Some of you may be considering the transition to winter biking but not sure where to start. If this is you, read on! This post is for anyone who bikes but hasn’t yet leveled up to winter biking…or a winter bike commuter looking for more tips!
Winter is coming. Imagine riding your bicycle through the snow white stillness that quiets the world around you. tap, tap, tap is the only sound you hear as your studded tires grip to the snow and ice beneath you. Bike commuting is STILL the best way to get around, and winter is not gonna stop you.
Many bike commuters are three season cyclists scared of the winter jump, often because of concerns about temperature and safety. But as the saying goes, there is no bad weather, only bad gear! There are three things you need to prepare for winter bike commuting:
- Gear up your mind for the elements with extra knowledge about riding in the snow. Getting over the mental block that you can’t bike in the snow or on ice is an important first step.
- Gear up your body for the elements. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
- Gear up your bike for the elements. Studded tires can make things safer and easier, and don’t forget your bike lights!
I’m writing this using my knowledge from many Michigan winters, as well as taking advice from other cold weather cyclists in Canada and other wintery climates. Everyone can do this, it just takes a little preparation to do it in a safe and enjoyable way. Ok, let’s dive in! ☃️
Gear Up Your Mind
Just like biking in the rain, winter biking commuting in the snow is not that hard. Lots of people do it every winter with great success, and you can too. Here is some knowledge to help you ride safely through the winter.
Winter Street Smarts
Where to Ride in the Snow
Bike lanes can disappear in the snowy climates of winter, and riding too close to the edge of the road where all the snow has been packed and refrozen is not a safe place to be. On the other hand, the lane is full of tire tracks of packed snow that can throw you off. Experiment with what works for you, but it’s best to find a line of fresher snow to ride through. Fortunately, cars are more likely to give you more passing room in the winter, so go ahead and take that lane if you need to ride between the tire tracks. Remember to ride predictably.
Depending on your area, you may get away with riding on the sidewalks if there’s enough space, especially if there are big piles of snow in the road making it narrower. If you encounter some greenways or sidewalks that you think should be plowed, bother your city about it (try 311. Many cities have an app!) and maybe they’ll do something about it.
No Sudden Movements
Riding fast is not the problem, it’s a quick movements and sudden braking that can cause you to slip on some ice or snow. Black ice is real (although it’s really “clear” or “transparent” ice) and dangerous. If snow is melting and refreezing (due to sunlight or high daylight temps), the risk for ice is high.
Keep these other tips in mind while you’re biking in the ice or snow:
- Don’t lean much into your turns when there could be ice or loose snow. Try to turn slowly and stay more upright.
- Going straight over ice is generally fine as long as you don’t make any sudden movements or braking/accelerating. Just relax and coast.
- As with biking in the rain, take care crossing metal grates, manhole covers, paint, and other non-pavement material on the road. Bridges can also be icy.
When you get started, you may fall a few times. Usually all the extra clothing (padding) and soft snow can make these falls no big deal. Practice riding in an empty parking lot or recreational greenway path to get used to it. Find a soft spot and slowly practice losing control. When you experience the loss of control, try to regain control or have a safe fall. Once you’ve safely experienced the limits of losing control and a no-big-deal safe fall, you’ll feel more comfortable riding around on the streets.
Gear Up Your Body
The first time I went on a winter bike ride in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I put on all of my warmest clothes like I was going to be a sitting couch potato in the snow. I completely forgot that riding my bicycle was going to warm me up, and I was sweating like crazy soon after I started that ride. I quickly learned to have a few layers and items you can add and remove to regulate your temperature depending on how hard you’re riding and how cold it is outside.
Many people like to say you should be uncomfortably cold when you start your ride. While that’s an option, I like to be plenty warm when I start, and stop to take off a layer if I get too hot. This is easy for me since I always have rear rack and storage to hold things like my extra jacket.
Taking from my Michigan winter experiences and a few friends from Canada, I’ll describe the clothing and accessories from head to toe that make your snowy winter bike ride easy and fun. Many of these items are also useful for biking in the rain.
Even though there’s lots of specialized gear mentioned, you can probably go winter bike commuting right now with the warm clothing in your closet. Over time, you can get a few things that will make winter cycling even more comfortable and enjoyable with these recommendations.
Head & Ears
First off, it’s always good to wear a helmet, especially in the winter when you’re more likely to slip. Helmets also help with warmth and reducing wind noise.
Cold: If it’s not that cold, my helmet and some behind the head earmuffs or headband over the ears will do the trick. It’s mostly about keeping the wind chill away. Ultrathin beanies (aka skull caps since they’re thin and tight to the head) like this Tough Outfitters hat or this warmer SmartWool 150 beanie are a nice light protection that can be layered on top of with other warmer hats. These also pack really small.
Colder: At colder temps I’ll wear a thicker beanie (aka skullcap or toque) under my helmet, maybe layered with the ultrathin ones underneath. Most helmets can quickly adjust to accommodate the changing sizes. The SmartWool 250 beanie (the one I use) is a solid choice for a merino wool beanie. Other beanies you have lying around will work too, it just might take up too much space under your helmet and won’t pack down as small. Try it out!
If you need some extra room in your helmet, you can take off the standard padding inside that’s usually attached with velcro.
While you can always zip your jackets all the way up to mostly protect your neck, I find scarves to be much more comfortable and versatile. I use a few scarves I’ve bought at department stores years ago, and they are still going strong. My favorite ones are made mostly of cashmere or acrylic (a good impersonator of cashmere).
Scarves are also the first layer I take off and stuff in my pocket or rear rack, so may be less important for longer rides.
Cold/Colder: Even in warmer weather I like to protect my eyes from wind, dust, and debris with clear glasses in the night and sunglasses in the day (or one pair of photochromatic glasses!). In the winter, this will help prevent your eyes from getting too cold and watering. I also know plenty of people who ride without any eye covering, and I used to be one of them, so this is not a requirement.
Coldest: Once the weather drops significantly below freezing, you’ll want to cover all skin possible. Don’t be afraid to break out the more serious sports gear and don some biking/ski goggles to fully protect yourself.
Cold: Unless it’s well below freezing your face will probably be fine without any protection, but once the temperature starts to drop, you’ll want to keep your nose and mouth warm and avoid the teeth chattering cold.
When you’re wearing something on your face, you have to watch out for fogging up your eyewear. You may have to finagle it so it may not cover your nose, pull it down during stoplights, or make sure that your glasses/goggles have some anti-fog features. There are some anti-fog products on the market to spray on your eyewear as well, but I haven’t used them myself.
Cold/Colder: You probably already have clothes warm enough for winter. You just need to pick the best ones for biking that are light, warm, and allow freedom of movement. Leave your bulky, heavy, fancy jackets at home unless you’re just going for a short ride. Since you’re creating your own warmth, some of the big jackets can over-insulate and make you overly hot.
I usually wear whatever pants and shirt I would normally wear, with a few light to medium size jackets on top. Some good combinations include a puffy jacket and a rain jacket for wind blocking. Both are great at shedding snow so it doesn’t stick to you. Make sure whatever you get will still cover your lower back if you ride a bike in a more bent over (aggressive) position!
If the snow is wetter, you can toss some waterproof pants over your pants to protect from the dirty wet snow.
Coldest: If it’s really cold or your commute is longer, you may want to get some cycling specific thermal gear like a thermal cycling bib, thermal arm warmers, thermal leg warmers, or just long underwear and other warm base layers (merino wool being the most effective).
Check out my rain gear guide for what I wear during the rain.
Hands are an important thing to keep warm, and sometimes hard to get right. You want to strike a balance with movement and warmth, while making sure you have a glove that’s also grippy so you don’t slip off your brake!
Cold: For not so cold days, I’ll wear some leather gloves or some light gloves (aka glove liners). These keep all my fingers available for maximum movement, and often you can get them with touch capacity so they still work on your touch screen.
Colder: Lobster gloves (recommend the Sugoi or Pearl Izumi, aka split gloves) are a popular choice among cold weather bike commuters to keep your fingers warm while still having some movement so you can shift gears and brake properly. They look cool too! Make sure to get ones that split with 2 fingers in each side, not 1 finger and then 3 fingers.
Coldest: If you want really warm hands, you can invest in some Cycling Pogies like Bar Mitts that install over the handlebar area of the bicycle. You can get these for all different types of handlebars, and it’s essentially a permanent mitten over all the important things like brakes and shifters, making your winter ride nice and toasty.
Your feet are another important one that you want to keep warm, and you probably already have what you need. One quick trick in a pinch is to put some aluminum foil in your shoes (outside of your socks) for some extra warmth, but ideally you’ll have the right socks and shoes to have a sustainably comfortable ride!
Cold: Whatever socks you have laying around should be fine for normal cold weather. Wear the tall ones!
Shoes or Boots
Cold: Make sure you have shoes that don’t breathe too much or you’ll feel the wind pierce right through! You’ll find out quick enough which ones work or not. My trail running shoes are the worst.
Colder/Coldest: Go for the boots when it gets colder or the snow is wet. Make sure it’s generally windproof and waterproof. I like the Blundstone boots because they’re easy and fashionable, but whatever works. Waterproof hiking shoes can also work well here. Usually a more narrow boot that has good grip on your pedals works better than a wide galosh, but it depends on your pedals as well.
Gear Up Your Bicycle
Once you’ve got your mind and body prepared for the winter ride, make sure you have the proper gear for your bicycle to make your winter ride easy and safe.
The sun sets earlier in winter, so make sure you’re using your bike lights when it’s dark and during other conditions of low visibility like snowy or rainy day. I like my locking lights, but you may want some brighter lights depending on where you ride. Make sure your front light isn’t pointed up into people’s eyes!
The Best Winter Bike Tires
There are three things to think about when choosing winter bike tires: tire width, tire tread, and studs. All of these tire factors play different roles in keeping you safe depending on the conditions you ride in.
The most common case for winter city bike commuting is riding on mostly packed/semi-plowed roads. A narrow tire (around 30mm wide, not a super thin 700×23 road bike size) will do better at sinking through the loose layers of top snow and slush to grip the pavement below. Studs will help a lot (see below), and tread will help with grip in the fresh, loose snow on unplowed roads.
The more off-roading and thicker snow you encounter (that your narrow tire can’t sink all the way through to pavement), the more useful a wide or fat tire will be. Extra wide tires come at a price of potentially slowing you down a bit more, so I wouldn’t go the fat tire route unless you really need it.
If you’re ONLY riding in thick, deep, soft snow, a fat tire with deep tread will work well, and studs won’t help much.
Whatever bike tires you end up with, it’s probably better to drop the pressure just a little bit to add more contact surface area. Experiment with this, since there are a lot of factors at play (tire width, tread, studs mentioned above) and it’s different for every tire and road condition combination.
Start about 10 PSI below max or recommended pressure, and lower or raise depending on how you feel. Slipping? Go lower. Your rim is hitting road bumps? Go higher. You can usually go a little lower in the front tire since there’s less load there and front traction is more important.
This is where the magic happens. If you’re riding through ice and snow instead of mostly plowed roads, you’re gonna want to swap your regular tires for some studded bike tires. These tires have little studs that stick out to grip on the ice and snow. It’s kinda like chains/studs for a car but for bicycles.
You can buy the studs and stud a tire yourself, but I haven’t ever done that and it could be error prone (not to mention a lot of time putting in all the studs!). It’s much easier to buy a studded tire and change out your tires for winter, keeping the summer tires for later. They all recommend to run min pressure when on snow and ice, and max pressure when on plowed roads. I’ve heard of both Nokian/Suomi & Schwalbe as go to brands for studded tires, and they make a variety of types:
- Schwalbe Marathon Winter Studded Tire: A hybrid style tire with 4 rows of studs that keeps you safe going straight and while turning. Also good for straight pavement if you’re often on mixed roads. The PLUS version has extra puncture protection, but I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that it’s unnecessary and potentially not as good as the normal version.
- Schwalbe Winter Studded Tire (not marathon): The same hybrid style tire as the marathon winter, but it only has 2 rows of studs, so it won’t be as safe while you’re turning on this one. I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you want to stud the outer rows yourself. If you’re getting a studded tire you should go all in.
- Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro Studded Tire: A more knobby mountain bike style tire with studs in it. This kind of tire will be better in deep or hard packed snow, but in medium snow conditions it won’t cut through and grip the pavement like the Marathon Winter tires. This tire seems more suitable for thicker snow than commuting on mixed snow condition roads (where some roads are plowed).
- Nokian W106 (Suomi Hakkapelitta) Studded Tire (not sure if sold anymore): A mountain bike style tire with 2 rows of studs in it that isn’t as intense as the Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro. I’d say it’s better than the Marathon Winter tires if you have more ice/snow to deal with.
Make sure to get the measurements on your current tire and be aware that the same measurements could be slightly bigger and may not fit if your current tire has low clearance with your fork. I’ll need to do a whole new post on studded tires later…
It’s always better to have studded tires on both your wheels for significantly better traction control, but if you can only buy one studded tire, go for the front tire. If you lose traction on your back wheel, you can kinda fishtail and still have some control of the bicycle, but if you lose control of the front wheel, it’s more difficult to control.
If you’re wearing waterproof winter gear, fenders may not be that important, since your other gear will protect you from snow your wheels throw up unless the snow is wet. However, it is a good extra barrier to have, especially if you’re not always wearing waterproof pants. If you’re interested, I have a section where I discuss fenders in more detail in my rain gear guide.
Fenders collect dirty snow over time, so make sure to clean or knock it off every now and then.
Winter Bike Maintenance
Unlike summer bike commuting that doesn’t require too frequent maintenance, all the winter precipitation and salty roads (depending on your locale) can quickly cause wear and tear on your bicycle. One option is to think about a single speed bike or a bike with an internal hub to keep the gear maintenance low, but a geared bicycle still works generally fine.
You’ll want to use a wet chain lube for the wetter winter conditions. Wet lube doesn’t get washed off as easy by precipitation, so it’s better in wet winter conditions. Dry lube goes on wet and dries, so it lasts a little longer and has less issues with dirt buildup in dry climates, but gets washed off in a wet winter!
It’s a good idea to lube the chain about once a week in serious winter conditions, but I’m sure you can get away with longer if it’s dry outside. I usually do minimal maintenance and may forget to lube until I hear it squeak, by which time it can potentially age your gear clusters a bit faster, so figure out what time interval works for you.
Another idea I’ve seen is to use a rust proof chain like the rust buster that resists corrosion, but I haven’t used one myself. Not sure if you can lube this kind of chain less often…I think not. Let me know if you go for longer between lube ups on a rust proof chain!
Winter Bike Storage
So you’re biking around having a blast in the winter snow, but you get home and you have this bike covered in dirty snow! One option is to just leave it outside, but this will age your bike much quicker and your bike seat and handlebars will be cold when you start your ride! At the very least, you should have some kind of covering so your bike doesn’t get covered by new snow.
If you plan on storing your bike inside, get some kind of floormat rug to put under your bike to collect all the melting snow. If your bike got dirty snow/salt on it, think about wiping it off with a wet rag every now and then, or spraying it with water when you’re outside to keep it from rusting or corroding.
Get on that Bike and Ride
If you’ve been bike commuting during the fairweather months, you’ll know why it’s so great to get moving when you go to work, play, or run errands. Winter bike commuting is no different, and with the proper gear for you mind, body, and bike, this can be a fun and safe activity with all the benefits of biking!
Let me know in the comments what kind of winter gear you like to use when bike commuting!