Staying Warm & Dry
You can select from the following topics presented in this order:
-Introduction to cold, wet weather riding
-Jackets & Pants
-Footwear (cycling sandals, waterproof socks, regular socks)
-Innerwear (long johns)
-External Thermal Sources & Other Aids (battery socks, stick-on toe warmers, hand warmers, lambs wool, inner soles)
Biking Gear For Cold, Wet Days
Staying warm and dry on those cold, wet days is a constant challenge for us—one that finds us always experimenting to make ourselves a little more comfortable. Many cyclotourists we’ve met on the road have given up the quest and reconcile themselves to being cold and wet, sometimes riding in shorts and a windbreaker on the nastiest of days. But misery isn’t an acceptable state for us, so the search goes on for the best combinations of gear, even if it means making it ourselves.
Breathable clothing is the key whether you’re talking outer wear or the layers underneath. It’s hard to move around without sweating at least a little, and no matter how cold it is out, our bodies will break into a significant sweat on a sustained climb. So, the challenge is always to keep from getting wet from the outside but without drenching yourself from the inside with trapped perspiration. And no matter how breathable the garments, we still take every opportunity to open them up and air things out to accelerate drying the perspiration.
In short, we go with Gore-Tex or similar waterproof, highly breathable products for our jackets, pants, and rain socks. For our inside layers, we wear highly breathable, wicking micro-fibers. Read on if you want to hear the details as we ‘take it from the top’.
We have swallowed our pride and wear shower caps for helmet covers in the rain. And even though we avoid the ones with pink polka dots and ruffly edges, the passerby’s do smirk. Waterproof, breathable helmet covers are made but are hard to find that fit over our helmet and our indispensable, attached visors. Plus, we haven’t been able to buy waterproof helmet covers in Europe when we need to replace one. Shower caps are cheap, easy to find, and small enough that we are willing to carry a spare. We do look for yellow or clear ones so they don’t shout “Shower cap”.
On very cold days, we also wear close-fitting, micro-fiber skull caps under our helmets. They are great to slip on for cold mountain descents even on less wintry days too. We are careful to buy helmets that have a dial-type girth adjuster in the back so we can quickly loosen the helmet fit and make the extra space needed for the cap. (Bell is one of the helmet brands available in the US and Europe that has this feature on some of its models.)
Since our current rain jackets don’t have integrated hoods, we each also have a Gore-Tex hat to wear when not wearing our helmets. Bill has a narrow brimmed hat and I have a baseball styled cap with earflaps that can be worn down or tucked up into the cap.
Jackets & Pants
When selecting waterproof pants and jackets, we look for the least “heavily engineered” garments we can find. Extra flaps, pockets, zippers, tabs, Velcro, and pull cords are wonderful features but they add way-too much bulk and weight for a garment that we hope to stow more than we wear.
In jackets, we look for an ultra-light weight model in a bright color with a close-fitting collar to keep the rain from running down our necks, equally close fitting cuffs, and hope to get a 2-way zipper (for ventilating), and a pocket. To date, our best and current pick is a “Gore Bike Wear, Gore-Tex PacLite” jacket we found in Austria. It lacks the 2 way zipper but has narrow strips of Velcro to use as an alternate closure to the zipper when it’s only raining lightly. The jacket keeps out the rain and packs down to almost nothing.
Because these jackets are a 2 layer and not a 3 layer Gore-Tex product, water does visibly condense on the inside surface. I need to wear my fleece shirt with the most loft under the jacket to tolerate the moisture build-up, though it doesn’t bother Bill. But I’d be carrying that shirt anyway, so would rather always wear the shirt with the jacket than be packing a bulkier, lined jacket—I think of it as having a removal jacket liner.
One of my pet-peeves about waterproof jackets is that none of the manufacturers that I have seen seam seal the cuffs. Truly waterproof garments have sealed seams. On most, that means a narrow, waterproof tape has been glued down over all the stitching to prevent water leaking in around the threads and the holes they pass through. A liquid, glue-like seam seal product can also be used. It’s easy to look at an unlined garment and see if the seams are sealed. But invariably, the 2 rows of stitching around the sleeve cuffs aren’t sealed. That means your jacket cuffs get waterlogged if you are out in a downpour. And it doesn’t take long after the cuffs on the jacket get wet ‘til the cuffs on your shirt are wet. By the end of a long, wet riding day my shirt sleeves will be damp several inches up from the cuff in some jackets. And on really cold days when I am wearing all of my warm clothes, it means I have nothing warm and dry to wear in the evening.
I have tried seam sealing my jacket cuffs but it hasn’t solved the problem—I suspect it needs to be done during the garment assembly to get all the leakage points. Sometimes I push my shirt cuffs up my arm a bit so that they aren’t right under the jacket cuff, though that is a bit chilly. I am experimenting this year with a homemade waterproof gaiter to wear over the junction between my jacket and mitten cuffs in hopes of reducing the sogginess.
The issues with shopping for rain pants are the same as with jackets: we look for the lightest, most compact garment that will do the job. I am currently riding in Sierra Designs rain pant and Bill is wearing a no longer available model of Gore-
Tex PacLite. Like jackets, pants are often heavily engineered and have too much weight and bulk from sturdy fabric, reinforcing, full length zippers and multiple pockets. We look for sleek models that are loose fitting with a pocket, cuffs with short zippers, and Velcro to snug the cuffs in for riding. Rain pants especially need to be loose fitting enough to easily be pulled on over several layers of clothing. You don’t want to be standing on one leg out in the open in a sudden downpour struggling to get your pants up over your other layers.
I have trouble finding pants that are long enough so that I don’t have a gap between the pants bottom cuff and the top of my Gore-Tex socks. I currently have had to modify both my waterproof pants and socks to get a little extra length from both so water doesn’t stream down into my socks. Luckily for Bill, this is never an issue for him.
We also strive to get presentable looking rain pants as in cold, windy weather we wear them for the extra warmth when sightseeing in the cities. Right now, the pants we’ve got are OK but not great for city wear. In the past we were able to get some sharp looking, matt-finish rain pants but sadly they have been discontinued by the manufacturer.
Hands and feet are the hardest body parts to keep warm because they don’t have much muscle tissue in them to kick out heat. Hands and feet contain mostly muscle tendons with the muscles that operate them being in the lower arm or lower leg—too far away for much warmth.
Windblock fleece glove mitts have been our favorite winter glove for years. They are a glove with the fingertips cut-off so you can do the fine maneuvers that fingers are so good at doing and they have the finger-half of a mitten sewn on as a flap. When your fingers are cold, you flip the attached mitten finger cap down over them. We often ride with our fingertips uncovered on cool but not frigid days. And the inner wind block fabric layer is great for keeping the cold air from blasting in through the low-nap fleece. They are somewhat water resistant but definitely not waterproof. REI makes some though our current favorite is by Manzella. Those are listed for about $50 but we have been able to buy them at Cabelas.com for about $20.
We are trying out REI Elements Snowboarder mittens this year. They are supposed to be truly water proof and have held up well on moderately rainy, though short riding days (4 hours or less). We haven’t had a really good downpour to test them in yet. And when it comes to choosing between waterproof mittens and gloves, the mittens are definitely better. Both that I have tried are fuzzy lined, which is very pleasant. But I discovered that if my hands were at all damp, I couldn’t slide my fingers into the fuzzy lined fingers of the glove. The fleece grabbed my damp skin and I could only get my fingers completely in the glove with a great deal of struggle, which is especially unwelcome if you already have cold and wet fingers. I can still get my fingers in the mitten even with a bit of ‘fuzz grab.’
Mittens are generally warmer than gloves because the fingers are in contact with each other. Plus, if the darlings get really cold, you can curl your fingers, and even thumb, up against each other in a mitten, which you can’t do in the gloves. Some mittens also allow you to pull the ‘innards,’ the fuzzy lining, to the outside. That is a huge advantage in drying them out overnight as waterproof gloves or mittens are especially slow to dry. And they do need to be dried after wearing as they get noticeably damp from the perspiration because they don’t breathe well.
We are also experimenting for the 3rd year with our homemade, waterproof over-mittens sized to fit over our wind block glove-mitts. We use Kwik-Sew's pattern #2613 for fleece mittens and lengthen the cuffs. The first 2 years we made them out of lightweight Ultrex. The first year was a disaster as the glue-like seal seam stuck to the Ultrex and immediately tore the waterproof layer off of the Ultrex. We were close to departing for Europe and didn’t have time to make new mittens, so started the year with damaged ones. In a call to the seam seal manufacturer, I did learn how to solve this problem, which is to dust the dried seam seal with talc or house dust (really, he said that) to temper its grabbiness before turning them right side out. The dusting trick completely solved the problem.
The second year was a little better for Bill but still a disaster for me. The almost waterproof gloves that I worn inside the mitts were apparently too coarse and scrapped off patches of the Ultrex laminate and immediately caused leaking. Bill only wore his soft glove-mitts inside his Ultrex overmitts and they held up well. I finished that season wearing kitchen-type rubber gloves over my almost waterproof gloves—not a great option.
The third test year, this year, we have abandoned the fragile Ultrex and have gone for heavier, 3-layer, waterproof, breathable fabrics. We bought 2 different fabrics at a mill-ends store, so don’t really know what the fabric compositions are of either. They both will be more durable than the Ultrex because of the laminated lining but are quite a bit more bulky to store. And based on an outdoor wear repair person’s recommendation, we applied the seam seal to the seams on the outside of the mittens, rather than on the inside seams as is generally recommended. That has turned out to be a bit of bad advice. On the first wearing in the rain, the seal seam started peeling off the slick outer finish of the fabric. So, we’ll be looking to buy a large tube of seam seal while traveling. It will take us 2-3 months to find a store that carries it, and then we’ll have to wait until we have a good warm day and a hotel room with lots of ventilation to apply the seal. It is a tedious, stinky and messy job—not one that we relish doing ‘on the road.’
I also made some 4” long gaiters to deflect water from the junction between my jacket and gloves, as making a water tight seal there is very difficult. When we are bundling up in our layers we need an attendant to do the final ‘tucking in’ of our gloves or mittens into our jacket cuffs but alas, we have no such helper. So far, the gaiters are deflecting enough water to help keep my wrists warm and dry even though they also don’t make a perfect seal against the underlying fabrics.
On really long, wet riding days the best answer may be for us to change gloves mid day. In the morning, or whenever we’ll be doing more descending, we’d wear the REI snowboarder mitts. Then after lunch, we’d switch to windblock glove mitts with waterproof overmitts. That would cut down on the chill from the accumulated moisture in the mittens, which seems to be unavoidable with waterproof hand wear.
Since we wear Shimano cycling sandals year ‘round, we use Gore-Tex socks over one or more pairs of wooly socks when it’s cold. The waterproof socks and sandals make for a good, versatile system that cuts down on the amount of gear we carry. And it’s especially good for my wide feet (with painful nerve-nodules called neuromas) that leave no room for a sock of any substance in most cycling and even street shoes. I do however; have an extra length of Velcro stitched onto the forefoot strap of my Shimano sandals so I can wear 3 or 4 pairs of socks. We also wear the waterproof socks with our only other footwear when in the rain off the bike, which are also sandals.
Ah socks, they are a fine art. We definitely don’t wear cotton but go for black socks in wool and Coolmax. The black socks combined with our black pants slightly camouflages the fact that we are wearing Teva sandals in the dead of winter. People still stare, but black pants, socks, and sandals draws less attention to the sandals. We do try hard to look presentable and blend in with the crowd as much as our limited luggage space will allow.
We each have a small wardrobe of socks. A thin micro-fiber pair is reserved for the very hottest days, a couple of Cool-max pairs are for 3 season wear, and heavy wool blend socks come out for the coldest days. I often wear 2 pairs of wool socks inside my Gore-Tex socks in the winter, whether walking around or riding the bike. I’ve also added a relatively bulkier pair of Ingenius brand boot socks especially recommended for wearing inside Gore-Tex foot wear. I have tried them inside my Gore-Tex socks and find them an improvement in wicking moisture away from my feet, which is a significant problem for me. (They were a pricey $16 from Cabelas.com, but this was the year to go all-out for hand and footwear solutions).
I also bring along a very compact pair of Sugoi brand booties that I wear over my socks when I need some wind breaking on my feet but not waterproofing. They breathe better than the Gore-Tex so are more comfortable for me on those less extreme days. I removed the upper band from them to reduce their bulk.
I have very sweaty feet and believe that some of my cold-feet problems come just from the moisture accumulation. This year I have brought along 2 pairs of Gore-Tex socks to combat the problem. The plan is to change into both dry inner socks and dry Gore-Tex socks at lunch time. This ‘fresh start’ on the afternoon should keep my feet warmer—the same strategy as changing gloves midday on long, cold riding days.
Loose fitting shoes are also a help in keeping your feet warm. Adding the extra Velcro to my Shimano bike sandals in itself has helped, as I can wiggle my toes and feet more easily. We are going to have Velcro extenders added to Bill’s shoes while we are traveling.
Black, breathable, wicking long johns are our mainstay. By sticking with black, our outfit is color coordinated no matter what combination of layers end up being on top. We are careful to select garments constructed so that they are presentable as outer wear too.
I wear 3 shirts on the coldest days: a medium weight crew neck and a zip neck, and a Patagonia expedition weight fleece zip neck. Bill prefers 2 light weight, zip neck shirts, though I think he’ll be switching to medium weight next year. We also each have a close fitting vest we bought at Target years ago. From a distance, it looks like neoprene on the outside and velvet on the inside, but it’s just a well-conceived, inexpensive synthetic garment. (It will be a sad day when those wear out.) For bottoms, we both have 2 pairs, I have medium weight fabrics and Bill wears light weight ones.
Off the bike, I dress up either of my black zip neck tops with a bright print scarf and Bill puts on a wrinkle-free shirt over his. Our Target vests are quite presentable for street wear as well as being very cozy.
We size our 2 or 3 inner layers so they can all be worn simultaneously for the coldest days. On those days, I am wearing a total of 5 layers on top. Our zip tops are all by Patagonia and the crew tops and bottoms are TerraMar BodySensors EC2 that are always on sale at Campmor.com.
We believe that we maximize the breathability of all of our layers by wearing only wicking long johns under our rain gear. A shirt or pants over the long johns creates a vapor barrier and inhibits the maximum moisture transfer out through the Gore-Tex.
Wearing black long john bottoms also allows us to make a relatively modest wardrobe change out in public. If we have on black long johns (rather than lavender with printed flowers) and the rain either starts or stops, we can switch between rain pants and regular pants for our outer layer without really looking like we are standing around in our underwear. It’s a great advantage, as it can often be hours before we have a discrete place to change clothes. This way we just step back a little from the road and make a quick outer layer change without really being indiscrete. (Black is also more discrete if we happen to drape our damp laundry over the bikes at lunch time.)
Despite some of the great features of cotton, we don’t wear anything made from cotton because it is cold when it’s wet (and we are almost always damp) and it takes forever to dry. We need fabrics that start drying out while we are still wearing them and have a hope of drying by morning when we hand wash them at night.
We also no longer wear silk long johns. I did for years and thought they were great, especially under street wear around town. Then there was that ‘acid test’ day on our Joshua Tree cyclotour in the southwest US early in our cycling career. Like for many of our other gear choices that seemed just fine for years, for silk we had a day that revealed its shortcomings. (Other days that set a new standard are “That rainy day riding out of Vienna,” “Those bone-chilling 59˚ days on Crete,” “That rainy trip in Death Valley”).
I still vividly remember that day near Joshua Tree National Park. Bill was gone most of the day trying to get his aluminum aero bars welded after cracking them in a pile-up that was my doing. I stood guard at the campsite on a cold, windy day. There was no where to go to get out of the wind except our tiny tent and I didn’t want to wander too far off from our stuff. Even though I wasn’t moving around much, I was still generating enough sweat to make my base layer of silk long johns just barely damp. A wind gust would come along and slightly lift that well buried layer off my skin and cool it. The gust would pass and the instantly chilled silk layer settled back against my skin, giving me a start from the sudden cold. It was astounding as I had on several layers and they were all pretty close fitting, but that day soured me on silk forever. The microfiber fabrics don’t create that chill, even if they are damp and loose fitting and the wind is blowing.
Compact and quick-drying are the watch words here too. I gave up wearing athletic bras as the heavy fabrics and wide elastic bands get soggy fast and stay that way all day. I found carefully chosen, everyday bras to be much more likely to dry out while I am still wearing them.
Bill wears Coolmax briefs by Duofold, also from Campmor.com. He buys them in black so he can wash them with his other black clothes. (We don’t have any white clothing). I am risqué and don’t wear briefs at all when riding. We gave up using chamois-lined biking shorts and underpants just create a chaffing problem for me.
Among hard-core cyclists, not wearing chamois shorts is heresy. But, like with everything, we started experimenting with them years ago. My big objection to the synthetic chamois pads was the wet-diaper feeling off the bike. The pads quickly get wet from the sweat like everything else and then you have this thick, wet garment plastered to your body for the rest of the day.
We both started making our own cycling shorts early in our biking career and the padding was the object of much design attention. I kept making my shorts pad smaller and smaller, eventually thinking it need not be much bigger that the top of the bike saddle. Then came the bold notion of just getting rid of the whole thing. We figured that if the bike seat was comfortable, then you shouldn’t need any cushioning from the pad. And if one were attentive to the garment seams, there shouldn’t be any irritation from them. Bingo! I was suddenly riding without that wet wad of padding anymore.
Bill discovered the other reason for the chamois pads, which was to provide support for his genitals. But hey, I didn’t have that problem. So, he rides in his Coolmax briefs and I ride ‘bare’. I of course am very careful about the selection of my riding pants, both so I don’t get any irritation from bulky seams and so I am not any more revealing than I intend to be. (Pull on pants has meant never generating stares with an unzipped zipper.)
External Thermal Sources & Other Aids
It’s hard to know which is more miserable on a cold riding day: cold hands or cold feet. But certainly cold feet are harder to work with outdoors than cold hands. A cold hand can be held behind your back for a while when pedaling to give it a respite from the wind chill or tucked into a pocket or under an armpit. The poor old feet are just stuck out there with nowhere else to go. But for both we have been experimenting this year with external heat sources to help out on the coldest days.
For the feet, I have tried battery heated socks and single-use, taped-on chemical warmers. I tried both out on cold days with wind chills in the teens and single digits. My feet were still cold with both products, though not so cold that they got numb and achy as they normally would under those conditions (and as Bill’s feet did—he was the control for the experiment). They were both a help and worth having but neither gave me toasty warm feet. Under less harsh conditions (in the mid 30˚s F), their warming effects were perceivable.
The battery heated socks use 2 ‘D’ batteries that live in a pouch attached to a belt that you provide. Wires run down each leg into a pair of long, beefy boots socks. The only place that is heated is a narrow strip under the toes of each foot.
The battery heated socks are a bit cumbersome to wear and have to be rigged up before putting your outer layer of pants on. The wires are just barely long enough for me, so sometimes they tug a little when I pedal. And I do have to be mindful of them when I stop to pee. The battery socks are very bulky to store—with the socks alone taking the space of 3 to 4 pairs of my regular wool socks, plus the batteries are heavy and bulky.
I am still experimenting, but it seems a pair of batteries is only good for a maximum of 1 or 2 riding days. A new pair of off-brand batteries I bought in Spain only lasted 1-1½ hours, which means carrying several spare pairs of batteries all the time to ensure warm feet on an unexpectedly cold day. And since they don’t kick out much heat, on a very cold day I can’t easily distinguish between the batteries being out of juice vs my feet just getting colder. The only sure way to tell that the batteries are dead is to take off a sock and feel the warming strip from the inside of the sock—not a maneuver one wants to do on a cold, rainy day.
I think using these battery socks on a regular basis when traveling would be a nightmare. We can’t always buy name-brand batteries and the ones we can buy don’t always have a “Good until” date on them, so battery life would always be wildly unpredictable. The variability in the life of the batteries combined with the difficulty in perceiving if they are spent or not while wearing them would lead to swapping out batteries hoping to feel a difference. I can imagine that between us we’d have to carry a dozen D batteries just to be sure to both have warm feet on a given day. They might be more manageable at home where one could use rechargeable batteries and cut-down both the toxic garbage generated and the expense.
The other product I tried was “Grabber Mycoal Toe Warmers.” They are a single-use product that heats by means of a chemical reaction. They have an adhesive strip on one side and are attached to your socks, covering your toes and ball of foot (a full-length product is also available). They kick out heat for 6-7 hours, as advertised. I was so put-off by the price of $2 that I only brought 1 pair with us to Europe but now we are wishing we had more.
By mail-ordering 10 pairs or more from REI.com, we can knock the ‘Grabbers’ price down to about $1.45 a pair, which still seemed like an extravagance. But that was only until I wore the battery socks. When I considered the ease of use, compactness, light weight, comfort and predictability of the Grabber product, the price started looking like an appropriate indulgence. A pair is the size of a large, square band aid and could easily be kept handy in a pocket. If my feet got cold on the road, I could stop, whip off my sandals and Gore socks, slap those puppies on my inner socks and be on my way in a flash and be guaranteed warm toes for 6 hours. Dozens of them could be stored in the space taken by 1 pair of battery socks and the weight and unpredictability of the batteries is totally eliminated. And unlike the batteries, there is no guessing about how long they will last. The toe warmers are a bio-friendly, natural-ingredients product.
So, once again, a product that seems like it is outrageously expensive becomes worth it to have any solution at all, especially in a streak of very cold weather. My battery heated socks are from Cabelas.com and the Grabber toe warmers can be purchased at REI or in bulk from Grabberwarmers.com.
Though not a heat generator like the above 2 products, wrapping a tuft of lamb’s wool around the toes does help keep them warmer. A cold-toed friend recommended this and it definitely helps. Like everything else though, the benefit wanes the longer we are out and the colder it is. But I noticed on a near-freezing day that my attention was drawn more to the chill in the soles of my feet rather than my toes--I suspect it was because the lamb’s wool was making my toes enough warmer that they no longer commanded all of my attention. And it does feel cozy to wiggle my toes around in that fluff.
The lamb’s wool I bought was expensive—almost $7 for a packet that would cover 3 sets of toes the way I used it. I couldn’t locate it at the discount pharmacies in Portland and so bought it at one that I know is pricey. I know you can also buy lamb’s wool at dance shops as it is a standard supply for ballerinas to use in their toe shoes. A tuft should be useable for quite a few wearings, perhaps dozens, though I don’t yet know how many. Both the lamb’s wool inside my Ingenius socks and Gore-tex socks, and the battery socks inside the Gore-Tex socks, were enough to keep my feet comfortable for hours while sightseeing on foot for in windy, 32˚ F weather, though neither was enough when on the bike in those conditions.
I’ve also just started experimenting with slipping insoles in between my socks and Gore-tex socks. I purchased (in Europe) porous insoles marketed as helping with both cold and damp feet for about $1.50. We have escaped from the below-freezing weather that provided a great laboratory testing the other foot warming products, so I’ll have to wait to give the insoles a comparable test. But I did wear them on a long riding day in the rain and my feet were more comfortable than usual. I suspect that the insoles create the extra reservoir for moisture that I need between my fuzzy socks and my Gore-tex socks. Bill was impressed enough with my first wearing that he is trying out the concept for his feet that neither get as cold or as damp as mine do.
For the hands, we have been experimenting with both a rechargeable chemical hand warmer and one fueled by lighter fluid. The rechargeable one ($5, REI) is activated when you want some heat and recharged by boiling it for a few minutes in a pan of water, which we have the ability to do. The chemical hand warmer is effective for about 30 minutes once activated whereas the lighter fluid one is supposed to run for 10-16 hours on a filling.
Of course, neither is useable on the hands while riding, but hand warming during a lunch or rest stop is definitely welcome (or on a sightseeing day on foot). Our early experiments have us favoring the lighter fluid hand warmer as it has more warming time available on a given day. Both are relatively heavy and bulky. We haven’t tried it on the road yet, but I’ve been fiddling with ways to hang the lighter fluid warmer on our backs for some continuous heating while pedaling.
One other bit of warmth we bring into our day comes from filling a drinking water bottle with hot tap water as we go out the door in the morning. It will stay warm enough to be welcome to drink for about an hour, which is a help. It is hard to drink enough liquids on cold days as the cold water just adds to your overall chill, so having warm water for even the first hour helps maintain our hydration. It is generally not recommended to drink hot tap water (even in the US) because of the crud in hot water heaters, but this represents a very small percentage of our total drinking water for the year.
That’s it for our new and evolving strategies for keeping warm when it’s cold and wet out. We’d love to hear any solutions that you have come up with or other comments you have.