Winter commute tricks: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

Bern helmet over a Cognition Cap works for me and keeps it local. Bern does make liners for their helmets too. I pull the blue turtle fur up over my chin on colder days.

Over the years I have developed a few basic techniques that help me ride comfortably through the winter. Today I thought I would share a few of mine and ask readers to share what works for them. I will go from head to toe.

Head: I wear a Cognition Caps winter helmet liner/cap under my Bern Watts lid.  In addition to the great Northwoods Mackinaw style, the wooly fleece on the flaps keep my ears and forehead warm. The forehead is something many people forget about, but it is key when riding into an icy headwind. The top of the cap is thin wool and super breathable, so I don’t get too sweaty.

It was five below zero actual temperature when I took this photo last winter. Goggles mean I can see ripping down a hill and keep my cheeks from getting too rosy.

Face: My eyes tear easily, so when it is super cold, I put on a pair of cheap ski goggles. They keep more of my face warm, block blowing snow and no more tears!

Neck: Turtle fur keeps my neck warm, but I really like to pull it up over my chin on super cold days. Even when it is in the single digits, I might still unzip my coat a bit to vent my core if I am biking hard, but I find if I keep my chin and neck protected from the wind, I feel much more comfortable.

My fingers get cold quickly even when it is comparatively warm (40 degrees). Bar Mitts are the cure for a wimp like me.

Hands: I can’t say this loud enough: Bar Mitts RULE!!! My fingers get cold as soon as temps drop below 45 degrees, but even on the coldest days, Bar Mitts “pogies” keep my hands warm with just a pair of thin leather dress gloves or thin liner gloves over my hands. I have the kind for mountain bike bars, but find they work on my swept back “priest” bars that I have on all my commuter bikes. They make versions for drop-bar road bikes, snowmobiles and even ski poles too.  If you get cold fingers, get Bar Mitts.

Yes, I leave my zipper down when I ride.

Abdomen: I really like pit zips on a 3/4 length coat.  As I mentioned above, venting is key. People who don’t exercise outside in the winter always think I am cold when I ride. Most days I sweat, even taking an easy ride the four mile commute to the Bike Fed’s Milwaukee office. I don’t think it is necessary that the coat be waterproof in the winter, in fact sometimes I just wear a warm wool sweater as an outer layer.

Legs: When the roads are sloppy, I wear an inexpensive pair of rain pants over my regular dress pants. This keeps me warm, without the need for long underwear, which makes me sweat when I get to a normally heated office. I don’t wear the rain pants when the roads are dry, but I might if the temps are in the single digits. Guys, when it is really cold, be sure to protect your lower unit from frostbite!  Rain pants do this, a plastic bag will work in a pinch if you didn’t bring a pair and the temps drop during the day before you ride home. I just can’t ever see myself buying Gore-tex underwear, but they do make windfront briefs.

Waterproof Danner Romeo GTX boots wipe off and look good enough for business casual office wear. The inexpensive rain pants keep my dress pants clean and dry when the roads are sloppy, and in red, they work for the Santa Cycle Rampage!

Feet: I don’t like to change shoes at work, so I try to wear boot shoes that look nice enough for business casual, but also work outdoors. My latest faves are Danner Workman Romeo GTX. They seem to hold up way better than Bundstones, and the Gore-tex membrane keeps my feet dry and makes them warmer than any pair of Blunnies I have owned. I do find they fit about 1/4 size smaller than Blundstones. I  typically wear Wisconsin-made Wigwam wool socks of varying thicknesses to match the temps.

Those are some of my tips, but there are plenty of ways to skin a cat. How do you stay warm riding in the winter?




About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

20 thoughts on “Winter commute tricks: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

  1. Nice duds – I keep my wardrobe pretty simple: balaclava, cheap shop glasses from Harbor Freight, rain pants, light weight North Face jacket and rain jacket over that and finally, good mitts. Never been cold – even at 10 below. My commute is only a couple of miles but I do wander further to meetings. I guess my point is, don’t be intimidated by the cold. Do get studded tires, though.

  2. My main trick for winter commuting is a bus pass. Bike to the office in the morning when the sun is out and the wind is at my back, take the bus home when it’s dark and a fierce cold wind is blowing straight into my face. I have biked in below zero temps, straight into vicious westerly winds. I have proved my mettle and really don’t feel the need to do it again.

    • I have never understood anyone doesn’t like taking the bus. I actually feel a little guilty when I jump on the bus. It feels too luxurious for me.

  3. I have recently been riding my fat bike in the snow. I find the 3.8 inch tire give me confidence in all situations of snow, slush, ice and mud. Also, I found that handle bar covers or mits for ATV or Snowmobiles fit a bike just as well and were a lot cheaper. I picked a real cheap Starter wind jacket and pants to go over my clothes which works perfect for protection but not too hot. Instead of a hat I wear a fleece hood with face mask panel that keeps my whole head and face warm under my helmet. I also prefer a skate helmet which is more closed versus aerodynamic. Those vents/wholes can get filled with snow and don’t keep the rain out either.

  4. Hat: Ushanka (russian ear flap hat) so i can adjust it with as temps fall or rise
    Hands: Austrian Military mittens- canvas out and wool inners, if it warms during the day i just use the inners. Even with sub zero temps my hands are comfortably clamy with these. I have the same problem with cold hands as you Dave.
    Feet/Legs: wool socks under dress socks and long underwear under slacks. I change shoes at work.
    For my face i switch between a scarf and snowmobile half face mask. I hate a cold nose but after a few blocks I tend to pull the scarf down.

    I am almost never uncomfortable, if anything I tend to overdress in the afternoons/evenings.
    The worse weather for me is what we’re expecting Thursday- freezing rain. I haven’t figured a good set up for that yet. Any time I’ve used a poncho by the time I get to work I look like I just walked out of a steam room.

  5. I wear a pair of tight-fitting gloves (I have a $15 pair of deFeet gloves – they are the most expensive bike clothing accessory I’ve ever bought) under a big old, beat up insulated pair of gloves. My hands are never cold, and if I need to handle anything in the cold, I can easily slip off the top glove and still have some protection while blowing my nose or whatever. Which reminds me, I always keep a handkerchief in my pocket in cold weather for nose-blowing.

    Other than that, I dress in many thin layers, and I agree that the tough part is actually not getting too sweaty. Vents would definitely help for that, but as I am dependent on thrift store clothing selections I don’t have a vented jacket.

    You don’t need expensive custom gear to ride in the winter! All of my “gear” is second hand and I ride all winter long! It’s fun!

    Use board pedals and wear boots. Your feet will stay warm, and you can easily put your foot down if you hit a slippery spot. I’ve never used studded tires (can’t afford them), and I’ve never been injured riding in the winter, although, yes, I have fallen on ice.


  6. I was actually featured in one of BikeFed’s articles:

    So obviously you see the barmitts, goggles, water-proof boots, studded tires.
    The jacket and pants are from SWRVE – an affordable alternative to wind/water resistent gear. (though if you do have extra $50 or so you can upgrade to a real camping gear to maximize breathability) but SWRVE stuff come with bike friendly details so check em out!

    I recently ordered Wool Buff (a neck gaiter that is super versatile) and whole bunch of Merino wool baselayers because I was running into moisture buildup in my core and also the face with the thick facemask. So I’ll let you know how that turns out.

    But yes – winter biking RULES!!!

  7. Alas, I have been a winter bike commuter for fifteen years, and have yet to find a way to keep my Reynauds-stricken hands warm. I have tried felted wool mittens, down mittens, Bar Mitts, and every possible combination of liner gloves, mittens, waterproof shell, etc, etc. The problem is my hands just quit trying to stay warm if they are in cold air-they are positively reptilian. Someone needs to invent gloves that actually warm hands, not keep hands warm. I have used the little charcoal heater packets inside gloves, but they are a little restrictive and heat only a small area. Does anyone have any ideas?

    • Hi Nancy,

      Sounds like you have an extreme example of cold fingers. Have you considered trying battery powered heated gloves or glove liners? They are definitely not cheap, but they might be worth it for you. I know people who use heated socks, and they claim they work well.

  8. Yes, to most all of the above. I am a balaclava afficianodo. Have 4-5 in different weights. My big discovery in early days of winter commuting was glove/mitts. Gloves with the fingertips open and an attached cover that flips up to cover them when needed. Again, have them in a variety of weights. Work very well down to 0° and below. An idea I got from Dave several years ago was smartwool long-sleeve shirts. I wear them all the time most all winter, indoors and out. Toasty and breatheable. No soaking up sweat and getting stinky. Feet are still a bit of a problem after anything longer than about 45 minutes. Good socks and charcoal/iron foot warmers help. And booties.

  9. I have been biking throughout the winter for 5 years now, though I only use a road bike. I put in about 10 miles a day (my commute). I will either drive or use some form of mass transit on snow days or severe cold days (single digits or colder). I am looking forward to trying some of the ideas presented here. With my commute, I wear boots, use long underpants, heavy duty mittens, wool hat and a large wool scarf. I have noticed that I need a jacket that is elastic around the waist (to avoid frost bite).

  10. I ride to work year-round and have found that the following works well for me during the winter:

    Head – A ragg wool stocking cap most of the time or a water/windproof hat w/ ear flaps (e.g., Lowe Alpine Mountain Cap) for colder days.

    Face – A balaclava on really cold days.

    Top – A wool t-shirt or long sleeve crew as a moisture-wicking base layer, a fleece pullover for an insulting layer, and a hard shell jacket w/ pit zips or a soft shell jacket as a wind resistant outer layer.

    Bottom – Soft shell pants (w/ long johns on colder days).

    Hands – Thin wool gloves (e.g., Fox River) w/ a pair of water/windproof overmitts.

    Feet – Wool socks, always. Most days I can get away with leather athletic shoes (e.g., Adidas Sambas) or hiking boots. For really cold days, rubber farm boots work great. They’re also easy to clean after a ride when its slushy or when the roads are heavily salted.

  11. I have been winter bike commuting for the past 7 years and this is what works for me:

    hat: lightweight stocking cap, either a stretchy athletic material or wool. the most important factor in choosing my hat is that is covers my ears completely

    neck: scarf or wool Buff that I pull up over my chin and nose.

    top: wool shirt, 1/4 zip fleece, lightweight windproof/insulated jacket. I have found that the LLBean Warm-Up Jacket is perfect for biking in temperatures from 0-35F. I think Lands End has a similar jacket.

    bottom: I’m surprised no one else has mentioned SportHill 3SP pants. I snagged a pair from the REI Scratch and Dent sale for $10 and swear by them. Even at full price I think they are totally worth it. They are soft and cozy on the inside, block the wind, and I can wear them all day in the office comfortably. And unlike wind pants and softshell pants, they do not transfer the cold onto your legs. I have velcro ankle cuffs that I wrap around the ankles to keep them from getting snagged in the chain and also to trap the heat in.

    hands: big puffy insulated ski mittens

    feet: lighweight wool socks and Dansko-style leather clogs (the ones that come fully around the heel)

    I can’t say that I love my winter bike commute, but I’d rather bike in the freezing cold for a known length of time than freeze to death standing still at the bus stop. And it certainly beats freezing rain.

    • Thanks for the great tips Hannah. I am a big fan of mittens too. I am going to look into those Sporthill pants.

      BTW, we have a Women Winter Warriors cover story on the winter edition of our quarterly magazine, which should be in the mail to members soon. We photograph and talk to a few different women who bike all winter and get their tips for riding through the cold and still looking cute.

      • Is there any way for non-members to get a copy of the winter issue? Sounds like a great cover story!

        Also, I wanted to add that ski goggles are a key component to my winter biking outfit when it gets really cold.

        • Hey Hannah,

          The best way to get a copy is to join. We mail them to you then! Otherwise you can ask at your local bike shop. We do distribute some of them there and to other member organizations.

          Yes, goggles are key! I like the clear ones because it is usually dark when I ride home.

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