Dressing for Winter Riding: What Works For Me

When it comes to riding bikes in the Minnesota winter, dressing appropriately for the weather is very important to keeping warm, dry and comfortable.  For the last six years I have spent a lot of time riding in conditions where my non-cyclists friends and family think I'm crazy.  During that time I have learned a lot of what works for me and what doesn't.  In this post I will go over some of my findings and the gear I use to help you dial in the right apparel choices to beat winter's chill and stay comfortable without overheating.


Keeping my head warm without overheating isn't a challenge with the right gear for the conditions. Most of the time I'll wear my snowboard helmet in combo with a balaclava, beanie or neck gaiter.  My snowboard helmet (Smith Vantage MIPS) has two vent closures to help regulate heat and on really cold rides I can close the vents until I need to open them if I begin to get too warm.  When it's a little warmer out I'll wear my mountain bike helmet (Bontrager Rally MIPS) with the appropriate head/face covering.

Beanies (Bontrager B2 Beanie & Pearl Izumi P.R.O.Thermal Run Hat) work great when I need a little more warmth combined with some wicking action if my head gets a little hot.  Neck gaiters (Bontrager Convertible Cycling Neck Gaiter) are very versatile for a variety of conditions because they can be worn to cover the neck, face and head to trap heat and wick away moisture.  Wind stopping balaclavas (Bontrager Windshell Balaclava,  GORE WINDSTOPPER Balaclava & The Weatherneck) are my go-to for windy or really cold temperatures.  They completely cut the wind and protect my face from frostnip and wind burn.  For sub-zero rides I like to wear my ColdAvenger Pro SoftShell Mask.  It's fleece keeps my face and neck warm and dry while the patented ventilator warms and humidifies the cold dry air making it much easier to breathe in the extreme cold.

Goggles (Smith Knowledge OTG) are a lifesaver for a variety of conditions to see better, keep eyes from watering and give a little extra face protection from the elements.  Spend a little more on a pair of goggles with plenty of ventilation to keep them from fogging up.  A cheap pair of goggles does no good if they are frosted over fifteen minutes into a ride.  There are a lot of anti-fog products (I use Fogtech DX) on the market that work pretty good at keeping the frost at bay but good ventilation is the key.


Keeping my core warm without overheating used to be a challenge when I had only a couple baselayers and one jacket.  Over the years I've collected all kinds of baselayers (wool, polyester and wool blends) and purchased a few more jackets (including a Bontrager OMW Softshell Mountain Bike JacketBontrager Velocis S1 Softshell Cycling Jacket) to cover a wide spectrum of winter cycling conditions and temperatures.  Through my experiences I have learned the right combinations for layering of light/heavier baselayers (including Columbia Men’s Midweight Stretch Baselayer Long Sleeve Shirt, WSI Full HEATR Shirt, & Bontrager Evoke Mountain Bike Hoodie) and choosing the proper jacket to achieve a comfortable ride in just about anything Minnesota winters can throw at me.

By experimenting with different layering combinations and taking mental notes of the outcome for the conditions, you too can find that sweet spot without being too hot or cold.  Keep in mind that you will start out a little chilly but quickly warm up as you get going.  Baselayers not only trap heat but their other function is to wick away moisture for heat management.  Having a quality jacket that is breathable and windproof is key to letting sweat vapor pass through and to keep chilling winds from cooling your core.

An important note for making your selections is to keep in mind the type of ride you'll be doing.  Will it be a slow-roll on flat groomed singletrack, a moderate-paced trudge through 2" of fresh powder or a fast-paced ride with plenty of elevation change?  Use the right layering for the job at hand.  When I'm scouting or bushwhacking I'm rolling slow and not working up much of a sweat so I will layer more to accommodate the temperature.  Faster paced or more strenuous rides will require a lot less insulation as the body will be generating plenty of its own heat.


Legs may not require as much layering to stay warm as the core does, usually a thin baselayer and a windshell/breathable pair of pants or tights should do the trick.  This combination is simple and doesn't require too much trial and error to get it right for the conditions.  On days above freezing I will usually ditch the baselayer, but when its below freezing I will opt for a light baselayer (old Craft model no longer made) or the WSI Full HEATR Pant when it's really cold outside.  To keep my butt warm in the saddle I will always wear a pair of Bontrager Troslo inForm Cycling Liner Bib Shorts (not shown).  You'd be amazed at how a chamois can provide that little bit of extra insulation to prevent cold cheeks.

My Bontrager Old Man Winter Softshell Pants are perfect for all-winter fatbike riding because of their water-resistant and wind-resistant qualities.  Whether splashing through puddles or riding in a snowstorm these pants will keep you warm and dry.  When riding my gravel bike I usually go for my Bontrager Velocis S2 Softshell Cycling Tights for a more fitted feel with breathable thermal fabric.

For later in the winter when the snow gets a little deeper and I may find myself having to hike-a-bike I will wear a pair of 45NRTH Beargraven Gaiters to keep out the snow out of my boots and to provide a little extra warmth on my shins.


My feet get cold easily and they are the first things to start feeling winter's nip on a ride.  Because of this I have spent a lot of time, effort and money trying to figure out the proper sock/boot combinations to keep me riding in any temperature.  Before the boots go on the sock(s) choice is made depending on the temperature and length of time I wish to ride.  I'm a big fan of Merino wool socks and have a bunch of them in various thicknesses and lengths.  Merino wool traps heat, wicks away moisture and continues to keep its insulating properties even when wet.  Some of the brands I have used year after year because of their quality are Swiftwick, DeFeet, Wigwam and Carhart.

I'll use a lighter thickness wool sock for warmer winter rides and a combination of a WSI HEATR Sock as a liner under a heavier wool sock for longer rides or when it really gets cold out.  Through a lot of experimentation I now know the right sock(s) for the temperature and duration of my rides.

Sometimes my socks need a little extra help to keep my toes warm so I opt for chemical toe/foot warmers.  When needed, most of the time I will use adhesive toe warmers.  I can stick them to the sock on the top or bottom of my toes or for extra warmth, both.  My feet will still eventually get cold but these do buy me a lot of extra time out in the elements.  I will stock up on them at the end of the season when the stores have them on clearance giving me a cheap supply for next winter.

As I mentioned previously, my feet get cold easily so boot choice for the temperatures and conditions is important to me.  The factors I consider before a ride are temperature, duration, weather conditions (wet/dry/icy/snow) and sock options that will work best with the selected boot.

Early and late Winter will have a lot of warmer days where my choice is an old pair of Lake neoprene cyclocross boots with a merino wool sock.  This combo keeps my feet warm and dry, especially with the wet conditions that time of the year can present.

Throughout the rest of the winter considering the factors I mentioned above I will alternate between two boots, 45NRTH W√∂lvhammers (2nd gen.) and Lake MXZ 400's.  After several winters with with these boots in just about every kind of weather I've really tuned in the whole sock/boot combination thing.  Layering socks works too, just make sure there is still room in the toe box so as to not cut circulation which will bring on cold toes even faster.


Hands are usually the first to get cold and the right glove choice can keep you rolling instead of cutting the ride short.  I have four pairs of gloves (Bontrager
RXL Waterproof Softshell Split Finger GlovesBontrager Velocis S2 Softshell Split Finger GloveBontrager Velocis S1 Softshell Glove & an old pair of Louis Garneau Roubaix)  and one pair of WSI Sports HEATR Glove Liners to choose from depending on the length of the ride and the outside temperature.  For colder or extended rides I will opt for lobster mitts with or without the glove liners.  These mitts are windproof and waterproof keeping my fingers warm and dexterous in snowstorms and windy arctic weather days.

For those warmer winter days and nights I have a couple pair of full finger gloves which do the trick at keeping my hands warm without overheating. These are usually my go-to gloves for early/late winter and for those warm fronts that occasionally move in.

If your hands get cold in spite of well insulated gloves, try inserting a chemical hand warmer pack into each glove to give hands a little extra warmth.  These packs usually last five to ten hours depending on the brand and really help on longer, colder rides.

Image Credit: Markman Outdoor Photography

If you're new to winter cycling or just would like to do it more frequently, invest in some good winter apparel.  Conditions and temperatures continue to change all winter long and you will need more than a "one-outfit-fits-all" approach to what you will wear.  What may work fine for 25°F on a windless sunny day could leave you cold on a 20°F windy day.  Start building your collection of apparel for varying conditions and over time with some trial and error you will learn to dial in the right choices for the weather.
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