Winter riding can be hell on your tootsies, but it doesn’t have to be. With a little bit of preparation, you really can be comfortable—from head to toe—in any conditions.
Take it from Tom Babin, the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. Over the years, he’s ridden in temps as low as -10 Fahrenheit and—yes—he’s actually enjoyed it. But that kind of riding is only fun if you’re dressed appropriately; preparation can make or break a winter ride. In fact, one of his hardest rides this year was actually during the fall: “It wasn’t deathly cold, but I was totally underdressed for the weather, and it was a completely miserable experience. That showed me the truth in that old saying: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” (Another way to stay warm out there is with our coconut embro; check it out for your next winter ride!)
Bad clothing is a big reason that winter cycling gets such a bad rap. But there’s a lot of bad advice out there too—like thinking more socks are the answer to your frozen-foot woes. If your feet are still cold, despite trying all the socks you own, it may be time to rethink your strategy. And if you’re making one of these five mistakes, here’s how you can correct it ASAP.
You’re Missing The Real Source Of Your Discomfort
“Often women will come into my office and say, ‘my feet are cold, I must have poor circulation.’ We’ll test their circulation and it’s fine; the problem is that their feet are wet,” says Joanne Davis, MD, a Chicago-based podiatrist and avid cyclist. “As a baseline, your feet produce one pint of moisture—in the form of sweat—every day.” Exercise increases that amount, she adds.
Riding creates much more evaporative cooling than running or walking, since zipping along at 15 miles per hour generates quite a draft. If your feet are wet—even with a sock and a shoe in between you and the wind—you’ll be feeling a chill in no time.
So, if you have chronically cold feet, you probably have chronically wet feet. The easiest way to fix this problem is to change your socks, early and often. Davis rides with a thin, wicking sock liner plus a warm pair of socks, and packs an extra set of socks in her jersey pockets. Halfway through the ride, she switches to the dry pair.
Your Shoes Aren’t Made For Chilly Rides
Road cycling shoes are made with a few very specific things in mind: Weight, stiffness, and aerodynamics. These features are great in summer. In winter, however, they leave your feet literally hanging out in the breeze. For years, road cyclists adapted by adding shoe covers, but thanks to the advent of fat biking—which often takes place on snow—there’s now a true market for heavy-duty cycling shoes, and manufacturers are filling it.
If another pair of shoes isn’t in your budget, consider switching to boots and flat pedals for a few months, says Babin, adding, “You’re not setting any personal bests in the winter anyway, so it’s more important to be comfortable.” Eric Budd, a year-round commuter in Boulder, Colorado agrees. For the first few years of his commuting life, he suffered through in true cycling shoes, but these days he commutes in hiking boots.
If you’re committed to your cleats and not financially able to buck-up for a new pair of kicks, you can retrofit what you’ve got. At Trek’s corporate headquarters, in frigid Wisconsin, employees often use reflective radiator foil to line the space between their insole and the bottom of the shoe. It acts like a foot-sized space blanket, plus it gives you one more added layer of protection against your cold, metal cleats, says Sam Foos, who is the product marketing manager for Bontrager, and a committed winter rider. Similarly, Budd suggests using duct tape to cover any venting (or mesh) parts of your summer shoes.
You’re Overdoing It On Socks
Wearing every sock you own may seem like the most obvious way to keep your feet warm, but it can backfire. And “loft” is mostly to blame for that.
Kari Hoff, the apparel product manager for Bontrager (and a carless Wisconsinite), explains that “loft” is the term for using air to trap in warmth. Here’s how it works: Your body naturally gives off heat. If you can trap that heat in the air around you, you create your own little toasty microclimate. It’s why down parkas are so warm—and so puffy.
But when you jam too many pairs of socks into tight cycling shoes, there’s no room for air in the equation. Plus, you run the risk of reducing circulation in your feet. If you want to wear multiple pairs of heavy socks, you should probably switch to a larger shoe. (Not always, though: Foos says that many brands size their winter shoes up just slightly to accommodate thicker socks; you may not need to size up if you’re buying cold-weather-specific gear. It’s best to try them out in-store first with the socks you plan on wearing.)
You’re Wearing The Wrong Socks
Remember this: Cotton is the enemy. Because your feet sweat fervently, you really should never wear cotton socks, which hold on to moisture and turn cold quickly, says Davis. But you don’t need to nerd out with a crazy technical sock, either. Time and time again, wool out-competes all other fabrics for winter cycling, says Hoff. It stays warm when wet, and its bulk gives it plenty of loft.
Davis likes to use a technical fabric liner, “something that wicks the sweat away,” covered by a wool sock, which will absorb what the liner is wicking, but still stays toasty.
You’re Powering Through The Misery
If you’re going to be out for several hours, plan a mid-ride stop where you can warm up. Davis’ recommendation is choosing a coffee shop where the bathrooms have hot-air hand driers. “Take your shoes and socks off and stick your feet under those driers for a few minutes.” Once your feet are warm again, slip them into the new, dry pair of socks you brought.
No hand drier? Find a (willing) friend or contort yourself into a position where you can use your own body heat to warm your feet. But Babin adds this warning: “No matter how tempting, don’t pour coffee on your cold feet. Terrible idea.” (Yes, he has tried it once in desperation.)
While you have your socks off, take a quick look at your toes to check you’re not venturing into frostbite territory. If your skin is white or extremely pale and completely numb, it may be time to call it a day, says Davis.
You’re Not Considering All of Your Options
If your feet are chronically cold, consider investing in single-use foot warmers. Foos often tapes these to the top of his socks on long, sub-freezing training rides. Warming wearables, or socks that have tiny heating systems in them, are an option too, but know that you’ll pay dearly for them.
For those who are constantly miserable, though, we hereby give you permission to pack it in early. Bicycling, after all, is supposed to be fun—and no one has ever described getting frostbite as a good time. Give yourself some time to figure out what works best for you, and remember that it might take a couple of rides before you get it right.