Hardy Northern Cycling: What to Wear

This is the second of four blog posts about winter cycling in Thunder Bay. A previous post introduced winter cycling. Future posts will discuss Equipment and Maintenance and Techniques. To download all four posts as a booklet, go here.

Cold and Wet Weather

Dressing appropriately in cooler weather is crucial for an enjoyable ride. The main problem, contrary to popular belief, is not keeping warm, but keeping cool. Cycling is an aerobic activity, which means that your body produces heat much more than when walking. Most first-time, all-weather cyclists overdress.

If you are slightly cool when you step outside, you’re probably dressed properly. You don’t need cycling-specific clothes; just wear thin layers to reduce bulk.

In cold weather, the most important areas to consider are head, hands and feet. These areas are more susceptible to the cold and are vulnerable to frostbite. Be careful with glasses, watches, and zippers. Metal objects touching your skin can cause frostbite.

The most critical aspect of appropriate dress is clothing that maintains your visibility. Visibility on roads is reduced in rainy conditions and winter days are short. To maintain visibility:

  • Wear reflective clothing
  • Wear bright yellow, orange, or white
  • Install bicycle reflectors and lights


Essential Clothing: Head

If your feet are cold, put on a hat.

Between 50% and 65% of your body heat is lost through the head, so it is essential to keep it covered. To conserve body heat:

  • Wear thin, lightweight, wind-resistant toques, headbands, or balaclavas under your helmet
  • Avoid hoods: they restrict peripheral vision
  • Buy a winter-specific cycling helmet
  • Use sunglasses, ski goggles, safety goggles to protect your eyes
  • Tape over the vents on your helmet: or buy a helmet cover
  • Wear a scarf to cover your neck and face
  • Cover your ears



Because hands are stationary, they are very susceptible to cold weather. Warm hands have the dexterity to control the bicycle. To keep your hands warm, remember:

  • Mitts are warmer than gloves – Ski mitts are perfect
  • Use layers of thin mitts rather than one pair of heavy mitts
  • Try two layers – an outer layer of wind resistant mitts and an inner layer of gloves that allow for dexterity
  • ‘Lobster Mitts’ offer the dexterity of gloves and the warmth of mitts.



Warm, dry feet are essential, so wear water resistant, warm footwear to ensure comfort. Some examples include:

  • Warm hiking boots, winter boots, or neoprene booties
  • Wool or fleece socks (not cotton)
  • Avoid pedals with clips, cages, or straps
  • Plastic bags over socks and inside shoes to keep your feet dry
  • Waterproof shoe-covers protect your feet in all conditions.



Keeping your upper body warm is relatively easy. In fact, to keep cool, you’ll want several layers, so choose a jacket that is both waterproof and breathable. Avoid materials made with cotton, as they hold moisture against your skin. Your outer jacket or a shell should be long so it won’t ride up and expose your torso to drafts. It should also be large enough to allow for layers underneath.

Here are some general tips:

  • Have a wicking material next to your skin (base layer)
  • Dress according to the weather: temperature, precipitation, and winds
  • Your shell should be a bright colour and should have reflective piping
  • Underarm zippers allow for better temperature regulation
  • Articulated elbows and shoulders provide a comfortable reach



Your legs are easy to keep warm – they’re doing all the work, but be sure to protect your knees! Knees are vulnerable to cold, and have little padding.

Working cold joints can cause damage. Keep your legs dry and protected from the wind. As an outer layer, materials like denim should be avoided because they retain moisture and don’t insulate. Keep in mind:

  • Waterproof and breathable outer shell pants are best
  • A thermal mid-layer (fleece or wool)
  • Moisture wicking base layer
  • Loose-fitting pants with a warm base layer works for most weather
  • Keep your pant legs tucked in and wear a reflective ankle strap




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