Winter Bike Clothing for Less





Introduction: Winter Bike Clothing for Less

Step 1: A Brief History/physics/textiles Lesson

Before going into how to keep yourself nice and toasty while riding through the frightful weather outside, a quick diversion into what you need to stay warm in high wind.

Normally clothes keep you warm by trapping an insulating layer of air next to your skin- this is why many layers are better for warmth and the best undergarments (thermals or old-fashioned string vests etc) are actually mostly made of air. In windy conditions (for instance, sitting on a bike at 55mph), the wind blows straight through your clothes and removes this insulating layer, which is why you don't see many Harley owners wearing cardigans.

For warmth in cold and windy conditions, therefore, the best combination is an insulating under layer with a windproof layer over the top. Think about early aviators wearing sheepskin-lined leather jackets, or arctic-dwelling peoples wearing furs with the fur on the inside. Insulation underneath, windproof layer on top will be a recurring theme in this Instructable.

Step 2: Hot Headed

The head:

On a motorbike this isn't much of an issue for me as my head is entirely encased in a windproof and insulating full face helmet, but cyclists need to consider their headwear carefully- a large proportion of the body's heat is lost through the head, but it is often the least clothed part. A simple beanie hat does wonders, with a scarf over the lower part of the face. If you tend toward black headwear like myself, the fact that you are riding a bicycle should allay any fears that you might be a terrorist.

Note: each of the clothing options described in this Instructable will be rated for cost, weather-resistance and looking stupid on a completely unscientific and wholly subjective 1-5 scale, with 5 being the preferred end of the scale (cheap, weatherproof and not stupid looking)

Motorbike helmet:
Cost: **
Weather resistance: *****
Looking stupid: *****

Cost: *****
Weather resistance: **
Looking stupid: ****

Beanie hat and scarf:
Cost: ****
Weather resistance: ***
Looking stupid: ***

Step 3: Necking

The neck area requires specific attention, because it's the hardest join to overlap the clothes at. However, a simple scarf or tube-scarf from the market will sort out this area so it's not a great expenditure. Beware of bike shops- they will try to sell you space-age NASA-developed thermal wear with triple-layer hollow fibre insulation, when you can get a simple fleece tube scarf for much less that does the job almost as well.

There are plenty of Instructables on how to make or knit your own scarf, so I won't repeat all of their words. An even simpler solution exists: if you wear a hoodie underneath another layer, you can wear the hood down (they aren't great for keeping your head warm, a hat is better and doesn't funnel cold air down the back of your neck) and bunch it around your neck to act as a scarf. A large paperclip or bulldog clip to keep it together at the front will increase the effectiveness at the cost of looking considerably more weird.

Cost: ****
Weather resistance: ****
Looking stupid: ****

Bunched up hood:
Cost: *****
Weather resistance: ***
Looking stupid: ***

Step 4: Body

The upper body is probably the most important part to clothe well, but also the part where you are most likely to already own suitable clothing. As a biker, I splashed out for an armoured waterproof winter jacket and inherited a hiking jacket for cycling which between them take care of the problem, but there are cheaper options.

Almost anyone who lives outside the tropics will probably already own a warm top layer, and if you don't they aren't difficult to obtain. For an outer layer, a leather jacket is traditional and works very well, but with a suitably warm layer underneath it a simple waterproof anorak/cagoule will do- this provides the windproof layer to keep the cold out of your nice warm insulating layer. Simple.

Motorbike jacket:
Cost: *
Weather resistance: *****
Looking stupid: *****

Leather jacket:
Cost: **
Weather resistance: ****
Looking stupid: ****

Cost: ****
Weather resistance: ****
Looking stupid: **

Step 5: You Need Hands

Again, as a motorcyclist I splashed out for armoured gloves because one broken knuckle is quite enough for me. However, they proved to not live up to their "winter" name by being freezing cold as soon as I rode to Cambridge at 50mph on a chilly morning. This occasion was probably the height of my winter clothing improvisational powers, by the necessity of getting there with all my fingers still attached. The problem of keeping my hands warm while cycling (so requiring dexterity to change gears but cold/wind/rain resistance) confounded me for a long time.

The problem with the misleadingly named "winter" gloves I bought was that the waterproof semipermeable layer is inside the insulation, so at any significant speed the insulation becomes more or less useless. However, as the gloves themselves are quite roomy I rectified this by buying the smallest, snuggest pair of gloves I could find (specifically, ladies 1% spandex thermal gloves) and wearing them underneath the bike gloves. This provided the magical insulation-inside-windproof layers needed.

The other alternative is to add a waterproof layer outside of the gloves, which I achieved with disposable latex gloves. Yep, the sort dentists and mechanics wear. They look seven kinds of ridiculous but work frighteningly well over the top of a pair of warm gloves at keeping the winter out. They aren't great for breathability, so might not be the best for long bike rides, though. Also, if you want to maintain a slight modicum of inconspicuousness, I suggest the translucent gloves rather than bright yellow marigolds with faux-fur cuffs, but hey- to each his own.

Proper winter gloves:
Cost: **
Weather resistance: *****
Looking stupid: *****

Thermals underneath bike gloves:
Cost: ***
Weather resistance: *****
Looking stupid: *****

Rubber gloves over normal gloves:
Cost: *****
Weather resistance: *****
Looking stupid: -

Yes, I just created a special zero-star category for that last option- but if you're blasting past bored commuters you are never going to see again at a relative speed of 115 mph, who cares how stupid they look?

Step 6: Legs

Handy hint: when looking for inspiration for a pithy pun for your step title involving warm legs, do not google "hot legs".

The trousers are the most DIY part of this ensemble. Being way too tight-fisted to pay for proper bike trousers, I instead bought some waterproofs for �2 from the nearest Oxfam shop after the first time I had to ride home in the rain. These are acceptable in warmer weather, but in the cold they don't provide much thermal protection and I found the fronts of my legs getting bitterly cold on long rides.

The inspiration came on picking up an old fleece scarf and noticing that it was almost exactly twice as long as one of my legs (or, to put it another way, as long as both of my legs put together). A trial run involving sticking the scarf down the front of my waterproofs for a ride home on a below-freezing night showed the principle worked, so I decided to sacrifice the scarf to the cause (again, a replacement would be �3 from the market so I'm now down the princely sum of a fiver).

Acquire a pair of waterproof overtrousers and a long scarf from whatever source seems appropriate. Ensure that the scarf is long enough to cover the majority of the fronts of both legs. FInd the middle of the scarf, and either cut in half, or cut a small section out of the middle (I'll come back to this) leaving two equal long parts either side. (Pic 1)

Sit on the arm of the nearest armchair or something that approximates the riding position of your bike and determine the portion of the leg you would like to cover- I went from about bottom-of-trouser-pocket to ankle height. Pinch this part, take off the waterproofs and turn them inside out. Duct tape the scarf segments to the chosen part of the inside of your trousers, making sure to keep them as flat as possible to avoid a wonky seam. (Pic 2) The tape doesn't stick very hard to fabric so you can reposition the scarf on the tape, but it does stick well to the trousers. I was running out of tape so only taped a few strategic points but a complete seam might work better.

Optional: turn the trousers over and attach the extra section of scarf to the "seat" region. I decided to do this after coming out of work one evening to find that a heavy frost had fallen and my bike seat was covered in ice- next time you hear someone talk about "freezing their nads off", that actually happened to me. If you can park your mount inside then this might not be an issue- YYMV.

Step 7: And Finally

I find my feet aren't a problem when biking in the cold much. Your feet don't present a large frontal area, have a good drag coefficient and tend to be encased in a semi-solid garment anyway. Being an outdoorsy type I habitually wear walking boots which work fine with a decent pair of socks, or alternatively skate shoes which provide plenty of padding to insulate the feet.

A decent pair of shoes are a must for motorbike owners (I don't want to think about what would happen to my ankle bones in a crash if I wasn't wearing decent shoes), and boots are recommended, but for the cyclists it's pretty much just a case of staying away from well-ventilated shoes like trainers or flip-flops and wearing something a little more substantial.

Motorbike boots:
Cost: **
Weather resistance: *****
Looking stupid: ****

Walking boots:
Cost: ****
Weather resistance: ***
Looking stupid: ****

Step 8: Epilogue

I'm sure I am going to get a lot of comments to the effect of "this totally wouldn't work in Stavanger/Nunavut/Murmansk/Reykjavik/Tibet/Antarctica, you need uber thermal underwear and Goretex sock liners and NASA-developed hollow fibre everything to not freeze to death".

If you live in any of those places or somewhere with a serious winter, and intend to keep cycling in -40 temperatures and not get frostbite, you will probably need more serious clothing than I have described. I, however, live in London. It gets a bit chilly here, dips a handful of degrees below freezing and rains a lot- in those conditions, what I have described is perfectly good enough for short or medium length bike journeys, and I expect serious cyclists will probably have their own adverse weather gear anyway. If you can get away with waterproof trousers with a scarf duct-taped to the inside then great, but if you need the space-age winter clothes buy the space-age winter clothes. And with that we come to...

The Disclaimer
These clothes, while snug and warm in slightly adverse conditions, are not intended for use in extreme environments. If you try to cycle to the north pole wearing only clothes that you bought at Oxfam and subsequently get frostbite, I disclaim any responsibility.



    • Water Contest

      Water Contest
    • Game Life Contest

      Game Life Contest
    • Creative Misuse Contest

      Creative Misuse Contest

    26 Discussions

    I grew up in Alaska. The coldest (much worse, hottest in summer) was Fairbanks. I have been in -84% F real not wind chill. Real thermal underwear ( such as hunters use, not the junk from W Mart) are worth while because trapped air works on wide range of temperatures. When I move back home, I'll buy a down ( not down and feathers which does not work) .
    Because down parkas use the trapped air, they can be comfortable from -30% to +50%.
    Mittens are much better than gloves. Eskimos use wool glove under wind proof mittens, a system that gives the best of letting you shake the mitts when dexterity is needed. I used a harness to keep my mittens attached. Although Vancouver has a relatively mild climate, wind chill can make it feel much colder, a problem solved by wind proof outer layer.

    Now, slightly off topic, I am in Sunny Southern California and therefore don't see snow a whole lot, but would you 'actually' ride your bike in this whether? I mean, its hard for me to imagine a temperature much below 50f but this just seems extreme! Interesting ways to keep warm though, good to keep in mind whenever i head up the the mountains.
    This is the coldest I have ever seen it down here, it actually hailed! This is the kind of day for us Californians when you just concede to taking a car/public transportation.

    3 replies

    As a Canadian in rainy Vancouver i cycle most places year round. Vancouver is warmer than most of the rest of Canada to be sure, but it'll still be below freezing at night and in the mid 30's during the day for a couple months in the winter and just cold and wet in spring and fall. It's nicer when it's below freezing because that means it is dry although icy. it sucks when it's 35 degrees out, pissing rain and i'm riding to work on the ice from the previous day.

    "Would you actually ride your bike in this weather?"

    Yes, I would. In the UK it will routinely be below freezing temperatures for an entire day in the depths of winter, and chilly (below 50F) for several months of the year. I cycled to lectures daily at university, and cycled or rode a motorbike to work for another couple of years.  I'm not an extremophile (though I will admit to being a bike fanatic), I just needed to get around in winter on two wheels.

    Wow!, well more power to you. I guess I am just a cold wuss. I love getting around on my bike but think that I may just stay home on days with more than a foot of snow.

    There is a very sparse selection for cyclists looking for clipless shoes for winter riding. They exist, but are expensive and very specialized. Pedal straps are available that are designed to function with larger footware (ie: boots). There is always the route of the bootie for cycling shoes, but finding ones to fit 'mountain' style shoes can be troublesome.

    Depending on the weather, I will wear a thin polyester sock underneath a wool hiking sock in addition to a bootie, or a combination of the three.

    just a few thoughts...1. scarf, not too bulky with extra length tucked in a jacket helps on the stupid points. 2. water repellant and wind resistence i tend to associate together and I wonder if you were to scotch gard a beanie making it water repellent if that would help wind resistance 3. now you got me try to calculate and see how you could do this but...take a shower cap, attatch it to the inside of a bicycle helmet with brads maybe (just sticking it into the hard foam material...or glue might be safer if you get in an accident. Then wear a beany under the helmet (optional - my head is so small it helps me for a tighter, safer fit anyhow) and the wind isn't rushing in the holes of the helmet. In the summer you can remove the shower cap for ventilation. just a couple thoughts this inspiried...any commments or insight to problems they may present?

    1 reply

    A decent balaclava does great, both as headgear and as a neck warmer, since many will drop all the way down to the shoulder. Don't splurge on the super fancy vented ones, but do get one without a mouth hole. It's more difficult to breath, but much less of your face will be exposed. My lips, and I'm sure others, are very prone to cracking in the winter, even with lots of lotion and care.

    I rarely ride now without some sort of headgear under my helmet, even in sweltering weather. A simple cotton bandana works great for keeping sweat from pooling above your eyes, and doesn't add much more heat than a head of hair.

    In my experience, even with driving, soaking rains, not too much comes down through the vents in the helmet (granted, my helmets have never had more than 20 vents, your mileage may vary) at least not more than the above balaclava/bandana/hat/other wicking headgear can handle. All that foam in the helmet keeps the top of my head pretty warm, toasty even with a base layer of some sort.

    I really can't gush enough about proper windproof/waterproof pants. Ones made specifically for cycling have straps that tighten down the lower leg around your calf, such that it doesn't get sucked into the chain in a strong wind/regular pedaling.
    My only gripe is that we seem to have gone into a 'easy on/easy off' phase with specialized clothing, which means zippers more often than not. Zippers leak, even it they are flatlocked. I use ordinary canning wax rubbed over the zipper to seal them somewhat better, and I couldn't be happier.

    i find putting legwarmers pulled up over the knees with wool socks does the trick. but i may try this for the super bitter cold days.

    lol i once wore my crocs when i was on my moped, and when i was back home, there was no bottom on them. :P

    3 replies

    Did you hurt your feet at all? I was riding my bike with no brakes down a hill and put my feet down. My toes were bleeding and my big toe was missing a pretty good chunk...

    Yeah, they where all brown, cut up, and had a rock stuck in it.

    you forgot top list Minnesota in the epilogue. at times it gets colder here than in Siberia

    You mentioned london...while I'm not sure if they have craigslist for london, this concept for trousers is gonna send me looking for some cheap craigslist ski panst or...the little kids overalls, I'm sure I could adjust and make the length fit, just not wearing them as overalls (I'm not too tall). cause ski clothes are wind/water resistant....just another idea to throw out there and explore for others looking for solutions.

    also wore flipflops (thongs here in australia) while riding a bycycle. got a massive graze on my foot

    Garden gloves work great for cycling. They are cheap, have great grip, and come in a wide variety of thicknesses/warmth.
    Thats what you want right there. The down side its veeeerrrrry expensive.

    the only danger is that when you start biking or even just sitting indoors is that you start to sweat. Then when you stop moving the sweat can cause hypothermia.
    The goal is not to keep you toasty but comfortable. (like say a 60°F A/C would in the summer)

    I agree with what Skepticool says about mittens. What I wear is the outershell mittens which are water and wind-proof and then wear wool or fleece gloves inside them. Spare gloves in pocket, they are a small enough packag.
    For winter footwear you might want to check out "Bog" boots. They are neoprene like a wetsuit with a rubber outer sole.
    I have been using them for 3 winters now and find them good to very low temperatures. The pair I have even have fairly good grip on ice.
    I have also found a helmet liner that is like a fairly thin bellaclava, not a total solution but it helps.