How to Layer for Winter Riding

By : Mr Mamil
Updated :

If you do outdoor sports in the winter, you’ll probably come across the term layering.

The time of day, temperature, and ride pace directly affect how our body feels. We usually feel cold at the beginning and feel warmer as we ride on. We feel warm on the climbs, but the cold kicks in once we hit the descends.

This creates a tricky situation for the body to stay comfortable.

Layering is a technique where you use multiple pieces of garments simultaneously to provide the necessary insulation to the body. It allows us to add or remove layers depending on how we feel.

Upper body

Base layer

The base layer is the foundation of your winter clothing and comes into contact with the skin. It keeps you warm by trapping warm air and getting moisture to the outer fabric of your body.

The choice of the base layer depends on;

  • Coverage – sleeveless, short sleeves vs long sleeves
  • Insulation – light, medium weight

Natural fabrics such as merino wool are the most common fabric today. The material could also blend polyester, polypropylene, and nylon to yield different properties.

Mid layer

The mid-layer sits between the base layer and the outer layer. It’s generally a long sleeve, thermal jersey. Depending on the brand, some are thicker than others.

Whichever you choose will depend on the amount of insulation you need.

Outer layer

An outer layer is usually a jacket. It can be a gilet (sleeveless) or long sleeve jacket. Most are at least wind-resistant to protect against wind chill. The ones with water-resistant properties such as DWR (Durable Water Repellent) will cost more.

For outer layers, consider going one size up from your usual sizing to provide additional room for the layers you have underneath. you’ll have several lay

Lower body

Depending on individual preferences, some cyclists prefer to use a combination of bib shorts with knee or leg warmers. Winter bibs, knee, and leg warmers are thicker due to the inner fleeced layers. Most of them are water-resistant that can withstand light showers.

If wearing several layers on the lower body is not for you, consider wearing bib tights. They’re similar to bib shorts but with a length that goes all the way to your ankles.

If you’re not a fan of bib tights, then bib knickers are the middle ground. Bib knickers are sometimes referred to as ¾ length bibs as the length extends to just above your calf muscles.

Hands and fingers

You’ll likely need full finger gloves for temperatures below 50ºF (10ºC). The question is then, how thick should the gloves be?

There are many options from liners, to fleeced and lobster gloves.

You can wear glove liners for cooler temperatures or as an additional layer under the gloves. However, note that this is not the most comfortable solution with several moving layers under your fingers. You’ll also need to size up your gloves to accommodate the liners.

I’d prefer to do away with the glove liners and go for full finger gloves with the appropriate insulation levels. This would also mean that you’d probably need two pairs of gloves. For me, I have thicker gloves for 30 to 45ºF (-1 to 7ºC), and another for 45 to 55ºF (7ºC to 12ºC).

If you’re riding in sub-zero temperatures, consider lobster gloves.

Feet

Besides the fingers, your feet are the most vulnerable to the chilly winds. Your solution for extra insulation ranges from thicker socks, toe covers, shoe covers, or even the old-school method of blocking the air vents in the shoes.

If you live in mild winter locations (eg: 50ºF/10ºC or higher), you’ll probably get away with thicker merino wool socks. For any temperatures lower than that, you’ll either need either,

  • Toe covers are cheaper, and easy to put on/remove, but only cover the front half of the foot.
  • Shoe covers protect up to the lower calf muscles but are more expensive.
  • Oversocks are super-sized socks that go over your shoes and socks. They’re made from breathable fabrics but aren’t water-resistant. Use them when it’s dry.

What to wear for winter riding?

I’ve discussed the various winter clothing that is available to cyclists. This section will cover how I’d layer the clothing in different temperature conditions.

Note that this is just a guide as everyone’s cold tolerance and clothing budget is different. The important thing is to get as comfortable as you can be.

I’ve seen many cyclists get creative with their layering options. The more you ride in these conditions, the more you’ll get to know yourself, and eventually, the best layering options for yourself.

40 to 55ºF (4 to 12ºC) and dry

  • Short sleeve lightweight merino base layer
  • Long sleeve, summer jersey
  • Wind vest (can be easily removed mid-ride as the pace and/or temperature goes up)
  • Fleeced bib shorts
  • Lightweight full finger gloves
  • Merino socks
  • Toe covers
  • Regular sunglasses

40 to 55ºF (4 to 12ºC) and wet

  • Short sleeve mid-weight merino base layer
  • Long sleeve, thermal jersey
  • Rain jacket as a removable and packable outer layer if the showers get heavy (eg: Castelli Idro, Rapha Pro Team Gore-Tex Rain Jacket)
  • Lightweight full finger gloves
  • ¾ bib knickers
  • Shoe covers with water protection 
  • Clear or photochromic sunglasses

Dry, 20 to 40ºF (-7 to 4ºC)

  • Short sleeve mid-weight merino base layer
  • Long sleeve, thermal jersey
  • Wind vest (can be easily removed mid-ride as the pace and/or temperature goes up)
  • ¾ bib knickers
  • Fleeced, full finger gloves
  • Merino socks
  • Overshoes
  • Beanie
  • Regular sunglasses

Wet, 20 to 40ºF (-7 to 4ºC)

  • Short sleeve mid-weight merino base layer
  • Winter jacket with a waterproof membrane (eg: Castelli Alpha RoS)
  • Rain jacket as a removable and packable outer layer if the showers get heavy (eg: Castelli Idro, Rapha Pro Team Gore-Tex Rain Jacket)
  • Fleeced, full finger gloves
  • Bib tights
  • Shoe covers with water protection 
  • Beanie
  • Clear or photochromic sunglasses