Note: This is the final installment in a series of articles on winter cycling. I am in the process of converting these articles into a PDF book that you will be able to download for free from this website.
I am often asked about what type of gear I carry with me on winter rides—the answer is not exactly cut and dry. When I am riding in urban areas I don’t carry anything more than I would in the summer. However, the further away from home I ride, or when I am on lonely off-road trails, I usually carry some extra gear. In this article I am going to suggest a few items that you might want to carry with you this winter.
Cell Phone. Going out for a bike ride in the heart of winter can be a beautiful experience—and it can also be deadly if you are not prepared. If you are riding in your neighborhood and your bike experiences a mechanical problem you can just walk it home. However, if you are 30 miles away from civilization when you break down they might not find your body until the snow melts. I carry my Apple iPhone with me on every ride I take—not just so I can call my wife if I break down, but also because there might be a time when I can’t call her at all! I use Abvio Cyclemeter iPhone app to record my rides, and when I am riding in inclement weather I also turn on the Road ID iPhone app so my wife can track me during the ride—she will even get a notification if I crash.
The Road ID iPhone app is very simple to set up and even easier to use. Once you download the app from the iTunes Store you input your basic information (name, address and email address), then you can select up to five of your contacts who will receive either an email or a text message when you are ready to go ride or run. The contacts you selected with get a brief message telling them that you are heading out—and in the message there is a link they can click that will allow them to see exactly where you are at any given moment while you are out (an eCrumb—an electronic breadcrumb). They can watch you on any smart phone or web browser.
The Road ID iPhone app also allows you to turn on a stationary alert—if you don’t move for five minutes the app will send an email or text message to your selected contacts advising them that you are not moving. The message does not necessarily mean that you are lying face-down in a ditch somewhere—it just means that you have not moved more than 15 feet or so in the past five minutes. However, one minute before the text message or email goes out the app will sound a loud alarm to warn you so you can cancel the message. This stationary alert cannot be adjusted to any other time-frame—it is either set at five minutes or it is turned off entirely.
This app will drain your battery a bit, but for most people it is not going to be an issue. I’ve used this app on a lot of short rides (three hours or less). Each time I started with a battery that was 100% full and when I got home after three hours the battery had only gone down by 20%—but I was also running the Abvio Cyclemeter app at the same time (I always turn off the Wi-Fi on my iPhone when heading out for a ride to prolong battery life). One other feature the Road ID iPhone app offers is that it allows you to make a personalized Lock Screen—even if your phone is locked emergency responders can see any pertinent information they need and a list of people they can call in case of an emergency.
According to the description on iTunes, this app is “compatible with iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 5, iPod touch (3rd generation), iPod touch (4th generation), iPod touch (5th generation), and iPad. This app is optimized for iPhone 5. Requires iOS 5.0 or later.”
If you live in an area where cellphone reception is spotty (or even non-existent), you should consider a SPOT Trace device—a small electronics package (2″x3″) that uses satellite technology to track your movements and report your position. These devices start at just $100 (and basic service is just $99 a year).
Cell Phone Cover. Because cold weather will decrease the battery life on your cell phone, it is always best to keep your phone close to your body. Unfortunately, your body produces a tremendous amount of perspiration during winter rides and all of that humidity is often trapped between your body and your outer layer—and your cell phone is trapped between those two layers. You need to store your cell phone in a waterproof cover—a Ziplock bag can work in a pinch, but a more durable option is the Showers Pass CloudCover iPhone Case for the iPhone 4 or iPhone 5.
The Showers Pass CloudCover iPhone Case is a weatherproof case with welded edges and a dual zip-lock closure that will keep your phone happy and dry all day long. I have an iPhone 5 and always keep it in a thin polycarbonate case—and even with the case on my phone fits perfectly into the CloudCover case. In addition, the CloudCover case fits into my middle jersey pocket with room to spare. The CloudCover case has a tab on one side so you can attach a key chain or mini-carabiner to it. The case also has reflective piping so if you keep it in your panniers it will be a lot easier to find in low-light. The design of this case also serves to cushion your phone if it should happen to hit the ground.
One of the features I like best about the CloudCover case is that you can still use the iPhone camera without having to take the phone out of the case. I’ve experimented with this option several times and still cannot believe how well it works! As long as you are photographing in bright sunlight it is nearly impossible to tell that the phone was in the case when you took the photo. However, in low-light situations it is easier to tell the difference. Unfortunately, if you attempt the use the flash while taking a photograph the light will bounce off the clear plastic cover and ruin your photo.
Showers Pass also makes CloudCover cases and wallets for several other electronic devices, including: iPad, iPad Mini, Kindles, and a general purpose wallet for smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy. The Showers Pass CloudCover iPhone Case retails for $25 and if you ride in inclement weather that price is a steal! If your local bike shop does not carry this product you can order if it from the Showers Pass website or Amazon.com.
Rubber Gloves: While your chances of getting a flat tire while riding in the snow is fairly low, it is still possible—and if you are not prepared the experience is going to be utterly miserable! I haven’t figured out a way to change a bike tire with winter cycling gloves on, but when you take the gloves off your hands are going to freeze in a matter of minutes. In addition, most winter rides are in the snow which means that the tires are going to be wet when you work on them. Therefore, if I am traveling very far away from home I carry a pair of Ansell HyFlex CR2 Cut Resistant gloves with me. These gloves have a nylon lining and a polyurethane palm coating—they don’t have any insulation, but they will keep you hands dry if you have to change a tire, and they are pliable enough to be easy to work with. If you have a pair of winter glove liners with you they can be worn underneath the HyFlex gloves for a bit of added warmth. While these gloves are fairly thin, if you want something even thinner you could wear a disposable latex glove, like the Microflex Diamond Grip Powder-Free Gloves.
Chemical Hand, Foot And Body Warmers. One of the most useful products I’ve ever bought for winter cycling is also the cheapest—chemical hand, foot and body 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. Please check the expiration date on the packages before you buy them! When these warmers get old they don’t produce much heat (if any).
Chemical hand warmers are the most common type of warmer you will see at Walmart, Target and sporting good stores. They come in packages of two and each warmer measures about 2″x3″. Chemical body warmers are larger than hand warmers—they measure 4″x5.5″, and the Super HotHands Body Warmer keeps working for up to 18 hours!
Miscellaneous Items: I always a carry a container of ChapStick with me on winter rides—the cold, dry air makes my lips burn and chap. In addition, a couple of extra carb gels or energy bars are not a bad idea if you are riding very far away from home (you can burn a lot of calories while walking your bike home).
One of my favorite off-road winter rides is on the Des Plaines River Trail in Lake County, Illinois. As the name suggests, the trail runs next to the Des Plaines River, and sometimes when the river is high I’m riding just a few inches from the water. I’ve never fallen into the water, but one slip of a tire could really ruin my day. So, when the river is high and there is a chance of taking an unintentional dip in the water, I carry a disposable SOL Emergency Blanket. This 56” x 84″ emergency warming blanket reflects 90% of your body heat, yet it only weighs 2.5 ounces and doesn’t take up much more room than a Clif Bar. I haven’t had to use it yet and I pray that I never do!
One Final Item: Don’t ever go out for a bike ride without your Road ID or your driver’s license. If you have an accident the emergency responders need to know how to get in touch with your family. In addition, if you are riding when the temperature is -20 Fahrenheit (-29 Celsius) sometimes you have to look at your driver’s license just so you can remember your gender.
If you are an avid winter cyclist please feel free to tell me what you think I missed on this list.