It seems that sometimes when assembling a winter riding wardrobe, we concentrate on jackets, jerseys, and tights, with extremities being an afterthought. But research has shown that up to 30% of heat loss from your body in cold, dry conditions occurs through your hands and feet. An additional 40% is lost through your head. Because of this, it is imperative to properly insulate these areas during cold weather cycling. Remember too, that “cold” is highly subjective. The temperatures listed should just serve as a ballpark guide. It will take experimentation to determine what works for you down to what temperatures.
Let’s start at the top. Many new helmets concentrate on ventilation and cooling. While quite nice in summer, this needs to be counteracted in winter. The Giro Ionos came with a liner for winter riding which allowed me to use this helmet into the low 40s without needing an extra layer on my head. My new helmet, however, does not offer the liner, so I’m forced to cover my head sooner this year than in the past. For rides from 45 to around 30 degrees, I usually go with just a beanie. I’ve previously used a basic Pearl Izumi beanie. Due to not being able to locate it recently, I purchased the Specialized Head Warmer. Two features of the Specialized that my older Pearl Izumi didn’t have, but I’ve really grown to like, are the fleeced extra coverage over the ears through an extension of the beanie in this area, and the rubberized logos on the side which act to grip your sunglasses arms. Small, nice touches.
As the temp falls below 30 degrees or so, I reach for full-face coverage. A word of advice when choosing your balaclava: look for one with perforations around the mouth and nose area, or at least thinner material in this area. I have used a model in the past that did not have these. With a lack of holes allowing moisture to escape during exhaling, my other balaclava both collected a lot of moisture around the mouth resulting in it being soaked by the end of the ride and also forced the warm air up and out through the gap around my nose/cheeks; funneling it right onto my glasses, causing them to constantly fog. I am currently using Gore’s balaclava and am quite happy with it. Being a Gore product, it naturally has strategically placed Windstopper around the forehead, neck and ears. Though thin, it provides plenty of warmth.
Once it’s time to put away the summer gloves, I have a single pair of gloves that pulls double-duty. Many winter gloves are actually two-piece designs with a heavier, wind and water-resistant outer shell surrounding a removable soft-shell liner. Buying a glove like this gives you the most bang for your buck, as it’s usually significantly cheaper than buying two individual gloves. The soft-shell from my gloves has a fairly dense weave to the material which allows the liner to be worn alone in temperatures as low as 25 to 30 degrees. Adding the outer shell allows my fingers to stay comfortable as low as 10 to 15 degrees. It’s rare that it’s much colder than that where I ride, but if I consistently rode in lower temperatures, I would probably buy a second pair of thicker gloves.
For the first layer of defense on my feet, I prefer a good, fairly thick pair of wool socks. These can be worn alone down to around 40 degrees or so. I hate to say this, especially since I probably have 100 bucks worth of them, but I’m disappointed in the Assos winter sock line. For the money, there are a lot of better wool socks out there. SmartWool immediately springs to mind. For an excellent overview of other sock companies and their products, check out Brian’s write-up found in his Joy of Sox reviews back in March. For winter usage, make sure the wool has a fairly dense weave. Also, it’s quite important that you don’t go too thick. You still want plenty of room to wiggle your toes while in the shoe. Wiggling the toes during the ride is a good way to help keep them warm and happy. I’ve came closest to frostbite before (my two biggest toes on each foot were actually purple) by doubling up socks and packing my toes in too tight. Furthermore, don’t tighten your shoes as much as you would on a warm weather ride. Even a slight suppression of blood flow to your feet is a much bigger deal in cold weather.
Unfortunately, I delayed this write-up in order to be able to review the Gore Alaska socks I had ordered. I say unfortunately, because I’m packing them up today to send back. I was disappointed with the cut and fit. For a cycling sock that’s going into what are usually fairly snug fitting shoes, there was an excess of material on the top of the foot making the fit in the shoe quite tight. Also, the cuffs were not stretchy enough and made removal of the sock over the heel difficult.
Once it’s too cold for just socks, it’s time for toe covers, shoe covers, or both. I can’t explain why, but I absolutely hate wearing shoe covers. Even to the point of actually needing them but not using them. I still have all my toes, and I’ll probably continue suffering some to not wear the shoe covers until it’s cold enough that I know there’s no way around it. With regards to toe covers, I have not noticed a significant difference between toe covers that were thin with a wind block material and those that incorporated some thermal lining under the wind block. I honestly don’t believe that a little thermal lining is going to do a lot of good when the rest of the shoe is still open to the wind and cold. So don’t use that as a major selling point. It’s my recommendation that you go with something light and wind-proof. Shoe covers are a different story. Since they are sealing the entire foot, the added insulation from a thermal liner can be much more significant in increasing the overall warmth. However, don’t forget to look for a wind-proof outer layer as well. If it’s extremely cold, and you chose a thin toe cover, you can always double-up with the toe covers under the shoe covers.
So, keep your head and ears warm and don’t forget to cover those fingers and toes. Rides, even in winter, should only be miserable because you’re pushing your physical limits on a hill or on a long-distance route, not because you’re on the verge of frostbite.