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Winter Riding Gear 2012

Jan 20, 2012
by Colin Meagher  
Pinkbike Winter gear made cheap-ish and easy

Ah, the heart of winter. Up until the current "Snowpocalypse", the Pacific Northwest and the Vancouver area have seen a mild winter so far; December 2011 was the driest December on record for the Washington Cascades. However, recent ‘arctic’ temps in our area and boatloads of snow in some parts of the NW have forced me to scratch the gray matter in my skull and come up with the must haves if you intend to put tire to dirt (or snow) during the dark months. These are, for the most part, small ticket items that can make the difference between having a great ride vs. sheer misery in conditions that’ll find most folks contemplating finally doing that fork overhaul they’ve been putting off for two years.

Jenny Konway milking the end of the high country in the Washington Cascades with a ride on Dalles Ridge from Corral Pass to Buck Creek on the Ranger Creek Trail in mid November with Reilly. Note the knee warmers. Jenny s also rocking the Dakine White Knuckle gloves.

Jenny Konway milking the end of the high country in the Washington Cascades with a ride on Dalles Ridge from Corral Pass to Buck Creek on the Ranger Creek Trail in mid November with Reilly. Note the knee warmers. Jenny's also rocking the Dakine White Knuckle gloves and Shimano's SH-MW81s.


First things first: warm hands. A decent set of cold weather riding gloves are a must have for winter riding. If you can’t feel your brake levers, you’re going to ride like a clown. Cold feet will just make you miserable, but with cold hands you can’t modulate your brakes worth a damn, turning moderately technical sections of trail you can normally clean with your eyes closed into complete gong shows.

Great until it gets brrrrrrrly cold the Bellweather s Windstorm Gloves. Note the gripper silicon on the palm and the velcro cuff. The terry thumb makes a decent nose wipe too.

Great until it gets brrrrrrrly cold: the Bellweather's Windstorm Gloves. Note the gripper silicon on the palm and the velcro cuff. The terry thumb makes a decent nose wipe, too

For the brrrrly cold days the Dakine White Knuckle gloves are by far the best value for a winter riding glove retailing for a scant 35.

For the brrrrly cold days: the Dakine White Knuckle gloves are by far the best value for a winter riding glove, retailing for a scant $35

Winter gloves aren’t cheap, but they’re not that much more expensive than a set of regular summer gloves. And we’re not talking thick ski type gloves, either; but gloves that offer minimal bulk and maximum insulation. I live in Seattle, and we rarely see more than 3-4 days with snow, but we see a fair number of days where the temps aren’t all that far off from snow or sleet. Consequently, I’m usually rocking a set of Bellsport’s Windstorm gloves ($45); they are windproof, lightly insulated, and have great gripper rubber on the palm for a secure grip no matter what the conditions are. But once the snow flies, I’m a big fan of the slightly warmer Dakine White Knuckle gloves ($35); they have thinsulate insulation, a wind proof skin and a thin palm for positive bar feel and are a fair bit warmer than the Bellweathers. The Giro Pivots ($70) are well worth a mention, too, but they don’t fit my hand as nicely as the Bellsport or the Dakine gloves.

Dakine, Giro, Bellweather (as well as a few others like Pearl Izumi, Endura, etc.) make several models of gloves designed for winter riding in even colder or wetter conditions than I face in Seattle; so if your hands don’t fit the gloves I am recommending as good go-to gloves, go to your local bike shop and try on a few different brands of gloves to find the ones that will fit you and the riding conditions you face the best.


The next most important thing is a good base layer. I prefer a really thin Merino wool T-shirt made by Patagonia (Merino wool 2 T-shirt for $65). It’s a hair thinner than a typical T-shirt and while it doesn’t wick as well as a polypropylene or capilene piece, it’s an insulating layer that keeps working even if it’s soaked with sweat. Additionally, it doesn’t get stinky five minutes after you’ve been wearing it, unlike artificial fiber tech tees. Next to skin, Merino wool is so fine that unless you have a wool allergy, it shouldn’t bother you. If you go for the Patagonia piece here, make certain you size down one size to keep it body hugging. A baggy base layer doesn’t work very well. Smartwool, Ibex, and a number of other companies offer Merino wool base layers, too, but I don't know how they size theirs. Last, don’t toss it in the dryer after washing or you’ll end up with a shirt fit for a two year old.

The benefits of a Merino wool base layer are legend it functions even when wet is soft next to skin and can be worn day after day without really stinking up.

The benefits of a Merino wool base layer are legend: it functions even when wet, is soft next to skin, and can be worn day after day without really stinking up.


After the base layer, get some knee warmers or kneepads. In technical terrain, if you’re not riding with kneepads, you’re a fool. They’re cheap health insurance. Even better, they act as great knee warmers in cooler temps. If your daily dose of winter riding isn’t as technically challenging as the Shore, then a set of knee warmers is a better way to go. As with the skullcap (below), pretty much every bicycle-clothing manufacturer makes a set. My money’s on cheap ones for mountain biking ($25-$30): crash once or twice in them riding and you’ll likely shred ‘em. And a handy tip? Pull them as far up your leg as you can while still covering your knees, and keep the upper under your cycling shorts—otherwise they’ll crawl down your leg 3-4 times during your ride. Which kinda sucks. You don’t wear cycling shorts? Then go for the kneepads.

An item that a lot of riders overlook is a skullcap ($30-$40). This is not a knit hat, but a micro fleece layer that’s designed to conform to your head without bunching and is thin enough to fit under your helmet; a knit hat won’t allow your helmet to fit properly rendering it useless. I’ve been using one made by OR (Outdoor Research), but since that one’s gone missing of late I’ve been using a spare I had on hand made by Voler. Pretty much any road bike clothing manufacturer—Giordana, Sugoi, Castelli—makes one. Once you try one you’ll never do a winter ride again without one—even if it’s just stuffed into your pack as a just in case item.

A skull cap is a simple way to stay warm during winter riding.

A skull cap is a simple way to stay warm during winter riding.

Last, a more expensive, but for me a, “must have” for winter mountain biking is a set of dedicated winter shoes (not booties or toe cozies—you’ll likely just destroy those mountain biking and they can make clipping in and out difficult—although Pearl Izumi does make a mountain bike specific booty). Winter shoes are worth their weight in gold for the simple reason that the process of thawing out the frozen chunks of tundra attached to you ankles following a frigid ride is an exquisitely painful experience; it's one sure way to make a winter ride miserable.

Pretty much the winter riding shoe for me the Shimano SH-MW81.

Pretty much "the" winter riding shoe for me; the Shimano SH-MW81.

For my feet, salvation comes in the form of the Shimano SH-MW81s ($230). Yeah, that ain’t cheap, but these are a blower pair of shoes! Thinsulate to keep you toasty warm and Gore-tex to keep you dry with a mid-high, neoprene cuff that helps keep deeper puddles from getting into your shoes. These shoes will keep you out in temps down to a bit below freezing; much colder than that, though, and you’ll need an over boot of some kind. Seattle’s not the arctic by any stretch of the imagination (present conditions excepted), but the temps flirt with freezing from November through mid March enough so that I simply won’t ride without them during the winter; I’d rather have warm feet than cold feet.

If Shimano shoes do not fit your feet, there are a few other shoes like them on the market—Specialized makes the Defroster for $180 for example, and Sidi has made their venerable $329 Diablo winter shoes for just about forever, and there are other offerings from Pearl Izumi, Lake, Northwave, etc.—but try before you buy, as the fit on some company’s winter shoes is a lot different than their regular shoes.

Unfortunately, if you ride flats, you’re pretty much screwed: no one I know of makes a winter shoe specifically for flats. Your only option is wear some thicker wool socks and X fingers.

So what’s the total cost here? Gloves: $40-ish. Base layer $65. Skull cap: $30-ish. Knee warmers: $30. Winter shoes: $200-ish. Minus the shoes, you can comfortably take on winter riding for as low as $165, and you can go to war—so to speak—for a mere $200 or so more by opting for a set of the Shimano MW-81s or another set of dedicated winter shoes.

Author Info:
meagerdude avatar

Member since Jun 8, 2010
94 articles

  • 16 1
 I live in the UK so this stuff is pretty much year round atire, I find some Sealskinz socks are a must have to keep your toesies cosy !
  • 2 1
 Damn right. I wear mine for for probably 7/8 of the year. Then for the remaining 1/8 my feet are cold!
  • 1 0
 Army surplus store and 50 quid gets you a full gortex suit top and bottom job done Razz
Are these seal skin easy to look after ? need any special washing or just hand wash?
  • 3 0
 wow, and i thought canada was cold.
  • 4 1
 coming from the UK i laugh in the face of riders who can't man up to snow riding....
  • 1 3
 kitting up is overrated. I remember one christmas eve going out after recent snowfall in a t shirt, thin as paper summer gloves, and football shorts. Got cold feet from the wet (despite gore tex shoes) but other than that was fine...
  • 3 0
 Southern softies, your winter is like our summer up here, still in a t-shirt last weekend even though it touched 1C at mid day. -2C when we went out. Was toastie compared to leaving at -16C last year! Coldest ride in a T-shirt it was -23C when we left near Aviemore, pushing up sure warms you up though.
  • 6 0
 I find it's more the wet than the cold, can be minus temperatures and it's not too bad, but if you're cold AND wet, that's not good..
  • 1 0
 all im going to say is arctic circle, norway....then u start hitting the cold
  • 1 0
 Bennet346 I think our 4 inches of snow is hardly compareable to come places Meters of snow Razz
  • 9 0
 "Arctic" on the West Coast = warm on the prairies.

This week we've been hovering between -40 and -50 C with windchill. This is what I've been wearing to ride to work:

Hands: MEC lobster mitts inside Princess Auto handlebar mitts (aka Pogies)
Head: Cannondale Balaclava under Smith snowboard helmet. Smith goggles
Body: t-shirt; MEC heavyweight fleece; MEC bike jacket
Legs: MEC rain pants over jeans
Feet: Timberland snow boots

Stop the wind and keep moving and you don't need much underneath. Just don't stop for long.

This should not be taken as boasting -- everytime I start thinking I'm hardcore I see some exchange student riding through the snow on a girls 24" 5 speed!
  • 1 0
 damn! you made me feel like a weakling there.
  • 3 0
 I winter ride in Ontario, all winter. Zero through -20c. No problem. The comment in the article that I find intriguing is about flats. I have ridden all the shoes that the author mentions. Below -2 I found them all to be useless. However, my flats shoes on the other hand no problem through -20c. My flats shoes [5.10 Karvers] are the best 'winter' shoe I've ever had. Wool socks and 5.10 Karvers -20c here I come. And no cleats to clog up with snow and ice.

Get your wool base layer at MEC you can wash and dry it [in the dryer, delicate cycle] and it comes out the same size. Keep your core warm and the extremities will follow.

Good article and some great advice.
  • 1 0
 Yup, I just bought a pair of $30 MEC gaiters for my 5.10 impacts and they've been super warm all winter now... I am able to fit a larger sock in them with a bit of room. I don't think the author looked at any options for platforms, otherwise they may have also discovered something called a winter boot... Smile

btw, I don't know if the gaiter would work on the carvers since it latches to the laces.
  • 2 0
 Years of commuting 20 miles in Michigan winters taught me one valuable tip: the only way I could keep my fingers and toes warm when it was REALLY cold (which I defined as -15, toasty by Alberta standards I know) was for my body and limbs to be slightly too warm. If your trunk is just comfortable, your toes will be cold. All the expensive gear did nothing when that icy wind was tearing through it. Neoprene fishing gloves are super, too, but they have to be a bit sweaty to insulate. And when you get to work, you WILL smell like a whale carcass.
  • 1 0
 You're right, keep the torso slightly over heated and the extremities stay comfortable.
  • 2 0
 Ridden for 20+ years in all sorts of winter conditions & would absolutely not use SPDs. Any
snow or ice build up & you're hooped. I have use a decent pair of high rise hikers as if you are out on the trails the reality is you probably will have to do some walking in snow & as far as winter travel goes not much sucks more than snow in your shoes & wet cold feet.
One thing left out if you are riding trails in winter,bring a small emergency kit with matches or wind proof lighter, a candle (makes lighting a fire in winter a snap), extra warm winter gloves, a spare toque (ski cap for our American friends) & inform peopkle where you plan to go. You never know......Cheers
  • 1 0
 Ice build up can be a problem, but even if you're walking off the bike a bit, banging the shoe on the side of the pedal typically knocks that loose from the cleats. Thanks for the props and suggestions for longer rides.
  • 1 0
 Cross a stream or splash your spd pedal in running water and it's trouble unless you've got a lighter. Your foot can also melt snow on the cleat and the water will freeze up the springs. Emergency blanket and spare socks is another good one.
  • 1 0
 My key is some kid size ski goggles about 15 usd and keep your eyes from watering. I also have a thermal ski suit that is a great baselayer keeps your whole body toasty. I wear 2 pair of gloves inner pair are fox normal riding gloves and I have these outstanding Cannondale baggie fleece gloves. If it is real cold I wear booties over my winter shoes. Love winter riding.
  • 1 0
 Depending on the shoes you wear, I find a set of decent high winter socks (think Sealskins/Asos) + overshoes keeps me extra warm even with my vented race shoes. Obv this wont work on bigger shoes/flat shoes, but for the usual shimano/specialized SPD type shoes, it works great!!
  • 1 0
 Those gloves only good in 40s and up. Hard to get gloves with right insulation that work for riding. Winstopper liner with leather outer gloves and you set. Wool the best but very expensiv. Look for polar weight fleece underlayers. Alot cheaper than wool and do trick. Now they making lightweight winstopper shirts and wind stopper fleece pants. Cabelas has some great deals on them.
  • 1 0
 These gloves are actually rated for 0 deg C (32 deg F), dakine.com/p/bike/gloves/guys/white-knuckle. I've comfortably worn these gloves in temps down to -4 deg C (25 deg F), but everyone's a bit different. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what works for you.
  • 1 0
 Keep in mind I ride in the coastal NW of the USA, so the temps I'm facing are nowhere near as extreme as some PB readers--negative 15 is way past brrrrrly cold for me. Typically the coldest temps I ride in are -3C (26-ish F). If it's colder than that, I'm typically snowboarding instead of riding.
  • 1 0
 I've been most comfortable with blackbottoms bibs with padded liner underneath and the outer shorts over that for the pockets. The bibs have stirrups which help a lot. I flip the front chest ov the bibs down for long climbs to prevent sweating and flip it back up for downhills. I wear a tight "tek wear" long sleeve for the base layer. (It was 10-15 bucks at kohls) and a long sleeve jersey over that and a fila windbreaker shell. The front zipper is great for changing temps. The only thing that gets cold are feet and thumbs at speed. Specialized wool trainer socks cured the cold feet and i'm still looking for the right gloves. I have a black diamond pullover made out of scholler dynamic fabric inmypack if it gets real cold or a really long downhill. That schoeller fabric is INSANELY wind and waterproof and comfortable. BD discontinued the shirt but the scholler fabric is available from other mountain brands.
  • 1 0
 I ride about 20km each day. At the moment the temperatures are between -10 and +6 C with al lot of wind.
My experience about shoes: no click-pedal shoes! Flat pedals in combination with goretex-shoes and a good sole. Cheaper, warmer, more flexible and convenient.
  • 1 0
 Gloves: Lizard Skinz Blizzard Skinz glove - Best i've ever tested and owned. Use them for racing sno-x and moto also during the winter months.

Shoes: Teva - Forge Pro Winter Mids.
  • 1 0
 Do you think that these mtb winter gloves will act well while skiing too? I've been few times on a roadie in winter wearing my ski gloves and my index finger felt terribly cold...
  • 2 1
 They are thinner than ski gloves, so if its warm why not, if its cold, stick with ski gloves. Also, if your hands were cold whilst on the road bike, you were evidently on the WRONG BIKE.
  • 1 0
 I have a pair of Seal Skins MTB winter gloves and i find them too hot and bulky for off road . I have snow boarded in them and they were great - Waterproof, Super Warm and good dexterity compared to bulky ski gloves. Stoked this winter has been so mmild only need normal reinforced riding gloves.... Recommend Endura MT500
  • 1 0
 If you are freezing your index finger riding with ski gloves on, the gloves that work for me likely won't work for you; swing by your local shop and see what they have to offer that is rated for the temperatures you are typically riding in. If they have nothing to offer, check out jonbath's suggestions above of using pogies. For the extreme temps he's riding in, they make the most sense; by comparison, my weather conditions are positively tropical.
  • 1 0
 Get some bar mitts (pogies) and you are all set. I ride these when the temps are cold with regular MTB gloves and my hands are super comfortable without the bulk of a winter glove.

  • 2 0
 Aha- 17 F in Dec, yup that's Fahrenheit in Saratoga Springs NY . Love winter riding. The trails feel like concrete, fast and flowy.
  • 1 0
 Praise be to MW-80 winter shoes, Dogwood Designs pogies [http://fatbikes.com/dogwood-pogies.html], Craft winter jacket, Swrve shants and wool socks.
  • 1 0
 Can we talk a about jackets a bit? I am looking for one that does it all ski, Mtb, dirt bike. Just something tough and durable. Any recommendations
  • 2 0
 A jacket for all these activities is hard to pin down. Something that will work for skiing/snowboarding should work for dirt biking, but won't necessarily work for MTB riding as it will likely be a bit too bulky and likely won't breathe enough. One thing that may work is one of those jackets with a zip in/zip out liner. The zip in liner will keep you warm for the skiing/snowboarding and dirt biking in cold weather, and it can be removed for the mtb riding. Patagonia makes the 3 in 1 Snowshot jacket for exactly this reason, but even the shell on that is bulkier than what I'd prefer to wear for a mtb ride.
  • 1 0
 Colin, a decent softshell jacket will generally do well across the board. I have found my northface apex jacket to work well from mtb to skiing and even moto use. but patagonia does have some great offerings. Also, if you can spring for their stuff OHpaddler, the icebreaker merino wool is awesome. spendy, but awesome.
  • 1 0
 I echo sgs, softshells rock. Mine works well on cold, dry days as well as the snowy days. For the muddy, wet days I just use an old ski jacket. What's underneath is just as important, cotton kills.
  • 1 0
 Cotton kills for sure, wideload46. I'm slowly warming up to softshells, sgsrider--they definitely breathe well, and the Apex looks like a decent one. Anyone else have any suggestions?
  • 1 0
 I love my Apex, just saying....Patagonia has a good choice for around $150 US in the softshell dept as well. I think they call it the guide jacket? Arc'teryx also makes some great base layers and jackets. As for Wool, stuff, I have owned a few brands over the years, and am really liking the IBEX stuff, despite the higher price point, and the icebreaker stuff is awesome. Smartwool is another great brand for balaclavas, liner gloves, and little accessories that I find make a good contribution to winter gear.

Nice write up, colin.
  • 2 0
 I have some nice wool base layers ( minus 33 solid brand good price)

I am hoping for an uninsulated hard shell that I can later up for cold days and also wear comfortably on a warmer rainy day)

Seems like a lot of pros have some nice hard shell options. Anyone wearing a nice hard shell for multi sport use
  • 1 0
 I used to have a great one from troy lee designs, but I am not sure they make it anymore. Last season, fox racing had a good option for around $100, that might suit your needs. Helly Hansen, an old sponsor I had a few seasons back also made a jacket and pant combo that my friend andy used to ride all the time on his old 250, and also at the DH races here @ the NW cup.
  • 3 0
 When i was a kid i rode my bmx in -30 celcius, it was uphill both ways.
  • 1 0
 Really happy with my Specialized Defrosters - big updates for 2012. Also Specialized Deflect gloves are great for cool breezy days.
  • 1 0
 Really good tips! I followed your advice on the Merino Wool base layer tee and it worked like a charm. Any tips for lower extremities?
  • 1 1
 I wonder if my rain pants would be good for when I know I'm going to fall into deep snow many times, because I'm not wearing my snowboard pants to ride a bike.
  • 2 0
 Give 'em a go; they should work ok. My only concern'd be if they breathe well enough.
  • 1 0
 Would be nice if I could just find a pair of the 2012 Specialized Defrosters. Nobody has them in stock....
  • 1 0
 because they are spendy, and specialized doesn't have any in stock.
  • 2 0
 Those are the best winter shoes I've ever owned.
  • 3 0
 Amen. I tried a couple of others and while the performance was solid, the fit wasn't kind to my feet.
  • 1 0
 yeah those sidi ones are terrible. I picked some up from a shop I worked for a few years back since they were on closeout, and they felt terrible riding in the snow! Shimano's shoes are a great choice. I just wish my shop would stock them....sadly, not a high market for winter shoes in the NW....even if they are 'affordable' by comparison. I found my 5.10 impact highs also work well, with the right socks.
  • 1 0
 Good for people in winter! I need to wait 1 year u.u
  • 1 0
 just move somewhere warm
  • 1 0
 That's NOT a solution! Comr on have you evet ride in your favorite trail in winter??? It is a nice experience Wink

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