The Ultimate Bike Commuter’s Guide to Winter Cycling
Riding your bike to work is easy when the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and a warm (but not too warm) breeze is tickling your cheeks. We get about 3 of those days per year in Boston. I kid, I kid. Sorta.
As the days grow shorter and the mercury plummets, I’m joined by fewer and fewer hearty souls on our epic journeys towards gainful employment.
Where do they all go, those sweet summer children? Whether by bus, subway, car or uber (don’t gasp, I know people who take uber to work every day!) these fair-weather bike commuters are missing an essential part of our shared cycling experience… and paying for the privilege!
Here’s a secret my fellow winter biking warriors don’t want to let out: Bike commuting in the winter isn’t that tough. And when you show up at work with icicles in your whiskers (or your ponytail), your coworkers will look at you like you’re some sort of fearsome Visigoth raider rising out of the mist. Instant badass. Or they’ll think you’re insane. Either can play to your advantage.
What do you need to know in order to become a winter bike commuter? How to be safe and how to keep warm. Let’s start with safety.
BTW, when I link to products in this post, if they’re sold by Amazon I’ll use an affiliate link. This means if you buy something, Amazon gives us a percentage… which we promptly use to buy anchovies for Frugal Hound. I’m kidding. Kinda. She loves her ‘chovies.
Take the lane
The sad truth is that many bike lanes disappear in the winter underneath piles of plowed snow. My route to work has nearly 80% bike lane coverage in the summertime. In the snowy months, I’m lucky if I see a bike lane for a block.
The only safe way to ride in the winter once the heavy snow starts is to take the lane. Don’t try and crowd the snow banks to make room for traffic. Cyclists have the right to take the entire lane on city streets when it’s not safe to ride on the side. Cars may not appreciate it, but it’s the law.
Oh, and that wonderful bike path you bucolically pedal all summer? Chances are your city puts all their money towards plowing and salting the auto roads and none towards making the bike paths passable. Go write your city councilor about it right now. Back? Ok, let’s continue.
Make no sudden moves
Similar to driving a car, biking on snowy or icy pavement requires that you think ahead.
Anticipate when you’ll need to brake and start much earlier than you would in the summer. Remember, even if the pavement is dry, the salt and sand on the road might be slippery.
When making a turn in an icy spot, consider slowing nearly to a stop. You want to maintain an erect posture and avoid leaning into the turn. Staying upright keeps the main grippy part of your tires in full contact with the road surface.
You’ll quickly learn you can glide over really slick spots as long as you’re going straight. Turns are what’ll get you.
Here in Boston it’s completely dark by 5pm most of the winter. You need to be lit up like the National Lampoon Christmas tree.
All parts of you should be flashing a near-blinding cadence that pierces even the most drowsy and careless driver’s retina.
At the bare minimum, you need a front white flasher and a back red flasher. Ideally you have side flashers too–the type that clip into your spokes work well. I have a rear flasher that also has LEDs on the side, which does the same job. Here are the front light and rear light that I have, but any will do just fine in the city.
Make sure to change the batteries on a schedule! I swap my alkalines out every month in the winter. The cold really reduces their life, and you won’t always notice when your lights are getting slightly dimmer.
Rely on your eyes
Winter muffles sound. Snow banks absorb reflected noise, and freshly fallen snow can dampen the hum of approaching cars. Most distressingly, any method of keeping your ears warm will further silence the environmental auditory cues that help you stay safe.
The only way to counteract this is to be an active looker. It’s tempting to rely on your sense of sound when making split second decisions about whether to merge, turn, or other potentially dangerous movements–especially when the amount of clothing you’re wearing makes it harder to physically turn your head. But it’s critically important to swivel your neck to check for hazards!
Keeping warm is only 1/3 of the battle in winter cycling. The other equally important components are staying dry and keeping the wind off your skin.
Complicating matters is the dramatic difference in the amount of heat your body will generate midway through your ride vs. the first couple of minutes. I have a rule: If I’m not cold when I first start pedaling… I need to take off a layer. You should be uncomfortably cold for the first 5 minutes or so, or you’ll be sweating like a pig by the middle of your ride.
I wouldn’t be a frugality blogger if I didn’t note: You don’t need a bunch of specialized clothing to bike in the winter!
Seriously! Start with what you have on hand, and then supplement as needed. My wardrobe listed here has been built up over 7 years of bike commuting in winter. I didn’t go out and buy it all at once. The one exception? Those bike lights I talked about earlier. You must have a pair of lights if you’re biking after dark. Full stop, no exceptions. In many places it’s the law.
Remember the children’s stretching song “head, shoulders, knees and toes (knees and toes!)”? That’s the basic framework of the clothing section. We’ll start at the top and work our way down.
The key here is keeping the wind away and not as much about insulation. I switch up my head gear as the temperature drops.
From 45-55 degrees, I’ll wear a headband that covers my ears. This keeps my ears from getting cold while ensuring I don’t overheat. It fits nicely below the level of my helmet. I have the older version of this OR headband. Mine doesn’t have the OR label plastered all over the front, but I think I paid more for it… so, progress?!
From 30-45 degrees, I wear a thin wool skullcap that breathes really well but increases the warmth factor vs. the headband. It’s thin, so it easily fits under my helmet without needing to re-adjust. I have the Icebreaker beanie. Even though it’s wool, it’s merino wool… so no itchiness!
Below 30 degrees, I wear a windproof, lined, fleece hat that comes deep over my forehead and down my neck. It completely covers my ears. It’s bulky enough that my helmet requires adjusting, but it’s really warm and absolutely windproof. I’ve had this Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon hat for years. In the deep winter, I wear it every day. It’s 100% worth the money and Mrs. FW, after making fun of my pronouncements of this hat’s glory for years, finally broke down and got one for herself. She bought it, gasp, new! And she loves it. These are the hats we wear when hiking too.
Below 10 degrees, I add the thin wool cap under my windproof fleece hat for the ultimate winter warmer. Any higher than 10 degrees and it’s a recipe for insta-sweat.
I think eyes are the most bedeviling clothing challenge in winter cycling. Visibility is important for safety, but in sub-freezing temperatures your eyes can easily dry out and become irritated. Not to mention freezing tears streaked down the side of your face. Fun times!
Sunglasses: I have a pair of wrap-around sunglasses that I wear year round during the day. In the winter, they work down to 20 degrees or so. They keep the wind and sun out of my eyes, and the best part is that they were free! They’re the glasses the LASIK doctor gave Mrs. FW after her surgery almost 2 years ago. Shatter resistant, full UVA and UVB protection, what’s not to love! Seriously though, don’t spend a ton of money on sunglasses for riding–just get a cheap wraparound pair. It’s the wraparound part that is important.
Clear glasses: Sunglasses are great for the morning ride, but it’s pitch black by 5pm and your eyes still need protection from the wind. A set of clear glasses cuts the wind while allowing you to see. Safety goggles or shooting glasses work fine if you don’t have corrective lenses to fill this niche. I wear a cheap pair of safety glasses. I look like a dork, but it works great!
Ski goggles: When the mercury drops below 15 degrees, the air coming around the edges of the sunglasses and clear glasses becomes a real problem. You only have to freeze your eyelashes together once to realize that something is wrong (ask me how I know this…). I use a cheap pair of ski goggles (actually ATV goggles) to achieve perfect cozy eye protection. They aren’t super well made, but they are really cheap and I don’t use them that often.
There’s a fine line between “rosy” cheeks and “windburned” cheeks. When the temp is below freezing, I usually add face protection to the clothing list. I have a couple of different options:
Beard: The natural option for menfolk. This is the origin story of my beard. I was cold last winter and didn’t feel like shaving. Not an option for the follicularly challenged.
Balaclava: This keeps me warm, but produces major fogging difficulties with my protective eyewear. While you’re moving it works OK, but at stoplights my glasses or goggles get completely fogged almost instantly. Not fun, and not safe. I think I got my balaclava from a used gear sale at some point, and I can’t find it now to see what brand it is. In any case, last winter I gave it up in favor of…
Face mask: My neoprene facemask is a great combo with my windproof fleece hat. It’s easily adjustable and has better ventilation than the balaclava, which means my eyewear doesn’t fog as much. Getting this was one of the “aha!” moments of winter biking. It makes a huge difference! This Seirus Neofleece is what I have. Mrs. FW owns the same one and we wear these for winter hiking as well.
The torso is a tricky sartorial situation. Many winter coats are both too restricting of movement and too insulative to be useful while biking. With all of these options, the key is to manage your heat level. If you feel yourself getting slightly too warm, zip down the jacket to let in some breeze. It’s always better to be slightly chilly than to start sweating and get clammy.
Light windproof jacket: Above 45 degrees, I wear a long sleeve shirt and what amounts to a fancy windbreaker. Its only real purpose is to keep the wind from chilling while allowing enough heat to come off my body to prevent sweating. It sounds simple, but it’s one of my favorite pieces of clothing. It adds the perfect amount of comfort to a wide range of temperatures. In the summer, it’s always stuffed in my bag in case of cool evenings. This is the Marmot Driclime Windshirt that I have in high-vis orange, which I highly recommend. You can’t be too visible as a biker!
Windproof fleece stretch coat: Below 45 degrees I switch to my windproof, stretchy fleece jacket. It does a great job of holding in the heat and preventing the wind from cutting through. It’s also quite water resistant and great for shedding snow. My favorite part is the stretch in the fabric. It makes a huge difference in comfort while biking. I’d love to recommend my beloved jacket to you, but it appears the REI Neo is now discontinued. I looked around on their site and didn’t find an obvious successor, which is too bad because I really like the jacket. When trying on jackets, definitely check the movement and stretchability. If possible, try it on while sitting on a bike. Make sure your arms can comfortably extend forward and that the jacket covers your lower back. Nothing worse than a chilly crack!
Wool shirt: My standard outfit in the winter includes a nice thick wool shirt. One of my shirts is quilted wool (purchased at Goodwill for $3), and I try to wear that on the coldest day of the week. If I didn’t have a closet full of warm shirts, I’d probably use another fleece layer for insulation under my jacket. As it is, on all but the coldest mornings I don’t need to supplement. My wool shirts are all from thrift stores, where everyone should buy their wool shirts. Already softened somewhat by wear and washing, new wool shirts don’t compare. Don’t get me started on the price comparison.
Wool base layer: On those coldest mornings, say 10 degrees and under, I add a base layer of merino wool. It’s nuclear furnace warm, and extremely comfortable. This is my standard base layer when winter hiking, but it’s normally too warm for biking. Some days though, it’s just right. I have this Icebreaker wool base layer. I got it on clearance in the spring one year, and it was totally worth the $50 I paid. Honestly, after using it for a couple of years, I’d pay retail price if I needed another one. It’s remarkably warm, and Mrs. FW loves it because no matter how much I perspire in it… I don’t smell! It’s magic!
Our hands present the double whammy of needing dexterity and also having a high surface area that cools rapidly. I haven’t found the perfect solution, but what I do works fine.
Glove liners: In cool weather I wear a pair of light glove liners. They aren’t particularly windproof, but they are extremely close fitting so I can easily brake and change gears. They’re a no-name brand and I think I got them out of a bin at Walmart at some point? Just get some cheap, thin, skin-tight gloves.
Windproof mittens: In colder weather I add a heavy, windproof mitten. Why not heavy gloves? I can’t keep my hands warm enough even in thick gloves. The mittens allow my fingers to pool their warmth. And really, all you need is your thumb and hand to brake and change gears. It’s clumsy, but it works. My mittens are from REI, but it doesn’t look like they carry them anymore. In any case, just look for mittens that are insulated and windproof. Mrs. FW has a similar pair and they do double duty as hiking mittens for us. No wool fashion mittens here!
Honestly, my legs are an afterthought when it comes to clothing for winter biking. They are generating plenty of heat, and I don’t really feel cold in my legs like I do in the rest of my body. So normally I just wear whatever pants I’m wearing to the office. Jeans, mostly. If it gets really cold, I’ll add:
Long underwear: This is the nuclear option. Warm, but somehow that extra pants layer really adds a ton of awkwardness and resistance to pedaling. It’s a last resort, but sometimes necessary. I have a pair of 100% polyester long johns that seems to work OK. Not sure of the brand, I’ve had them for a long time. Avoid cotton long underwear since it gets clammy when wet.
Windproof pants: These are cheap pullover rain pants that do a decent job of breaking the wind and keeping slush off my regular pants. I’ll wear these if it’s wet, but won’t bother if it’s just cold and dry. I have these Sierra Designs pants, which I got for $22 about a year ago, so you might want to wait for a sale.
You gotta go wool and you gotta go tall. I have some older Smartwool socks that are still going strong, though I’ve heard that newer Smartwool isn’t as well made. My recent sock purchases have been Darn Tough, and they’re constructed similarly to the old school Smartwools. Either way, make sure they come well up your calf so your leg is protected from drafts around the cuff of your pants.
Your shoes need to be windproof. Those athletic trainers you wore all summer won’t cut it in the winter–wind’ll rip right through them and you’ll get numb toes. I wear a goretex hiking shoe (Merrell Moab) because I already had them for hiking, but they might be overkill for just biking. You could go with just a leather shoe. The important aspect is making sure they’re impervious to wind and water.
Why bike to work all through the notorious Boston winters? Let me count the reasons why bike commuting is awesome:
- Biking is the fastest way to get to work from my house. Biking is a 12-22 minute commute depending on traffic. T (subway) is 45 minutes. Bus is 45 minutes. Car is 20-30 minutes depending on traffic. I don’t like to waste time, especially in the mornings.
- I need to exercise anyway, might as well combine exercise with commuting. I definitely hit it harder in the evenings since I don’t need to worry about being too sweaty at the end of my ride, but even in the morning it’s a decent workout.
- It’s a focused way to start and end the day. On my ride to work I review my mental task list. On my ride home I decompress.
- Bike commuting saves a bunch of money. A monthly transit pass costs $75 (which is $900 per year). My bike cost $500 7 years ago, and is still going strong. I spend about $50/year on maintenance supplies, and probably average about $50/year on gear.
Every dollar saved puts us that much closer to our goal of financial independence. And the real key to reaching this goal isn’t just counting every single dollar we spend (which we do), it’s putting your life on frugal autopilot, which is exactly what biking does. Bike commuting is an easy way for me to save money and be healthy every day. It’s a pretty clear win/win in my frugal book!
What do you think? Am I crazy? Are you jealous of my beard? What are your winter cycling tips?
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