19 Winter Riding Essentials

Must-Haves to Fight Old Man Winter

Words by Morgan Taylor. Photos by Morgan Taylor and Garrett Thibault.
October 30th, 2013

If you want to make it through winter on your bike, you’re going to need this…

Many riders hang up the bike for winter – but not us. Here on the BC coast we’re treated to drizzle, fog, and occasional snow for five days a week all winter – and based on the current weather forecast, that starts today. Staying on the bike through the wet season can be a lot more fun if you can check off much of this list:

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You surely can’t ride in winter without your…

The Essentials

1. A good jacket. Preferably something waterproof and breathable. If it’s not breathable, don’t worry about it being waterproof – being warm and wet is arguably better than riding in a sauna of your own sweat.

2. Grippy tires. Riding summer tires down wet rocks is like having Freddy Krueger in your dreams: it’s scary as hell and there’s a good chance you’ll die. Take a hit on weight in the name of traction. Keep them as deflated as your ego when you realize how many features you now need to pass up on due to frost concerns.

3. Good socks. Frozen toes aren’t cool. Good socks last for years. Buy some. Don’t get miserable. Some like merino, some prefer synthetic. If you wear your shoes tight, you might need some bigger ones.

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Winter riding gear is more than just your bike; your car, your clothes, and your dog must also be prepared… Photo Garrett Thibault.

4. Base layers. Merino is the pinnacle, but a good quality synthetic base layer will do the trick. They even make them in anti-stink fabrics now. Combine a decent base with a breathable jacket and you’ve got a killer all-winter combo. Carry a toque in your bag in case you find yourself hiking out.

5. Gloves. Cold hands are almost worse than cold feet. You do need them to hold your handlebars and brake, after all. Bonus: bring a dry pair of gloves to switch out when you’re feeling saturated.

6. Front fender. Minimalist fenders that fit in the arch of your fork weigh almost nothing and yet do wonders for preventing getting crap in your eyes. Why didn’t we think of this earlier?

The Not-So-Essentials

You could definitely get away with just the above listed items. Heck, you could get away with none of them – but making the experience enjoyable will get you out on the bike instead of watching videos of other people doing so. Some of us are, however, not content with just the necessities. We need to go next level.

7. Lights. Two of them – one for your helmet, one for your bars. 800 lumens each, or more. You can now get a 1500 lumen light that lasts for two hours on a battery that weighs only 200 grams. Bonus points for a helmet that can have a light mounted directly to it. Leave at least one in your bag at all times. Lights drastically increase the amount of time you can be out on the trails, and are a safety must-have for twilight (read: mid-afternoon) rides. And remember: there’s a bear behind every tree when you’re night riding – awesome!

8. Winter shoes… or flat pedals. This is again a cold mitigation technique. Cold crank arms and cold pedals suck the heat right out of your shoes through your cleats. Insulated shoes can help, but in full on snow, sometimes flat pedals are the only answer.

9. Arm warmers and knee warmers. Part of a base layer solution is some modularity. These items come in various thicknesses, up to the point that they become body armour. Arm warmers turn a short sleeve into a long sleeve and take up very little bag space. Knee warmers are good almost all year – warm knees are happy knees. If you wear knee pads, you’re already… covered.

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Trail choice is key: rocks and gold good, loam and mud not so good. Photo Morgan Taylor.

10. Rear fender. While a lightweight plastic front fender is a must-have, rear fenders are more difficult to make an argument for. Generally heavy, often noisy, and rarely stylish, rear fender options are few and far between. DIY is often the name of the game – but what is the value of a dry ass?

11. Seat covers. Does your car smell like a used jock strap already? Looking to avoid that condition? OK, so green garbage bags and a towel are the must-haves, but you might want to invest in something less “Paper Bag Princess”. Your friends will thank you.

12. A hose. Or a friend with a hose. Come home covered in muck? Wife won’t let you in the house? You’re gonna need to clean up, and the hose at the gas station might not do the trick. Another option is a hand-pressurized pesticide sprayer.

The Do-You-Really-Need-Thats

If you are truly a winter bike nerd, you need to go all out: you need a winter-specific setup. At this point many of you might be questioning our sanity. What happened to just getting on your bike and riding? Here’s a truth: some people just like to be prepared for every possible situation, and have the gear to do it, even if they only do it once a year. Like those snowshoes in the back of your closet.

13. A hardtail. With as few moving parts as possible. Single speed is great, or maybe internal gears, or what about belt drive? The options are limitless. Along with a winter hardtail comes a sense of superiority over those who just can’t “man up”.

14. A flask. Filled with some peaty scotch… or fireball, if that’s your poison. A thermos of coffee or tea is also acceptable. Whatever your liquid warm-up, you will be hailed as the king of the mountain when you pull this out at a trailhead.

15. Grow a beard. Ice buildup is a good wind break. A facial winter coat also gives you immediate credibility with other outdoor enthusiasts.

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A beard is a winter must-have if you wish to be taken seriously. Photo Morgan Taylor.

16. A fat bike. Five inches of completely undamped air suspension at both ends of the bike. Do you really need a fat bike? This is a question only you can answer…

17. A Rubbermaid bin. Transport your gear in a bin. Everything is going to get wet and filthy so the plastic makes sure the mess is contained, the wet doesn’t spread and you can just hose it out afterward.

Bonus Tips

18. Trail choice. Less of a gear tip, more of a common sense issue. Trails vary in their ability to deal with water. That loamy trail you were loving all summer is soon to be rotor deep mud. Stick to the trails that have been built to handle wet weather riding: armour and new school gold are good to go, natural and loamy you’ll need to decide for yourself. If the trail fairies don’t come after you, the builder surely will…

19. Keep in touch. Tell someone where you’re going, or ride with a friend. This is really an all year thing, as you can be lost in the woods very quickly and a hundred metres becomes a lot more once darkness falls.

With some cold and wet days already behind us, we’ve been putting many of these items into use – keep an eye on the NSMB front page for winter gear reviews in the coming weeks.

What did we miss? Do you have any Jedi tricks for winter riding?

  • craw

    These are great tips. Along with a spare pair of gloves I also carry a fresh base layer. It’s awesome to get to the top of a climb and put on a fresh layer and dry gloves. I usually carry an layer or two in case I need to walk out. A vest can be a helpful layering option.

    Does anyone know of anyone making heated grips? They have them for moto and sleds but I’ve yet to see them for bikes. This would be incredibly useful.

    • shoreboy

      They have been making heated grips for awhile now:

      $199 a set is kind of steep, but nothing sucks worse than cold hands!

      • craw

        Not only is it $200/set but the battery is absolutely massive. If I spend $200 on grips I’m expecting a more finished product (a couple of grip diameter options or better yet regular ODI compatibility, a compact battery and minimal wiring).

  • Obsession Bikes

    Cheap and cheerful winter booties: plastic bags ! Yes I said it. I could have said $60 Gore socks but Plastic bags over wool socks work well. Truth be told Shimano and Specialized make winter boots and they are THE best but you probably blew the budget on new tires so plastic bags are ok.
    The toque: (The American Beanie) Carry a nice dry one for the walk out or post ride shiver but take one of those fancy under helemt jobs for the ride.
    Great Tire levers; Why? because you have about 5 minutes to fix that flat before your friends leave you for Old man Winter to devour. Dont bring your ego to a tire fight – use the sticks. Good chain tool – same thing reason.
    A LIFEPROOF case for your fully charged phone. Best $65 I have spent on a phone is this waterproof cover. Throw yourself in the creek, upside down, crawl out and HAHA your phone is still awesome. Fully charged. Why? Have you ever wanted to hear what Tim from North Shore Search and Rescue actually says about the guys in the backcountry lost with a lousy phone and low batteries. I bet it is rich. We don’t generally get lost mountain biking but we do get injured- charge it.
    Throw some Spaceman Spiff Food in your bag. A 3 month old Power Bar is better then nothing waiting for NSSR to come get your buddy out of the wooods.
    A Winter holiday to Costa Rica or Peru. Nothing better to take with you then the dream of an Epic trip to some place hot.

  • shredy lamar

    i spent $10 bucks on used trail tools and stashed them out there so i can cover my tracks when its to wet and i just have to ride anyway. (all winter here.) try a habitat for humanity warehouse or something. it smooths things over with the trail builders

  • FlipFantasia

    #20 buy some winter shred sticks and give your bike and the trails a break for a couple months.

  • cam

    That tip is great if you happen to live in Whistler Flip. Where the trails all get buried and the pow is close at hand. For some of us (myself included) winter is when we have time to ride.

    The key is to pick your trails wisely. Here’s an article I wrote two years ago with some suggestions for riding en hiver.

    I second the toque suggestion. Best thing you could stuff in your pack or pocket for a ride on a cold day.
    A hot water hose for when you get home is great as well.

    Great list Morgman!

    • FlipFantasia

      doesn’t the shore have 3 ski hills? :)

      • cam

        And you ski there how often? lol Not a fan of the locals for snow unless it’s a snowshoe or an early weekday powder shred. Whistler gets my lift dollas.

    • morgman

      Hello! Friend with a hot water hose!

  • nvrsmmr

    Where’s tip #5?

    This is a great list. Nothing better than having a spare pair of gloves to put on. And dry clothes waiting in the car for afterwards.

    • morgman

      Lost in the shuffle, but you’d never know it now ;)

      Mmmm… dry clothes.

  • seanstdenis

    I just bought an under the helmet touque from Craft. I can live with the cold arms, hands and feet. But when my ears and head freeze, I’m out. I live in Whistler, so my #20 was to buy a truck so I can get down to Squamish, Van or the Sunshine Coast. I’ll ski when I need to do a photo shoot, but until then its two wheels all the way.

  • GladePlayboy

    I live in the interior so the right bike is essential gear. A normal skinny tire steed won’t cut it, so I bought a FAT bike last year to keep on shredding through the snow. Keeping warm is pretty easy here as there is no water to contend with, just use some common sense and good shoes, gloves and head cover.

  • Reverend

    11b: Waterproof shorts for when it’s really wet. A dry butt is nice but with fenders being super DIY and not always effective the easiest solution is to get some good shorts. I have a pair of Endura knickers that do the trick.

    • cam

      I second that. I have a pair of Sombrio shorts designed for commuting that are water proof. Very nice to have dry cheeks.

  • awesterner

    Great tips! If I’m riding to the trails I usually wear waterproof insulated gloves, then swap over to rideable gloves on the trails. It’s a good think if you end up having to hoof it. As well I always have a headlamp stashed in my pack, even during day rides,cause you never know!

    • FlipFantasia

      in addition to a headlamp at all times, I also have a package of handwarmers and a space blanket in with my firstaid kit

  • Jdot

    Pesticide sprayer is a great idea… Time to invest in one of those.

  • megrim

    Morgan, for waterproof/breathable jacket, are you talking Gortex (etc.)? I’ve got a Gortex riding jacket and it works OK, but I would rate it low on the breathability index. It also doesn’t have any vents (like an Arcteryx jacket), so that probably doesn’t help things.

    Great list and a good reminder for the winter riding!!


    • morgman

      Pit zips are helpful, but a breathable shell is key – and there are varying thicknesses of GoreTex. My primary rain riding jacket is an Arc’teryx Alpha SL, which uses the super thin Paclite GoreTex. You do still sweat in it, but at least some of it comes out. I’ve crashed in it numerous times, ripped it once and had it repaired, still goes great. People scoff at the idea of a $400 shell – and especially riding in it – but time and time again I reach for this piece. It was money well spent.

  • metroneck

    I have a few pesticide sprayers that I no longer need if anyone wants one. Free to a good home.

    PM me.

  • whitehonky

    Gotta agree with the Gore Socks. Spendy at $60, but better than plastic bags for the same breathability reasons as a breathable jacket. I ride most every weekday through the winter and a pair of gore socks typically lasts 2 to 3 seasons. Even with a minor holes over time, they still work. And with plastic bags, your heels slip.

    Agree with Morgman on buying a quality fabric rather than brand or bike specific. Most bike specific jackets I’ve had in the past don’t carry the quality or know-how of outdoor brands. PacLite rules the roost, but even Marmot Precip jacket, at half the price of a mtb brand, works 80% better.

    Micro headlamp, waterproof matches, and a space blanket… you never know when it’s gonna’ get dark fast after an injury or major mechanical. In summer you suffer, in winter you die.

  • iLalena

    Where do you buy Gortex socks? I don’t think I’ve seen them before.

    Has anyone ever found a good lightweight waterproof breathable glove? I’m thinking something like most liners… but waterproof.

    Morgan, I feel the same as you in terms of your Arc’teryx jacket. I couldn’t bring myself to wear such an expensive jacket riding. However, the Race Face Chute jacket has been one of the only “bike branded” waterproof breathable’s that I’ve been happy with; half the price.

  • Buster Bluth

    16(1) A samsquatch suit.

  • whitehonky
  • FlipSide

    Additions to #13: a coil sprung fork on the hardtail, and a full mechanical dropper post (e.g.: Gravity Dropper) for ultimate reliability in cold temperatures.

  • crossroads

    #15 what about female riders, should they grow a beard??


    I was able to pick up one of the few remaining Icebreaker 3/4 chamois. Im sure my knees will like being further covered up during the winter months and the Merino wool seems to be fairly thick. Wasn’t able to find a bib knicker though:( Still might need to find a pair of waterproof overshorts at some point too

  • Myk

    Goretex socks, worth every $0.01. Pain to take off when they’re wet, can’t ‘pull’ them on like regular socks, but wow do they ever keep your feet dry and warm !

    If not in the ‘essentials list’, they should be #1 in the ‘not so essentials’.