Part art, part science is what it takes to dress for riding in the pacific coastal winter.
Now, we have it pretty good here on Vancouver Island; I grew up in Calgary. Not only is Calgary quite a bit farther north, it sits at about 4000 ft above sea level. I spent months riding in below freezing temperatures. Relatively speaking, riding here in winter is a cakewalk. But we can get a lot of rain, which leads to lots of cold puddles, resulting in cold spray to soak your feet, legs, and butt.
I should also mention that dressing to go mountain biking differs significantly from dressing for riding the road. If you come from a road riding background and you dress the same way to go for a winter rip in the woods, you will roast.
What to Wear For Winter Mountain Biking
There are some big considerations here. When we are off-road, we are moving relatively slowly (compared to road riding) and we are generating a great deal of heat. Slower speeds mean less windchill. Coupled with the higher heart rates (usually), it means that one does not need quite as many layers when hitting the trails as you would if you were heading out on the skinny road tires. Think of how you might dress if you were going for an aggressive hike or trail run.
I always start with a proper pair of cycling shorts and a thin base layer for my upper body. Cotton underwear and T-shirt is a big NO-NO! You will need wool or high tech fabrics to wick sweat away from your body keep you warm and dry.
What to Wear on Your Lower Body
Next, I layer a baggy short over top of the lycra short, with either my knee pads (which also offer a bit of warmth) or a pair of knee warmers or leg warmers. I usually steer away from full tights unless it is below zero (celsius). Most of the time, I find tights too hot and a bit bulky between the legs.
What to Wear on Your Upper Body
Up top, I choose a long sleeve jersey to insulate my upper body. There are varying weights of jerseys, from thin DH (downhill) style summer jerseys to thermal jerseys that are really designed to keep you warm. Use your discretion here. If it is close to freezing, wear something a bit thicker. If the mercury has risen to 5 degrees or above, choose something very light.
What to Wear as Your Outer Layer
Over top, I will throw a windproof/waterproof layer. I just picked up an Endura MT 500 jacket from Oak Bay Bikes Westshore. I highly recommend this jacket if you are looking for a something new. I have also had a great experience with the Race Face Chute jacket over the past few winters. There are many many options in this category in many price ranges. Pick something that fits your budget and riding style.
For really hardcore xc rides, when it’s not raining, I will often opt for a vest rather than a jacket. Vests are very versatile, keeping your core insulated while offering a much higher degree of breathability than even the most ventilated of jackets.
What to Wear On Your Hands & Feet
Now let’s talk about our extremities. Hands and feet are THE biggest challenge in cold, wet winter weather.
For gloves, select something that has a bit of insulation and perhaps wind/waterproofing. This can be tricky, as often waterproof gloves are way too hot for mountain biking. If it is not raining when I am leaving the house, I will generally opt for a thinner glove and stash a pair of heavier, waterproof gloves in my pack or jersey pocket.
On my feet, I have chosen the Shimano Gore Tex lined MW81 boots. These things are life-savers! With a neoprene cuff around the ankle and a gore tex lining, these shoes keep your feet dry and toasty. There are also great options from Specialized, Mavic, and Louis Garneau. I will usually use a slightly thicker sock in winter, but be careful not to choose something too bulky. That added thickness can actually make your shoes too tight and may end up cutting off circulation in your feet.
Now… not everyone is going to go and drop $300 on a pair of winter riding shoes. So how are you gonna keep your feet warm and dry? Well, back before Gore Tex, we all used to use plastic bread bags over our socks inside our shoes. Pretty low-tech, but it works! There are also Rocky Gore-Tex socks.
I used these for ages before the Shimano winter boots came on the market. They are great and won’t break the bank!
What to Wear on Your Head
So how about the ol’ noggin? Well, protecting your brain, while keeping your ears and head warm, can be a challenge. That helmet that you bought because of its’ amazing ventilation that keeps your skull so nice and cool in the summer, has now become FREEZING!
A thin headband, skullcap, or even a bandana comes in very handy. That trusty ol’ bandana, if not used on your head, can also work great tied around your neck to cover your face if you have to ride the road for a little while to get to, or home from the trails.
Stay Warm Out There!
So there you have my advice on dressing for the elements in our pacific northwest winter. With the right gear and a little improvisation, riding in the winter can really be quite a lot of fun. Plus, there’s hardly ever anyone else out there on the trials!
On a final note, and for a good chuckle, check out The Rules from Velominati. Please refer to Rule Number 5 and Rule Number 9.