Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Dressing for cold and crappy

"How can you possibly ride a bicycle this time of year?"

It's a question I hear a lot from people around Juneau, even outdoors-type people. I think it's because people around here understand that I'm not simply trying to ride in the rain or the cold or the snow, but rather a volatile combination of all three. Weather forecasters call it "wintry mix." I call it "snain." It's seriously wet, right on the cusp of freezing, and a stream of slush is falling from the sky. It mixes with the night snow and day rain to form a putrid, gritty Slurpee that covers icy roads and trails inches thick. Ride through it, and one will have to endure the barrage of a frigid gray geyser that no fenders can hold back. Not to mention there's still Slurpee falling from the sky. It's like that often here, especially in November, December, January, February, March .. well, often. And it guarantees two things: You're going to get wet, and you're going to be cold.

So when I want to ride my bicycle when it's 35 degrees and slushy, I just assume I'm going to get wet. Trying to stay dry is an excercise in futility, and I've been a lot happier since I gave up the battle and turned my strategy to "wet and warm." I've found a system that works really well for me:

Base layer: I like to wear a thick synthetic base, such as polypro and polyester long johns, which maintain nearly all of their insulation capabilities even when wet. I have a couple of wool base layers, but usually don't wear natural fibers when it's wet because they absorb so much moisture; you start to feel like you're wrapped in a clammy towel. (And, yes, I am talking about Smart Wool here.) Synthetics absorb much less water and maintain more of a semi-dry feeling even when they're soaked. Also, they're much cheaper, so you can throw them away when the start to hold onto that lovely laundry-soap-mixed-with-sweat odor.

Mid layer: When temperatures are in the 30s, I need a mid-layer on my torso. I usually wear one of an assortment of polar fleece pullovers, which also maintain most of their warmth when soaked, although these tend to become quite heavy under saturation.

Outer layer: I have an $8 pair of Red Ledge rain pants that I love, although like all nylon products, they only hold rain out to a certain extent, which is to say not very long. What they are really good at is blocking the wind. I rely on my thick polyester long johns to keep me warm. On my torso, I usually wear a plastic jacket, which is a completely nonbreathable jacket made out of PVC. Basically like wearing a Hefty bag. Some cyclists complain about the sweat condensation generated in this miniature biosphere, but since I don't believe it's possible to stay dry, I don't really care about where the sweat moisture ends and the snain moisture begins. It's all the same, wet and cold, and after more than three years in Juneau, I've resigned myself to the fact that moisture is going to seep in no matter what I wear. Rain even finds its way into my plastic jacket, usually through the neck, arms and bottom.

Outer Outer layer: If I am going out for a really long ride, longer than five hours, I will actually carry a Gortex winter shell or another large polar fleece to throw over my plastic jacket when my core temperature starts to drop, which it inevitably does. The wet and warm strategy can only work as long as I am pedaling at a certain level. During long rides, when my effort starts to drop, so does my body temperature.

Head: I release a lot of heat through my head and hands, so I go pretty light in these places. On my head, I usually just wear a fleece ear band. During long rides, I will bring a thin polyester balaclava to throw on when I start to get cold.

Hands: I usually wear fleece liner gloves with snowboarding mitten shells (Sometimes I start with just the liner gloves and throw on the shells later). Like my leg system, these eventually soak through but do well enough to block out wind and hold in heat. On the long rides, I will simply throw my pogies on my handlebars. Pogies are actually perfect for cold rain. They take a long, long time to soak through, so if you want your hands to stay dry, pogies are the way to go. I usually have to go bare-handed with pogies because they are so warm when it's above freezing, however.

Feet: Lately, I have been a big fan of insulated vapor barrier socks like the ones made by RBH Designs. I just wear a wool liner sock with these, and my regular running shoes (which means you clipless types could wear them with your bike shoes.) They do a great job of keeping out the slush water for a long time, and when they do soak through, they still stay relatively warm. I've completely converted to these, over from neoprene socks and booties. If I want my feet to stay completely dry, I wear a pair of NEOS overboots. I usually only do this for particularly long or wet rides, because they're floppy and annoying. I may have to start wearing them more often, however, because I've noticed my frostbite toes on my right foot are particularly sensitive to the wet cold compared to the toes on my left foot, and I should probably take more precaution to avoid further nerve damage (read: trench foot).

But that's just my system. I wouldn't expect it to work for everyone. Maybe there are some out there who still claim it's possible to stay dry while riding in slushy weather. I'm beyond skeptical, but I'd love to hear your strategy.


  1. If it makes you feel any better, we hit 35 here today (95 in your money), and it is not even summer yet!

    My 100km mtb race this weekend will be interesting!

  2. Thanks for the demystification. I've often wondered how you can stay dry in the nastiest riding conditions on earth. That's some strong mania!

  3. You seem to have it dialed in as close as you can for your conditions. The "plastic-wear" polyester is wonderful stuff for keeping warm-when-wet, but beyond wearing once and throwing in the washer sweaty and dirty I've never liked the feeling of it on my skin for extended wearing. I like to put a sheer merino wool ( wool 2 or 3 ) under a mid layer, especially if it's for a long or multi-day trip, which for me is xc skiing ahead of dog teams in N Minn.
    I think you are right-on with your use of vapor barrier sox, and the RBH are the best. Which RBH liner sock do you use? It is a sizable investment for them -- did you send in your foot tracing with the wool liner sock on? For XC ski boots in below zero weather, fit is paramount as with clipless bike shoes.
    Your tactics for outer layers in transition temperatures of slush are sensible. Gore tex is a lot of money for something that doesn't work any better than PVC with aerobic activity and wet outside. Thanks for sharing this. Hope you can answer my questions about RBH as I'm nearing the time of placing an order with them after seeing how their products performed on participants on a Hudson Bay trip this past spring.

  4. Jill,
    I find this very interesting. When I am on a bike tour I have long ago stopped trying to keep my body dry, but have focused on staying warm while riding and put my resources into keeping the gear on my bike dry so when I am finished riding for the day, I have warm and dry to change in to. The difference of course, my touring occurs in the summer months and while it might reach into the 40's for summer rain in the mountains it is never the cold you routinely experience.
    Poly fleece for warm wet and nylon for wind even though the water seeps right through. It does keep me motivated to keep riding because once you stop for a break or to eat....whoa...cold!

  5. Wanna know how I stay warm and dry when its crappy outside?

    I wrap up in my grandma's afghan with a cup of cocoa in front of the t.v.

    When I feel like an adventure, I'll just read someone else's and get that fuzzy warm feeling that I'm right, and you're all crazy!

  6. We get our (un)fair share of "snain" down in Boston. After a couple seasons of messengering and many years of commuting I've become "comfortable" in those conditions.

    Mostly it's just a combination of Gore-Tex and wool. Gore-Tex to keep the wind and rain out for as long as possible and the wool to keep me warm when (not if) the slush falling from the sky penetrates my outer defenses.

    Part of The New England condition involves perpetually complaining about the weather. There is a cure. After a couple days riding a bike in 38° rain and sleet and wind you will never complain about it being "too hot" again.


  7. Me...I'll be soaked after my 2 hr ride today...but that's cause riding stationary in front of a Faltscreen in my Garage get's me a wee bit sweaty! The cold is not the problem here...it's the dark that gets in the way! Your work schedule at least gives you the daylight hours...even up there!

    But hey, at least I'll catch up on movies over the winter!!


    Oh, by the way...there's a really nice TR bike in this garage awaiting a visit!

  8. Jill: Love your blog. I'm another that has switched from poly to wool over the last few years - specifically 'smartwool'...Patrick

  9. OK, I admit it.
    Down here in mid-winter I do have to wear an extra layer - in my case a light jumper.
    It is known to rain quite heavily in summer - more of a relief than a problem!
    Sorry Jill, couldn't resist.
    You're mad!!
    If you realy want to have fun with your riding come visit Australia.

  10. My Strategy...

    Stay inside with my favorite pajama pants, hoodie, and warm fuzzy slippers. Then go online and look at all your amazing pictures.

    But I'm just lazy!

    If you can't be dry, at least you are staying warm!!

  11. If you find what keeps you comfortable from experience then you have found what works best for you. Deep, I know! :-)

    I usually layer up with polyester base layer, 1-2 mid-layers of more polyester, and then outer layer of tights (breathable but wind-resistant) and a waterproof/breathable rain jacket. Rain pants work in rain only and keep you warm, hold in sweat though. A breathable helmet cover surprisingly keeps water out of my neck and my head dry. Due to most heat loss being from your head it keeps you warm and doesn't freeze. Shoe-booties, again breathable, keep feet completely dry. Working on getting good gloves.

    Ride all year, rain, "snain", and snow here in upstate NY. Find if you get hot, unlayer. Get cold, add a layer. Can't lose that way if you plan ahead for the weather.

  12. Thanks for the info. Even though I have similar strategies to dressing, there is always something new either you or someone brings up that I need to try. I am going to look into your boots, and liners. I know that I have brought this up before but I think you could do a calendar of your photos as a fundraiser for your riding. Your book, in which I have a copy, was great and I almost read it in one setting and form an outside view point it seem to do really well. But I really believe that a calendar or maybe a coffee table book of your images you have taken would be just as successful. I love the photos that you have posted though out the years and think people like me, living in Iowa (Go Hawks), would love to look at them in a book or calendar.

  13. Great post, thanks for all the info. I have also transitioned to plastic-free clothing, I have been most happy with the range of thicknesses and quality from Ibex. Smartwool has proven not tough enough against snags, etc. Icebreaker has been okay, I have only one article in use for 3 yrs. Ibex is also a great small company, much is made in USA. Stepping off my box now. I hardly ever ride in "snain" conditions anymore, getting old and lazy... looking forward to reading about your next adventure!

  14. I just train outside buck naked. It makes me tough.

    Seriously though. It must be hard for a year round cyclist in Alaska. Running is more simple to dress for.

  15. So I been wondering...how many sets of these outfits do you have? The reason I ask: How much time and money do you spend washing those things!!! You're out there like every day...are you constantly at the laundry-mat!?

  16. Great post! I'm wondering how long it takes you to get dressed to ride. I'm not that patient.

  17. Just a note the list of links to other blogs have disappeared from the right side of your blog. Not sure if that was accidental or on purpose. I noticed it first time yesterday.



  18. Keith! Can;t wait! I haven't bought the plane ticket yet, but I will, soon.

    Honky ... good to see you again. Why'd you kill the blog?

    Sara ... I have about three or four changes of this type of clothing, meaning base and mid-layer. I usually do a load of this kind of laundry about once a week, although I occasionally air-dry and wear stuff twice.

    Vik ... it was an accident. I just noticed it as well. I'm not sure how to get them back. I may have to generate a new links list.

  19. Keith! Can;t wait! I haven't bought the plane ticket yet, but I will, soon.

    Honky ... good to see you again. Why'd you kill the blog?

    Sara ... I have about three or four changes of this type of clothing, meaning base and mid-layer. I usually do a load of this kind of laundry about once a week, although I occasionally air-dry and wear stuff twice.

    Vik ... it was an accident. I just noticed it as well. I'm not sure how to get them back. I may have to generate a new links list.


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