Mother Earth News Blogs > Green Transportation

Green Transportation

Moving toward a transportation system that fuels healthy people and a healthy planet.

How To: Winter Biking

This article is posted with permission from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

It's that time of year again — when an extra 20 minutes in bed in the morning is harder to resist, when it's usually dark when you leave the house and dark when you get home, and when biking to work doesn't seem so attractive given the winter elements.

After an awesome spring, summer and fall of bike commuting, I, too, was worried that winter would put the kibosh on what had become a really enjoyable part of my day. Not that I was worried about the cold, so much. What I really didn't want to do was have to buy a whole rack of bike gear and clothes. One of the things I like most about riding a bike to get around is that almost anyone can do it, without the need for heaps of expensive gear.Bike with snow 

Pleasantly, I discovered biking to work (or the shops or your friend's house) in the winter is really not much different from riding in the other seasons. And it doesn't cost much to buy a few essential items that will keep you warm during those winter rides.

In some ways, biking to work in the winter is better. The trail is a lot quieter, for one. And, particularly compared to our D.C. summers, there is a lot less sweating involved. For those of you with only a short ride to work, you mightn't need the shower and full change of clothes that you do in other seasons.

Face and fingers. This is what it's all about. You get your face and fingers covered, and you're pretty much outfitted. Once you get pedaling your body core will heat itself pretty well. But these extremities, exposed to the chilly winds, will really feel the cold.

I bought a polyester balaclava from City Sports for about $20. It fits under the helmet okay, covers the nose when it's really cold, and you can pull it down away from your face once it warms up. It gets a bit sweaty by the end of the week, so I throw it in the washing machine. Easy. If you don't want to buy a balaclava, a thin beanie and a scarf wrapped around your face will work just as well.

As for gloves, there's no need to be fussy. I have a bulky, pretty low-quality pair of five-finger gloves I got at T.J. Maxx a few years ago for $8, and they have done the trick perfectly through the harshest of winters. You might be told, like I was, that you'll need specially-designed, tight-fit bike gloves in order to properly operate your gears and brakes. But unless your gears and brakes involve the board game Operation, or threading the eye of a needle, any old gloves will do. Something waterproof is probably better.

Keep it close to the skin. Now, there is one undeniable thing about the cold. It's cold. But rather than spending heaps of money on elaborate outerwear, I've found a much more effective solution is a simple piece of underwear. The only addition to my wintertime biking wardrobe is a pair of Jockey long johns (thanks again, T.J. Maxx), and a (matching, mind you) thermal undershirt. Total cost: $11.50. Total value: immeasurable. With long underwear as the base layer, you can dress like a normal person and still ride a bike through the winter. No drama.

La luce. If you do much riding the rest of the year, you probably already have a light. If not, you can get a good one from Planet Bike for about $25. Beyond that, there's some cool reflective sticker sets that will increase your visibility, particularly if you're riding with car traffic.

Getting serious. Now, these above-mentioned strategies only hold good if all you are dealing with is cold and dark. Once you get six inches of snow, the game changes. I suspect that most readers are like myself, and a covering of snow and ice on the ground = time to ride the metro. However, if you are eager to forge ahead through the slippery white stuff, then talk to your local bike store people about some tires that will handle the snow.

If you are keen to add a few more bells and whistles to your machine to make it more winter-hardy, fenders and mudflaps will help keep any road slosh from becoming all-over-your-clothes slosh. And some goggles or eye covering will be appreciated, as the cold air can really sting your eyes. I just wear a pair of sunglasses. No need for new gear — you've probably got most of the things you'll need already at home.

Get out there. It's not that cold.

Photo by Fotolia/jeffrey van daele 


12/5/2014 11:58:39 AM

Carol, I wear glasses and unless it is below zero I don't use a scarf but when I do I can usually adjust it so that it is either low enough or far enough away to keep my glasses from fogging. I've wonder about some of the fogless coatings you can use but haven't tried them.

12/5/2014 11:54:11 AM

I ride every day in Wisconsin, year round. Fenders are a must on salted streets and either knobby or even the old ribbed style tires actually work pretty good. If the snow is more than 6" deep, traction is not the issue, the biggest issue is your front tire will not roll over the snow but wants to plow through it and not necessarily straight. If it's icey, just slow down, at speeds less than 8 mph or so, rolling over ice actually seems more stable than walking on ice. Plowed roads, trails and sidewalks are really no problem at all and if it gets too deep for the bike, a bike is a lot easier to push than a car. Drive traction is not normally a problem at all as you have a lot of weight on a relatively tiny patch of tire/surface.

12/5/2014 11:44:28 AM

What no one seems to mention is that people who wear glasses/spectacles CANNOT use balaclavas or scarves over their nose in cold weather because the humidity in one's exhaled breath immediately condenses on cold glasses and fogs them. There is no real solution to this.

12/5/2014 10:41:50 AM

I rode a bike to work year around in Minnesota, I used ski pants over my regular pants, kept me warm and dry. I used ski goggles to protect my eyes and a Carhartt balaclava that was actually too warm unless it was below 15º. riding on packed snow is pretty easy, loose snow is difficult, ice is tricky but it can be done with regular mountain bike tires, there are several companies that sell studded tires, but I never bought any, and I have slipped and fallen a few times but never got hurt

1/5/2014 5:42:02 PM

Good article. I have been considering going car-free for some time now, but the whole issue of using a bike for transportation in winter has made me hesitate. However, biking in a Wisconsin winter is a little different than biking in a D.C. winter, and, yes, it is cold out there! I would definitely need to invest in special tires and mud flaps this far north. But with all the benefits of going car-free, I'd say it would be worth it.

1/4/2014 3:06:43 PM

Hmm. Now where did I see that ad for bicycle snow tires?