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How To Choose the Right Layers for Cold-Weather Cycling

Every cyclist committed enough to keep pedaling through winter has experienced that moment of doubt. When you walk outside and get smacked in the face by a bitter, cold wind, you may strongly consider turning around and heading right back to the indoor bike.

But, there’s an old saying thing rings true in this situation. As British fell walker, Alfred Wainwright, said, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”

For the cyclist, that means it’s possible to pedal through almost any amount of cold if you have the right kind of gear. And, even though our friend and longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie doesn’t experience much harsh weather in San Diego, he survived more than 30 Canadian winters — and he knows a thing or two about cycling gear. Read on to learn more about choosing the right layers for your cold-weather rides.

Dress for Your Climate 

When it comes to finding the right layers for cold-weather cycling, it’s important to remember that there’s no universal solution. What you need depends on your local climate. The basic layers may be the same, but the specific pieces are different.

Or, as Coach Darryl puts it, Different amounts of cold weather require different cycling clothing. 

As we explore our list of layering options below, we’ll touch on some variations you can use depending on whether you’re riding in mildly cold or frigid conditions. Tailor your layers to fit your own climate and cold tolerance. 

As a side note, Darryl urges caution when it comes to waterproof gear. While that may be helpful for keeping moisture out in damp, cold climates, it also traps moisture inside, and that can make you even more uncomfortable over a long ride.

Layering Options for Each Part of the Body

We’ve written elsewhere about the right order for adding layers on cold rides. That’s an essential read when it comes to putting your layers on. However, our list below won’t follow the layering order but instead work its way up from your pedals. 


Cycling shoes aren’t exactly designed for warmth, but that doesn’t mean you’re condemned to frostbitten toes if you pedal through winter. Darryl recommends buying a larger pair of shoes for cold weather so you can wear thicker socks underneath. For especially cold climates, you can also buy toe covers or even full boot covers that have an opening on the bottom for your cleats.


Cyclists have all sorts of options when it comes to keeping their legs warm. Leg warmers may suffice for mildly cold weather, but these often leave your knees exposed — something you definitely don’t want in extreme cold.

For more robust coverage, you can go with full tights of various thicknesses. These cover you from ankle to waist and go over your bike shorts. Keep in mind, though, that heavier tights will also be looser, and you need to be sure they don’t catch in your chain as you ride. 

Note, too, that if you add quite a bit of layering on your lower body, you may need to adjust your saddle height.


Your torso and arms bear the brunt of the cold wind on those winter rides, but they’re relatively easy to keep warm. If you just need a bit of extra layering, cycling vests can cut the cold around your chest. But it doesn’t take much cold before you want more coverage for your arms than what your basic jersey sleeves afford.

A light cycling jacket can be great for riding in 40-to-50-degree weather, as this provides full coverage and takes the edge off the wind. Much colder, though, and you may want to add additional base layers or wear a thicker outer jacket. Fully insulated cycling jackets provide a lot of extra warmth, and they extend in the back to ensure your lower back is covered even as you’re leaning forward.

Keep in mind that visibility is a key consideration for your top torso layer. Especially on cold rides on dark winter days, you need to be easily seen on the road. Black is fine for your legs, but you need bright colors on your top half.


Your hands are another area you need to take extra care to keep warm on winter rides. Your fingers are always out in front, taking the full force of the wind, and you don’t want to risk frostbite on your extremities. If it’s below 50 degrees, you probably need full coverage for your hands.

Whatever you get here, though, you have to be able to do two things: brake and shift,” says Darryl. 

Gloves with thick padding or mittens that don’t allow independent forefinger movement don’t work well for cycling, as they make it difficult to control these important mechanisms. Look for standard five-finger gloves or ones that at least have a separate finger slot for your first one or two fingers. 

For added warmth, you can try double-layering your gloves or using pogies that attach to your handlebars so you can easily move your hands in and out for more insulation while you ride.

Face and Head

Your face is the last critical area to cover for cold rides, and it’s likely the place you’ll feel it first. There are a variety of options for covering it with a mask or balaclava. The main thing you need to worry about is making sure it fits well and doesn’t hang out into your field of vision at all. It also needs to be breathable and fit easily under your helmet.

Don’t Forget To Plan for Layering Down 

The above list covers everything you need to cycle in cold weather, but there’s one more thing to keep in mind:

As temperatures change, you may want to take some of these off,” says Darryl.

Not only can temperatures change over the course of your ride, but your body can warm up as you pedal and your muscles generate heat. That means you need an easy way to stow extra layers as you remove them. 

For that, Darryl recommends a lightweight backpack with shoelace straps. Cyclists often receive these at ride events, and they’re hardly even noticeable with a few pieces of clothing in them while you pedal.

Now, what are you waiting for? Even if it’s cold outside, you’ve got no excuse to not go riding. The only question is, which items do you need for your climate?


Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Image by ❄️♡💛♡❄️ Julita ❄️♡💛♡❄️ from Pixabay