Note: This is the sixth installment in a series of articles on winter cycling. I hope to have the entire series finished by November and then publish it as a free PDF book that you can download from this website (the working title is, “A Guide To Winter Cycling”).
No one wants to have cold feet during a winter bike ride. Fortunately, there are so many ways to keep your toes warm that you shouldn’t ever have a problem regardless of the temperature. In this article I am going to present several options that you can try during winter rides. We are going to start with keeping your feet warm in mild weather and work our way down to temperatures far below freezing.
Winter Cycling Socks: I hate to state the obvious, but the easiest way to keep your feet warm is to wear thicker socks. Wool socks are available at just about every sporting goods store in America, but the Pearl Izumi Elite Thermal Wool Socks are not just any wool socks—they are designed for winter athletes and are probably the most comfortable wool socks you will ever find. These socks are made of 71% merino wool, 28% nylon, and 1% Lycra. Merino wool is extremely warm, naturally anti-bacterial, doesn’t retain odors, and does a fantastic job of wicking away moisture from your feet. These socks have a good layer of cushioning under the feet which should make for blister-free riding. They also have a bit of arch compression so they fit well without ever feeling sloppy. They are also they only cycling socks I own that have markings so you can distinguish between the left and right socks. Pearl Izumi Elite Thermal Wool Socks come in several sizes, from Small through X-Large and seem to be true to size. However, they are not cheap—they retail for around $18 a pair.
The only socks that I will wear for “heart of winter” cycling are the DeFeet Woolie Boolie Socks. These socks are advertised as being “multi-purpose” and I think that any cyclist, runner, skier, hiker, snowboarder or snowshoer would really enjoy them. These socks are made of high quality Merino wool and while they have thick padding on the soles, they are not bulky (DeFeet calls it mid-weight cushioning). Even after four or five hours of exercising in the snow these socks are still warm and dry. DeFeet Woolie Boolie Socks are not cheap either—they retail for $16 a pair for the 4″ cuff and $17 for the 6″ cuff. These socks are available in four sizes (S, M, L, and XL) and in my opinion they are a bit smaller than advertised. Since these socks are unisex in design, you might want to consult the DeFeet Website if you have any questions about sizing.
Toe Covers (worn over your shoes): Toe warmers are intended to allow you to ride in cool weather with your summer cycling shoes. I own at least a dozen pair of toe warmers for my cycling shoes—some good, some bad, some worthless. In my opinion, the Planet Bike Dasher Toe Covers are the absolute best toe covers you can buy! What makes the Planet Bike Dasher Toe Covers so great? Well, they started with a windproof fabric on the outside coupled with a microfleece lining on the inside. By itself, this is nothing special—nearly every brand of toe covers has a similar fabric. What makes these toe covers stand out is the elastic heel strap that keeps these covers in place. Most toe covers are held in place by an elastic band around the end of the cover. Most elastic bands suffer form one of two problems: either they are so tight you can’t get them over your shoe or they are so loose they won’t stay on. The heel strap on the Dasher allows the cover to easily slide onto your shoe and then keeps it in place as you ride.
The bottom of the Planet Bike Dasher Toe Covers have cut-out guides for both SPD and road cleats (I use Look Keo cleats). If you own both type of cleats you could use the larger road cleat cut-out area for both pair of shoes. However, I would suggest you just buy another pair of the Dasher toe covers because the larger cut-out area for the road cleats leaves very little of the bottom of the cover left. When you cut out the area for an SPD cleat you will have a lot of the thick bottom part of the Dasher covering the treads of your MTB shoes—the material on the bottom of the Dasher is thick enough so that this will not be a problem. Some toe covers are so thin that the bottom side of the cover wears out with just a few weeks of use. Planet Bike offers these toe covers in five different sizes (most companies offer only two). The small cover will fit a man’s size 6.5 shoe (40 European) and the XXL will fit a man’s 12.5 shoe (47 European). Planet Bike has a size chart available on their Web site if you are not sure what size you need. The Planet Bike Dasher Toe Covers retail for $27.
Toe Covers (worn over your socks): Most toe covers sold in bike shops are designed to fit over your cycling shoes and they work great. However, if your toes are still cold you ought to try a pair of Neoprene Tip Toe Covers by the Gator Sports. Tip Toe Covers are designed to be worn inside of your shoes—either under your socks or over them. I think the best way to wear Tip Toe Covers is over a polypropylene sock liner and under your normal winter cycling socks. The polypropylene sock liner will wick moisture away from your skin while the neoprene in the Tip Toe Covers will help keep the heat in. Tip Toe Covers are very lightweight and stretchable, which is a good thing since they only come in one size (one size fits all). After having used Tip Toe Covers on many cold weather rides it seems to me that they warm up my toes about 10 degrees more than they would be without them. Tip Toe Covers are not the only cold weather gear your feet need, but I think every cyclist ought to own a pair. Neoprene Tip Toe Covers sell for $9 a pair.
Sock Liners: If you run or ride a bike outside in cold weather you’ve probably heard that you should wear a second pair of socks to keep your feet warm. Under some circumstances this might be a good idea, but for most people it is horrible advice. Unless your shoes are too big to begin with, a second pair of socks will impede the circulation in your feet—which will make your feet feel colder than they would be with just a single pair of socks. Instead of a second pair of socks I would suggest you try RedHead ThermoLite Liner Socks.
RedHead liner socks are made with Thermolite, a material created by the scientists at DuPont, and it is a comfortable, lightweight but heavy-duty fabric that provides warmth without extra weight, even when it is wet. This fabric has hollow-core fibers that trap air for greater insulation and it dries 50% faster than cotton. Thermolite fabric quickly wicks moisture away from the skin to help prevent chaffing and blisters. Since the fabric is so thin you will probably not even notice that you have them on. I use this brand of sock liners for all of my outdoor winter activities, from cycling or snowshoeing to just running the snow blower in the driveway. RedHead ThermoLite Liner Socks retail for $5 a pair. Redhead is the in-house brand of outdoor gear for Bass Pros Shops, so you will have to either visit one of their stores or their Website to buy this product. These liners are available in four sizes (S, M, L, XL). The small liner is designed to fit a woman’s size 4–6 shoe, and the XL liner with fit a man’s size 12–15.
Chemical Toe Warmers: Chemical warmers are made by several companies, such as HotHands and Grabber. Though the exact ingredients in these warmers vary depending on the manufacturer, they all basically have the same ingredients: Iron powder, salt, water, activated charcoal and vermiculite (or cellulose). To activate these chemical warmers all you have to do is expose them to air by removing them for their packaging (sometimes you have to shake the packs for a few seconds). Once out of the package these products warm up in 15 to 30 minutes and can stay warm for four or five hours. These products are almost always advertised as being good for seven or eight hours, and under ideal circumstances they might, but that has not been my experience with most of them. Chemical toe warmers stick to the bottom of your socks with self-adhesive tape and they are so thin that you will probably never even know they are there (but you will benefit from them).
Thermal Insoles: As the temperature keeps dropping you finally start looking for something else to help keep your feet warm. 3M Thinsulate Thermal Insoles are a fantastic, yet inexpensive, way to have warm and happy feet during long bike rides in the winter. These insoles are composed of four layers. First, there is an abrasion-resistant antimicrobial layer on the top to help keep odors down and wick moisture away. Under this is a layer of comfortable memory foam, followed by a layer of Thinsulate polyester fiber insulation that does a wonderful job of keeping your feet warm by trapping air molecules between the bottom of your feet and the cruel weather outside. The bottom layer acts somewhat like a shock absorber and has additional antimicrobial and moisture wicking properties. I have no way of measuring for certain, but based upon my experience I think these insoles increase the internal temperature of my shoes by at least 10 to 15 degrees. 3M Thinsulate Thermal Insoles are available at many sporting goods stores, such as Cabela’s, Dick’s Sport Goods, Bass Pro Shops and REI. While this product is usually marketed to hunters and hikers, I think any winter cyclist would love to have a pair of these insoles. These insoles are available for women’s sizes from 5–12 and for men’s sizes from 7–14. These insoles sell for around $20 a pair.
Shoe Covers: Several companies offer excellent shoe covers for cyclists, but the one I would recommend for temperatures from 25 to 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) is the Planet Bike Comet Shoe Cover. These covers are made of neoprene and offer great wind and water resistance. Neoprene is the same material used in wetsuits and not only is it waterproof, but it offers excellent insulation. These covers will fit almost any cleat/pedal platform you can throw at it. I’ve used these covers on my MTB shoes with Crank Brothers Egg Beater cleats and on my road shoes with Look Keo cleats. The bottom of these covers is made of a very rugged material, so you don’t have to worry if you run into a convenience store while out on a long ride. In the winter my MTB shoes have toe spikes and there is enough room between the toe box retention strap and the front of the shoe cover for these toe spikes to fit in easily. Planet Bike offers these shoe covers in five different sizes. The small cover will fit a man’s size 6.5 shoe (40 European) and the XXL will fit a man’s 11.5+ shoe (46+ European). Planet Bike has a size chart available on their Website if you are not sure what size you need. I have found the listed sizes to be accurate, but if you are on the border between two sizes go for the larger one (tight clothing in the winter is a very bad idea). I wear size 11.5 cycling shoes and these covers fit perfectly and have a bit of room to spare. Nearly every other brand of shoe cover I have ever purchased was too small to fit my feet (the Bike Nashbar brand shoe covers run about two sizes smaller than advertised). Planet Bike Comet Shoe Covers retail for around $40.
If you are looking for one of the warmest shoe covers on the market, I would suggest you try the Planet Bike Blitzen Windproof Shoe Covers. This shoe cover is made of a windproof fabric with microfleece lining and a neoprene front panel around the toe box. While all suggested temperature ranges for winter clothing will vary from cyclist to cyclist, I would recommend them for temperatures from 20 to 35 degrees (Fahrenheit). Planet Bike Blitzen Windproof Shoe Covers have a retail price of $45.
Winter Cycling Boots: Several companies make winter cycling boots, but since I have wide feet the only ones I can wear are the Lake MXZ303 Winter Cycling Boots. The MXZ303 is a high-end winter boot constructed with a three-part front cover made of water-repellent Pittards WR100 leather, 3M Thinsulate insulation in the toe box, Thermasol insoles, and a Vibram rubber sole that makes walking on snow and ice an easy task. This boot has a side mounted Push/Pull BOA Closure lacing system so you can cinch it up with just one hand. One major improvement in this model over the earlier model (MXZ302) is the storm flap that fastens with an adjustable pinch clip—this really does a great job of sealing up the boot. These boots are available in both regular and wide widths in even sizes from 38 to 50 (US). You also have a choice for the color of the printed logo on the outside of the boot (silver or yellow). These boots come with a pair of mud cleats (ice cleats) for each shoe and I would highly recommend you install them. I would also recommend that you apply a few drops of an anti-seize compound on the threads of the spikes and your cleats before installation. My boots are size 47 wide and they weigh 755 grams (26 ounces) per boot and are six inches tall. These shoes are SPD compatible.
These boots claim to be “subzero rated.” I’ve worn these boots when the air temp was zero (Fahrenheit) with a windchill of -15F and my feet were toasty warm the entire ride. However, I probably should explain what else I was wearing on my feet: I started with a thin pair of RedHead ThermoLite Liner Socks, then a pair of DeFeet Woolie Boolie Socks, and finished up by sticking a pair of Hot Hands Chemical Toe Warmers on the bottom of the socks (this is my normal set-up for zero-degree weather). Lake MXZ303 Winter Cycling Boots are not cheap—they have a retail price of $280.
When the temperature drops below 10 degrees Fahrenheit I wear the Columbia Sportswear Men’s Bugaboot Plus Cold Weather Boot. Since this boot is not SPD-compatible I use a wide flat pedal with metal pins for a good grip (the Heiruspecs Winter Grip Pedals). Thanks to Columbia’s exclusive Omni-Heat thermal reflective technology, the Bugaboot is rated for temperatures down to -25 degrees—while I’ve not had a chance to use them in temperatures that low, I have no doubt that they would hold up well in that temperature. This waterproof boot has 200 grams of insulation (Thinsulate) and they have kept my feet warm and dry every time I’ve worn them—these are the best pair of winter boots I’ve ever owned. My size 12 Bugaboot measures 10 inches tall and weight a bit over three pounds (for the pair). This boot appears to be true-to-size. Color selection also varies depending on the size of boot you wear. I would have liked a solid black boot, but the only Bugaboot the store I went to could get their hands on was the Turkish Coffee (see photo above). The Columbia Sportswear Bugaboot Plus Cold Weather Boot retails for $120, but Amazon.com has it for as low as $73 (depending on color and size). I bought my Bugaboots from a brick-and-motor Rogan’s Shoes store, but they are also available at sporting goods stores like Gander Mountain. These boots are also available in sizes and styles for both women and children.