Tips for Riding Your Bike All Winter

Biker riding bike during a winter in Chicago, Illinois
Focus on what you can control: what you wear when you bike and avoiding dangerous situations.

Papa Bravo / Shutterstock 

It's really cold out there, and in many places in the continental U.S., the winter biking season has begun.

I live in Toronto, and the city doesn't make it easy for winter bikers. The bike lanes become snow lanes, and where they run parallel to parking, the cars fill the bike lane completely. There's no buffer like there is in New York City.

It isn't like Copenhagen or Sweden, where they have special plows designed for the bike lanes and do them early. Last year Toronto promised to clear the bike lanes, but because of the way they're designed, that's almost impossible.

The city of Boulder, Colorado, goes all out to make winter biking safe and easy. Multi-use paths in the city are maintained to high-level transportation standards. Separate snow removal crews begin plowing the city's multi-use paths at exactly the same time that other crews are plowing city streets.

You can't control how bike lanes are cleared (or not) in your town, but there are some things you can control.

When it comes to staying warm while winter biking, I typically wear a thin balaclava under my helmet. As for the rest of your body, I highly recommend the following:

  • Warm, waterproof boots (I'm a Sorel fan.)
  • Warm gloves (Wear thin wool gloves underneath warm mittens. This will keep your fingers warm when you take off the mittens to lock or unlock your bike.)
  • Earmuffs or other ear covering
  • Glasses or goggles to keep the snow out of your eyes
  • Scarf or neck warmer that can cover your mouth but still allow you to breathe easily. A long scarf allows you to wrap your neck and face, but it also has long tails that you can use to cover your chest underneath your coat.
  • Warm hat or nylon skull cap that fits underneath your helmet.
  • Long underwear if it's really cold or leg warmers that cover your knees.
  • For longer (sweatier) rides, it's a good idea to make your underlayer — the one closest to your skin — one of wool or a synthetic material. Cotton tends to stay wet longer and may end up cooling you down, whereas wool tends to hold moisture.
  • Lights! Use extra ones if you want to be even more visible.
  • Mud guards on your bike.
  • Brakes that are in good working order, and a bike in a good state of repair.

I have to say, the roads are even more obviously in a state of disrepair when there is a layer of snowy slush on top of everything. Given the road conditions, I don't necessarily recommend winter biking for inexperienced cyclists — not during precipitous conditions anyway.
Here are a couple other important tips when cycling in winter:

Remember to keep your nerves in check and focus on keeping your body centered and balanced even when conditions are slippery. It's a fine balance between watching the road more closely than usual when there is snow, slush or ice on the roads as well as watching out for cars and pedestrians.

Be sure to ride to conditions and slow down in general.

Use extreme caution when crossing streetcar tracks.

Also, be even more aware of reduced visibility due to obstructed car windows — from snow, ice and humidity that hasn't been cleared.