Winter riding tips
Winter Survival Guide

27 Winter Riding Tips (Winter Is Coming!)

Words Cam McRae
Date Nov 15, 2017

Winter means different things to different people even in the same geographic area. Some riders put their bikes away before the first frost, while others embrace the challenge and beauty of battling the elements - like Jon Snow. The right attitude helps but it won't mean squat if you haven't prepared adequately for the nastiness the heavens have waiting for you. 

Kona Wozo

Last winter we had a tonne of snow and it was a blast riding the Kona Wozo (review here) but most rides were on conventional mountain bikes. Photo - Dave Smith

I love to ski and snowboard and even snowshoe, but when the conditions are perfect my favourite winter activity is mountain biking. The right snow conditions will let you drift and schralp like the Coastal Crew and at ride's end your bike is cleaner than when you started. Here are some ideas that will keep you riding when the mercury retreats like a noob at Rampage.

The Basics

Ours is an enthusiast publication so if you are here you likely know the basics. Probably even more than the basics. You should probably be writing this. Regardless, I'd be a slacker to not reiterate the broad strokes for those who live north of chilly; a jacket that breathes and is robustly waterproof (for soggy locales), a good base layer that will keep the moisture away from your pelt, an insulating layer (preferably wool), waterproof and/or warm gloves, tights or knee warmers, and some waterproof shorts for those in the know. Adding some winter shoes and/or waterproof socks will make your ride much more pleasurable as well. Below we'll get into the finer details and a few hacks to help our google ranking.  

Clothing and Footwear Prep

You can have studded tires on your full suspension fat bike and perfect conditions, but if you get cold, particularly your hands and feet, there will be no joy, no skill and no fun. Unfortunately hands and feet are the most difficult points to keep warm. Here are some joy-preserving strategies.

Ollie Jones

Fat bikes are fun but virtually any mountain bike can be used in winter as Ollie Jones demonstrates here. It all depends on the conditions. Riding without gloves in the snow? You can tell Ollie didn't write this article. Photo - Hailey Elise

Extras

Build in redundancy. If you are going to ride a lot in the wet and cold then one pair of shoes or gloves likely won't cut it. Ideally you'll want to have a relatively quick turnaround time in between rides (always be ready for weather windows) which may mean your stuff will still be wet. If you have a second pair of gloves and shoes, you'll always have a dry pair. For your feet, hang onto an old pair of shoes or pick up a used pair. Bring an extra base layer, gloves, and a toque in your pack in case things go sideways. An injured rider will lose heat very quickly. 

Toastie Toes

1. Get a boot and shoe dryer. Andrew Major is a fan of Peet's version but there are others that are more portable if that appeals to you. Some dry both boots and gloves - so be careful to order what will work best for you.

Shoe dryers

Boot and shoe dryers come in several shapes and sizes. The one on the right folds flat for mobility and it will also handle your ski or snowboard boots when the heating arms are more horizontal.

2. Switch to flats for the winter. SPD and other click-in pedal interfaces can become unusable in freezing temperatures. Beyond that, attaching the sole of your foot to a piece of frozen metal isn't great for heat management (unless you use winter shoes with insulated insoles). And riding flats is fun and good for your skills. A downside is that it's tough to wear booties/covers with flats and flat pedal compatible water proof shoes aren't easy to find. 

OWN

Only Whats Necessary shoes come with two liners - one is thermal for winter the other is mesh so your shoes don't overheat when it's warmer. It's like two shoes in one. Pete's review of them is here. Photo - Dave Smith

OWN

Very few shoes made for flats are built for gnarly weather, but unclipping may still be the best choice for winter. Photo - Dave Smith

3. Wear some booties/shoe covers. It used to be that booties were pretty much a roadie thing because the covers often wrapped the bottom of the outsole as well as the uppers. Both Endura and Pearl Izumi are making mountain bike specific covers that will allow you to walk around without destroying the covers and the Endura version is designed for flat pedal shoes!

Endura overshoes

Endura MT500 Plus Overshoes are designed to work over your flats. We remain skeptical but hopefully we'll get our shoes into some to test this winter. 

4. Add heat. Rechargeable heated socks are a thing. As are heated insoles that are rechargeable with a USB cable. Disposable insoles/toe warmers are a more reasonably priced option but they require good air circulation to function properly. 

5. Waterproof socks. I've had varying success with these, largely because they often feel you've put your foot into an empty hot water bottle. Right now I'm trying some from Showers Pass that actually feel a lot like normal socks. Unfortunately I've been lucky on my rides so I don't yet have much to report but I'll be back with a full review. 

6. Go cheapo. If you don't have any sort of waterproof shoes or socks then a plastic bag will work in a pinch. You'll slide around and it won't breathe at all - but it's better than nothing. 

7. Go up a half size for your winter shoes. Pressure is the enemy of circulation so you want some wiggle room for your toes. Extra space will also allow you to wear thicker socks. 

8. Insulate. Put some insulating tape under the insoles of your shoes for more... insulation.

Dextrous Digits

Warm feet are bad but warm hands are worse. 

1. The Unicorn. The ultra warm glove with a thin palm for great bike control... does not exist. If you want warm hands you'll have to sacrifice control. If you want uncompromising control you'll have to sacrifice warmth. (see exception to this rule below) If your rides include long climbs followed by extended descents, consider going warm for the climb and thin for the down. Bulky gloves for high performance riding are like playing piano in baseball mitts, but if you have to choose, go for warmth. 

2. Get some pogies or bar mitts; covers that stay with your bike allowing you to slide a thin-gloved hand inside. Pogies come from the rowing world where it's essential to have bare hands on your oar and if you find some rowing pogies that will fit over your brake levers you'll save some money. If you are heading for the Iditarod, or if you ride where it's often cold, check out Bar mitts. These fleece lined 6mm neoprene covers fix to your bars with an expandable bar end plug covering levers, shifters, and even bar ends if you are stuck in the 90s. 

bar mitts

Just don't wave at your buddies while using bar mitts - or you'll be going down hard. Your friends will laugh, until their fingers start turning black.

3. Heat up your claws. Rechargeable heated gloves are now a thing if that's your cup of tea. But chemical warmers work pretty well for less cash. They are cheaper in bulk but potency is lost over time so it makes sense to purchase in modest quantities. 

4. Bring spares in some sort of watertight container (or just a plastic bag).

5. Keep your brake finger warm. Carbon levers help because carbon is less conductive than alumin(i)um - that's right, you can justify carbon in this context! I haven't had success with this, but I know some riders who have used thin, roadie bar tape. 

Other Body Parts

1. Knee warmers are fine if you don't wear pads but if you do, they are a pain in the ass. Wearing long socks instead and riding with your pads on is a solid alternative. Or wear full-length tights. (note - not recommended over your baggies)

2. Neck tubes are versatile and easy to carry. You can pull them up over your head if needed and cover your mouth and nose when it's particularly bitter. As always, merino wool is the best choice, but a wicking synthetic will also help.

Seb Kemp goggles half shell

Seb Kemp knows winter fashion. 

3. Be bold, start cold! It's tempting to layer every woolen garment you own when the gales of November come early, but you'll be sweating before you round your first switchback. You'll either be forced to stop and disrobe or you'll soak yourself in sweat, making temperature control problematic for the rest of the ride. Don't go too light obviously but too heavy isn't much better. This requires a bit of experimentation - just like shaking out a new bike, it may take a few rides to dial in your perfect layering setup for certain conditions.

4. Goggles on the half shell! Winter is no time to worry about fashion so just go ahead and go full enduro. If you ride in dense forest you'll want clear lenses, unless you are riding in snow. 

Bike Setup 

1. Be sure to lube your shifter cable(s) if you have been riding in wet weather or cleaning your bike with a power washer. Frozen cables suck. Triflow works great in our experience.

fender long live chainsaw

Our favourite fender is dedicated to our favourite rider. You can pick one up here. #longlivechainsaw

2. Fenders! A front fender is essential if you are riding in the muck and there are folks who swear by a rear mud guard as well. Note - fenders are great in the wet but awful in sticky snow. If the snow is light or well packed then giv'er. If not leave it at home. 

SR Suntour fork with fender

Many SR Suntour forks include a bolt on fender that provides solid coverage and a clean look. 

3. Weight Weenies stay home. If you have ever changed a flat in sub zero temperatures you know what a joy it is. Prep your bike by riding burlier tires and adding more sealant. Cushcore will be a great winter choice because of the flat resistance, low pressure feasibility and the run-flat capability. 

4. Ditch the chain guide if you are riding in the snow. 

5. 200mm rotors are your friend in the slippery and snowy stuff for added power and modulation. Just choose your braking points carefully. 

6. Fat tires or less fat tires. Huge low pressure tires work great then you can ride on top of snow because it's frozen or hard packed.  If you are riding through powder snow fat tires may slow you down and provide too much flotation.  

Random Tips

1. Your hydration pack hose may freeze unless you have an insulating sleeve. Luckily there is a company entirely devoted to this product - hydrationtubecovers.com.  I'm not shitting you. If you can't find the perfect colour sleeve, you can instead just blow the water back into your reservoir after every drink. Otherwise you'll be trying to eat a popsicle through a straw. 

Hydration covers

This site exists for the sole purpose of insulating your hose. 

2. Carry a flask. Our lawyer would certainly advise us against recommending pairing alcohol and mountain biking, so what we are talking about here is actually malted grain juice. Ride with care but a wee nip, while not actually warming you up, feels warm and soothing going down. #flaskfriday ftw!

Flask Friday

What you put in your flask is your business. 

3. Those thermal reflective 'space blankets' do a remarkably good job of preserving heat and they weigh almost nothing. Toss one in for the winter and forget about it until you need it. 

4. Night riding in the snow is amazing. You hardly need any light at all and the forest is calm and quiet. You'll probably want to bring a notebook to write some poetry. Do it. 

There's something about battling the elements that awakens the warrior spirit. The feeling of triumph and elation may just be chilled endorphins, but a post ride beer never tastes better than after an inclement adventure. 

Get on out there and share your #flaskfriday and other winter riding pics with us.

Comments

fartymarty
+1
fartymarty  - Nov. 15, 2017, 12:08 a.m.

Thanks for the tip on not layering up too much.  I tend to over layer and sweat lots as a result.  Thankfully it's not too cold in south east UK.  

I also read somewhere (a long time ago) that your knees should be covered (tights / knee pads) in anything below 15 degrees C.  Is there any truth in this.

Reply

legbacon
+1
legbacon  - Nov. 15, 2017, 8:25 a.m.

Goretex socks with Fivetens.  Regular gloves 1 size too big with a thin fleece liner glove, and bring extras.  I will not own a mountain bike that my Mudhugger rear mud guard will not fit.  This works great here on Vancouver Island.

Reply

pedalhound
+1
pedalhound  - Nov. 15, 2017, 8:53 a.m.

Merino wool keeps me happy all winter! Only during the coldest rides to I have to wear more than a merino base layer and my normal riding jersey. I do love living on the Island!

Reply

cooperquinn
+2
Cooper Quinn  - Nov. 15, 2017, 11 a.m.

Merino FTW.

Reply

paul-lindsay
+1
Paul Lindsay  - Nov. 15, 2017, 4:20 p.m.

I think everyone I know in our part of Scotland uses snowsport base layers in the coldest depths of winter. Bike base layers aren't up to the coldest days. It's almost like the bike brands think "nah, it's really not that cold" form their offices in the South!

Reply

thinkwithink
+2
Thinkwithink  - Nov. 15, 2017, 6:46 p.m.

My tip: come to Phoenix for a bit. I'll show you around!

Reply

lacykemp
0
Lacy Kemp  - Nov. 16, 2017, 2:03 p.m.

Another tip for keeping your hydration hose from freezing: tuck it in your shirt. Works every time.

Reply

jonkranked
+1
jonkranked  - Nov. 17, 2017, 8:43 a.m.

i'm in the habit of blowing air into the hose to empty it of water.  can be a bit of a nuisance to have to pull the water all the way back through the hose for a drink, but it prevents it from freezing.

Reply

lacykemp
0
Lacy Kemp  - Nov. 16, 2017, 2:04 p.m.

Also, if anyone has any tips to keep KS seatposts working in sub-zero temperatures, I'd love the help. Mine dies as soon as we hit freezing.

Reply

paul-lindsay
0
Paul Lindsay  - Nov. 16, 2017, 2:06 p.m.

Is the cable freezing up? Mine still works when all the Reverbs have stopped.

Reply

lacykemp
0
Lacy Kemp  - Nov. 17, 2017, 3:57 p.m.

I think it must be. If i flip the actuator it kills all tension in the cable. The post won't stay down on its own and it won't stay up if I sit on it. The worst of both worlds.

Reply

DemonMike
0
mike  - Nov. 17, 2017, 6:54 p.m.

is it a LEV ?? if so take it out and check to see the bottom is not all covered in oil . The bottom part where the cable lever is came loose on mine  , and the gland nut on the cartage came loose leaking oil  . I fixed mine but did not get the bleed perfect , next time I tear the bike down I will try to rebleed it . I found a good service video on http://forums.mtbr.com/components/ks-lev-diy-cartridge-rebuild-899659-5.html

Reply

jonkranked
0
jonkranked  - Nov. 17, 2017, 8:41 a.m.

answer sleestaks are the best winter gloves i've found to date.  thin palms, nice and plenty insulated, and only about $40.  only downside is they're not waterproof, but for the price i think it's a reasonable tradeoff.  plus, at the temperature ranges you'll be using them most water will be frozen anyways (unless you take a digger into a stream that's not frozen like i have; even then they didn't soak through if you get out quick enough).

also, if you do stick with clipless for the winter, winter spd shoes are worth every penny.  if you find your feet still getting cold, add a set of aerogel insoles (you can get them for about $20 on Amazon)

Reply

antimuss
0
antimuss  - Nov. 17, 2017, 4:32 p.m.

Not to spoil your winter biking trips I found very useful tips and other information how to keep riding in wet and cold winter conditions. I think if to follow all that tips and instructions, winter biking can give you even more joy and adventures than summer riding. If you are not much experienced in it, you should pay attention to the features of icy and wet road riding.

Reply

CameronCurtis
0
Cameron Curtis  - Nov. 19, 2017, 6:59 a.m.

Did anyone else notice that Ollie looks exact like Leonardo DiCaprio in that photo? I've never seen the movie, but I hear her wrestles a bear. Any man who rides winter with no gloves could probably take on a bear.

Reply

AlanB
0
AlanB  - Nov. 19, 2017, 9:01 p.m.

ANY sort of cover on your brake levers will help keep your fingers warm. Bare metal sucks heat away so quickly.

Neoprene is the warmest, but even Plasti Dip will reduce heat loss while braking.

Reply

jt
0
JT  - Nov. 20, 2017, 7:51 a.m.

Gear tip: I've yet to find any Shimano shifter that doesn't benefit from having a bit of light/penetrating lube squirted into it for the cold months. Being in the middle of a ride and having a shifter gum up is a total drag. Speaking from experience, personal and others.

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