Winter Biking 101: Gear and How-to for Cycling through Snow

Many people retire their wheels at the first sign of snow. But for what? Here’s a beginner’s guide to biking in winter with tips, tricks and gear suggestions to get you started.

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Photo by Hans Splinter

Photo by Hans Splinter

So you’re thinking about winter biking, but you’re worried you’re not hardcore enough. Let me ask you this, what method of getting around in the winter isn’t hardcore in its own right? Living in a cold climate requires a certain degree of fortitude, and deciding to leave your house between November and March, even more so. Does it really even matter how many wheels you have under you once you’ve thrown on those 18 layers of clothing and walked out the front door?

I would argue that driving in the winter is infinitely more terrifying than riding around on a bike, and you also have to deal with shovelling your car out, scraping the windows, and occasionally having the car just not start at all because you decided to settle in Winnipeg. There’s the bus, which requires standing out in the whipping, frostbitten wind waiting 15 minutes for a bus which always runs behind schedule because of all the snow, only for it to arrive and to have to crowd in to its wet, slushy interior packed full of sniffling, sneezing, de-frosting people. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you could take the subway, and do that thing where you get dressed for -33 (-30 C) but then you go into the underground which, on account of all the machinery, remains about 104 degrees (40 C) all winter long so you shock your body into a profuse sweat every single morning and evening. None of these options are relaxing. Walking is admittedly pretty nice, but it’s slow. And occasionally you slip on some ice and throw your chai latte up into the air. So why not try riding your bike?

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This isn’t to suggest that winter biking is perfect, but that all the modes are themselves equally flawed. Yet for some reason winter biking is the one mode cast as the domain of only the particularly hardcore. As if there’s nothing hardcore about spending 30 minutes on a packed, slush-bucket of a subway car every morning while you try not to sweat too much knowing it’s only going to freeze when you go back outside. I certainly don’t have the nerve for that.

Most importantly, winter biking is beautiful. Imperfect maybe, but it is quiet and calming, and it’s a way to fall in love with biking all over again as you experience it in a new season. Sure, it takes a little extra preparation and a little extra gear, but the gratification that comes with the ride is well worth it.

So we’ve put together a few tips and tricks to make sure you have the safest and most enjoyable winter biking experience possible. These are all are tips and gear suggestions for winters of the below-freezing and snowy variety. While there is a considerable amount of crossover, if yours is more of a wetter winter, check out our guide to biking in the rain for suggestions for on how to stay safe, dry, and comfortable in wet climates.

How to Bike in the Winter

Start slowly.
There’s no need to sell your car and cancel your bus pass before your first ride. Take a few short trips on your days off to get a feel for it and make sure you enjoy it before you commit to a full-on winter commuting schedule.

Plan ahead
Many cities are now beginning to plow bike lanes. Find out which bike lanes are plowed, and plan your route accordingly. If there are no bike routes, take traffic-calmed back streets where you’re most likely to have the road to yourself.

Get visible!
Falling snow, low-hanging clouds, short days, and dim light all seriously obscure vision. Get yourself a good, bright set (or three) of waterproof bike lights, and don’t leave the house without them.

Adjust your braking
Similar to when driving, you don’t want to slam on the brakes while biking on icy roads. Brake slowly to prevent spinouts, and brake more on the rear wheel. Give yourself twice the amount of time to come to a stop as you would in the summer.

Don’t strap in
One, you really needn’t be going too quickly anyway, but in case you fishtail or start to fall, you’ll want to have your feet free to get them to the ground.

Ride defensively
Even in areas where there are high rates of summertime cycling, most people don’t expect bikes on the roads in the winter, so they often aren’t looking out for you. Give motorists extra space, stay out of blind spots, and make eye contact with drivers whenever possible.

Learn to recognize ice
Black ice forms where snow melts in the sunlight then re-freezes once the sun goes down. Ride carefully in areas which get direct sunlight all day, or anywhere that appears wet on a below-freezing day.

Take the lane
Snow and debris accumulate along the curb, basically taking over the line which most people usually bike in. Ride in the middle of the lane. It will also make you more visible and ensure nobody can pass you without changing lanes.

Maintain your bike
Wipe your bike down every day to avoid rust. Clean and lubricate the chain and gears once a week if you’re riding a bike with a derailleur, and clean and lubricate the brake lines every few weeks. Read our guide on how to maintain your bicycle through winter for a more in-depth look at what you should be doing and why.

Expect to fall
You probably will. Ride slowly and anticipate a slip or two.

Be reasonable
Combine winter-biking with public transit if you have a crazy long trip or you get cold and tired halfway through – nobody says you have to bike the whole way. And as we said, winter biking isn’t about being hardcore. You do it because you love it, not because you have to prove something. If it’s a white-out day and you can’t see your neighbour’s house, you can be sure no motorist is going to see you pedaling along either – you may want to leave the bike at home. Or better yet, leave yourself at home, build a quinzee, and crack out the rum and eggnog. Tis the season!

A good reason to invest in a winter bike. Photo by chuddlesworth

A good reason to invest in a winter bike. Photo by chuddlesworth

Winter Biking Gear

As there are degrees of cold in winter, there are degrees of necessity for the following. If it’s around 26 degrees (-3 c) with a few flurries and you’re just toodling down the block, wear whatever you would wear to take a stroll, this isn’t an extreme sport. That said, if you’re commuting 45 minutes in the early morning darkness and the day’s expected high is -31 (-35 c), you’ll want to gear up. Here are the options for winter biking gear. The best thing to do is play around with layers, mitts, materials, and headwear until you find a form and function that works for you.

Get a winter bike.

Sand, salt and ice destroy bikes. The more exposed moving parts, the more vulnerable your bike will be. Many people ride singlespeeds in winter to avoid ruining their derailleurs, or they ride bikes with internal hubs. My preference is an old mountain bike. The fatter tires gave me some traction and the wide handlebars made me feel stable. The bike took a beating, but at $150 purchase price and about $40 in TLC every year, it wasn’t a significant loss when I retired it after five Montreal winters. Many people also recommend studded tires for seriously snowy places, but if you don’t want to spring for them, some fat-ish tires with tread will do. Check out MEC’s guide to winter biking for more details on how to winterize your own bike if you don’t have or don’t want a second one.

Layer up

It’s all about layers! Wear just enough that you’re a bit cold when you get outside, you’ll warm up as soon as you start pedaling. Throw on a sweat-wicking base layer – merino wool and treated silk are great for cold weather – then you can just take it off and throw it in your bag when you arrive at your destination. On really cold days I would also wear a base layer under my jeans. For tighter-fitting women’s jeans, I found merino wool to the best since it’s so thin. If you don’t want to spring for expensive base layers, you can usually always find a synthetic nylon or spandex shirt and pants at any large-enough thrift store.

While a number of bike companies make base-layers, backcountry and ski/snowboard outfitters are also a good place to look. MEC, Novara, Patagonia, Smartwool, Stoic, Arc’teryxCraft SportswearUnder Armour, Norrona, The North Face, Icebreaker, Columbia, Salomon, Showers Pass, and Pearl Izumi all have great options, ranging in price from $30 – $80 USD.

Patagonia's Wanaka Men's Insulated Jacket

Patagonia’s Wanaka Men’s Insulated Jacket

Winter Jackets for Biking

Wind-breaking outer-layers also a must, if you get hot you can always just unzip the collar. An insulated, water-resistant and windproof jacket is a worthwhile investment in snowy climates. Chrome, Arc’teryx, Endura, MEC, Novara, Nau, Patagonia, Columbia, The North Face, Merrell, and Marmot all make insulated jackets that are optimized for activity. They range in price from $100 – $600 USD, and are available in styles ranging from sporty to sophisticated.

The in-between layers are basically up to you. How cold is it in your region? How insulated is your jacket? What do you feel like walking around in when you arrive at your destination? There have been days I’ve ridden long rides in layer upon layer of “outdoorsy” gear such as merino, fleece, and an insulated windbreaker because it was -30, snowing, and I wasn’t out for looks. Then there have been days when it’s been a bright, frosty day and I was pedalling to a café date – jeans, a blouse, and a wool coat it is!

Bike gloves

Okay, even if you’re just toodling down the block in -3, you’re going to need some gloves. Windbreaking, water-resistant and insulated are your three winter bike glove requirements. Unfortunately, the more insulated they are, the more difficult it becomes to operate your gears with them. That’s why mittens and ski and snowboard gloves – however warm –are not a very appropriate choice for bike riding. A few companies make lobster gloves, which split your fingers into two sets, thereby providing more warmth than gloves but still enabling you to use your gears.

Sealskinz, Novara, Bar Mitts, MEC, Louis GarneauDe FeetRaphaGore ApparelSugoiPearl IzumiGiro, Patagonia, North Face, Columbia, Showers Pass, and Arc’Teryx all make suitable gloves in varying styles and degrees of warmth. They range in price from $50 – $150 USD.

Ready! Photo by Severin Sadjina

Ready! Photo by Severin Sadjina

Face Covers

For particularly cold days, you won’t want to have any skin exposed as it’ll start to hurt pretty quickly in the icy wind. Balaclavas are a good bet to keep your head and face warm. Alternatively, get a tight-fitting touque so the wind doesn’t get at your ears and wrap your face in a scarf or ski mask. Fleece and neoprene are good options for all of the above.

Novara, Pearl Izumi, Giro, Sealskinz, Headsweats and Sugoi all make thermal toques designed to fit under helmets, which range in price from $15 – $45 USD. You can check out any ski or snowboard brand and a number of general sports apparel outfitters for ski masks or balaclavas.

Cycling goggles

I don’t love riding in glasses or goggles, I find it obscures my vision. That said, I understand their usefulness on super snowy days or days when it’s too cold to ride without your eyes watering so much you can’t see anyways. In these cases, I just ride in clear ski goggles. They cover a lot of skin, block the wind, and let in lots of light.

Winter Boots for Biking

All of this dressing up won’t do much good if your toes feel like slowly-melting ice cubes. Winter boots for biking are key to a comfortable, and fortunately, they’re no different than winter boots for walking around.

Cougar, Sorel, Kamik, Bogs, Baffin, The North Face, Ugg, L.L. Bean, Pajar, Keen, Timberland, and Columbia all make warm, high-quality winter boots in a variety of styles for men and women. They range from about $120 – $400 USD.

Waterproof Lights

At this point, basically every bike light on the market is waterproof or at least water-resistant. Choosing the right lights for the winter is about choosing something with enough lumens to keep you visible, and a long enough run-time to ensure you’re never caught in the early-approaching dark. Having small, inexpensive backup lights is never a bad idea.

Blackburn, Cat Eye, Knog, Lezyne, Light & Motion, PDW, Planet Bike,Sigma, and Nite Rider all make good waterproof bike lights, which range from $60 – $200 depending on the brightness and other features.

A handkerchief or kleenex.

Ever breathed heavily for a sustained period of time in -30? You’re going to need a kleenex or two.

Bring on the blizzard!

Too many people in North America believe that winter biking is something other people can do, something younger or fitter people can do, or something only crazy people do. In reality, all it takes is the right attitude and a bit of warm clothing. Riding through the winter is a great accomplishment, sure, but it isn’t out of reach for anyone. By choosing to ride through the snow, we remind ourselves and others of what we can achieve with our bodies if we choose to use them. We reconnect with our environment by refusing to hide from winter, and instead embrace all it has to offer. Because winter is beautiful, and biking is just one of the many ways we can enjoy it while getting ourselves around town in the process. So now we’re ready, bring on the snow!

9 Comments

  • Bruce

    This is my fifth year riding through the New England winter. Road crews here in Maine do a good job clearing snow. But we get hard pack and ice, especially on the bike-only trails, so studded tires are almost a necessity. I say ‘almost’ because I do see some other cyclists getting along on just rubber. But when I splurged for the studs a few years ago my cycling life changed forever. I’d never go back. Deep snow and slush are still a problem — just like riding a mountain bike in deep mud, but I actually feel very stable on glare ice with the studs. Riding on ice is more fun than pavement, especially on a steep incline when I can amaze the slipping pedestrians.

    I’ve found that winter cycling is really hard on the bike. It’s easy to say that you should do weekly cleaning and maintenance, but much harder to do in the real world of cold winter weather. I can wipe off some of the grit with a rag and squirt some lubricant on the chain, but that’s about it. Every April I find myself replacing at least something in my drivetrain — a chainwheel, cogs or even a whole cassette. The derailleurs have lasted pretty well. However, a new chain is a given every spring.

    I wear mittens. Shifting gears and braking with even thick mittens aren’t a problem for me maybe because I’m always going so slow I have lots of reaction time. I wear long johns and layers all winter anyway, starting about mid-November, so it’s not like I get kitted out in some special cycling outfit. My winter cycling is mostly what I’d call utility cycling — errands, commuting, going to the library — so I want to be dressed sort of normally when I get off the bike. But warm.

    I love cycling and simply can’t give it up for even a few months. Indoor riding is too boring for words, so I bundle up and hit the road. Every year I find myself looking forward to riding in the snow and ice.

  • Candace

    I live in Montana and its pretty cold lately. About 0 degrees F. Goggles are a must. I’m used to them though because I ride downhill with them in the summer so the lack of peripheral vision is ok. I really want some bar mitts but have just been trying to eek through this really cold spell with mittens. They just don’t offer enough dexterity though, especially for braking on the fly. I find to lure new winter riders we need to maintain (snow removal) our roads better and make routes to schools and work a priority in at least two n-s and e-w directions in our town.

  • Michael

    When it is below zero I wear a snowmobile suit and snowmobile boots and take my time. Bar mitts are a must have as are wide studded tires. It can get very icy here in southern Wisconsin.

  • Erica

    Bar Mitts, they’re a game changer! Neoprene pockets that fit over your handlebars that trap in the heat. I still wear my “summertime” fingerless gloves with them and have ample agility with my gear shifting and braking.

  • Admittedly tend to winter cycle when the pavement is dry. I haven’t yet invested in studded tires. Calgary does do a reasonable job of snow-clearing the park pathway system, at least the major pathway arteries. You would be amazed to see what is done for its first separated bike lane on 7th St. for snowclearing. We can hear snowclearing machines…@night.

    I cycle down to -24 degrees C (and if pavement is dry) for short cycle commutes. Purely functional ride. It’s tough to take off my cycling lobster claw gloves in order to lock up my bike outdoors. But gotta do it. That’s when I realize my fingers can only tolerate certain winter cold.

    But most definitely even a small amount of winter cycling can keep you minimally fit for other activities outdoors. Not kiddin’. I’m grateful when snowshoeing in the mountains to have abit of cycling fitness.

  • notlance

    I’ve been riding all winter for over 10 years now, and here’s what I have found works well:

    Wool. Nothing is better in the winter. There are several brands of wool clothing that work well. I look for garments that are at least 50% merino. They don’t have to be cycling specific since in the winter you are not going to be using the rear pockets anyway.

    Shearling wool mittens. Yes, you can operate a bicycle just fine with mittens, and they are warmer than gloves. Shearling works much, much better than any synthetic; it’s warmer, it breathes, and it doesn’t stink if your hands sweat. I get them XL so I can wear a liner glove on really cold (< -12C) days. Shearling wool mittens are kinda hard to find, but are totally worth it.

    Fat tires. The fatter the better. The problem with winter riding is not riding on smooth ice or packed snow, it's riding on rutted ice or slushy snow. If you get your front wheel caught it a rut, or if it starts sliding sideways in slushy snow, you're probably going down. The fat tires roll over the ruts and slush. My winter bike is now a fat bike with 4" tires and it works so much better than my city bike with 35mm (1.4") tires. Forget the studded tires, they don't help in the ruts and slush. Fat is where it's at.

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