Winter Cycling Gear for Commuters
Keeping warm, dry and safe while commuting in the winter months takes a little more planning than just jumping on your bike like in balmier days with more benign weather. Here's a few ways to make things more comfortable without spending a fortune.
This page is for cycle commuters, those who cycle for a purpose rather than for those whose purpose is to cycle. If you commute by bike most of the year, you will already have your cycle clothing pretty much sorted and can continue to do what you always do with just a few additions, there's no need to become clad in expensive high-tech gear any more than normal.
Winter Cycling Essentials
Cycling in winter means you need to pay more attention to your extremities, to wind chill and to rain. Your body core will be warmed up by the energy expended in cycling and will probably be taken care of by the fact that you are wearing winter weight clothing anyway as part of your daily dress.
The extremities however become more vulnerable to falling temperatures, and in particular to rain. Wind chill has a greater effect as it gets colder, the difference in chilling a 10mph wind has at 40F is greater than the same wind at 50F for instance, in addition to the temperature drop. Cold rain rapidly soaks through clothes and makes you feel thoroughly miserable and far colder than you think is fair given the actual temperature.
The first sign of distinctly cooler weather to the cyclist is that it's time to wear gloves. You can get away with surprisingly thin gloves (sometimes known as glove liners) if they are closely woven to guard against the wind, thin means you can still do most things you can do without them and easily stuff them in jacket pockets. Elasticated wrists allow you to pull a sleeve over them so there is no exposed skin to feel the cold. Waterproof gloves are usually made of stiffer material which makes them somewhat more bulky to slip into a pocket, they also allow less dexterity than thinner gloves.
Cycle helmets help keep the wind off your head to some degree though the ventilation gaps that are useful most of the year act against keeping warm in the winter, the ears in particular are usually very exposed. A close fitting helmet liner takes little extra space but can make a massive difference to your comfort level and keeping warm overall. You may prefer a balaclava which covers the whole head and at least part of the neck and can be pulled over the mouth and nose in the coldest conditions. These options still give you full vision which will be compromised if you pull a hood up to keep warm.
Waterproofs - Bottoms
If you commute by bicycle regularly, you probably already have a waterproof jacket, if you don't already have them, then waterproof trousers and over-boots make a big difference. Lightweight ones are fine as they will fold up smaller so you can carry them in a small bag with you at all times, ready to put on if it starts to rain. Overshoes also make an enormous difference when used with overpants, especially if you're used to getting wet feet from roads that are wet from rain even if it isn't currently falling from the sky. Waterproof overpants go over your normal pants with the top under your jacket and your overshoes go under the bottom of the pants so water running downwards doesn't get in anywhere, like the tiles on a roof. Overshoes won't keep your feet dry if water can trickle in at the top, the same goes for waterproof pants, you need the overlaps.
Waterproofs - Tops
Lightweight cycling jackets that are a wind and waterproof shell with little or no additional insulation give you more flexibility of use. If it gets colder just put on an extra or a thicker mid layer and use the same outer, when it gets warm again you don't need an extra lightweight jacket too. Being thin also means you can carry it about when it's not raining ready to put on when it does start. While you're at it, seeing as you're considering a cycling jacket for the colder months when there's less daylight, it makes sense to get one that has some degree of reflectivity, at least with patches or strips.
Base Layers for Winter Cycle Commuters
If you are someone whose purpose for cycling is commuting or just getting around, you will be spending most of your day in standard work or casual clothing rather than "bike gear" and probably won't want to be getting changed specifically for the cycling part of the day. If you are dressing more warmly in the cold weather, you may consider wearing a more functional base layer which will help keep you comfortable and nicer to be near than the usual cotton base layer t-shirt.
Cotton is the worst choice for a base layer in cold weather. It doesn't insulate very well (it's the go-to fabric for hot weather after all) but more importantly than this if you are going to exert yourself it likes moisture (read "sweat") which it hangs on to and keeps for as long as it can which then gets cold and clammy when the exertion stops.
An efficient base-layer will have a good insulation value for light-weight and will effectively wick away moisture from the skin to other clothing layers, keeping you more comfortable all day.
- the gold standard material for the foundation layer,
not the budget option but it does deliver on performance. Merino
wool garments deliver significant warmth with light weight,
they are very good at wicking sweat and are odor resistant so
can be worn for extended periods.
Men's merino | Women's merino
- A range of materials, commonly polyester and polypropylene
as proprietary versions (brand names) of generic fabrics. Synthetics
wick sweat away from the skin very effectively, insulate well
and are available in different weights, they dry fast but are
not so good at being odor resistant, but may be treated to make
them more so.
Men's synthetic | Women's synthetic
Be Seen - Be Safe
Winter means that darkness arrives early, add to this that rain and snow can impede visibility and it becomes a more dangerous time to be cycling in traffic. Make sure that you can be seen with light colored clothing and high visibility patches and areas on your clothing. A bright reflective vest or belt help a lot by using vehicle headlights to make you stick out far more clearly than without. Lights are vital both for enabling you to see where you are going, and also for vehicles to see where you are. A steady white forward and red rearwards at about seat or wheel level and ideally a flashing red rear light above this to distinguish you as a cyclist so you don't just blend into all the vehicle lights in traffic.
Top picture, winter biker used courtesy of Michal Osmenda from Brussels Belgium, under CC BY-SA 2.0 generic licence