Tips for Biking in Bad Weather: Snow, Ice — and Winter Generally

Winter bicycling (Source: Neutral Cycle)

Now that winter is coming, and Daylight Saving Time has ended, it feels appropriate to share information about biking in the winter (a companion piece to my earlier article with tips for biking in the rain):

Cover up. This one is easy. Although a lot of people view winter biking and its practitioners as extreme, it’s not so different from doing any other outdoor activity in the winter — walking, running, skiing, sledding. It takes some trial and error to learn how to layer for each temperature range, but once you do, winter biking becomes exhilarating.

Here are my must-haves:  

  • Wool socks. This is Minnesota. If you don’t already have a few pairs, I worry about the well being of your toes now that it’s November. 
  • Warm but flexible shoes. I have tried biking in boots that are stiff around the ankle. It isn’t fun. Make sure your ankles can move the way they need to in whatever footwear you choose. (Winter cycling boots may be a good choice, but I haven’t yet made that leap myself.)
  • Pants layers. Typically I go for fleece leggings under my pants, but I hear long johns are also a solid choice. (I’m Southern. I have never bought a pair.) 
  • Torso layers. For temperatures above 20 degrees Fahrenheit, I usually wear just a sweater and then a fleece jacket with a waterproof shell; for temperatures below 20 F, I wear a sweater and a thick down jacket. If you layer up correctly, you can get a little warm. So, if I were in the market for new winter gear, I would probably buy a ski jacket with armpit vents. Wirecutter has some excellent reviews on a variety of bad-weather bike gear (and basically anything else you could ever want to buy). I consult Wirecutter for all long-term purchases.
  • Thick gloves. I’m partial to mittens because I prefer keeping my fingers attached to my body for warmth over having individual control of them while biking, but gloves vs. mittens vs. pogies is up to you. Mittens like this have served me well; I haven’t tried pogies, though I’ve heard only good things. 
  • Scarf. The scarf is the most optional item on this list. Sometimes it’s nice to skip it and get some ventilation from your collar to your torso; at other times, going scarf-less feels like being stabbed in the heart with an icicle. I usually wear a scarf when temps are below freezing.
  • Balaclava/buff. A balaclava is a must-have when it’s cold. Alternatively, buffs can be worn as a balaclava or in a variety of other configurations, depending on the temperature and your needs for the day, and not just in the winter. One “warm” April day, the temperature finally hit 40 after several days of sub-freezing temperatures, and I thought I’d be fine biking a couple of miles without my buff. I was miserable. Always remember your balaclava. 
  • Goggles. Same as in the rain, goggles help you see when it’s snowing. They also keep your eyeballs in your skull when it’s below freezing; otherwise, you’re blasting 10-degree air into your eyes at whatever speed you’re traveling, or faster if you’re going against the wind. Not fun. 
  • Helmet. This goes without saying. Please protect your noggin. 

Winter cyclist (Source: GearJunkie)

Gear up (and down). I stow away my treasured everyday bike as soon as salt is on the roads, so it doesn’t get corroded, and bring out my old junker to ride. This one is an 18-speed, though many people opt to ride a single speed through the winter so there are fewer gears to gunk up. If you’re able to keep two bikes around, relegate the lesser-quality one to winter riding.

I’ve outfitted my winter bike with the following:

  • A rack so that I can use my pannier instead of hauling around a backpack while I ride. 
  • Removable fenders, which I use when fresh snow or slush is on the ground and remove when the roads are cleared (provided they ever get cleared). 
  • A studded tire is invaluable. In most cases, you need only one, and it should go on the front wheel. Here are some tips for picking the right tire for winter riding.
  • Headlight, taillight and spoke lights. I added the spoke lights to be more visible from the side in the dark, given that there’s little light to go around during the winter.

Know your other options. If you start your day biking and by the end of it have no interest in braving the weather on two wheels, be prepared to take the bus or the train home with your bike. Jenny Werness has written about the benefits of a winter bus commute, and she has some good tips for transitioning to transit from a bike. 

Be prepared to be mad. I’ve written before about the lack of winter maintenance for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. If snow and ice affect your bike route, just know you’re not alone. 

Do you have other tips for staying warm and safe while biking in the winter? Share them in the comments!

About Alicia Valenti

Alicia is the chair of the 2021 board. A transplant to the Twin Cities who works on small and large transit projects across the Midwest, she likes to write for about bikes, winter and fun things to do on transit.