How to Dress for Winter Biking: -28 to -40C (-18 to -40F)

27 Jan

Dressing incorrectly is the easiest way to ruin a good winter bike ride.  I’ve had to abort many rides because of frozen fingers, and a frostbitten face.  Riding with too much on is equally uncomfortable – nobody likes being steam cooked from inside a parka.  So how do you dress for success?  First of all you have to remember some key points about winter cycling:

  • Biking involves periods of high intensity/high energy (climbing) followed by times without any movement.  The danger in this, is that you can easily work up an awesome sweat, just to head down a hill and turn yourself into an icicle.
  • There’s not a lot of upper body movement in cycling.  Things that aren’t moving, are more likely to get cold.  Most notably, your hands, that stay still and are the first contact with the wind.
  • Certain parts of your body are connected to your bicycle.  Most parts on a bike are made with metal.  When it gets cold – metal gets super-cold.  So, your boots (sitting on your metal pedals); your hands (on your metal handlebar) and your ass (on your metal/synthetic seat) are at risk.

At the end of the day, the other important thing to remember is that everyone is different.  I have had too many years of trying my luck in sub-zero temperatures, resulting in a tendency to frostbite my face.   And despite living up here for a couple of years, I haven’t adapted the same way as the Mr. who wears dress pants and a windbreaker in -35.


Dressing for -28 to -40 C (-18 to -40 F)

The first thing I have to say about riding in this weather, is that I’m mostly riding to commute, or going for fun rides that are under 2 hours in length.


Layer 1

X-Bionic long underwear – I wear this long underwear most days of the winter.  One of its best qualities is that it has anti-smelling properties, necessary if you are going to exercise in it for multiple days in a row.  I’ll admit, by day 4 it’s a bit crunchy, but who doesn’t appreciate a little crunch?



Wool socks – once your feet are frozen, any hope of an enjoyable ride is over.   It’s ideal if you can find a pair of beautiful striped socks that will make you giggle every time you look at your toes, but in the absence of that, any wool socks will do.



Leg hair – Insultation is the key to success, I’m not the 5 time hairiest leg champion of the Yukon for nothing.  Guess which leg is mine, and which is my friend Sam’s; and keep in mind this is still 4 weeks before the competition.



Layer 2

Here’s my secret – I don’t wear a second layer when it’s really cold.  The outer layer is enough to stay really hot.  Plus, it’s too cold to remove a mid-layer mid-ride, so there doesn’t seem much point.


Layer 3

Skookum jacket – These are jackets that are manufactured in Dawson City, Whitehorse.  I have no idea why they are so warm.  They are only a couple centimeters thick; and they’ve got no down.  The absence of feathers is good – I find that the down jackets soak up sweat.  The outside is windproof, but not plastic; and there’s plenty of reflective strips.   The jacket was designed for dog-sledding, so there are convenient pockets for keys and lights and anything else I might need to access.  I have never been cold in this jacket.  I can not imagine ever being cold in this jacket.  The only problem with this jacket is that it’s just too warm.  Even in -40 I open up the pit zips to keep a temperature balance.


Snowpants – I got these sweatpants when I participated in the Fulda challenge a couple of years ago.  They are not attractive at all, but they are super warm.  They also have reflective stripes on the bottoms, which is good for visibility


Re-breather –  Years of exercising in frigid weather, coupled with a bad set of lungs have made winter air an enemy I can’t seem to defeat.  The cold air leads to lung infections, and the lovely nickname “Barky the Seal”.  The re-breather face mask keeps the air I breathe warmer and more humid.  But, the more comfortable air comes with a price.  It’s hard to get a lungful of air with a re-breather and the additional breathing effort results is a reduction in energy output.



Mittens – The Mr. bought me an amazing pair of traditional fur mittens made by a local woman named Lena White.  These things are amazing, they are warm and comfortable.  The thick fur keeps the harshest of wind away from my hands.  The idiot strings allow you to throw off the mittens in order to adjust a zipper or fix a cable, and then slip them back on to rewarm your fingers.   These are big mittens, and they do impede gear shifting and braking; but when it’s this cold that doesn’t matter.  In the cold, cold weather, your bike slows so much that you are going to find yourself spending most of your time in your easiest gears.  As for the braking – when you move that slow, stopping isn’t as important.


 Sorel Boots – This is another piece of clothing I got through Fulda.  They are tall, plain Sorel boots.  They easily fit over my snowpants and in most cases they keep my feet warm.  I’ve been tempted to buy a pair of “Bunny Boots”, which are the ultimate in arctic gear.   Someday I’ll get a pair and find out if they really are as warm as everyone says.



Hat – I stole these two hats from my Mother’s closet a couple years ago.  The felted hat she got it in Cambridge Bay, back when it was in the Northwest Territories.  I have no clue where she got the bomber hat, but they are warm and awesome.  I got myself in a lot of trouble with my friends when I said I didn’t wear a helmet in the super cold, so we came to a compromise.  When I’m riding to work or on any city streets, I will wear an oversized helmet, which can fit an additional hat underneath. When I’m riding on the trails behind my house at less than 5 km/h, I’ll wear a hat.



Here’s what happens when you put it all into action:

I’ve noticed lots of other people sharing their tips for winter dressing.  My bike-wife Jennoit recently shared her dress for work tips, Jill shared her favorite winter gear, Geargals has ongoing reviews,  and I just found Winnipeg Cycling Chick – all with some cool info.


Next week I’ll post the -15 to -28C wardrobe.