You don’t need to hang up your bike when the weather turns cold, but you do need to be prepared. That means layering. Layering your clothing is the best way to remain comfortable during virtually any outdoor activity. One of the biggest advantages of layering is that the use of multiple layers allows you to make quick adjustments based on your activity level and/or changes in the weather. You just add or remove layers as necessary.
Generally speaking, there are three primary layers, each of which serves a different function. The base layer (the innermost layer, against your skin) provides moisture management. The middle layer, or insulating layer, provides insulation to keep you warm. The outer layer, often referred to as the shell layer, provides protection from the elements.
The base layer is all about moisture management. Keeping your skin relatively dry is critical to help your body maintain a cool temperature in hot weather and avoid hypothermia in cold weather. Therefore, the base layer needs to move moisture away from your skin, whether that moisture is from perspiration, rain or snow.
Among knowledgeable outdoor enthusiasts there is an expression that should be taken to heart: Cotton kills. Cotton doesn’t wick moisture away from your skin, so it can leave you chilled. T-shirts are great for hanging around inside after your ride, but don’t risk hypothermia. Don’t wear cotton during any athletic outdoor activity.
So if I can’t wear cotton, what should I wear? I’m glad you asked. 😉 Your base layer should be made of either merino wool or a synthetic fabric designed to wick moisture away from your skin. These fabrics disperse the moisture on the outer surface of the fabric where it can evaporate. The number of such fabrics on the market is too large to list here, but this week alone (in pursuit of my Ride 365 goal) I’ve worn base layers that included synthetic layers from REI and Patagonia and merino wool from Icebreaker.
Base layers are available in different weights, such as lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight (sometimes referred to as expedition weight). As you get into the heaviest base layers, there is some crossover between the base layer and the insulating layer. For that reason, I think your best bet is to always have a lightweight or midweight base layer next to your skin because if you’re only wearing a heavyweight base layer you can’t really shed a thin layer if necessary.
Okay, now for a slight exception to the rules stated above. For most cycling, while I do wear a traditional base layer on my upper body, I generally don’t wear a traditional base layer on my legs because cycling keeps the legs pretty darn active. In weather that might be considered merely cool, I tend to still wear shorts. But in weather that might be considered cold—at least for cycling and by northern California standards 😉 —I like to wear tights that combine elements of the base and insulating layers (and even the shell layer to some extent). The ones I have and recommend are Pearl Izumi AmFIB tights, and I’ve been wearing them every day this week because daytime temps have been in the 40s.
While the base layer is all about moisture management, the middle layer is all about temperature management. The middle layer, or insulating layer, helps you retain heat by trapping air close to your body.
The most effective, and therefore popular, fabrics are merino wool or synthetic fleece (goose down is great for very cold and dry conditions, but generally not for cycling). As is the case with base layer products, insulating products also tend to come in lightweight, midweight, and expedition-weight. The lightweight insulating layers are best for aerobic activity (like cycling) or mild climates. The midweight insulating layers are best for moderate activity or climates. And the expedition-weight insulating layers are best for low activity or cold climates.
Numerous companies also make fleece garments that are highly wind-resistant by incorporating a membrane that is not supposed to affect breathability. However, in my personal experience, I have found that these windproof fleece garments generally do not breathe quite as well as the fleece garments without a wind-blocking membrane. Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I purchased a wind-resistant fleece garment and technology improves at a rapid pace, so I expect that today’s state-of-the-art wind-resistant fleeces are better than those of just a few years ago.
Okay, now for more exceptions to the rules. Cycling is such an aerobic activity that I generally don’t wear a true insulating layer except when the temperature approaches freezing or colder. For example, virtually every day this week it’s been in the low- to mid-40s here and instead of a true insulating layer I’ve just been wearing a second base layer to add just enough warmth. A couple of days I think I was out with just two lightweight base layers and a lightweight shell, and the other days one lightweight base layer, one midweight base layer, and a lightweight shell or rain jacket.
The shell layer provides protection from the elements (i.e., wind, rain or snow). Shells can be grouped into several categories:
- Waterproof/breathable shells
- Water-resistant/breathable shells
- Soft shells
- Waterproof/non-breathable shells
- Insulated shells
Although not all of these categories of shells are directly applicable to cycling, it’s still worth understanding the array of choices out there for outdoor activities in general.
Shell jackets that are truly waterproof and still breathable rank among the most versatile garments for virtually any outdoor activity. As such, they are ideal for wet, cool conditions. As a former (amateur) mountaineer, mountaineering jackets immediately spring to mind. The best performing shells in this category employ high-tech membranes such as Gore-Tex, although a more economical approach is to coat the fabric with a compound that produces similar results.
Shells that are merely water-resistant, rather than waterproof, are an excellent compromise for high activity levels (e.g., cycling) and light precipitation. They are also considerably less expensive than their waterproof/breathable counterparts.
Soft shells generally emphasize breathability over water resistance. Many soft shells combine features of both the insulating layer and the shell layer. They often incorporate stretch fabric for increased mobility during highly aerobic activities, and are available in mild weather or cold weather versions.
Waterproof/non-breathable shells are a very affordable choice but are obviously not a great choice for aerobic activity because they don’t breathe. They can be okay for easy cycling but even moderate activity will make you feel swampy inside a non-breathable shell.
Insulated shells obviously combine the insulating layer and shell layer into a single garment. While that can be convenient for cold and wet conditions, it effectively eliminates the versatility of keeping the layers separate.
So, what do I wear when cycling? If it’s going to be dry (or possibly even a light shower, but not persistent rain), I generally just wear a very lightweight uncoated nylon (but cycling-specific) shell that provides wind protection and some level of water-resistance. If the forecast is such that I’m confident I’m going to get rained on, then I wear a breathable shell that is at least water-resistant if not waterproof. My lightweight cycling shell is an older Pearl Izumi jacket that probably isn’t very water-resistant anymore, and my more waterproof jacket (which also isn’t really waterproof anymore) is a Novara jacket (Novara is REI‘s cycling brand). If I was going to buy a new cycling jacket today I might get one with a hood, like the Pearl Izumi MTB WRX Jacket.
Your hands, feet and head require additional protection.
Your hands are a place where layering doesn’t work as well, or at least isn’t as convenient. Therefore, I think it’s best to have several pairs of gloves that provide a variety of insulation and waterproofness. For cool weather riding, you can probably get by with any pair of long-fingered cycling gloves. But for cold weather, you’ll want some gloves that are insulated and/or waterproof. For example, if you peruse the variety of Pearl Izumi cycling gloves, you’ll see everything from lightweight gloves to waterproof gloves to insulated “lobster” gloves (they resemble a lobster claw because they have combined forefinger/middle finger and ring finger/little finger to maximize protection from the cold while still providing the dexterity necessary to control a bicycle).
Your feet are a little tricky when it comes to cycling for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that, while your legs are doing a great deal of work, your feet aren’t doing nearly as much. Using your muscles generates heat and helps to keep your legs warm but your feet don’t get much warming benefit in that regard. The second reason is that most experienced cyclists use clipless pedals that allow the shoe to clip directly into the pedal. (Q: If they clip in, what are they called clipless? A: The term clipless refers to the fact that they don’t require toe clips that go over the toe of the shoe. Toe clips used to be the default way to secure the shoe to the pedal, prior to the introduction of clipless pedals.)
Due to the second reason, most cyclists are disinclined to just use some kind of traditional warm footwear such as insulated boots because they don’t have the cleats on the bottom that connect with clipless pedals. If you have adequate insulating layers on the rest of your body, you’ll often be able to just use your normal cycling shoes for cool weather riding and even cold weather riding to some extent. But if the temperature drops enough, you’ll almost certainly want to cover your cycling shoes with some cycling shoe covers. If you use clipless pedals, you need cycling-specific shoe covers because they have to have holes in the soles to allow the cleats (which are attached to the shoes) to connect to the pedals.
For your head, it’s important to have a layer under your helmet that is wind-resistant and water-resistant. Dedicated helmet liners such as the Pearl Izumi Barrier Skull Cap are ideal, but you can also get by with almost any thin hat if it’s tight fitting and made of merino wool or a wicking synthetic fiber. Wearing a base layer with a built-in hood can work too. While a hood can provide a little more warmth because it covers the entire back of your neck, hoods can also provide a little less peripheral vision than a hat. Needless to say, if you’re riding anywhere with significant car traffic, anything that reduces your peripheral vision should be avoided. However, I’ve found that the front edges of a hood can easily be held back by my helmet straps and/or eyeglasses and therefore I personally don’t feel that riding with a hood has compromised my peripheral vision.