Sonya Looney’s key clothing for cold weather riding

Use a layering system, pack some surgical gloves, and don't forget your tuque

Sonya Looney's Key Clothing for Cold Weather Riding

A good set of pogies for your hands can make even the most bitter cold ride tolerable.

Winter can be painful. Upon walking out the door, you subconsciously cringe in bitter anticipation of the cold air stinging your warm cheeks. There have been days where I want to close the door and go back inside. But we are cyclists and at least some of us don’t let weather stop us. Sure, I spend time on the trainer when it’s not safe for me to be outdoors (mostly due to unsafe roads). However, I get outside as much as I can, even when it’s cold.

I’ve spent many winters testing different types of winter gear to avoid the prickly goosebumps, jaw shattering shivers, and ice cold pain. There has been the odd ride where my husband had to pick me up because I was suffering from hypothermia or a coffee shop I ducked in to never to come out again. But for the most part, I have winter gear dialed. Everyone has their own personal thermostat, so dressing for winter is specific to each person.

Here is how I layer for winter and some of the key pieces of clothing I use. If you have a tip for me, leave a comment at the bottom of this post. (Undoubtedly some of you live in much colder climates than I do.) Bottom line, it’s all about proper layering, so let’s start with the basics: the intimate layer that cozies up to your bare skin.

First Layer

I always start with a merino wool long sleeve base layer. Merino wool is highly breathable active fiber that reacts to changes in body temperature. The fiber also holds up to 30% of its own weight in moisture. I also have short sleeve base layers if it’s not quite cold enough to warrant a long sleeve. Ladies – I like wool sports bras as well!

For the bottoms, you can get thermal tights with a built in chamois, or wear chamois shorts with leg warmers. I prefer thermal tights because they are warmer than the short/leg warmer combo because the shorts themselves are usually just a thin layer of Lycra (though some manufacturers do offer heavier weight bib shorts). If it is really cold, I put another pair of thermal tights (without a chamois) on top. If you are going with leg warmers or knee warmers, get a pair with a brushed fleece lining.

Sonya Looney's Key Clothing for Cold Weather Riding

On wet days a waterproof outer shell is key.

Mid Layer

Next I slip on a windproof, long sleeve jersey. I look for the actual technology “windstopper” when I buy winter gear. I also look for water resistance and breathability. Some jerseys are treated to keep water out, but don’t have taped seams for breathability. Castelli (Gabba) and GORE both offer windstopper products that have some waterproofing.

Outer Layer

If it’s a dry day, I opt for an outer layer that’s thicker with wind proofing and a soft liner. I also look for clothing that is a little bit longer in the back to accommodate the bent over riding position. A lot of outerwear has a special membrane to allow breathability (airflow out), but not let cold air in. Primal Wear and Endura both make great winter jackets.

If it’s wet out, I opt for a waterproof shell that is light and packable. I prefer to go outside the cycling apparel world on this one. I have spent countless hours riding and racing in the rain. There are some great ones out there by Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Marmot. I look for taped seams, pit zips, and a hood. It’s also worth noting that I use waterproof pants as a shell if it’s wet, as well as fenders, even on the mountain bike.


For my feet, I love the DeFeet Woolie Boolies and Thermeators. The Thermeators are less bulky non-wool option, but still warm and cozy. I like getting knee high wool socks for added warmth.

Over my socks I use a winter boot. Lake and 45NRTH both have good options. I have been riding in the Lake MXZ400. I look for a winter boot that is well-insulated, compatible with clipless pedals, has a good sole for hiking in the snow, and a cycling specific shoe design (like an arch, heel, and instep designed for riding) instead of a hiking boot.

Sonya Looney's Key Clothing for Cold Weather Riding

Strategic layering is the key to staying warm (and dry) during wintertime rides.

My hands are the most challenging part. I still think heated, battery-powered gloves would be awesome. Gloves are tricky because you need several pairs for all different weather conditions. I don’t like lobster-claw gloves because I always ride my mountain bike, and lobsters force you to do two fingered braking which feels weird to me. But riders I know swear by them for road biking. In my personal repertoire are leather ski gloves, heli-skiing gloves, and different weights of cycling gloves. Here are some of my favorites: Hestra Army Leather ski (index finger + mitten), Scott Ultimate ski glove, any of the GORE windstopper gloves, and the Castelli DiLuvio Gloves (full neoprene for the rain). I also like pogies such as those made by Bar Mitts for extreme weather. They basically are giant insulated handlebar covers. I also wear warm gloves underneath them.

Finally, on my head, I wear a thin wool beanie (or if you’re in Canada, they call it a tuque, pronounced toook). If you have extra cash, buying an extra helmet that is one size bigger is nice way to fit a thicker beanie under your helmet in the winter. I also love Buff head covers because they make them in all different weights including wool. You can fold them to cover just your ears or your entire head. You can also use them as a neck gaiter.

Other Tricks

On really cold day I sometimes wear silk or surgical gloves as a first layer underneath my gloves. But I only do that if it’s really cold or wet. (The hand warmers some skiers use have not worked great for me. They just don’t seem to be hot enough.)

I always bring a backpack with extra layers. It’s also a good trick if you are overdressed because you have somewhere to store your layers to prevent getting sweaty and cold. I also sometimes bring a very lightweight packable 800-fill down jacket. You can also sneak in a non-spill insulated stainless steel bottle with coffee, hot water, or even your favorite winter cocktail.

Now you know my tricks. How do you stay warm during your wintertime rides?

Check out more How To posts from Sonya Looney.

About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!

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  • MTBmoose says:

    I’ve tried both clipless with Northwave winter riding boots and flats with regular winter boots. The flats work better for me because the cleat isn’t transmitting the cold up into your foot. And I’ll second the bar mitts. Game changers for staying out longer in temps below 20F. My go-to top layer is a Marmot soft shell fleece jacket. I’ve tried Merino as a base layer up top and it didn’t work for me as well as a mid-weight or light-weight Patagonia Capilene layer. YMMV

  • Sonya Looney says:

    Awesome advice! I never thought about the cleat transmitting cold…metal IS a huge conductor. You rock!

  • thub says:

    Solid recommendations. Pogies are a must, I’m up in Alaska and can say they make all the difference. I had major issues with my feet. I picked up a pair of 45nrth Wolfgar boots and have haven’t had a problem since. I ride flats. I’ve been out as cold as -10 F and didn’t have to get off the bike and jog to warm up my feet. Stay warm and ride on!

  • dw22107 says:

    Thanks for the tips. I always take a 2nd hat in my backpack. The first hat can get wet, or if your hair gets wet. A fresh hat can get you home in comfort,.I also have an old pair of Black Diamond gloves with liners and separate shell which work really well.

  • Ted says:

    Regarding the comment on hand/toe warmers. I find that placement and breathe-ability around them have a huge impact on their effectiveness.

    If they have constant airflow over them most of the heat will get sucked right out. If you can get them tucked somewhere *close* to a ‘cold spot’ that will create a warm ‘core’ they’re much more effective. Sure you might still have some cold spots but that warm core seeps out to a good median temp.

    Word of caution… once you stop moving or manage to take haven in a warm environment, that warm core can become a burning-hot core!

  • Cathy W. Cooper says:

    Awesome article! helpful info & tips! I am wearing three layers in the winter session. I get more info and tips from this post. Thanks for sharing this info.

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