Winter commuting gear for cyclists

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Snow BikeBike commuting in winter in Vancouver is a bit of a different experience than the rest of Canada. The weather’s usually dark, rainy, and mostly mild with the occasional week or two of “Arctic outflow” that causes frigid temperatures and icy roads.

Commuting in this weather involves more gear than riding in the warmer, dryer months. Chances are pretty good that you’re not going to be able to ride in your work clothes. There are two ways to get your stuff back and forth: backpacks or panniers. It boils down to a personal choice, but having gone to panniers years ago, I can’t imagine using a sweaty backpack again.

Rain gear is essential, but probably not for the reasons you might think. Rain gear doesn’t keep you dry, it keeps you warm. It may also keep you dry, but in that case you’re probably not riding for long. The rain is cold and saps the heat from you, but chances are you’re generating lots of heat and sweat anyway. Essentials include a reasonably water resistant riding jacket and rain booties for your feet. Personally, I just use a lightweight jacket and adjust the layers underneath as the temperature fluctuates.

You can get quite a variety of riding pants that vary from merely somewhat water resistant right through to rubberized water proof pants. Some are insulated, some aren’t. For most of the winter, you can get away with lightweight tights that have at least the front panel water resistant, but these aren’t going to get you through the whole winter.

Some people wear riding gloves; some people wear kayaking gloves. In the dry cold, I just wear loose cotton glove liners, and in the wet cold I use some ski mitts. I’ve found the form fitting gloves get wet too quickly and get grungy before too long.

On particularly cold days, you will probably need something for your head too. This gets a bit awkward because of the helmet, but some people wear Thinsulate toques or balaclavas under their helmets. I use a headband that covers only my ears.

Lights are essential in winter. LED lights. Lots of them. LED lights have become so cheap that there’s no excuse not to be well lit. At a minimum you should have a blinking white one in front and a blinking red one in back. This is particularly important in the city,where lights are not primarily for you to see the road, they’re so that you’ll be seen by other drivers. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, or how reflective it is, a single bright LED is more effective than reflective clothing.

What are your essential winter gear tips?

Last modified: November 8, 2011

4 Responses to " Winter commuting gear for cyclists "

  1. Phil says:

    For gloves I recommend buying a cheap pair of leather gloves from an outdoors store. Great grip, warmth, and don’t have to worry about them getting ruined in the rain. Work great wet or dry.

    I go the entire winter with a pair of MEC tights, that are not water proof. I’ve tried the water proof pants route and you’re just guaranteed to get wet and feel stuffy. At least open air tights will keep you air conditioned. I keep a small towel on me to just dry off my legs when I change.

    Footwear is tricky, but I now wear a pair of modern moccasins made of suede, they do fine in the rain – and I don’t risk ruining other shoes, or struggling with water proof covers which fall apart pretty quick.

    I think a thin head cover, that fits under one’s helmet is essential, headband has never been good enough for me. MEC sells thin head covers.

    Oh and I prefer the backpack, sweaty as it may get. I can do a lot of errand runs and tire of disconnecting panniers and keeping an eye out for them.

  2. Leslie says:

    Different Bikes posted a list of their most popular winter gear that is helpful when trying to figure out what to buy: http://www.differentbikes.ca/news/popular-fall-winter-riding-gear

  3. Bill Barilko says:

    Cross country ski gloves for truly cold days and thin wool liners for the rest of the time.

    Cabelas windbloc jacket and polar fleece pants keep a person fairly dry.

    FWIW-I’m not one of those dweebs who walks around carrying panniers-guess I don’t need the attention and in the decades I’ve lived in Kits no one has touched my stuff ever.

  4. Anthony says:

    Thanks for the tips Bill and Phil. Keeping it simple works for lots of folks.