Winter riding in the pacific northwest can be a uniquely challenging affair. whether exploring deep national forest gravel, logging paved base mileage, pounding grimy singletrack or simply commuting there are a few universal truths...well...30 to be specific (sort of), that will hopefully take a bit of the adversity out of the season. Initially compiled by ryan francesconi, the following list reflects the cumulative wisdom of the unpaved community.
1. Buy the top level shit. Don't bother with any fabric that isn't elite 3 layer quality. The good stuff is going to outlast the crap thus paying for itself over time.
2. Showers Pass. Local and quality. But only the elite stuff. Except the rogue hoodie. That thing is great.
3. Rain pants. Don't bother with trying to look like a Rapha model in the winter. Once it really gets wet and cold, it’s all about staving off the semi-inevitable soak-through. I have two pairs of showers pass pants - the more loose clubby pants and the skinny jeans style Skyline pants, which are fitted and ideal though for putting over full length bib tights.
4. Rain pants pro tip: Showers pass makes suspenders for a good reason.Those lycra tights are slippery. Hold up those pants, otherwise they tend to slip down. All their pants come with suspender velcro loops. Bonus: you are wearing suspenders!
5. Winter boots. Shoe covers are pointless. They will keep your feet dry for maximum of two hours and any significant walking will destroy most of them. Dumb idea. I have and love a pair of the Shimano winter boots – great, but water can ingress through the top of the cuff. If wearing rain pants, I’ve had great luck tucking the bottom of the rain pant into the top Velcro strap, so it creates a waterfall effect. Also – wearing tall socks that stick above the cuff allows water to be “wicked” into the boot. Wear short socks to extend the time your feet stay dry.
6. Winter boot gaiters: You have to keep water from running down your shins. That is the death of any winter boot system. Waterproof footwear will keep water IN as well as OUT. The Giro alpenduro rain gaiters seem like a good option if you're not using rain pants.
7. Waterproof socks? A possible cheaper option if you MAKE SURE that water isn't going to run down your leg. Otherwise, you end up with a water balloon on each foot. An absolute nightmare. Many people swear by the Showers Pass waterproof socks, but they should fit tightly around your calves. On the cheap, Subway bags plus rubber bands can be a make-do solution if you’re touring and need something to work. They don’t breathe, but will keep your feet warm.
8. Thick wool socks. My preference in combo with winter boots/pants/gaiters/etc.
9. Wool base layers. Insulate fantastically when wet, wear for weeks on end. What’s not to love? They don’t have the clammy feeling of synthetics. Wool neck gaiters can also be a lifesaver.
9B. We assume you already know about thermal winter bibs + winter tights. Rapha + Castelli have several solid options. Common sense stuff. Don't wear summerweight bib shorts at the top of the Coast Range in January.
10. Most people know about rain jackets already. Buy the expensive ones. Hoods are nice but helmets often slip around on them.
10B. Shorter bit on rain jackets: Focus on good trims (quality YKK zippers, cinches at the waist, hood/neck and quality closures at the wrist), good venting and good fit. You can have the most expensive GORE Pro fabric ever made, but with a crap center front zipper you’ll hate every day you spend in it.
Longer bit on rain jackets:
-Gore products are reliable not because they’re superior membranes, but because they have a strict process for approving quality of design and construction for a brand to use their label.
-New technology is focused on ultralite face fabrics achieved by a minimalist, or non-existent outer face fabric. Don’t go this route unless you clean your jacket religiously and only ride the road. The membrane will clog up with filth, fail to ever breath and break down much faster.
-I’m a firm believer in focusing on venting over “breathability”. If you reach and pass the threshold of water vapor-to-liquid sweat very quickly, breathability of the membrane basically does nothing to help your comfort. Same goes for when the face fabric wets out (the DWR stops beading water), once the face wets out, it no longer breathes. Venting is the only way to manage the inner climate once you’ve slightly overheated.
-Larger zippers and zipper pulls might be heavier and less flexible, but they’re also much easier to use with cold hands and gloves.
-Mesh pocket bags allow you to use an opened pocket to help vent.
-Avoid elastic or any sort of knit wrist cuff. The elastic will absorb water and be super slow to dry (nothing worse than sliding on a dry jacket only to have cold wet wrists that haven’t dried out yet).
In short, get something that fits, uses reputable fabrics and pay close attention to the details. Most riders don’t need something over-engineered with the tech of the future, they need safety and comfort.
11. Get a cheap puffy vest and stick it in a small dry sack. I bought an REI outlet $38 down vest for emergencies. It's very small and packs down. Uniqlo also has a lightweight version for $39.
12. Real food. I find a mixture of dates, walnuts, salted almonds and dehydrated banana works well. Also consider pre-baked, buttered, salted whole sweet potatoes, peanut butter sandwiches, hoagies, slices of pumpkin pie, ziplocks of beef jerky and Olympia Provisions Nola chubs. Yes. I said ‘chubs’. You may notice most of these skew savory because the last thing you want to eat at saddle-hour 7 is another sickly sweet chocolatey dried fruit and oat puck.
12B. Keep ride food somewhere easy to access, e.g. a top tube pouch or handlebar bag. Futzing with jersey pockets beneath a rain jacket while you're wearing winter gloves is an exercise in futility.
13. The Glove Dilemma. Gloves don't stay dry. If you want to stay warm, you need some kind of mitten system, like a lobster mitt. The best gloves I've tried are the Pearl WxB style and the Gore Xenons. Sealskin are soso. I’ve also had pretty good luck sidestepping the cycling world altogether for lightweight ski/snowboard gloves like the POW Zero, which have been the go-to on colder, drier days.
*Also consider few pair of nitrile gloves which can keep you a little warmer under a fresh dry pair of gloves, and keep your hands clean when that untimely mechanical happens. The ziplock bag with a spare baselayer and gloves is clutch too when you're just about soaked through. A fresh baselayer before turning for home/the car is the best feeling.
14. The Glove Dilemma part 2: Bring THREE pair of gloves on a long ride or two on a 2-4 hour ride. Swap them out when one is saturated. DeFeet ET merino as one of the layers is a no-brainer. Consider carrying backup pairs in ziploc bags so they don’t get soaked through from sweat or rain before you get a chance to wear them.
15. HI VIS EVERYTHING. Don't get a black rain jacket!
16. REFLECTIVE EVERYTHING. Once it's dark your hi-vis is now black. I like to put reflective tape on my commuting bikes on fenders, cranks, and rims. The motion adds a bit of attention. Also – there are multiple models of tires with reflective sidewalls.
17. Always bring lights. ALWAYS. Consider running two lights on both ends of the bike – one set up on steady (so drivers can actually gauge where you are) and one set up on a least-annoying blink mode. The blinking one should be the lower-powered one. (A 1,000 lumen light blinking at 60 Hz provides gives absolutely zero indication of proximity or speed to others around you.)
18. Take care of your rain gear. Wash it often. Wash it with those stupidly expensive NIKI WAX products.
19. If you aren't riding single track you should have fenders. FENDERS. Plastic fenders suck. You want a front fender that goes to the ground almost. Most of the reason people get water in their shoes and have wet feet is because their front fender isn't long enough. Velo orange fenders are solid. PDW fenders are also solid. Again, local and quality. You need to have 20mm of clearance between your tire and fender. If you don't - you will clog up the minute things get fun.
19B. Why aren't you riding single track?
20. Have means to carry all this stuff. There are plenty of bikepacking bag options now. Bring dry sacks for things you don't want to get wet.
21. Med kit + e-blanket. Water filter, backcountry preparedness things if you're going there...spare derailleur hanger, tire boot, floss/thread + needle, chain tool, multi-tool, lighter, hand/foot warmers. Everyone’s got a different idea of what is essential...these are merely some suggested ideas. Oh...and this pro-tip: Backcountry fire starter: small airtight container of cottonballs dipped in petroleum jelly. Expense: 20 cents. Weight: nothing.
22. Cycling cap (I like the waterproof showers pass one). This keeps the rain spray out of your eyes. Skull cap to cover ears for emergency. Possibly consider running two helmets, summer and winter. The summer one can handle a cycling cap underneath it, or can be worn with no cap at all. The winter one is sized a bit larger, but can be run with either a standard cycling cap, a wool skull cap….or both for maximum coverage and warmth.
23. Tires: as big as possible given your bike and fenders.
24. Getting a new bike? Design it around what tires you want to run.
25. 650B? YES.
26. A winter setup is heavy. It make you strong like bull.
27. POST Ride gear - don't forget a dry change of clothes, towel, warm socks and that wool lumberjack beanie. Being wet and muddy, driving back home in the dark for an hour sucks. I wear insulated rubber Tretorn ankle boots for driving, pre and post ride. Are there less expensive options? Yes. But I'm fancy and like luxurious things. Consider a pack of wet wipes in your dop kit for post-ride facial mud removal.
28. Put the bike back on/in the car while you’re still covered in wet, muddy gear. Don’t be that guy that gets changed, then gets the dry, clean clothes covered in mud.
29. POST ride eats! Possibly a thermos full of something warm, maybe whiskey and egg nog, soup will do in a pinch, but anything that fills you up and makes you happy. Tailgate camp coffee can be a nice touch...but whiskey is better.
30. PEET shoe dryers are amazing. Cost pennies/year, silent, etc. Newspapers and box fans work to a degree, but these are much simpler and more effective.
Total Cost: $A LOT
Additionally, one of the biggest factors that can affect feasibility of riding this time of year is smart decision making. Expectations need to be adjusted. The reality is the days are shorter, light is limited, conditions are subject to change. Sure you can try to grind out 90 miles over a 4000 foot pass on road slicks in January, but should you? Is it worth it to push for five miles in road cleats through knee deep snow near hypothermia? Knowing when and where NOT to ride and recognizing the difference between smart, seasonally-appropriate route choices and abject misery is key here. Know when to pull the plug. Be smart, be safe and don't get in over your head.