How to Ride in the Snow

Cyclists need to prepare their wardrobes and their bikes for winter riding and it’s easier than you think.

By Benjamin van Loon

When it comes to winter riding, there is a common saying in the cycling world: There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad equipment. Preparation is preservation. As the mercury begins to drop, start your gear check from the inside out and you might find yourself getting excited about the first frost.

Start in Layers

If you have never ridden in the winter before, your first time out of the gate might cost you a few bucks, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Layers are crucial to preserving body heat, staying dry and ensuring mobility in cold weather. Because everyone acclimatizes to the cold at different rates, some riders will need more layers than others, depending on the season and their expected level of exertion.

You should have at least a base layer – something you wear against your skin – that will keep you warm and dry. Look for long- and short-sleeved dry-fit, moisture-wicking T-shirts, as sweat can build up easily at this layer and render the outer layers ineffective. Avoid cotton if possible.

Outer layers should be both warm and windproof. The wind exacerbates cold temperatures. If you get something with a wind-breaking shell, you wonít have to bulk up as much. Sometimes windproof fabrics are also waterproof, which is an added advantage.

Winter Riding Checklist

Go through this checklist and see if there is anything else you need

+ Base layers (long underwear, thermal wear, etc.)

+ Waterproof and windproof jacket and pants

+ Gloves, insulated socks, shoe covers or winterized shoes

+ Face and eye protection for the really cold snowy days

+ Properly inflated tires

+ Wipe down the bike after long, wet rides

+ Keep the chain lubricated

+ Lights for added visibility

+ Pre-winter and post-winter tune-ups

+ Positive attitude

Add the Extras

Cold bites worst at your extremities, so even if it costs you extra, invest in a heavy pair of waterproof gloves that will shield you from the wind. If you’ve donned all the layers, but your hands and feet are under-protected, you might as well be wearing nothing. Cover your feet with wool socks and heavy-duty shoe covers, available at most sports and recreation stores. Some companies also make winter-specific cycling shoes, which are often more expensive, but will mean fewer layers for you.

The cold can be hardest on your face and head, where a lot of heat can be lost. Cold air constricts your air passages, making riding difficult, so covering your face and nose with a mask can help you breathe. A good balaclava accomplishes all of this, though some people may only need a scarf and a toque or earmuffs.

For subzero riding, you may also want to pick up a pair of snow goggles. You might look like a character from a James Bond flick, but they are really effective at shielding your eyes against blinding wind and snow.

Prep Your Ride

+ With the salt, snow and brutal temperatures, winter can be hard on a bike. Take it to the shop for a quick tune-up before winter hits.

+ If you’re going to be riding in the snow (which can be fun), outfit your bike with multi-weather tires treaded to push snow and water outwards. Some knobby tires can collect snow and ice, making your ride just as unstable as riding through snow on treadless road tires.

+ Though not necessary, installing fenders on your bike can help keep you and your bike clean.

+ For night riders, buy and install front and rear flashing lights. The days are shorter in the winter, and visibility can be low. Make sure others can see you.

+ After every ride, if you have gone through snow or slush, wipe down your bike – particularly the cables and the chain. Also pay special attention to your rims. Grime gathers quickly in winter weather, and it can wear down your brake pads and damage your rims if left unchecked.

+ Keep your chain lubed with water-repellent lubricant, which will prevent grit from damaging your chain and gears.

+ Always keep your tires inflated to their recommended pressure.

Enjoy Yourself

There is something peaceful about riding on freshly fallen snow. While you have to take extra time to stop and corner, much of the ambient sound and traffic is absorbed by the soft powder. Plus, the added challenge of riding on new terrain can only serve to develop your skill in the saddle.

Website for winter riding fanatics: icebike.org

11 Comments

  • Taylor Winfield

    Fenders may be more trouble than they’re worth in snow. If you ride through the rainy/wet light stuff, fenders are a godsend but heavier snow gets packed between tire & fender. I’ve ridden both ways & tended to leave the fendered bike at home when snow was thick. Those plastic mountain bike fenders that you can easily remove might be worth a try but I never used ’em. A rear rack with a solid top is likely all you need there to keep from having a snow trail up your back.

  • David White

    Some good info but too general really. Here’s the essentials 10 things you must do to ride in winter:
    1. Wear what you have and wear one less layer than you would to stand around. Winter biking makes heat.
    2. Never wear cotton. Avoid cotton is too soft. You will die in cotton. It absorbs water and provides no warmth when wet.
    3. Wear mitts. Gloves are ok above 0C (32F). Colder than that go to mitts. Your fingers are moving and will be cold.
    4. Face protection is necessary below -10 C air temp due to wind chill created while moving. Get a good light (I use silk and it’s nice).
    5. If you live where there is real winter and ice is possible get studded tires. Like snow tires for your car winter tires or your bike have a softer rubber compound and will work better. Studs are essential on ice. Save your hips but studs. Falling hurts more in winter.
    6. Oiling the chain is key. Oil will repel the snirt (mixture of snow and dirt) that sticks to everything.
    7. In any real snow fenders will pack up with snirt too. Wear old clothes or an outer layer that breaths a little but repels water. Counting on washing that layer now and then. Take it off before entering your house or office or coffee shop. It will be messy but other layers will be presentable.
    8. Wear deodorant. You will sweat while winter biking.
    9. The ski helmet is good below -15C (or so). Above that the bike helmet with a thin toque is better. The ski helmets get pretty hot as they don’t tend to be ventilated very well.
    10. I prefer a single speed for winter with studded skinny tires to cut through the slush to firmer layers. He single speed has no derailleur to plug up with snirt. Get a sealed gear like the ones from White Industries for below -15C. Below -15 most freewheels with non sealed freewheels will freeze with the pawls open so no connection to the rear hub. I heard thy pouring hot water works but it doesn’t last long.
    11. I know I said 10 but forgot “smile at the people stuck in traffic in their cars” as you enjoy their lights dancing off the falling snow.

  • Heikki

    Yes, thats a little overkill. There is no need to buy some expensive clothes, just use those you already have! Today it was -18 Celsius in the morning and I wear a long sleeve wool t-shirt, a wool sweater (army surplus), cotton anorak, normal jeans + long johns, wool socks and winter boots, army surplus gloves, wool beanie.

    • Taylor Winfield

      Nylon climbing pants are nice to have for an outer layer though. They are water repellant and dry quickly. Ordinary long underwear works fine for me in the city but my rides are short in the winter – under 5 miles. My wife made me a close fitting cap of fleece that comes down over my ears & fits under my helmet.

  • Steve

    My favorite winter cycling tip is switch out your bike helmet for a ski helmet.

  • Tim

    Maybe a bit of overkill here. I ride in Vancouver and on the coldest days I might ride with a wool hat and a neck warmer. The first few kilometers are cold but one warms up fairly quickly.
    http://www.copenhagenize.com/2012/01/overcomplicating-winter-cycling-why-its.html was quite critical of the article.

  • Ty

    This makes it sound like riding in the winter is too difficult and costly. Honestly, to get started, just wear whatever works. Here in the northwest, winter means darkness and rain, for the most part, and temps in the mid-30s to upper 40s. For my 14-mile roundtrip ride on a dry winter day, I wear:

    – My regular jeans
    – My regular socks, sometimes they are cotton and sometimes wool but never “insulated”, whatever that is
    – My regular black loafers
    – A long-sleeve wool t-shirt from Ibex (yes, this is kind of gear. But you can sweat in it and you won’t smell)
    – Button up the front shirt
    – A wool sweater
    – A windbreaker that is water resistant
    – Gloves I bought on sale at Eddie Bauer since I had none

    On a rainy day, I add an inexpensive pair of rain pants from J&G, I put my shoes in my bag, and I wear a pair of short rubber boots from Tretorn. Some days I wear a thin lycra and fleece cap under my helmet since its made to fit under the helmet. So, mostly regular clothes with a few adaptations.

  • steven fleming

    Maybe Mr. Loon meant this as a guide for bicycle *touring* in the snow? Seems like overkill for bike commuting.

  • Sean Carter

    Our local cycling .org has quite a few threads in the forum on winter cycing – here is the link – http://www.bikecalgary.org/forum/38

    My advice – 1) Avoid your front brake as much as possible and definitely when turning 2) go slower 3) check the weather, be prepared 4) smile!

  • Samamtha

    Just saying, that if you’re looking for useful tips for winter rider from folks who ride year-round in Midwestern cities, check you bikewinter.org. It looks as though that icebike.org site hasn’t been updated in quite some time.

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