clear wraparounds, and when it gets cold out, they fog. Goggles might be good for the cold weather, but my life depends on my peripheral vision, and I’d rather have my eyes tearing from the cold than not be able to see. And that’s usually what happens: for the first few minutes of my ride, my eyes tear up. And it passes. When it’s below 30 degrees, the balaclava/mask does something magical – it directs the hot air of my breath up through the eyehole, and keeps my eyes warm. Now that’s economical use of body heat.

So, use your judgment and make your own variations on this formula, but this is what works for me. I like having rules for temperature ranges, because it means I can check the weather in the morning and dress accordingly without having to gamble with being warm enough or do too much mid-ride stripping.

Cold weather isn’t that scary on a bike. I surprised myself, and I encourage everyone to give it a shot, even if you think you’re taking a risk. If it sucks, you can go back to driving or taking public transportation, but you might find out that you like it. I sure do.

If any readers brave colder weather than we have here in New York City, I’d love to hear your tips. In fact, I encourage all winter riders to hit up the comments and share ideas. Teach me something! And remember, if you feel cold, pedal harder!

2011 Update

Nick James
Nick James 2011

Here I am geared up for my 32-mile round-trip commute from Salt Lake City, UT to Sandy, UT, January 10th, 2011. It was 15-20 °F that morning. My cold weather gear is not the same as it was four years ago, especially since my ride is longer and therefore more sweaty. According to my cyclometer, my average speed is about 17 mph, though I try to maintain 20-24 mph while riding at speed. My max top speed recorded during my commute was just shy of 38 mph. Since staring the job in July, I have commuted about 1800 miles by bike.

The layering system I use is still the same basic idea as the “below 30” system from the original post in 2006, but these days I’m using more cycling-specific clothing and wicking fabrics. This makes a big difference with a longer commute, as I tend to get sweaty even in the cold weather. My favorite item is probably the Ex Officio moisture wicking/quick drying underwear. They make a big difference, for reasons I assume are obvious.

I carry my work clothes in the bag and change when I arrive.

Here’s what I’m wearing in the picture:

Specialized helmet
Falke helmet liner
polar fleece neck buff

Etxe Ondo cold weather long sleeve jersey
polar fleece jacket
thinsulate gloves

Ex Officio
Cannondale cold weather tights
Swrve knickers

2 pair socks
Mavic Alpine clipless shoes (with Time ATAC pedals)

The bike is a Surly Cross-Check, the bag is a Bailey Works. Most of these items have survived several winters commuting, so I can attest to their reliability. As has always been the case, the first ten to fifteen minutes of my ride are not what I would call enjoyable, especially when the temperature is below ten degrees F, but after I’ve warmed up, I’m reminded how much I love riding. Even on the days where I barely want to get out of bed, let alone bundle up and pedal, I always find myself glad I did when I arrive. That’s why I keep at it.

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