Winter Bike Commuting Gear Recommendations Needed
October 30, 2020 11:40 AM   Subscribe

It's starting to get cold now and I need to figure out what to wear so that I can keep biking to work. I'm looking for everything from hats/earwarmers I can wear with my helmet down to socks.

My commute is about 15km/40 minutes each way. I try to dress a bit cool so that as I get going and my body warms up I'm not sweating too much but I feel like I'm going straight from cold to sweaty now. I'm in Toronto, Canada and right now it's getting close to freezing at night when I ride home and it'll only be getting colder.

On the way in to work I've been wearing a warm base layer with a dri fit-type t-shirt on top of it (neither are cycling specific) and either tights under long shorts or a pair of specific cycle-commuting tights/pants. On the way back I put a shell on top of the base layer. I've got a variety of gloves, some cycling and some running, that I'll wear depending on the temp. I'll probably need to get some lobster-style over mitts for when it gets really cold.

Ideally this would all be stuff I can use for different activities as well but if there are cycling-specific items that make life better that's great too.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Bar mitts!!! More than any other thing, bar mitts make riding in cold weather bearable.

Nokian or schwalbe tires with carbide studs make it safe to ride on ice.
posted by rockindata at 11:48 AM on October 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Does it snow where you live? IMO, when I bike in the cold (15-40F) I wear a warm hat, a long-sleeve t-shirt, shorts, sweat pants, and a light jacket. Gloves are super important, as my hands get far colder (body warms up nicely after about 10 minutes of riding). So I have up to 2 pairs of thin knit gloves. Warm hat matters too. I don't really have to deal with wet snow or too much rain.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:48 AM on October 30, 2020

In my experience, the biggest places you need cycling-specific items are your hands, feet, and ears. Plenty of good winter jackets/pants/etc you can adapt.

Head-wise, I use a Gore windproof skullcap thing beneath my helmet. I'm sure lots of brands make them, but make sure it's windproof, as that's been the key thing for me. If it isn't your ears will notice very quickly when it's good and cold.

Similarly, even if you're dressed warmly enough, if your hands or feet aren't well insulated you're going to be in pain pretty quickly. It sounds like you've got a good handle on the gloves piece here, though I'd concur with the bar mitts suggestion for when it's deep winter. Shoe-wise, if you use flat pedals just wear good winter shoes you don't mind cycling in. If you clip in (I do), you can either get some shoe covers, or, for the true deep cold, some winter cycling shoes.

Beyond that it sounds like you've got it largely covered; I tend to err on the side of being insulated enough but do it in a way where I can vent a bit if I get steamy; I find that's a better balance than risking underinsulating myself, but ymmv.

Have fun!
posted by lhputtgrass at 11:55 AM on October 30, 2020

I used to live in Toronto and bicycled in the winter.

Other than what you mentioned, I recommend a bicycling toque. They are thin and fit very nicely under a helmet. (A regular toque is thicker and displaces the helmet a bit.)

For the wind, I would want to have gloves with a shell and not just a knit glove. Like the_vegetables said, the hands are out front and feel the brunt of the breeze hitting your hands. And I find the hands can really dry out even in knit gloves.

I live in Ottawa now. I stop bicycling around Remembrance Day because the winters are serious here. Enjoy the riding. I remember Toronto winter bicycling was doable.
posted by philfromhavelock at 12:04 PM on October 30, 2020

I warm up quickly when I exercise so on my commute, when it was in the 20F-35F range, I eventually gave in and took off a layer when I was halfway there.

If you're going to be out in snow or cold rain, sunglasses or goggles will keep it from stinging your eyes.

Face coverings all have their downsides because they end up soaking wet from condensation. I used a large wool scarf that was open on the bottom to minimize this sometimes. In reasonable temperatures I'd use a gaiter that I'd rotate or pull down when it got wet; in 0F or below I had a Thinsulate balaclava.
posted by metasarah at 12:06 PM on October 30, 2020

I swear by my studded tires for dealing with the heavily rutted ice that we tend to get out here in Montana due to limited plowing. I don't know what you can expect to see for road conditions in Toronto but if ice is possible boy are they nice.

Lights! Winter means long hours of darkness and it can really suck to get a low-battery warning ten minutes into a twenty-minute ride. It's a safety issue so make sure you have a reliable process for keeping them charged, even going with backup lights front and back if necessary.

I'll agree with the importance of covering ears against the wind. My technique is a helmet cover to keep the wind out, and a helmet liner that covers my ears and gets held down tightly over them by the helmet straps. For better protection down the back of my neck in bad weather, I wear a shell jacket with a hood that I wear over my head, under the helmet. I have to position it carefully to avoid blocking my peripheral vision, but it's great for keeping everything out.

Ski googles are useful in the bitter, bitter cold. Again I don't know how bad Toronto gets but the cold wind in your eyes can get to be a real problem for seeing the road clearly. Also I wear glasses so when it's snowing they can get plastered with wet snow sometimes and the goggles are vital to actually being able to see!
posted by traveler_ at 12:09 PM on October 30, 2020

I have a Bern helmet that's rated for winter sports in addition to biking and it has very few vents and comes with a removable fuzzy liner - it's great for colder days, although I wish it came down further over my forehead. I think maybe they don't make my exact model anymore but they have a bunch of All Season helmets. (And they have many Canadian stockists.)

Bar Mitts were a real game-changer for me as well, and price-wise/reusability-wise they probably work out about the same as lobster claw mitts. And unlike mitts they don't really need to get washed. They may be a bit of a pain if you don't have a safe, covered place to park your bike.

Other than that I've never really had any dedicated gear for bike commuting, it's all been stuff that was on sale at TJ Maxx or REI or something. Maybe add a lightweight puffy vest for the beginnings of your rides? My best face covering was a handmade lace alpaca scarf which disappeared at some point. Great warmth but let lots of air through too.
posted by mskyle at 12:09 PM on October 30, 2020

The biggest difference made to my winter cycling (which I've done in Ottawa in all but fresh huge snow dump conditions since 2012) has been made by purchasing pogies (aka bar mitts) with fuzzy warmth inside; they protect against windchill like nothing else. I have WOBs and love them (Hey, I have pogievangelist in my Twitter bio for a reason.)

Otherwise, your main issue is going to be stopping the wind from cutting through your clothes, as you'll warm up quickly once you get going and will want to keep that cold air out. A raincoat over your warmer clothes will do this nicely - it sounds like you already have your layering mostly worked out on this front from your description.

For neck, I like a cowl so I don't have to mess with the ends of a scarf. I have a longer one that I can pull up over my face when it's colder than -10ish. Ears-wise I usually use a headband that covers my ears

Finally, studded tires bring additional peace of mind. I highly recommend them.

Okay a last accessory that has been indispensable to me for winter cycling is my Twitter winter cycling crew. It's great to have other people to share the joy and commiseration with, honestly, plus this is a good source for specifics on road conditions on dodgier days.

ENJOY. I love cycling in the winter and there is almost nothing as sweet as biking through a dusting of fresh snow as it dampens all other sound, and seeing the tracks from other people who went through before you.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:17 PM on October 30, 2020

Previously: Do you bike all winter? What do you wear coat-wise?

And yes, bar mitts! (In the late winter/early spring, I just left them on and it looked kind of silly, but it was nice not to have to put on gloves when it was 50ish.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:50 PM on October 30, 2020

Only thing I’ll add to these excellent suggestions- waterproof socks. Even with full shoe covers they make a huge difference..
posted by TDIpod at 12:57 PM on October 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

So, my wife does the "start cold" thing, but I wear as many layers as it takes to feel comfortable starting out and then shed layers after I warm up. I have a full-size pannier so I can either wear or shed as many layers of clothing as needed. This way, I always feel nice and comfy no matter the outside temperature or my body temperature.

Now let's talk about the specific layers. I don't have anything bike specific right now, and my general experience from the past has been that bike-specific clothing sucks for bike commuters. My winter layers are typically: shirt, hoody, down jacket, Gore-Tex shell on top (wearing as many or as few of these as appropriate); long underwear and/or pants, and rain pants; waterproof hiking boots, waterproof ski gloves; baseball cap under helmet to keep rain out of my glasses + balaclava if extra cold. I live in Seattle where winters are relatively mild (and so I don't typically use the down jacket etc) but if I lived somewhere colder I would add even more warm clothes as necessary.
posted by splitpeasoup at 1:38 PM on October 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

PS: I forgot to mention also: I also wear a construction-style reflective vest for nighttime visibility, as well as lights on my bike of course.
posted by splitpeasoup at 1:40 PM on October 30, 2020

When I used to bike commute (pre-virus), I loved these winter cycling pants from Swrve. All of their stuff is well made, designed for biking, and looks pretty cool/not technical.

I would also layer my gloves - get a thin pair of "glove liners" and then a thicker outside pair - even though the inner pair is thin, the layering really makes a difference.
posted by Mid at 1:58 PM on October 30, 2020

Oh yes, the critical smartwool neck gaiter too. You can pull it up over your face a little bit as needed.
posted by Mid at 1:59 PM on October 30, 2020

Under Armour balaclava is 😗👌 for head, ear, face warmth. I didn't fog up while riding but did need to pull it down at stops to not fog up my sunglasses. Dedicated antifog sunglasses may mitigate this. It was a little short on my neck so I needed a gaiter too.

Otherwise lobster gloves, heattech long underwear or cycling tights, and very occasional shoe covers where all i needed other than a shell plus loft layer.
posted by supercres at 2:07 PM on October 30, 2020

I'm in Portland, Oregon, where it's not nearly as cold as what you'll deal with, and bar mitts (sometimes called pogies) are the best winter cycling purchase I ever made. Took me years, which is absurd. I tried heavy regular gloves; lobster-style gloves; homemade handwarmers I'd heat up in the microwave before I left home in the morning; and lots of other ways to keep my hands warm on my bike. Nothing worked, because even when my body was warmed up and sweating, my hands couldn't keep warm. The bar mitts are great because you can wear them alone or with another layer of gloves underneath. They keep the wind off, which is a big help. They're a bit of a pain to take on and off (if you lock your bike up outside), but that's really the only downside. I typically leave them on from around this time of year through spring. I have the stormbreaker pogies from Portland Pogies, but I'm sure there are other options out there too.

Feet are next. Do you have dedicated cycling shoes or do you wear regular shoes? The wind can be tricky here, even with good socks. For a makeshift way to keep your toes warm, if that's been a problem, try using plastic bags (like bread bags) over your socks and under your shoes. I know it sounds absurd, but keeping the wind off helps. If you have dedicated cycling shoes made for recreational road riding, you might consider going for some winter shoes. There are also shoe covers and toe covers.

I find I can get away with a pretty light covering over my ears and head most of the time. I have a few lighter weight winter caps and ear bands that I wear under my helmet. A balaclava is helpful for your nose for the coldest days, and you can always have it around your neck and pull it up. That's a good way to regulate your temperature a bit.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:20 PM on October 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ski gloves/mitts - you don’t need particularly good ones, because you won’t have your hands in snow, but ski gloves are the easiest to find warm, windproof, waterproof gloves. H&M do cheap ones which are probably fine. I just use my normal Dakine ski gloves.

Windproof pants over your cycling tights. The thin plasticky shell pants. Stops windchill without adding too much insulation.

Having said that, I do wear thick fleece-lined cycling tights in winter, not my usual Lycra. Many cycling tights come in a “winter” version, that’s what I mean.

I wear a long-sleeved baselayer under a windproof jacket - I don’t find my body gets that cold.

I wear a buff or cycling mask to keep my nose from getting windchill. And neoprene shoe covers.
posted by tinkletown at 2:58 PM on October 30, 2020

I used to do a four mile bike commute in Boston. My proudest morning was 8 degrees! 💪🏻 I so miss it.

I would do: cold weather running tights (plus fleece pants on the odd absurdly cold day), base layer top + additional top maybe plus thin down puffer maybe plus rain shell. Thin hat under helmet. Wool socks and hiking boots - I dunno, maybe people wear something else, that's what I did. Ski mittens. An additional layer in the bag if you have any public transit or walk on the other end.

Plus a really good light.

Also: make notes! Write down what you wore, the weather, and how you felt, allows you to figure it out. Good luck and happy riding!!
posted by teragram at 4:02 PM on October 30, 2020

A few recommendations repeating the above, but worth looking at Path Less Pedaled's essentials list. They have a separate video recommending specific products.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 4:04 PM on October 30, 2020

I bike in all weather in Alaska. Pogies are the best piece of cold-weather gear you can get, although they might be overkill above 15F or so.

With good studded tires at the right pressure on a mountain bike (or, better yet, a fatbike if you have enough snow to justify one) you can literally ride on an ice-skating rink, nbd. Expensive but may be worth it depending on your regular weather situation- I don’t know enough about Toronto weather to be sure.

My favorite flexible pieces of gear are thin merino wool buffs- can cover any part of your head, face, whatever, and just go around your neck if not needed.
posted by charmedimsure at 12:42 AM on October 31, 2020

My must-have items:
1) Bar mitts. Mine are light (more for rain than for cold) so I often wore thin gloves with them. Much better dexterity than mittens.
2) Generator lights (mean never having to say "I forgot to charge the battery")
3) Wool socks.
4) Ear covering. On mild days I tie a short silk scarf around my head; add elastic-y cloth earwarmer band for extra insulation. A friend had helmet earmuffs like these and I always meant to knit myself a set.
5) Wool everything else. Coat, pants, base layer if needed. Army surplus wool pants are cheap and effective; we installed zippers in the knees on some of ours so they convert to shorts. Wool is warm (even when damp), it's breathable, it minimizes smells, and it is perfectly acceptable general-purpose clothing.

Not sure what your pedaling situation is, but I ride on platform pedals and would sometimes wear heavy-duty insulated leather steel-toe construction boots (found them on the side of the road; the steel toes weren't necessary for cycling but came with the boots) that had some fancy ice-gripping sole compound. Periodic applications of Sno-Seal kept them water-resistant. On the occasional icy-cold day, it was nice to have warm, cozy feet and some extra anti-slipness.

This is based on riding in weather that is cold for Portland, OR. You may need more/thicker layers than I usually did. Get bar mitts, though, at least!
posted by sibilatorix at 10:18 AM on October 31, 2020

I don't really go in for cycle-specific stuff, just because I find it expensive and a lot of it makes me feel dorky (I know 35 year old ladies shouldn't really worry about form over function but I always do)

I'm in calgary so I think in general it's probably a little colder here then what you'll have to deal with.

Most important is studded tyres for me - I use a cheap mountain bike from the pawn shop (with disc brakes if I can get them but it hasn't proved AS important as I thought they might be) as my winter bike, with expensive Ice Spiker tyres. I find with things getting wet constantly, the addition of salt, and my general disinterest in maintaining my bike, everything is super rusty in a couple years so I don't think having an expensive winter bike is worth it. I usually spend about $70 on something that will fit my tires and it lasts me about 3 winter seasons.

I wear a thin buff around my neck, that can be pulled up over my mouth and nose if it's cold enough that those are hurting. If it's colder than -15C or raining or snowing I wear cheap ski goggles. mine are just clear because it's often dark here on the way home in the winter and I found polarization too dark on my unlit paths even with my light.

I only got the ski goggles last year (probably my 4th year of biking year round) and they make a HUGE difference on how cold I feel on really cold days.

I mostly just wear jeans, but if it's colder than about -15 then I wear a pair of tights or long johns under my jeans. I wear a tshirt and a hoodie and a snowboarding jacket.

I just wear big padded mittens, I don't use lobster ones or anything, I find all my fingers together stays warmer. I have usb-charged hand warmers which I will just throw into my mittens above my fingers if it's really cold or if I start to not be able to feel my fingers partway.

I used to wear sorel boots but last year I just wore my winter timberlands all year - I feel like my feet actually warm up once I get going.

I wear a earwarmer (like the 80s style headband type) under my helmet if I'm wearing one, or if I don't wear a helmet I still wear the earwarmer under a toque. toque alone lets too much wind in under it's brim, but earwarmers fit tighter.

I have a lumos helmet which has extra lights if I'm wearing a helmet, but either way I have a strong headlight for forward facing, and two back-facing red lights, one of which blinks. sometimes various other lights.

I like this style of bluetooth headphones because they can be operated with essentially just one button which you can find with your mitten thumb, and they can use google assistant if you need something while riding without having to stop, and they operate well with only one earbud in - so you can still hear noise around you. I don't ride on the roads at all, if I did I wouldn't wear headphones, but on paths I often wear one for podcasts or audiobooks and set my phone audio to mono. Also if you need to quickly remove your one earbud it can be pulled out of your ear by just grabbing the wire without needing to worry about losing it or anything.

also you should get a bell. if you're on paths, the ones that sound like "ring ring" and are operated by a push lever on the side are much friendlier sounding than the ones that do a single loud "ding!" where the lever strikes the bell once.
posted by euphoria066 at 1:41 PM on October 31, 2020

also you should get a bell. if you're on paths, the ones that sound like "ring ring" and are operated by a push lever on the side are much friendlier sounding than the ones that do a single loud "ding!" where the lever strikes the bell once.

We have, like, comical awoogah clown bike horns for the bikes we trail ride with where you squeeze a bulb and no one ever gets mad at us when we pass. The same definitely cannot be said for a single ding-style bell.
posted by charmedimsure at 2:04 PM on October 31, 2020

Thank you everyone for the wealth of suggestions.

Do bar mitts/pogies work with bar ends? I'll be switching to my mountain bike once we get snow and I normally ride with my hands on my bar ends. Wearing thinner gloves inside a pogie sounds like it would be more comfortable to shift and brake than wearing thick gloves.

So today it was about 2°/36° and I had decided I'd dress warm and go a bit slow. My core got too warm, and hands were about OK, but my toes were quite cold even though I was wearing warm socks. I've still got warmer gloves to switch to so aren't worried about that yet. Tomorrow looks to be roughly the same weather so I'll see if my trail runners do better than my regular running shoes. And yes even if the rest of me is warm enough, just having cold toes made the ride slightly uncomfortable.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:05 AM on November 2, 2020

Do bar mitts/pogies work with bar ends?
Do you mean with a straight bar, not a drop bar? Yes, absolutely. Click through to the Portland Pogies page, and you'll see that the bikes shown are more upright city bikes with that style of handlebar. I think somewhere on the website the maker has a video of putting the mitts on your bike. I've been using mine on a old road bike but with a straighter (not drop) bar. I think you can find some from local places that are similar. This must be a pretty common accessory in Toronto.

As for shoes: just think of what warm shoes you'd wear if you had to stand around outside, not moving, in that kind of weather. You probably wouldn't wear running shoes because they're made to be breezy. You can get socks that are waterproof and should also block wind, but they're expensive and I don't find mine (from a different brand) all that comfortable... and I only have one pair, so that's not practical for every day. Do you have any winter boots that you could ride in? If they're snow boots, they might feel too stiff for your bike. I've also worn rain boots (like duck boots), which would do better blocking the wind.

Or, truly, try the bread bag over your socks trick.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:35 AM on November 2, 2020

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