Thursday 29 January 2015

Winter Wisdom: Clothing and Layers

When the temperature plunges to sub-zero temperatures, your primary concern should be staying warm.  The cold isn't just some sort of discomfort; you can die from exposure to cold weather.

It might seem counter-intuitive but it's also important to stay cool.  The physical activity of riding a bicycle generates a lot of heat.  Heat means sweat, sweat means wet and being wet in the cold is the last thing you want.

This is why it is very important to wear the right kind of clothing, in the right amount.  Experienced winter cyclists layer their clothing.

Base Layer
My facial hair, the ultimate base layer!
You want to keep sweat far away from your skin.  Sweat is one of those things that happens while winter cycling.    Sometimes you will be sweaty before you even set foot out the door; the pre-sweat while wearing several layers and trying to tie up your boots.

The best way to keep that sweat off your skin is to use clothing that wicks, or draws liquid away from you.

In my not-so-humble opinion, the best material is either wool or synthetics designed specifically for wicking.  Do not use cotton unless you enjoy being cold and miserable!  It does not wick well and loses all insulating qualities when wet.

My base layer almost always has a padded layer for where my ass meets the seat.  Depending on the level of cold, I either use cycling shorts or a cycling liner (think underwear with the pad from cycling shorts).  Old cycling shorts are great for this purpose.  The material is usually a synthetic material that can wick the sweat away from your skin.

For a shirt I either use a winter cycling jersey or a polyester workout shirt.  If I'm using the latter it's because I'm using the jersey as a mid-layer.  Typically the jersey is really warm and I can usually get away with just that.

For my feet I will use merino wool socks or wool socks.  Usually I will have the wool socks when I'm using merino wool as a mid layer.

For pants I use a pair of Pearl Izumi Thermal Tights or a pair of MEC Watchtower workout pants.  Both keep me fairly warm and wick very well.

Shell Layer
For me, the most important thing about the shell layer is that it be wind and water resistant.  Wet means cold, you want to avoid this if possible.  Wind will make you cold very fast, if you can keep it out you will stay warm a lot longer.

It's important to note that a shell layer isn't always required.  If it is not too cold, you can get away with just your mid layer, or even a warm base layer.  If it is snowing, a shell is advised.  Even if the precipitation in question is very frozen, it will melt when it comes in contact with you and you will get wet.

Coat and pants should be wind and water resistant.  The best material is Gore-Tex or similar, as it is both wind and water resistant, and the material breathes as well.  Some rain jackets and pants work well if they have flaps to vent or circulate.  If your gear doesn't breathe it will still be very effective at very cold temperatures.  My current gear is not breathable but I can skip my mid layer entirely.  Speaking of which...

Mid Layer
The middle layer (or layers) serve two main purposes, insulation and moisture transfer.  No matter what you do, you will end up sweating while cycling in the winter.  You want that moisture to transfer out to the middle layer so that wetness isn't up against your skin.  Therefore it's important to wear clothing that still insulates while wet.

Wool has great thermal properties which continue to insulate even when wet.  There are synthetic materials that are pretty good at insulating and wicking moisture.  Fleece and down can insulate while wet but aren't great at moisture transfer, so if using these, keep them on the "outer" mid layer.  Avoid cotton at all costs, it is a terrible insulator when wet.

Miscellaneous Layers
The one thing I usually add an extra layer to are my knees.  My knees are in great shape and I'd love to keep them that way.  Knees don't have a lot of blood pumping through them and can get cold pretty fast.  I have knee warmers that I usually add under my base layer.  They're synthetic, wicking and help keep my knees toasty warm.

My cheap pogies keep me warmer than gloves.
Gloves really depend on how long I've been in the cold and whether I'm using pogies or not.  Pogies on a bike will keep your hands surprisingly warm.  They keep the wind off your hands entirely.  Many rides I've gone bare handed in my pogies.  I usually have a pair of wool one-size-fits-all gloves and a pair of MEC cycling gloves in a pocket.  If it does start getting cold, on go the MEC gloves.  Even colder?  The wool gloves, then the MEC gloves.  I have heavier gloves but I've yet to need them.

Eyewear is always a must. Either I'm wearing sunglasses or I'm wearing goggles.  The key factors are temperature and wind.  If it's windy enough to make my eyes tear up, I'm putting on goggles.  One day I'll get some tinted lenses for my goggles and get the best of both worlds.  I always carry a pair of folding goggles as a back-up in case my sunglasses or goggles break.

Since I'm a natural klutz, I always wear a helmet.  I have a thin toque that stretches over my ears and fits quite comfortably under my helmet.  If it gets very cold I usually have a warmer toque I can wear under my helmet.  For the rest of my face, my beard is my base layer.  When it gets very cold I put on a face mask that can convert to a scarf.  Frequently I will flip it back and forth depending if I'm facing the wind or not.

My base layer for my face is ... my beard!  It insulates and breathes better than anything else on the market.  Sometimes my face needs a second layer.  I have a Seirus face mask for that.  It can convert between covering my face and being a scarf.  Some days I am constantly switching back and forth between modes to get that perfect balance of hot and cold.

Boots are always a requirement.  Boots should be wind and water proof.  I keep 2 sets of boots for this purpose.  One is a pair of Merrelle hiking boots that are windproof and water resistant.  The other is a roomier pair of Merrelle Opti-Warm boots that can accommodate multiple layers of socks.

Mixing the Layers
In reality there isn't a firm "You must wear these 3 layers."  In fact I often mix and match my layers.
Depending on the inclement weather and how warm you are, sometimes you can skip the mid layer and just use a shell, skip the shell and use one (or more) mid layers, or sometimes skip both entirely if it's warm enough.

When the temperature is -5C or warmer, I will often go with my base layer and my hiking boots.  If it is very cold but not windy or snowing, I will keep adding on mid-layers.  If it is -15C and very windy, I will skip the mid layer and go right to a shell and my bigger boots.

There are times when you might want to mix things up on the go.  For example, on a long ride you might want to be wearing warmer apparel by hour 3 than you would at the start of your ride.  Extra layers can be stowed in a backpack or a rack trunk.

It's All About You
I recently read an article that dictated what you should wear at various temperatures.  I got a good laugh out of it.  If I followed that guide I'd be overheating like mad!  There are many factors that come into play, such as weather, temperature, air pressure, proximity to heat sinks (large bodies of water, urban areas) and so on.  But just as important are factors that are all about you.  Your age, your weight, your gender, how acclimated you are to the cold.  Even your grooming style plays a factor; my long hair and beard have been helpful insulators during the winter.

As I mentioned before, your physical activity also generates heat.  This means you are like a personal heating unit.  If you want to turn the heat up, just pedal harder.  Getting too hot?  Pedal more slowly.

The best I can recommend is, write down what you wear and record how you felt at different times on your bicycle ride.  Take note of things such as the time of day, the temperature, how much effort you put in, what you are wearing and speed/direction of the wind (and how exposed you were to it).  Eventually you will accumulate enough data to know exactly what you need to wear, and when.

In other words, there's no substitute for experience.  Crack out your bike and shred some snow!

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