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!

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

  1. Lou Miranda November 4, 2019 at 10:08 am #

    Excellent tips. I bought studded tires last year to use in winter, but it was so snowy last winter that I was worried that cars wouldn’t have the patience for having bicycles in their way (especially in the suburbs).

    This is the year I’m going whole hog on winter biking, especially as my commute is 1.5 miles now.

    It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the shorter one’s commute, the less time one has to spend biking in winter weather.

    Likewise, the denser your neighborhood, the more that goods & services (and thus errands, dining out, socializing, etc.) are available near your doorstep, and the less winter bike traveling one needs to do.

    It’s worth advocating one’s planning commission & city council for more density if one wants more goods & services (and neighbors!) nearby.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller November 4, 2019 at 10:35 am #

      I went into last winter planning to do more winter bike commuting and then February happened and there was just too much snow. The bike lanes disappeared and I don’t like putting myself in front of cars even in good conditions, so I wound up not biking at all for more than a month.

      But it also should have been (but won’t be) the end of “we don’t need these bike lanes you can just bike on the side streets.” Those streets were plowed down to the pavement for that whole stretch and weren’t passable even with studded tires.

      • James Kohls November 4, 2019 at 6:20 pm #

        Unfortunately, the only good way to travel through deep snow is with a fat bike. Of course this shouldn’t be necessary. We should have means of keeping our bike lanes clear in the winter. But we don’t.

        Thanks for the writeup, Alicia.

  2. sheldon November 4, 2019 at 10:29 am #

    Great tips. Glad you make a point of not needing specialized clothing like some winter biking articles go overboard on. I also like mittens– my line is that “your fingers need their community to stay warm”

  3. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell November 5, 2019 at 8:57 am #

    A lot of good tips and I’ll echo Sheldon’s comment about regular clothes.

    A few thoughts from the world outside of the U.S….

    Upright bikes with internal gears are ideal for winter (and summer, spring, fall). All of the critical movy bits are enclosed so you always have good brakes and a range of functioning gears that never get gunked up (and mostly never need maintenance). https://streets.mn/2014/11/19/a-bike-matters/
    You can wear just about any kind of boot on a Dutch upright and I’d guess about 90% of women in Europe wear and cycle in them throughout winter.
    Studded tyres. I only do studded on my front while my wife prefers front & back. I have occasionally encountered patches of ice that caused me to wish I did have studs on the back. One great thing about them is that when you need the studs you keep the air pressure low but when it’s dry you can pump them up and have more tyre and less stud.
    Warm hats rather than helmets. Outside of english speaking countries you don’t see any or many people wearing helmets (check the lead photo for this article). And they have lower rates of bicycle crash related TBI than we do.
    Protected bikeways. This is one great bit about the bikeways in Shoreview. We were able to ride, safely and comfortably, throughout last winter. In terms of quality the bikeways in Shoreview are far behind/below those in Europe and Asia but they work.

    • Scott November 6, 2019 at 9:14 am #

      Walker, how do the internally geared hubs fair in the cold? I’ve had pawls on a single speed stop working at below 10 degrees F and had to walk the rest of the way home. I’ve been riding fixed gear in the winter since then, but it would be nice to have gear options.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell November 6, 2019 at 10:24 am #

        I’ve never had a hub freeze up with Nuvinci or Shimano Nexus. I did once get a bit of icy stuff in the hole where the shifter chain enters a Sturmy 5-speed but in that case I was just stuck in one gear until I stopped to clear it. I also had a cable freeze up (again, stuck in one gear) but that’s easily prevented by spraying some stuff in the cable once every 5 or 10 years.

        One caveat is that I rarely ride below about 0 or -5°f and only ride below +10°f a few times per year. Bikes are kept outside all year though. OTOH, most kids in Finland ride IGH bicycles to school all year. Oulu FI has nearly identical weather to here.

        A couple of good resources (in english):

        https://www.bakfiets-en-meer.nl

        https://www.sheldonbrown.com/internal-gears.html

      • Andrew Evans November 7, 2019 at 9:16 am #

        Fwiw Scott the 3 speed in my old Schwinn never froze up from what I can recall. It was kept outside and otherwise not really taken care of.

        I’m not super sure, but I’ve thought that using transmission fluid for lubrication in hubs like that would be a good idea. Rather than some heavy oil that could get thicker when cold. You’d have to double check on that.

        • Walker Angell
          Walker Angell November 7, 2019 at 9:25 am #

          I think you’re right about the fluid. I’ve heard of people deep cleaning their IGH and then using a low viscosity oil for better winter performance. Not sure how much difference it makes nor any downsides. I’d assume the downside is that the gears will wear out in 50 years instead of 90 🙂

          • Andrew Evans November 7, 2019 at 9:58 am #

            I’m going to have to print out the “I think you’re right” part and show it to my partner.

            =)

    • Andrew Evans November 7, 2019 at 9:13 am #

      +1 on the internal gears, although they do need to be oiled and kept up. Also the old schwinn I was riding, I think an upright bike, was pretty decent in snow covered sidewalks and streets. I never went for studded tires, but would now if I worked downtown Mpls and had to commute in from North.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell November 7, 2019 at 9:22 am #

        Yep, ideally they should be maintained but I think reality for 99% (of the European population) is nothing until there’s a problem (10-20 years down the road) and then let the bike shop rebuild it. 🙂

        Studs are wonderful!

  4. Tim Brackett November 5, 2019 at 8:04 pm #

    Excellent advice throughout the post. I always forget about spoke lights, so thanks for the reminder. Also, I would recommend getting the long johns. You won’t regret it. Other than the long johns though, I agree with Sheldon’s comment about regular clothes and you making a point of not needing specialized clothing.

  5. Russ Booth November 7, 2019 at 8:43 am #

    “Cotton kills.” Maybe not on a short bike commute, but winter hikers, mushers, skiers, northern sailors, etc use the saying.

    Towels are made from cotton because cotton absorbs moisture. You do not want to hold moisture near your skin in cold weather because water is a thermal conductor. Heat travels through water about 250 times faster than through air.

    You need “wicking” fabrics to stay warm in winter – fabrics that lets moisture pass through to your outer layers. Whichever articles of clothing feel the driest coming straight out of your washing machine will keep you the warmest while doing calorie-burning activities outside in winter.

    Unfortunately, many long johns for sale are 100% cotton or a cotton blend. Don’t buy those. Polypropylene and polyester fleece are great wicking fabrics and it’s easy to find long underwear made from those. Acrylic is my favorite wicking fabric for outer layers.

    Fleece leggings or nylon tights will also move water efficiently away from your skin.

    If you need more than seven thin layers on your torso to stay warm while biking in a Twin Cities winter, you’re probably holding too much moisture against your skin by wearing cotton.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell November 7, 2019 at 9:36 am #

      I think this depends a lot on your style of riding. If you are upright on Dutch geometry then you are more efficient at speeds below about 17 MPH and have fewer skin folds – so overall you are much less likely to sweat. On my Omafiets I’m also riding a comfortable pace, typically 10-14 MPH though slower up hill or in to the wind, faster downhill.

      If I’m dressed properly I can ride all day like this without sweating so I frequently wear a lot of cotton – everyday street clothes.

      If I’m doing a fitness ride on my road bike or XC skiing then I definitely agree and I have a draw full of tech fabrics for these endeavors.

  6. Andrew Evans November 7, 2019 at 9:20 am #

    Just a few things to add would be a chain guard for the bike, and maybe some fenders. Also (and IMO) maybe to spray the chain with some silicone or WD40 to keep the water out and it mostly free. I’d think that some oils or white lithium grease could start to get thick when it’s that cold out. Then too it would be worth keeping the cables or any controls lubricated.

    Studded tires would be a great idea.

    No sense getting all dressed up only to make it harder on yourself if the bike isn’t working as well as it could be.

    • Andrew Evans November 7, 2019 at 9:22 am #

      edit – saw the extra stuff under the pic, I scrolled too fast before. The font change from bold to normal threw me off a bit. =)

  7. Michael Daigh
    Michael Daigh November 9, 2019 at 10:35 pm #

    As a winter cyclist, I can categorically say that the most difficult part is road salt.

    Even with full fenders, and a rust resistant chain, it kills every moving part on my bike, eats the screws and fasteners…just wrecks everything. And I rinse it down with a garden sprayer frequently.

    Dressing to get around is easy, but the damn salt takes so much time and effort to fight. I spent this summer, on and off, repairing my utility bike from two winters worth of damage. It’s ready to get destroyed again, I guess.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell November 11, 2019 at 11:35 am #

      One of the advantages of good Dutch bikes is that they are made to withstand salt – both road and sea air. Painted bits are powder coated, fittings and bolts are mostly stainless or other non rusting/corroding metals. Drivetrain, gears and brakes are internal and fairly well protected from the elements.

      Azor and Workcycles have test chambers where they leave frames, parts and entire bikes to evaluate how they fair and find any weak spots that need to be improved.

      European countries are also working hard to reduce or eliminate salt. Not because of damage to bikes since that’s not an issue for most people but because of damage to the environment. There are a number of alternative treatments that they’re constantly experimenting with.

      Rather than plow and salt, some cities in Finland have begun packing the snow with rollers which makes a surprisingly good bicycling surface.

  8. Nicole Salica
    Nicole Salica November 11, 2019 at 11:59 am #

    Be prepared to be mad, but also be prepared to be delighted.
    Yesterday I rode down Blaisdell and found some new-to-me bollards keeping the cars a healthy 3-5 feet away and the flakes were coming down gently and my heart sang.

    That lane might not be 8-80 design, but it might be 15-70 design now.

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