Most cyclists store their bike for the season when temperatures begin to drop. If you prepare properly, cold weather cycling doesn’t have to be miserable. In fact, the winter season can offer some incredible riding. The air is crisp. Trails are less crowded. The snow also creates a unique and beautiful atmosphere.
With the right bike and gear, you can commute, tour, or ride for fun all year long. This guide outlines 30 tips for riding a bike in the winter. We’ll cover cycling clothing, bike maintenance, parts and accessories, winter cycling safety, and much more. Hopefully, these tips help you stay warm, dry, and safe while cycling in the cold and snow.
1. Layer your Clothing
While dressing for winter cycling, you want to wear clothing that will keep your core warm. At the same time, you don’t want to get too warm and sweaty while you’re riding. Your clothing must also offer good ventilation so the sweat that does accumulate can evaporate away.
The best solution is to dress in layers while cycling in cold weather. This allows you to easily add or remove clothing to regulate your body temperature.
If you get too hot and start to sweat, simply remove a layer and continue cycling. If you need to stop to take a break or make a repair, you can put on another layer to warm yourself up.
While cycling, you will sweat. Even if the temperature is below freezing. If your clothes are too warm, you’ll sweat too much. If your clothes don’t breathe, the sweat accumulates and your clothes get wet.
When you stop cycling, your body temperature drops, the sweat starts to evaporate, and you get very cold very quickly. This is the case because water conducts heat away from your body 25 times faster than air. If you get too cold, you’ll feel miserable. Hypothermia and frostbite are also concerns if you’re cycling long distance.
For winter cycling, you want to choose clothing made from materials that are warm, breathable, sweat-wicking, and quick-drying.
Synthetic fabrics such as polyester work well. Merino wool is a popular natural fiber. These materials can provide insulation, even when wet. They also offer good ventilation and dry quickly. You’ll stay warmer and dryer as a result.
You want to avoid cotton and down clothing because it takes a long time to dry. It also doesn’t provide insulation when it gets wet. As the saying goes, cotton kills.
A good cold weather cycling layering system includes 3 layers:
- Base layer- This is the layer you wear directly against your skin. It should be warm, sweat-wicking, and quick-drying. Ideally, your base layer should also provide insulation when wet. If it’s just a bit chilly, you can get away with a long sleeve base layer shirt or a thick cycling jersey. If it’s really cold, you’ll want to wear thermal long underwear under your pants or cycling tights. Merino wool is a perfect base layer material because it provides insulation when wet and is odor resistant. Synthetic thermal long underwear also makes a great base layer. You may also want to wear cycling underwear underneath to prevent chafing.
- Mid layer- This layer provides additional insulation. This is the layer that you’ll remove when you get too hot. A fleece jacket or wool sweater makes a great mid-layer. The colder the weather, the thicker the mid-layer you’ll need. If it’s not too cold, you can get away with a long sleeve cycling jersey and tights. Ideally, your mid-layer should be quick-drying and provide insulation when wet.
- Outer layer- This is your waterproof and windproof layer. It protects you from the snow and windchill while you ride. If the weather is just a bit chilly, you could simply wear an insulated rain jacket over your mid-layer. If it’s well below freezing, you may need a winter parka. When it’s wet out you’ll want to wear waterproof pants as well. Ideally, your outer layer should be both waterproof and breathable. It should also have plenty of vents so sweat can escape. If it’s not snowing, you may be better off removing your outer layer when you get too warm. Many waterproof jackets don’t breath well, even if they are marketed as breathable.
When you’re dressed properly, you should feel a bit cold at first. You will warm up quickly when you start riding.
You shouldn’t feel warm when you step outside. If you do, you’re wearing too many clothes and you will sweat.
If you start sweating, remove a layer to cool yourself off. You can also reduce your intensity to cool down. When you get off the bike, put another layer on to keep yourself warm.
You don’t have to wear cycling-specific clothing for winter riding. That said, clothing that is designed for cycling does come with additional features that can keep you safer and more comfortable.
For example, cycling jackets often include high-viz or reflective material. This makes it easier for drivers to see you. Cycling clothing is often cut to fit your body while you’re in the cycling position.
2. Clean your Bike Frequently During the Winter
Many cities treat the roads with salt or other chemicals during the winter. These are designed to melt snow and ice. Some cities also pour sand and gravel on the roads to increase traction for vehicles when the roads get icy. Unfortunately, salt, de-icing chemicals, and sand can stick to your bike parts and wreak havoc.
Salt and de-icing chemicals can cause steel parts to corrode. For example, if your steel frame is scratched, it can start to rust. Over time, rust can destroy a frame.
Riding over wet and sloppy roads can throw dirty slush and water up into your drivetrain and other moving parts. Sand and grime gets stuck and causes abrasion when parts move against one another.
For example, a dirty chain can cause premature wear and tear of your cassette and chainrings. Dirt and sand can stick to your brake pads. This can scratch your rims or abrade your brake rotors and cause them to wear out prematurely. Grime can also make its way into your cable housings and cause your bike to shift roughly. Braking performance can also be affected by contaminated cables.
How to Clean Your Bike During the Winter
During the winter, you need to clean your bike frequently. How often you need to clean your bike depends on the road conditions. If you ride regularly, clean your bike at least once per week. If conditions are particularly sloppy, clean your bike after every ride.
You want to clean off all of the road chemicals and grime that may have splashed up and accumulated on your bike during your ride. If you don’t have time for a thorough cleaning, at least wipe down any dirty components or rinse your bike off.
When cleaning your bike:
- Pay special attention to all moving parts. These include the chain, cassette, chainrings, cables, hubs, and bottom bracket.
- Keeping your frame clean is also important. Particularly if your bike has a steel frame because steel corrodes.
- Wipe down the braking surface on your rims or brake rotors and your brake pads to prevent abrasion.
- Clean the cable housings to prevent contamination.
3. Keep On Top of Maintenance While Winter Cycling
During the winter, parts tend to wear out faster due to the cold weather and rugged conditions. Keeping on top of maintenance is important. After all, you don’t want your bike to fail you and leave you stranded on a cold winter day.
You’ll need to perform maintenance on your bike a bit more frequently during the cold winter months. If you ride frequently, apply fresh lube to your chain every couple of weeks. After a full cleaning, apply fresh lube. Try to use a thick, dry lube. Be sure to keep your chain well lubricated during the winter.
I like Finish Line Dry Bike Lubricant. It goes on wet then dries into a wax-like consistency. This helps to prevent grit and grime from sticking to the lube.
Ideally, you should also perform a quick inspection of your bike before every ride. You want to check on the overall condition of your components. You want to make sure that the bike is safe to ride.
To inspect your bike for winter riding:
- Test your brakes and shifters. You want to make sure that the cables remain clean, functional, and free of contamination. They should operate smoothly. You don’t want your brake cables to freeze up during a long descent.
- Inspect your frame for scratches or rust if it’s made of steel. If you spot any scratches, apply an anti-rust treatment to protect the frame from corrosion.
- Inspect your rims or brake rotors for signs of wear or abrasion. If you spot any scratching, you’re not cleaning your braking surface and pads well enough.
- Check your chain, cassette, and chainrings for wear. If you spot excessive wear, start cleaning and lubing your drivetrain more frequently.
By regularly inspecting your bike, you can catch worn-out parts before they catastrophically fail. This reduces your risk of getting stranded. You can also prevent unnecessary wear. For example, if you notice scratches on your rims, you can start doing a better job of cleaning your brake pads after every ride. A quick inspection could save you from having to spend hundreds of dollars on new wheels.
If any components show signs of excessive wear, go ahead and repair or replace them. For example, if your chain is questionable, replace it. You don’t want to take unnecessary risks during the winter. A bit of preventative maintenance can go a long way.
It’s also important to regularly check your tires to make sure that they have the appropriate air pressure. For winter riding, you’ll want to keep your tires at the low end of the recommended pressure range. This increases traction and softens the ride. More on that later. You can find the recommended pressure range marked on the sidewall of most tires. You should check the pressure before every ride during the winter.
This is necessary because tires lose a bit of pressure over time. Cold temperatures reduce air pressure because the air in your tires contracts when it’s cold. Checking the tire pressure is particularly important when you’re running the tires at the low end of their range. If you lose a small amount of air pressure, your tires can fall out of their use range. When this happens, pinch flats are likely. You could also bottom out and damage a wheel.
4. Learn How to Ride Your Bike Safely in Winter Conditions
Before riding on the road, take your bike to a bike path or empty parking lot to practice riding in winter conditions. You want to find out how your bike handles snow and ice. You also want to learn your limits.
- Test your brakes to see how fast you can stop. Your braking distance is longer when riding on slippery surfaces because your tires can’t get as much grip.
- Slowly ride through some deep snow and over some icy patches to see what it feels like. This way, you know what to expect when you encounter those conditions on the road.
- Test your cornering ability to see how hard you can turn without your tires beginning to slip.
- Ride into an icy rut to see how your tires handle getting out of it. Practice a few times to learn how to safely ride out of a rut.
- Get off and on your bike a few times to make sure your shoes or boots offer enough grip.
Basically, you want to get a feel for riding in the snow and ice. It’s important to learn proper technique and to learn your limits before you start riding near traffic or on hazardous terrain.
If you slip and fall at low speeds while riding on a snowy trail, you might get a few scratches or bruises. Slipping while riding in traffic is much more dangerous. By learning how to ride safely in winter conditions, you reduce your risk of falling and seriously injuring yourself.
When learning how to ride in winter conditions, it can help to relax your body. If you’re tense and lock up your knees and elbows, you can’t ride smoothly. Try to keep your body loose. Use your legs to help absorb bumps from ruts, ice chunks, potholes, and other debris.
Ride smoothly while crossing slippery wet or icy sections of road. A sudden turn or change in your speed could cause you to slip fall. When you encounter a slippery section of road, stop pedaling and coast over it in a straight line.
Also, make sure you can be seen while riding in the winter. Mount front and rear lights to your bike. Wear high visibility clothing so drivers can see you. I’ll talk more about lights and visibility later on.
5. Keep Your Extremities Warm
Your hands and feet will be the first parts of your body to get cold when your core temperature begins to drop. The wind chill factor can also come into play. Your hands and feet face into the wind while cycling. Cold air passing over them can remove heat quickly. In extremely cold temperatures, frostbite is a worry.
Cycling with freezing fingers and toes gets uncomfortable and even painful quickly. Controlling the bike also becomes more difficult. When your fingers get cold, they lose dexterity. This makes it difficult to squeeze the brake levers and manipulate the shifters. You can’t control the bike as accurately when your hands are freezing. If your feet get too cold, you might have trouble maintaining your cadence. You’ll feel clumsy. It’s important to wear good gloves and footwear.
Bike Gloves for Winter Cycling
To keep your hands warm, you’ll want to wear a good pair of winter cycling gloves. These should offer good insulation. Your cycling gloves should be both waterproof and windproof. In addition, you also want your gloves to offer good hand dexterity so you can easily control the shifters and brake levers. Your winter gloves should offer good grip so your hands don’t slip when your gloves get wet. These Hikenture Winter Cycling Gloves would work well.
If the weather is extremely wet or cold, consider wearing a pair of disposable plastic or rubber gloves under your winter cycling gloves. These create a vapor barrier between your hands and the cold outside air. The waterproof gloves prevent your sweat from evaporating. As a result, your hands stay warmer. They will get sweaty and clammy though. Air-activated hand warmers can also help warm your hands up.
Another excellent option is to use ‘pogies.’ These are basically big oven mitts that attach around the ends of your handlebars. They are insulated, waterproof, and windproof. The benefit of using these is that your hand movement isn’t restricted by bulky gloves. The pogies give your hands plenty of room to move. Your grips will also stay dry. I like these Bar Mitts.
Bike Footwear for Winter Cycling
Cycling shoes tend to fit tight. This ensures that your feet stay in the optimal pedaling position. This allows you to pedal efficiently.
During the winter, you may need to switch to larger footwear that can accommodate thicker socks. You’ll also want to choose waterproof footwear for winter cycling.
If it’s chilly and dry outside, you may be able to get away with a good pair of thick thermal or wool socks and regular cycling shoes. If it’s really cold or wet out, you’ll want to wear a pair of insulated winter cycling boots. These can keep your feet warm and dry in cold and sloppy conditions.
If you don’t want to buy new footwear, you could wear a pair of cycling shoe covers. These are insulated covers that attach over the outside of your regular cycling shoes. They attach with hook and loop straps. Shoe covers are waterproof and wind-resistant. These CXWXC Cycling Shoe Covers would be a good option.
You’ll also want to wear shoes with good grippy soles during the winter. This prevents you from slipping while you’re walking around off the bike, getting on or off the bike, or while putting a foot down at a stop.
Socks are also important. You want to wear thick socks that provide good breathability and insulation. Merino wool hiking socks work well.
Tips for keeping your feet warm and dry
Consider carrying a few air-activated foot warmers. If your feet start feeling too cold, slip the warmers in your boots to warm up.
To help keep your feet dry, consider wearing plastic bags between your socks and shoes. These keep cold snow and slush out. They also create a vapor barrier. Your feet and socks will get wet with sweat but they will stay warmer.
Wearing gaiters can also help. Particularly if the snow is wet or slushy. Gaiters seal off the top of your cycling boots or shoes so water can’t enter. They also provide a bit of extra insulation around the top of your feet and ankles. Your feet will stay warmer and dryer. For more info, check out my guide to gaiters.
6. Choose the Right Tires for Winter Road Conditions
The ideal tires for winter cycling depend on the road conditions you expect to encounter. If you plan to ride over mostly clear roads with the occasional patch of slush or powdery snow, you can get away with narrow road tires. These can cut through slush and shallow snow so your tread can contact the ground. In these conditions, narrow tires actually perform better than wide tires.
You will want to avoid slick 23mm racing tires for winter riding. They don’t offer enough traction. Instead, opt for tires that measure 25-28mm+. Your tire should also have some tread. Touring tires work well for riding in mild winter conditions. They provide good grip on a wide range of surfaces.
If you expect to encounter compact snow and ice, studded bike tires are an excellent option. These features dozens of metal studs sticking out of the knobs of the tires. As you ride, these studs dig into the slippery ice and compact snow so your tires can’t slip around under you. Studded bike tires offer surprisingly excellent traction, even when you’re riding over a glare of ice.
They also come in handy while riding over roads where ruts have formed from slush thawing and refreezing. Side studs grip the walls of the ruts so you can escape without your wheel getting stuck. If you plan to ride through winter road conditions all winter long, studded tires are a necessity. For more info, check out my complete guide to studded bike tires.
If you plan to ride over deep snow, slush, and wet roads, you’ll want to install the widest and knobbiest tires that can fit on your bike. Wide tires form a larger contact patch with the ground. In other words, more of the tread contacts the ground. This allows the tire to create more friction with the ground, which gives you more traction.
Wide, high-volume tires also distribute the weight of the bike over more surface area so the bike doesn’t sink into the snow and get caught up quite as easily. If the snow is too deep, you’ll still get caught up. In this case, your only option is to ride a fat bike with 4-5” wide tires.
The maximum tire width that your bike can accommodate is determined by the frame and rims. If you choose tires that are too wide, they will rub. Before buying wide winter tires, measure your bike to find your maximum tire width. For help measuring, check out this guide. Make sure your tires leave enough clearance for some snow and ice buildup on your frame. 3-5mm of clearance is ideal.
Flat Tire Prevention
When cycling in the winter, you want to avoid flats as much as possible. Patching a tube in below-freezing temperatures is a miserable experience. Your fingers will get cold and stiff, making the job slow and painful. Cold tires are a hassle to pry on and off of the rim.
When choosing tires for winter cycling, look for a model with built-in puncture protection. This is a hard strip of material inside of the tire that resists punctures. It can also help to use puncture-resistant tubes. These offer a thick lining that resists small punctures. Self-sealing tubes can also help. Another option is to install a tire liner between your tube and rim. These Rhinodillos Tire Liners are a popular option.
Tubeless tires are also a great choice for winter cycling. These have a liquid sealant inside that fills small punctures before the air leaks out. This makes flats much less common.
Tubeless tires are a bit more expensive and a bit harder to install than tubed tires. For more info, check out my tubeless vs tubed tire pros and cons list.
Be Prepared for Punctures
Unfortunately, flats happen during the winter. You’ll want to carry a good flat repair kit so you don’t get stranded in the cold. Your tire repair kit should include a spare tube, patch kit, hand pump, tire levers, and gloves.
During the winter, it’s often faster and easier to just replace a tube rather than patching it because you don’t have to wait for the patch adhesive to dry. The adhesive can take a long time to dry when it’s cold. If it’s too cold, it may not even work. When it’s really cold, a hand pump works better than a CO2 pump because the CO2 pump can freeze up.
You’ll also want to carry tough tire levers during the winter. Your tires can become extremely stiff and tight when they’re cold. Cheap plastic tire levers can become brittle and break. You need tough levers to pry the tires off the rim. A thin pair of gloves that offer good finger dexterity also comes in handy.
7. Consider Buying a Winter Bike
As outlined earlier, winter is hard on bikes. Chemicals and grime accumulate on components and cause corrosion and wear and tear.
Instead of putting this wear and tear on your favorite bike, consider riding a bike that you don’t care as much about. Some people keep an old bike specifically for winter riding. You could also buy a cheap used bike for this purpose.
Your winter bike should be equipped with cheaper or lower-end parts. They’re going to suffer some abuse. It should also have mudguards, lights, and wider tires or studded tires.
Lower gearing is also preferable for winter riding. You won’t need to ride at high speeds. You can get away with fewer gears as well. Suspension systems tend to work poorly in cold temperatures. You don’t need full suspension for winter riding. A rigid frame works fine. Front suspension can be nice to have while riding rough icy roads.
One feature that is nice for winter riding is disc brakes. They provide more stopping power than rim brakes. Particularly in wet conditions. This can come in handy when you need to stop fast. They also tend to stay a bit cleaner. You won’t have to wipe down your pads or braking surface as often when you use disc brakes.
Ideally, your winter bike should not have a steel frame because steel corrodes. An aluminum frame is perfect. Cyclocross bikes, mountain bikes, gravel bikes, hybrids, and aluminum road bikes are all popular choices for winter bikes.
Old mountain bikes, in particular, make excellent winter bikes. They are cheap to buy and maintain, overbuilt, tough, and parts are plentiful. They are also very basic.
You could buy a mountain bike from the early 1980s-early 2000s in decent condition for $100-$200. For another $100-200, you can install some knobby tires, lights, fenders, and an insulated bottle holder. You don’t need an expensive bike to ride during the winter. I ride my Schwinn High Sierra mountain bike during the winter.
With your winter bike, you can ride through slush and snow all winter long without a worry. If the frame develops a bit of rust or if a component suffers some wear, you won’t care as much as you would if your high-end bike suffered the same damage.
Consider Riding a Fat Bike During the Winter
A fat bike is a specialty mountain bike that was invented for riding over deep snow. Fat bikes feature 3.8-5” wide tires. The wide tires distribute the weight of the bike over more surface area so you don’t sink in. This allows you to ‘float’ over deep snow. The wide tires also offer plenty of grip. A fat bike can also handle compact snow, ice, and slush with ease.
Fat bikes are a great choice if you live in an area with long, harsh winters. They can handle almost any conditions. You can ride year-round. For more info, check out my guide to fat bikes vs mountain bikes.
8. Reduce your Tire Pressure While Cycling in the Winter
To increase stability and traction while riding on snow, ice, and slush, try reducing your tire pressure. Set the pressure to the low end of the recommended pressure range. You’ll find this range on the sidewalls of your tires.
Reducing your tire pressure makes your tires softer. This allows them to deform more where they contact the ground. In other words, the tire spreads out so more tread touches the ground. This increases friction between your tire and the ground, which gives you more traction.
A softer tire can also absorb more bumps. If you hit a pothole, a chunk of ice, or a patch of gravel, the tire will deform around the obstacle instead of bouncing off. This allows you to more easily maintain control of the bike when the road gets rough.
The optimal tire pressure for winter riding depends on your weight and the type of tires you’re using. The more weight you’re carrying, the higher pressure you’ll need. Skinnier tires must be run at higher pressures than wide tires. On most bikes, you can safely reduce the tire pressure by 10psi.
You don’t want to reduce your tire pressure too much or you’ll risk getting pinch flats if you hit a bump, rut, or chunk of ice. Pinch flats happen when the tire bottoms out and pinches the tube against the rim. This results in a flat. A hard bottom-out could also cause rim damage or broken spokes.
When you’re running your tires at low pressure, it’s important to check your tire pressure frequently to make sure it stays within the recommended range.
A slow leak or drop in temperature could cause your tire pressure to drop too low. If this happens, you could suffer a pinch flat or rim strike. Ideally, you should check your tire pressure before every ride during the winter.
9. Stay Hydrated While Cycling in Cold Weather
While winter cycling, it’s easy to get dehydrated. The main reason is that you don’t notice your sweating as much because you’re wearing more clothing during the winter. You’re still losing fluids. Your thirst also naturally decreases when you’re cold. Drinking cold water on a winter day isn’t too appealing.
While cycling in the winter, it’s important to drink regularly to keep your body hydrated. Consider carrying an insulated bottle filled with your favorite hot drink. This can warm you from the inside and keep you hydrated. You could drink coffee, tea, hot chocolate, hot apple cider, or even some kind of broth. A good insulated bottle can keep your drink hot all day. Alternatively, you can stop by your favorite cafe for a hot drink mid-ride.
You have to take some precautions to prevent your water from freezing if the weather is really cold. While you’re riding, you can store the bottle in your bottle holder. The agitation caused by the moving bike should prevent the water from freezing.
It can also help to use an insulated bottle or carry the bottle in an insulated bottle holder. You can make or buy insulating wraps for your bottle. If you’re really worried about your bottle freezing, store the bottle in your jersey pocket or in a backpack during the winter. Your body heat will prevent the water from freezing. When you get off of the bike, take the bottle with you so it doesn’t freeze.
Some cyclists like to carry a water bladder in their backpack or use a CamelBak backpack. This can work well because your body heat prevents the water bladder from freezing. The drawback is that the water in the tube can freeze and plug the tube. If you use a water bladder during the winter, make sure you choose one with an insulated tube.
10. Shorten Your Ride While Cycling in Cold Weather
During the winter, you can’t cover as much ground as quickly as you can when it’s warm and dry. Sometimes it’s so cold you just don’t want to spend as much time riding. There are a few ways you can shorten your ride.
You can drive part of the way. Instead of riding all the way from your home to your favorite trail or bike path, load up your bike and drive there. This way, you can avoid hazardous sections of road.
Another option is to take public transportation. Ride the bus or train part of the way to your destination and bike the rest of the way. Many city buses and metro systems offer bike racks. Folding bikes are often allowed on the bus or train.
You could also alternate your cycling days. This is a good option for commuters. Instead of biking every day, bike every other day or only bike on days when the weather is dry.
11. Mount Fenders to Your Bike
Winter is a filthy time to ride a bike. As your tires rotate, they spray water, slush, dirt, and de-icing chemicals up onto your bike, you, and the people you’re riding with. The spray can soak your legs and back and even splash up onto your face. The spray also coats your drivetrain in a layer of grime, which causes wear and tear.
The solution is to mount fenders to your bike. These catch the dirty spray and direct it to the ground. They help keep you dry and keep your bike dry and clean.
One of the biggest benefit of using fenders is that your drivetrain will last longer because it’s not constantly getting covered with corrosive chemicals and abrasive dirt. You’ll stay warmer as well because your back will stay dry.
12. Use Lights For Extra Visibility During the Winter
Winter days are often overcast and dark. This makes it harder for drivers to see you. Drivers are also less likely to notice you because they don’t expect to see a cyclist out during the winter.
It also gets dark out early during the winter. If you live in a northern latitude, it might be dark by 3 or 4 in the afternoon. It’s easy to get caught in the dark on a short winter day. You want to be prepared to ride in total darkness. You need to be able to see the road to ride safely when the sun goes down.
When winter cycling, use lights at all times so drivers can see you and so you can see the road clearly. You should mount both a headlight and rear light to your bike. Make sure your lights are mounted at the proper height and angle so they function as intended.
Ideally, your headlight should provide at least 500 lumens of brightness. This is enough to lighten up the road when there are no street lights. The rear light should provide at least 100 lumens of brightness.
Your lights should also be waterproof. This way, they’ll keep working if they get snowed on or splashed with slush.
Before every ride, check your lights to make sure they’re fully charged. This is important because batteries don’t hold a charge as well when they get cold.
If you’re using replaceable battery-powered lights, consider carrying some spare batteries. Use lithium batteries rather than alkaline. These hold a charge better in cold weather.
I like this BrightRoad Bike Lights Front and Back Set, would be a great option. It’s rechargeable, waterproof. A rear light is also included. The headlight easily detaches so you can use it as a flashlight.
To increase visibility, consider using extra lights. Mount a second front-facing light to your helmet or clothing. Mount an extra rear-facing light to your helmet, backpack, or clothing. This way your two sets of lights move independently from one another (one is fixed on the bike and the other is mounted on your body). This draws more attention to drivers’ eyes. You’ll also have a backup light if a battery dies.
If you ride during the winter often, consider installing a dynamo hub on your bike. These generate power to run your lights as you ride. Dynamo-powered lights also tend to be brighter than battery-powered lights. You can also use a good dynamo hub to charge your phone. This can come in handy in an emergency situation. For more info, check out my guide to dynamo hubs.
13. Wear High Visibility Clothing or Mount a Flag on Your Bike
To make it easier for drivers to see you, wear high visibility clothing while winter cycling.
Most clothing that is designed for road cycling contains reflective elements. This material reflects light at night, so drivers can see you more easily.
Consider choosing clothing that is made from bright-colored fabric as well. Bright colors such as yellow, orange, or red stand out more than dark or neutral colors such as gray, black, or brown. These bright colors make you more visible during the day, when your reflectors don’t work.
If you already own a jacket that doesn’t have reflective elements or bright-colored fabric, consider wearing a high viz vest over it. You could also wear a high viz band around your arm. Another option is to put some high-viz tape on your jacket.
Alternatively, consider mounting a flag on your bike. These stick up and wave in the wind. This can help draw driver’s attention to you. Your flag should be made from a bright-colored fabric. It should also have reflective material.
For even more visibility, add reflectors to your bike. You can mount these on the seat post, handlebars, wheels, rack, or helmet. Another option is to put reflective tape on your bike frame, helmet, or clothing.
Ideally, you want a driver to see a reflective element, regardless of the direction they’re approaching from.
14. Take Short Breaks While Cycling in Cold Weather
When you stop riding, your body temperature begins to drop. Sweat begins evaporating and cooling you off. Wet clothing conducts heat away from your body quickly. You may start to shiver.
When you get cold, it can be difficult to get warmed back up again. Your muscles and joints might also start feeling stiff if you stop for too long. To stay warm, limit your breaks to just a few minutes during the winter.
If you need to take a longer break, choose a strategic spot to stop. Look for a spot at the bottom of an incline. That way, you’ll have to exert yourself when you start riding again. You’ll warm up quickly. Also, try to stop in the sun rather than in the shade. The sun can warm you up, even on a cold winter day. If you stop to go into a store, restaurant, cafe, etc. linger in the warm indoors for a while. Take advantage of the heat. Wait for your sweaty clothes to dry out a bit. Never take a break at the top of a long shady hill. You’ll freeze on the way down.
Tip: Be careful when mounting and dismounting your bike if the ground is icy. Your studded tires might offer plenty of grip but your shoes can still slip. Look out for icy patches.
15. Ride Defensively During the Winter
Winter road conditions make cycling a bit more dangerous. Road shoulders and bike lanes get covered in snow, slush, and debris. Sometimes they become completely unrideable after a plow blocks them with snow berms. Passing cars can also splash slush and water up onto you and your bike. Braking distances are shorter during the winter as well. Drivers are also less likely to see you. All of this makes winter riding a bit more dangerous. To stay safe while cold weather cycling:
Take the Lane
Avoid riding on a slippery shoulder or bike lane by riding on the road in the middle of the right-hand lane. Taking the lane prevents drivers from passing you too close. When you’re in the middle of the lane, they’ll have to move into the other lane to pass. It’s preferable to force riders to go around you rather than risking riding on a slushy, icy, or snowy shoulder or bike lane. You want to ride in a way that keeps you and the drivers around you safe. Sometimes that means taking the lane.
As an added bonus, taking the lane reduces your likelihood of getting splashed as you’re passed. You’ll also be further away from gravel and other debris that accumulates on the side of the road. Of course, you can’t always take the lane. If the road only has one lane, you’ll want to move over for cars to pass from time to time.
Consider Braking Distances
While winter cycling, also remember that drivers can’t stop or maneuver as fast as they can when the road is clear. Consider this before crossing an intersection. Wait for cars to stop before you cross if they look like they’re going too fast.
Also, give yourself more braking distance during the winter. You don’t get as much grip on slippery roads. If you brake too hard, you’ll lose grip and start to slide. The bike could slide out from under you if you’re not careful.
Don’t Trust that Drivers will See you
During the winter, drivers don’t expect to see cyclists. After all, who’s crazy enough to go out riding in the snow and cold? If you have to cross in front of vehicles, look at the driver and make eye contact first. If you need to, wave or nod at them to confirm that they see you.
It also helps to use lights, high viz clothing, reflectors, and a flag for added visibility. A cycling mirror also comes in handy during the winter to help you keep an eye on people behind you. Also, consider taking routes with less traffic such as bike paths.
Pay Attention to Road Conditions
Some areas are slipperier than others. Some slippery sections to look out for include:
- Bridges- they tend to get icy
- Road paint and metal grates- these become slippery when they’re wet.
- Icy patches- During the morning, ice is more common. Snow melts during the day then refreeze during the cold nights.
- Low spots- These can collect water or ice and get slippery. Snow melts, accumulates, then freezes.
- Shady spots- These can stay icy all day.
- Ruts- these form when cars drive over slush then it re-freezes. Ruts makeit difficult to steer. Try to keep your tires out of ruts.
When riding over these slippery sections, try not to change speed or direction. Just coast straight over.
16. Slow Down While Cycling During the Winter
While cycling during the winter, you won’t be able to maintain the same pace that you’re used to during the warmer months. The main reason is that you’ll need to slow down to navigate snowy and icy roads safely. You can’t speed down a snow-covered hill at 30 mph or lean hard into an icy corner. You have to take obstacles slowly so you don’t slip and fall.
While winter cycling, pay attention to:
- Road surfaces- Poorly maintained streets can be lined with icy ruts. You could even encounter areas that aren’t rideable due to deep snow. In this case, you’ll have to walk your bike.
- Your speed- During the winter, you have to slow down and stay aware of the road conditions. It takes more time to navigate slippery streets safely.
- The temperature- During the evenings, temperatures can drop and a wet road can turn into a glare of ice.
- Road grades- Your tire scan slip more easily while braking on a slippery grade. Your tires may want to spin out while climbing a steep icy grade.
- The sun and shade- A sunny road could be perfectly dry. You could turn a corner onto a shady street and hit a patch of ice.
You won’t be able to cover as much ground as you’re used to while cycling during the winter. You’ll want to take this into consideration when planning your route. A ride that takes you a few hours during the summer could take all day during the winter.
17. Protect your Lungs from the Cold and Dry Air
Breathing cold and dry winter air can irritate your lungs and airway. The cold air also causes your lungs and arteries to constrict, making it harder to breathe.
While cycling in below-freezing temperatures, you may experience chest tightness, coughing, burning sensation, or shortness of breath. Cycling causes you to breathe harder, which makes these conditions worse.
To improve your breathing while cold weather cycling, consider wearing a face mask or neck gaiter that covers your nose and mouth. These help to retain heat and moisture. Your breath warms and moistens the face covering. As you continue to breathe, the face-covering warms and humidifies the cold, dry air before it enters your body. This makes breathing easier and more comfortable.
It can also help to wear a scarf or gaiter around your neck. This keeps your throat warm. Having a warm throat helps warm air before it enters your lungs. A neck covering also reduces heat loss. You’ll stay warmer if your neck is insulated.
I like this AstroAI Ski Mask Balaclava. It can be worn as a full face mask, neck gaiter, or half mask. It protects your ears, nose, cheeks, and chin from the cold. It’s also thin enough to wear under your helmet and goggles.
18. Protect your Eyes During the Winter
Snow is a very reflective surface. On sunny days, the bright snow can reflect harmful UV rays into your eyes. This can cause a condition known as snow blindness or photokeratitis.
This is essentially a sunburn on your eyes. Snow blindness can cause eye pain, blurry vision, sensitivity to light, and a number of other uncomfortable symptoms.
To avoid snow blindness while cycling during the winter, you’ll want to wear a good pair of sunglasses. Make sure your eyewear has a UV filter to block out the harmful rays. If it’s extremely cold, snowy, or windy, consider wearing goggles instead of sunglasses. These provide a bit more protection from the elements.
Some cyclists find it helpful to wear glasses or goggles with a blue tint. This can help to reduce glare and improve contrast. Also, consider choosing a helmet with a visor. This helps to protect your eyes by creating shade. A visor can also help to keep rain or snow out of your eyes and away from your face.
If you start feeling symptoms of snow blindness, stop riding for a few days and don’t wear contact lenses. Stay indoors or in the shade. Use eye drops.
You might also want to consider the position of the sun when planning your ride. This is important if you’re riding in the evening when the sun is setting or if you ride in the far north where the sun sits low in the sky during the winter.
You want to avoid cycling into the sun when it’s low on the horizon because it will be shining directly into your eyes. This is uncomfortable and makes it hard for you and drivers around you to see the road ahead.
Plan your ride according to the position of the sun. For example, you might cycle toward the sun during the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky. When you’re riding home and the sun is setting, the sun will be at your back. It will be easier for you to see the road and for drivers to see you because there is no glare.
19. Pack Extra Gear While Cold Weather Cycling
When winter cycling, weight doesn’t really matter. You’re not going to break any speed records. It’s better to carry some extra gear to keep yourself safe, warm, and comfortable.
Carry an extra pair of socks and gloves and seal them up in a waterproof bag. If your original pair gets wet, you can swap them out with a dry pair. Air-activated hand warmers also come in handy. These can warm your hands and feet back up if they get too cold. If you’re worried about getting too cold, pack an extra sweater. Bring a hat and scarf or neck gaiter or face mask to keep your head warm.
Also, bring some emergency gear. A Mylar emergency blanket is a great piece of gear to have during the winter. It packs down small, weighs very little, and could save your life if you get too cold and wet. Also, consider packing a small first aid kit. This way, you can patch yourself up if you take a little spill and scratch your elbow or knee on the ice. It’s a good idea to carry a bit of extra food and water during the winter as well. You need to stay energized and hydrated.
You’ll also want to pack some extra tools and spares while winter cycling. Bring a good patch kit, an extra tube, a pump, tire levers, and a multi-tool at least. If you’re going on a longer ride, consider carrying a chain breaker and extra link, spare cables, and some rags to clean your bike with. For a complete list, check out my guide to putting together a tool kit.
20. Test Out Your Bike and Gear and Ease into Winter Riding
You don’t want to take your first winter bike ride during a blizzard. Instead, test out your bike and gear when the weather is mild. Wait for a dry day that’s not too cold. Find a road that’s not too snowy or icy. Take a short ride to see how you feel.
If you get too cold, you know that you’ll need to wear warmer clothes next time. If the bike feels unstable, you know that you’ll need to let some air out of your tires or install different tires with better traction. We’ll talk more about winter tires later on.
After you start getting the hang of winter riding, you can start increasing your distance or riding in more extreme conditions. If your first winter ride is in sub-zero temperatures on a snowy day, you may have a miserable experience.
21. Protect your Skin
You can get a sunburn during the winter. Sunburns are particularly common when there is snow on the ground because snow reflects up to 90% of UV radiation back up onto your skin. It’s important to apply sunblock to all of your exposed skin before your ride. In most cases, your face will be your only exposed skin.
The cold air also dries out your skin and lips. It’s a good idea to apply moisturizer before your ride. Particularly on your hands. Also, be sure to use lip balm to avoid chapped lips. Vaseline is a great moisturizer. It helps retain moisture in your skin.
22. Ride a Bike that You’re Familiar With During the Winter
Pretty much any bike can be adapted for winter cycling. Riding a bike that you’re familiar with can help you stay safer and more comfortable. When you’re familiar with the bike, you know how it handles and you know the placement of all of the controls. You feel comfortable with the gearing, shifting, braking, and cornering. The bike will also have the proper fit.
Don’t go out and buy a new bike during the first snowstorm of the season. If you plan to buy a new bike for winter riding, try to buy it a couple of months before the snow arrives. This gives you a chance to get used to your new bike and its quirks. Every bike rides a bit differently.
Of course, you may want to make some upgrades to make your bike safer and more comfortable for cold-weather cycling. For example, you can install lights, fenders, pogies, and an insulated bottle holder. I’ll talk more about these winter components and accessories later on.
23. Warm Up Before You Start Riding in Cold Weather
Before you go outside, warm up a bit by stretching, jogging in place, doing some jumping jacks, doing pushups, etc. This gets your blood flowing so you don’t feel quite as chilly when you get on your bike. You’ll also be a bit more limber and less likely to injure yourself. Cold weather can make your joints feel stiff.
It can also help to have a bite to eat before you start cycling. The process of digestion raises your body temperature slightly. This helps you stay a bit warmer during the first 20-30 minutes of your ride. It can also help to snack as you ride.
24. Bring Some Snacks
When it’s cold outside, your body burns extra calories to keep your core warm. To keep your energy up, you’ll want to eat plenty of snacks during your ride.
Try to eat lots of carbs and fat. These are energy-dense foods. As an added benefit, eating can also help you stay warmer. The process of digestion raises your body temperature. Some good snacks for winter cycling include energy bars, nuts, jerky, bananas, dried fruit, granola bars, and trail mix.
During the winter you do have to consider food storage and be a bit careful about which snacks you pack. Some foods can freeze or get hard in the cold. Store your snacks in your pockets to keep them soft and warm. If you’re feeling particularly chilly, take a break in a warm restaurant to grab a hot meal and warm up.
25. Plan Your Winter Cycling Route Carefully
Most likely, you will maintain a slower average pace during the winter due to the slippery road conditions. You also carry more weight in gear and clothing during the winter. This slows you down as well.
Plan your cycling distance accordingly. You want to set a realistic goal. For example, you might ride 25 miles during the summer. In the winter, you might only be able to cover 10 miles in the same amount of time. There is nothing wrong with taking a shorter ride.
You’ll also want to take your speed into consideration if you’re commuting. You may need to leave a bit earlier during the winter to make it to work or school on time. If the distance is too far, consider driving or taking public transportation part of the way.
You’ll also want to take road conditions into consideration when planning your route. Road conditions can vary greatly during the winter. For example, some roads don’t get plowed. Depending on the depth of the snow and the type of bike you ride, these roads may not be navigable. Sometimes a plow creates a big berm that blocks the shoulder. These roads can be dangerous to ride because you’ll have to ride on the road. You don’t want to ride near fast-moving traffic. Some roads are just a slippery slushy mess. You’ll want to avoid these. If the conditions become dangerous, find another route.
26. Be Prepared
There are some risks to winter cycling. It’s easier to slip and fall and injure yourself when you’re riding on snow and ice. If you’re riding in below-freezing temperatures, hypothermia and frostbite become concerns. You need to prepare properly to avoid any potentially dangerous situations.
Start by choosing your route carefully. Try to pick a route that isn’t too long. Remember, you’ll ride a bit slower during the winter due to the road conditions.
Also, try to choose a route that allows you to easily bail if something goes wrong. You want to make sure you’re always able to walk to safety if your bike were to fail you. Don’t ride out into the middle of nowhere without a backup plan. If your bike breaks, you don’t want to get stranded.
When riding in the city, this isn’t really an issue. You can always call a taxi or Uber to pick you up and take you home. If you’re mountain biking or fat biking in the backwoods, you need to have a way to get home if you can’t ride your bike for whatever reason.
Before you leave home, make sure your phone is fully charged so you can call for help if you need to. Bring some cash or a credit card in case you need to pay for a taxi home.
It’s also a good idea to take some extra clothes with you just in case you get too cold. Bring an extra jacket, socks, and gloves. If it’s too cold, don’t ride. There is no reason to take unnecessary risks.
You should also carry some emergency gear such as a mylar blanket and first aid kit.
27. Cover Your Bike During the Winter
Moisture and freezing temperatures can be hard on your bike. Water can make its way into moving parts and freeze them up. Cold weather can make plastic parts brittle and easy to break. Cold weather also makes your bike harder to ride. The grease in your hubs and bottom brackets can become stiff. This reduces efficiency.
During the winter, it’s best to store your bike indoors to protect it from the elements. Ideally, you should store your bike in a heated space, such as your home. If you don’t have space for your bike indoors, store it under a carport or in your garage.
For those who don’t have any protected place to store your bike, consider buying a bike cover or covering your bike with a tarp. If you don’t have one of these, a barbeque cover works well. At the very least, you want to keep your bike dry.
If you have to leave your bike outside unprotected, try to thaw it out and warm it up before you ride. Take it inside temporarily.
Use a Saddle Cover or Warmer
An insulated saddle cover can make your saddle a bit warmer to sit on initially. These come in handy if your bike has a leather or plastic seat. These materials tend to get cold quickly. These days, you can also buy electric bike seat warmers.
Also, carry a waterproof saddle cover that you can put over your saddle while you’re off the bike. This keeps your seat dry and clear of snow. A simple plastic grocery bag works well for this. You can also buy purpose-made covers.
28. Mount a Piece of Luggage to your Bike to Carry Your Cold Weather Gear
While winter cycling, you’ll need to carry an extra pair of socks and gloves, a sweater or jacket, a rain suit, some snacks and water, extra tools and spares, and more. You’ll need a place to store this bulky gear.
A single pannier works well. If you’re riding off-road, you might prefer to use some bikepacking bags. If you don’t have any cycling luggage, you could use a backpack. For more ideas, check out my guide to budget bicycle luggage options.
Try to choose a piece of luggage that is waterproof and offers at least 10 liters of volume. You need a bag that is large enough to accommodate your winter jacket if you get too hot.
I like to use my Moosetreks frame bag. It offers 14 liters of storage for my winter gear and doesn’t require a frame. It attaches with hook and loop straps. It’s also aerodynamically efficient because it sits in the frame. For more info, check out my full review here.
29. Treat Yourself Once in a While
You can only spend so much time outside in the cold before you start feeling miserable. Remember, winter cycling is supposed to be fun. If you’re starting to shiver, pop into a restaurant for a hot meal or grab a cup of coffee and a muffin at a cafe. Cold weather is draining. If you try to ride through the cold, you’ll just burn out and you won’t enjoy yourself.
If you enjoy winter cycling and do it often, treat yourself to some winter cycling gear. A good pair of boots, waterproof gloves, a warm hat, and a quality winter jacket can greatly improve your comfort while you’re out in the cold. With the proper clothing, you can cycle comfortably, no matter the weather.
It can also be worthwhile to make some upgrades to your bike. Studded tires, fenders, pogies, a cycling mirror, and a dynamo hub can improve your winter cycling experience. A properly set up bike can make your ride much smoother, safer, and more comfortable.
30. If you’re Riding an E-Bike, Keep your Batteries Warm
Batteries drain quickly in cold temperatures. Try not to leave your e-bike outside too long during the winter or your battery could die. Be sure to take your e-bike battery inside with you every night and store it in a heated room.
If you plan on e-biking during the winter often, install a cover over your battery. This can help keep it warmer while you ride. This can greatly increase your range.
Keep in mind that your e-bike range will be reduced during the winter. To maximize your range, use your battery conservatively. Use assist mode rather than the throttle. Use battery saver mode rather than performance mode.
Final Thoughts About Cold Weather Cycling
If you prepare properly, winter can be a great cycling season. The snow creates an incredible atmosphere. Winter is a quiet, beautiful, and peaceful season. Your favorite cycling routes look completely different after they’ve been covered in a layer of snow. Winter is also quiet and less crowded. The air feels crisp and invigorating.
At the same time, the cold weather and poor road conditions do present some challenges. You have to dress strategically so you don’t get too cold or too sweaty. You need warm, breathable clothing. In addition, you have to perform more frequent maintenance to keep your bike operating smoothly. Salt, de-icing chemicals, and gravel can cause wear on your bike. In addition, there are safety risks to consider. It’s easy to slip and fall during the winter. Frostbite and hypothermia are risks if the weather is extreme.
To decide whether or not winter cycling is for you, you’ll just have to bundle up and give it a try. Choose a day that’s dry and not too cold and go for a short ride. Hopefully, this guide makes your next winter bike ride a bit smoother and more comfortable.
Do you go cycling during the winter months? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!
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