Tips for Winter Riding

Riding bikes outside during the depths of winter, especially in the chilly northern regions of the country, can seem rather prohibitive or unpleasant if you aren’t used to the cold or aren’t prepared. But the truth is, winter riding offers a fun and rewarding experience, as well as a unique perspective of familiar trails, and just knowing a few key tips can go a long way to keep you comfortable through all your cold-weather adventures.

Here are a few tips compiled by the Dirt Rag staff that we’ve found to be helpful for winter riding.

1. It’s all mental.

The first step to success when it comes to riding in the cold is mental willpower. Most of the time, the hardest part is just stepping outside. When you’re warm and cozy at home or in your car, the prospect of going outside and facing the cold or inclement weather doesn’t seem that fun. Often, the first 15 minutes of a ride ARE pretty uncomfortable. But once you’re warmed up, you’ll most likely forget any doubts you had and be glad you made the decision to brave the elements.

Tell yourself you are warm. This might sound hokey, but if you think to yourself how cold it is, you’re only going to feel colder. Try telling yourself “it’s not that cold” and see what happens.

2. Resist the urge to overdress and be mindful of what you wear. 

When you’re heading out into the cold to ride, it can be very difficult to wear less clothing than what is comfortable when you step out of your warm house or car. You hear of this thing called “warming up,” but in the moment, it feels like you never will. But trust me, you will, and then you will be wondering why on earth you thought it would be a good idea to wear your down parka on a mountain bike ride.

Exaggeration and attempts at humor aside, figuring out your clothing and layering system is one of the hardest parts about biking in the cold. Biking, especially, compared to other sports because drastic shifts in level of exertion (uphill vs. downhill vs. flat sections of trail) combined with windchill can result in major differences in how cold you feel. It’s important to not sweat too much when it’s cold out because once you stop or start going downhill, a body drenched in sweat will become chilly very quickly.

Everyone is different, so what works for one person for a specific temperature and conditions may not work for others. Some of us heat up while riding much more than others. Be patient as you figure out what works for you. As you do, remember that layers are key to regulate your temperature and make sure you don’t overheat.

Make sure that the layer against your skin is wicking. Wool is an excellent body heat regulator.

3. Carry a packable extra layer and hand warmers with you at all times.

While perhaps you’ll never wear it, it’s a good idea to keep a spare shell jacket and some hand warmers in your pack just in case. Because we all know that stuff happens and best-laid plans can change when you’re in the middle of the woods. Temperatures and weather can shift quickly. A mechanical or injury could mean much longer periods of standing still than anticipated. An extra windproof layer and a way to warm your appendages can mean the difference between being comfy and being uncomfortably or dangerously cold.

4. Try pogies.

Pogies are mitts that attach to your handlebars and go over your grips and brakes to provide insulation and a windbreak for your hands. This allows you to wear thinner gloves than you normally would in cold temperatures, maintaining your control of the bike while still allowing your hands to be toasty warm.

While at first glance the cost for entry to get a pair of pogies might seem prohibitive (over $100 for a pair from brands like Wolf Tooth and 45NRTH), there are cheaper options out there if you aren’t sure if you’ll like them or if you only ride in the cold occasionally. Even snowmobile mitts will do the trick for a lot of folks (search “snowmobile hand warmers” on Google).

5. Start uphill.

When possible, start your ride at a location where you’ll be climbing, even if it’s just for a short time, off the bat to warm up.

6. Clips vs Flats?

Whatever you prefer.

I know some people who normally ride with clips and switch to flats for the winter (I used to be one of those people), which definitely has some advantages. For one, good winter biking boots are expensive, so hiking boots and flats are a budget-friendly alternative. Cleats bolted to the bottom of your shoe also conduct the cold. While said good winter riding boots have insulated insoles and such, the cold still tends to creep in after several hours. And lastly, certain types of snow tend to get stuck and packed in cleats and clipless pedals, resulting in not being able to clip in and then having a ball of ice on the bottom of your foot that slides all over.

All that being said, there are a lot of people who still ride with cleats in the winter, myself included (now). Sometimes when my cleats are covered with ice and I can’t clip in I talk of switching back to flats, but I probably never will. I’m used to clips and it’s difficult to learn to ride completely differently, especially with a layer of snow on the ground. Another advantage of clipping in? The better winter riding boots out there are warmer than a lot of hiking boots.

7. Invest in a buff.

Several of us on staff here at Dirt Rag agree that a buff is our favorite piece of winter riding gear. It can be used to cover your ears and as a lighter-weight head cover if a hat is too hot. It’s also a great removable cover for your face during chilly descents (versus wearing a full face mask that can’t be taken off easily for climbs).

8. Remember to stay hydrated.

It’s a lot easier to forget to drink water when it’s cold out because you often don’t “feel” thirsty. But it’s just as important as during hot temperatures. To keep your water from freezing, try adding a dash of whiskey (1 oz for every 16 oz of water). Alcohol along with a drink mix like Skratch is even better, and a tasty beverage will make sipping cold water a little more enjoyable. Start with hot water and use an insulated bottle. Keeping your water bottle upside down in your bottle cage helps keep the top from freezing.

9. Change your expectations and just have fun.

Riding in the snow, or even just in the extreme cold, is different than riding in summer weather on dry trails. Snow slows things down. It’s squishy and sloggy and takes a lot of effort at times. You might go half as fast and far as you normally would. Extreme cold can zap your energy and leave you feeling more tired than usual. There will be more hike-a-bike than usual. Rock gardens that you normally clean might be too slippery in the snow and ice to ride. Accept these things, and enjoy the experience for what it is. Snow automatically turns a familiar trail into a new adventure. Embrace it.

What are some of your tips for cold-weather riding? Share with us in the comments!

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9 Comments

  1. I too wear clip-ins, and I have found that a pair of overboots made for cross-country skiing work very well with my regular shoes.

  2. One very important piece of advice: skip the ride if the temps rise above above freezing. Especially if you have had wet weather recently. The damage to the trails can be heartbreaking.

  3. Here’s my reasoning for buying a fatbike. A fatbike makes riding in 2-4 inches of snow incredibly more enjoyable. Yes, you can often ride a regular or even plus bike (I have a plus and a fatbike) in these conditions but much of your concentration is on recovering from slides or your pedal stroke, not the riding. For older riders (I’m 56) when riding fat in semi-slippery conditions the stress level is much lower; you’re not so worried about falling and hitting that hard, frozen ground underneath. Lastly, a rigid fatbike is an investment in your riding future. It will require very little maintenance and if you resist the urge to upgrade, you can have it forever.

    Also, buy some wool socks. DeFeet makes fantastic ones (Wooly Bully’s). They are not itchy at all.

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