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19 Winter Riding Essentials

Words - Morgan Taylor

Words by Morgan Taylor. Photos by Morgan Taylor and Garrett Thibault.
November 12th, 2014

We originally published this last year but we thought it was the perfect time to release it again. Get out and ride this winter!


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:

winter, mountain bike, bike, gear, guide, riding, essentials, must haves, tips, rain, snow

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.

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

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.

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?

  • tuskalooa

    any recommendations for gloves.. most often they never seem to do what they say on the tin and end up in the bin.

    • Cam McRae

      Gloves are pretty condition dependent tusk. What sort of arctic conditions do you deal with? Is moisture a concern or is it too cold for that? When you have to deal with both wet and cold conditions with the same glove it gets tricky- but one at a time is a little easier.

      • tuskalooa

        Typically here in the UK – cold and wet, as winters are typically just miserable. Think Ray mentioned a good point about a head warmer. Great article

      • Cam McRae

        UK conditions are very much like ours. These were my go to last winter for both cold and wet (contradicting my earlier point) http://nsmb.com/pearl-izumi-p-r-o-barrier-gloves/ Most warm gloves have palms that are too thick to enable good control which defeats the purpose so I sacrifice a little on the warmth side to preserve good grip on the bar.

    • Agleck7

      I like the Endura winter gloves. Fairly low pro for being warm and waterproof. I’ve used them to about zero Fahrenheit in Minnesota

    • Cr4w
    • Craig Hunt

      Check your local work wear store. The best wet winter gloves I’ve found are actually gloves that carpenters use when building houses in the winter. The glove is built in a claw shape (for holding on to a hammer) with minimal insulation on the palm, but wind stop/ water resistant back. The palm material has a texture to give you grip even when wet or muddy. I bought them a bunch of years ago so I’m not sure if they still sell the same model. Cheaper and more durable than a bike specific glove.

      • nojzilla

        Were latex, or similar if you’re allergic. Under your usual gloves. Dry warm hands an bones! (I’m old) super cheap an super effective

  • Raymond Epstein

    Glacier Curves are very warm and dry. Throw in a liner and you’ll cook unless it’s sub zero. http://www.glaciercycling.com/category-s/1817.htm Also Black Diamond windstopper fleece work great too.

  • Rob Gretchen

    Right on…. good tips. Couple of others if you fat bike in the cold and snow (eg. interior)… winter goretex shoes, a balaclava or head warmer is a must.

  • mhh

    I wonder where i can get a prodeal on a beard.

    • Cr4w

      We’ve passed Peak Beard so you should be able to pick one up cheap off Main St.

  • http://www.themudhugger.co.uk Jamie Gardiner

    Hey Morgan, don’t forget the Mudhuggers! No need for home DIY fenders anymore. Available from Lynn Valley Bikes.

  • M_Irwin

    Denver for PM.

  • Nick

    Some great tips! On point 19. My Garmin 510 sends my current ride out to my wife via my phone, live while I’m riding. So she knows where to send the chopper should I be late for dinner.

  • http://www.jerrywillows.ca Jerry Willows

    A shovel. Great time of year to fix up your local trails.

    • Derp

      100%. Ride less, build more. Make trails ready for the upcoming year.

  • Ben

    In the last picture, the green bike, is the front wheel smaller than the back?

    • Daniel Murphy

      Yeah, there is something seriously screwy with that image.

  • Paul J Drabble

    For cleaning dirty bikes after the ride I’d recommend checking out http://www.mountainwasher.com. The guy who sells them llives and rides in the lower mainland.

    • lvtride

      Yeah I’ve got a mountain washer and it’s pretty sweet for this time of
      year. The ride gets cleaned right away and dry by the time I get home.

    • ridonkulus

      Or just buy a pesticide sprayer from the local hardware store for $10.

    • Brendon Purdy

      Love the mountain washer, a little bit of luxury for sure, but it’s one less thing to do when your home thawing out! Best for longevity

  • Steve

    I’m no roadie, but I appreciate Louis Garneau for their great cold-weather gloves. Just bought a pair of wind-tex eco gloves and they are awesome! Very thin, and no wind gets through them.

  • random jobber

    I might add a slightly larger backpack, if you dont have one. I find my temp spikes and drops much quicker, and thus, I am frequently adding or removing layers.

  • gerko

    I agree with Paul there, got myself a mountain washer and it saves my
    life living in a north van condo. Can’t live without, now I can hose my
    bike off right at the trail head and bring it right in my apartment
    spotless!

  • nojzilla

    Menthol or cough sweets, keep your airways clear of phlegm if like me, you keep a cold all winter an end up puking from a closed up throat a few miles into a winter push

  • AlanB

    2 lights isn’t enough. Add an LED bar light for climbing access roads and a red tail light for pedaling up Mtn Hwy.

    Keep the LED bar light in your pack – always. It’s also good as an emergency light.

  • AlanB

    Chaise lounge covers make decent seat covers. Mine lives in the car, rolled up in a tent bag.