The greatest lesson we've learned from living a life in the outdoors is how to utilize technical gear to our advantage. And the greatest advantage we have against cold weather is through layering and buying the right equipment.
Let's go back to the basics and understand why and how we layer for cold weather mountain biking.
Basic Layering Set Up
Base Layer- The layer closest to your body. This layer should be a fabric that wicks moisture off the skin and dries quickly. When purchasing a good base layer, you want to look for materials like Wool, Polyester, or Spandex. A blend of these materials is equally beneficial.
Mid Layer- This layer goes over the base layer and is used as insulation. This layer is essential to creating warmth around the core of the body. The body's core begins at the base of the neck and extends down to the pelvis area. One of my favorite mid layers is a good wind-resistant jacket; it keeps the heat trapped and repels wind from seeping through the outer shell on long downhill descents.
Outer Shell/Layer- The "bash guard" layer. This layer protects you from the elements mother nature throws at you. A good shell will most times have a water repellent coating like DWR (Durable water repellent coating) or be made of Gore-Tex.
However you decide to mix and match your layers, follow these guidelines, and you are bound to stay warm, dry, and comfortable this winter season. Now that we've covered the basics, we'd like to share a layering guide of our favorite gear for staying protected this winter.
Torso – Chris Farley got it wrong!
Technical Flannels: Are you really a mountain biker if you don't own a good flannel? Technical flannels are a great mid-layer option for cooler weather (40 to 60 degrees). A flannel can be a comfortable, breathable way to stay warm when paired with a good base layer. Look for a technical flannel made from polyester or a poly blend; cotton flannels are best used for after ride hangouts.
We like our Cognative MTB technical flannel for cool weather rides because of its breathability and the shirt's construction. Not only is the 100% polyester super breathable, but the openings between the snaps also allow for increased airflow. Of course, increased airflow through the shirt does have its drawbacks. Suppose you are moving at higher speeds or the temp dips unexpectedly; you may find that flannel is not your friend.
Other construction characteristics we included are a roll and stow sleeve; when you're feeling a little too warm after a gnarly climb, you can securely roll up the sleeves. Cognative MTB flannels are available in both men's and women's sizes. See more details here: Performance Flannels
Long Sleeve Jerseys: A good long sleeve jersey can be a great layering edition. While a jersey by itself won't keep you very warm, it can work great with a base layer underneath or worn as a base layer under a flannel or jacket. Jerseys are made from a 100% performance polyester material to wick moisture away from the body. Long Sleeve Jerseys
Jackets: Having a good, durable, and versatile riding jacket can be a great piece of winter gear to keep you pedaling through the coldest parts of the season. The problem with most jackets is heat and moisture regulation. You know that feeling… hot… cold… hot… cold…. It's hard to get it just right! A mountain bike specific jacket should have a couple of features that you can't do without. The first is ventilation; without this, you'll be roasting like a thanksgiving day turkey on your first climb. The other key is either a polyester or natural fiber like wool material that breathes well, letting the heat and moisture escape but keeping the cold out. Let's take a look at the options we designed for riding here at Cognative MTB:
Pinnacle Jacket: The Pinnacle is proving itself to be the perfect combo of lightweight, breathable materials and warmth. With a small amount of insulation quilted into the chest, a huge vent on the back, and a durable, breathable fabric on the rest of the torso and arms, this jacket is becoming our go-to for colder rides: Men's Pinnacle Jacket
Adapt Packable Windbreaker: This is the do everything, bring all the time jacket! Best used as a mid-layer during the winter months or on its own when you need a little something extra in the backcountry. Weighing in at only 4 ounces and small enough to fit in most pockets, there's no excuse to not have this one with you on every ride. The woven nylon outer material blocks the wind, while the underarm and sizeable back vent keep you free of moisture build-up. Learn more about the Adapt here:
Cold Mountain Down Jacket: We built this jacket for the coldest of conditions, and it quickly became our favorite wear all the time everywhere off the bike jacket. You'll be hard-pressed to find a down jacket with a higher warmth to weight ratio for the money. It also packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle, making it easy to throw in most packs. For most of our riding here in Western NC, this one will be a little too warm, but it is perfect for our friends up North. Learn more about the Cold Mountain Jacket here:
To wear pants or not to wear pants? That is the question….
While few companies offer winter pant options for mountain biking, most of us find layering a full-length bottom base layer, a pair of compression shorts or chamois, and outer shorts will do the trick. Of course, your decision is also influenced by the type of riding you are going to do. Lots of pedaling and elevation gain on your winter ride? You'll probably enjoy the freedom of wearing shorts with a quality bottom base layer. For base layer options, it's hard to beat the TSLA offerings. They work like any other high-end technical base layer for a fraction of the price: TSLA Baselayers
In addition to a good shorts layering system, adding knee pads can make a huge difference during the winter months. In fact, the right set can be worn 99% of the time year-round. We really like the Leatt Airflex Pro, which offers ample protection but have little to no downsides when it comes to pedaling friction on all-day epic Pisgah rides: Leatt Knee Pads
We all have those friends who can wear sandals in the winter with no apparent recourse... and we don't like those friends! For the rest of us, regular people, keeping our toes and fingers warm is one of the biggest challenges when the winter season really starts to set in.
One of the top priorities to keeping your toes warm is keeping the wind (and water) out. Shoe covers can be a great place to start, but a true winter mountain bike shoe is going to be your best solution. Yes, it's hard to consider buying another pair of shoes you may only use a couple of months of the year, but with proper storage, they can easily last half a decade or more.
One of our favorites is an older version of the Shimano MW7: Shimano MW7
Take the right winter shoe paired with a thick wool sock, and you'll be set for most cold-weather rides. Our favorite thick wool sock is the Defeet Woolie Boolie .
For the milder winter days, our Standard Issue Wool Sock is the perfect match for chilled toes. In fact, a thin wool sock is suitable for all seasons thanks to its natural temperature and moisture regulation properties!
Need to take the warmth up one more notch? A cheap and easy way to add a little more heat is toe warmers. They are small, lightweight, easy to throw in your pack, and an inexpensive way to help keep you pedaling when the temperature drops.
Kind of like our friends who wear sandals in the winter, we find everyone's tolerance for how much cold their hands can take is vastly different. Also, consider the type of riding: fast gravel roads and long downhills will bring the chill a lot faster than slower grueling climbs.
One of the most significant downsides to most winter riding gloves is the bulkiness and grip loss. Bulkiness and grip loss might be ok for cross country or gravel riding, but not when you want to hustle down your favorite technical downhill trail. We designed our new Cool Weather Gloves with sleek windproof neoprene material and used the same palm material as our standard glove for retained grip feel and control. Learn more here: Cool Weather Gloves
There are a lot of options, from full coverage balaclavas to cycling-specific under helmet caps. For most mountain bike rides, we find a good thin ear warmer and a neck gaiter due to the trick. There are many options out there, and the thicker fleece ones might be warmer but can make getting your helmet adjusted rather tricky. We recommend a simple one-size-fits-most option like this one from REI: Ear Warmer
A lightweight neck gaiter is also a must have. Neck gaiters are versatile and double as an ear warmer, head cover, and several other options. You can see all of our designs here: Cognative Neck Gaiters
Stay dry and warm out there, folks! We've got you covered, literally!