Fourth Season Skills is a series of articles about riding bicycles in the winter. Topics will include everything you need to know about equipment choices, clothing, riding skills, and how to stay warm. Even in the harshest temperatures. I will draw on my many years of experience living and cycling in Northern Minnesota. I have commuted by bike in all four seasons for 12 years. I am a veteran of the Arrowhead 135, one of the hardest winter races in the world. I am a winter camper and winter camping instructor.
Back when I decided to start biking through the winter, one of the biggest issues for me was keeping my extremities warm. I had rarely ventured out in the winter on two wheels in any temperatures below the freezing mark. Every person has a weak part. A part of their body they struggle to keep warm. For me, and many others, it happens to be either the hands or the feet. Sometimes both. At first I blamed it on poor circulation. Over time I learned anyone can learn to keep their hands and feet warm if they use the proper clothing. Clothing specific to the conditions they are in. Keep in mind everyone is different. Each person has to find what works for them. What works for me, may not work for you. It’s a process of experimenting with different clothing and finding what works for you.
The author dressed for -28degF during the 2007 Arrowhead Ultra 135.
The first part of dressing to keep your hands and feet warm may appear to have nothing to do with your hands or feet. That is, your core needs to be properly dressed. Your core being defined as your upper torso. The part of your body between your waistline and the base of your neck. This is where most of your vital organs are. In cold temperatures, if you don’t keep your core warm your body will restrict blood flow to your extremities. It does this to rob your extremities of warmth to sustain life by keeping your vital organs working. So the first step to keep your hands and feet warm is to make sure your core is warm. I’ll get into how to dress your core in a later post.
If your core isn’t warm, it will be nearly impossible to keep your extremities warm. Be careful not to overdress your core. This will cause a build up of sweat and moisture. Dampness also robs you of warmth. It’s a fine line. For me it’s also true my hands will sweat if I have gloves that are too warm. Winters where I live have a range of winter temperatures from 50degF down to -30degF. Windchills can reach into the -60degF to -70degF range at the coldest. For this reason I have found I need different hand wear for different temperature ranges. All of my winter hand wear has some measure of wind protection. When temperatures get down close to or below the freezing mark any gloves without some type of wind protection are pretty useless.
Here is what works for me for different temperatures:
55degF to 65degF I may or may not wear hand protection in this range. In light winds and sunny conditions I won’t wear any. In windy conditions, or on foggy days I’ll wear a light glove. In rain I’ll wear something a little heavier and more water resistant.
Any temps below 50degF I will wear a base layer. My favorite is a polypro liner glove. I’ve tried wool liners. They don’t hold their shape as well and tend to hold more moisture if my hands start to perspire.
55degF down to 35degF: These are a little bit heavier Pearl Izumi biking gloves. Not sure what model. They change their designs quite a bit. I’ve found Pearl Izumi to be somewhat more durable than other brands I’ve tried. I combine these with the liner gloves.
35degF down to 20degF: For this range I switch to a heavier Pearl Izumi glove with liner.
20degF down to about 5degF: I prefer a “lobster” style three finger glove for this range. These have been very durable with very little sign of wear for 6 or 7 winters of use. Again, I use a liner with them at all times. Very warm mitts. I’ve found not all lobster style gloves are comparable. Some wouldn’t keep my hands warm at 30degF. The only way to know is buy a pair and try them. When I find a glove that works, it’s usually worth the money.
5degF down to about -15degF: Vulpine Adaptive Icebike Mittens. I bought these back in 2006. This is an earlier synthetic version of the hard to get Empire Canvas Works Icebike Mittens. For me this is a local product. These are the all time warmest mitts you can buy. They will last you a lifetime as well. Very high quality materials and sewing. Generous insulation, high gauntlets, everything you need to keep your hands warm. So warm I can’t wear them when the temp gets above 10degF. My hands start to sweat. Empire Canvas is a small cottage industry business. They produce products in batches. They may only make a batch of Icebike Mitts every couple of years. When they’re gone, that’s it until they make another batch. If you can get a pair, they are worth every cent.
Grabber Chemical hand warmers. I use these more for my toes than for my hands. If you have chronically cold hands it may be worth trying these. Make sure to open them up 15-30 minutes before you put them in your gloves. They need oxygen to trigger the chemical reaction. They also need a small bit of air space in your gloves to keep the reaction going. When I use them for commuting I extend the life of them by sealing them in a Ziplock freezer bag and pushing all the air out as I close it once I get to work. This stops the reaction. Then I can use the same pair for the trip home in the afternoon.
For temperatures below -15degF I will use the above Icebike Mitts or ride my Pugsley with some handlebar pogies. This type of equipment was rare as recent as ten years ago. Nowadays there are many brands of pogies. From companies like 45NRTH, Revelate Designs, Bar Mitts, and many others. My pogies are ATV handlebar mitts from Cabelas. When I bought mine back in 2006 they cost $19.99 plus shipping. They’ve kept my hands warm down into the -30degF range without a problem. If you can’t afford bicycling specific barmitts, there are cheaper options.
Bar mitts on my Pugsley during a bitter cold morning commute with temps in the -20degF.
I went from someone who thought I would never be able to keep my hands warm to someone who’s never found his bottom limit yet. I’ve ridden in -32degF temps with -70degF windchills without getting cold hands. It’s just a matter of experimenting with different options and seeing what works for you.
Keep in mind when buying winter clothing that you don’t need to buy clothes made specifically for cycling. When it comes to gloves, you can try anything. For example gloves made for other outdoor activities like skiing, or a pair of leather or canvas gloves at your local farm supply of home center. Those options can keep your hands just as warm and will sometimes be cheaper.
Figure out what works for you and get out there and ride.