The Low-Down on Layers

It’s February in Oregon, a time when it could be lovely outside, especially if it’s the weekend of the Worst Day of the Year Ride. It could also be freezing cold, raining and nasty.

So how does a smart biker suit up for such flip-floppy weather? The answer is simple: Layers.

5 Minutes of Cold

Most of us warm up significantly in the first mile of even casual rides, so dress down slightly. You know you’ve got a good layering formula if you’re cold for the first five minutes and don’t need to peel off a layer right away.

Load Up, Peel Off: Upper Body

Start with the basic clothing you want to wear inside for the day. Add layers beyond that.

Layer 1: A base layer long sleeve or tank top that can be tucked in to retain heat.
Layer 2: The top clothing you want to wear for the day.
Layer 3: A sweater or sweatshirt, preferably tightly-woven wool.
Layer 4: A breathable rain jacket that’s 100% waterproof.

If it is lightly raining but warm out, you can peel off that rain jacket and the wool will fend off the rain with ease. Alternately, you can take off layer 3 but leave on your rain jacket – though that’s a bit of a hassle. You want to be able to easily remove layers in the amount of time it takes for the light to turn green.

Covered Legs Are Happy Legs

Your legs are pumping and moving, so chances are they’re not going to get too cold, but they do need to be covered.

Layer 1: Tall socks that reach your knees will help seal in your body heat.
Layer 2: Thick wool tights if you’re wearing a skirt, pants if not.
Layer 3: A skirt, or not.
Layer 4: Rain pants if it’s dumping outside.

Oh Those Toes!

While it seems tricky to keep feet warm and dry, it’s not as hard as you might think. It just takes diligence.

Layer 1: Tall wool socks that reach your knees.
Layer 2: Biking shoes, waterproof shoes or standard shoes that you like to wear.
Layer 3: Rain booties.

If you’ve got great waterproof shoes, you can skip the booties. If the rain is light, you can skip the booties. A solid pair of nicely polished cowboy (or other hard leather) boots will thwart the rain well enough. Booties are a goofy little hassle, but if you have a long ride and truly want to arrive dry, they’re the way to go. Neoprene booties will keep your feet warm and dry, and shell-style booties will keep your feet completely dry. They come in styles to fit cleats, but you can also cut a discrete hole in the bottom to accommodate biking shoes.

Keep It Thin

Thin layers of well-made fabrics are the way to go. You might spend more initially, but quality wools will last a long time (many years) and thin layers won’t make you feel bulky, allowing you to add extras under your top layer as needed. (Why wool? Read this.)

Magic Tricks

A lightweight, long sleeve, long torso, wool, base layer with a hood is a magic item to own. Tucking in helps retain heat. The thin hood will fit nicely under a helmet and seal in your body heat. Icebreaker makes a great one.

Finding pieces like this that work well for you are worth the investment, such as a solid pair of 3/4 length pants under which you can wear (men’s or women’s) tights.

How Do You?

Share your tips below.

8 thoughts on “The Low-Down on Layers”

  1. Smartwool long sleeve under rain jacket. If really cold I’ll add a hoodie. Wool neck warmer, wool hat, helmet. Long johns, 3/4 length pants, knee socks. If rain pants are required, I’ll skip the long johns bc I get too hot.

  2. I can’t stand the feeling of wool (my focus is completely shot as long as it touches my skin) and hate hate hate wearing longjohns under my jeans. It depends on temperature and how wet it is, but my basic winter layering template is:

    Upper body: tank top, tee, hoodie (hood up under helmet, protecting ears), knit gloves, scarf & jacket (jacket varies according to temperature and wetness…. I favor lighterweight jackets if I can).
    Lower body: either leggings and skirt or jeans. I’ll add legwarmers or longjohns if it’s super cold, and rainpants if it’s wet. Socks that cover the ankles and if it’s super super duper cold, I’ll wear sock liners and wool socks over them. Whatever shoes I feel like, though again if it’s really cold/slippery I’ll wear my hiking boots.

    1. Try softer, refined wools like the technical merino wools of Icebreaker and Nau. Both companies have warehouse sales in Portland – great places to score high quality pieces and extremely discounted prices.

  3. For most winter days in Portland/the Pacific Northwest, I find that a single long-sleeve base layer underneath my rain jacket is plenty warm, once I get going. I tend to ride my bike fast, tho, so I warm up plenty from the inside out. On super cold days, I will go with three layers, wearing a fleece vest or a wool jersey for the middle layer.

    I think it’s OK to be cold for the first five minutes of your ride. If you start out with too many layers, you’ll just overheat and sweat like crazy, and that’s really uncomfortable, especially after you slow down and/or take a break, and all the sweat cools down on your body, making you all cold and wet and clammy. Yuck!

  4. For winter I like to go just three layers on top with a cotton t-shirt, a hoodie and light polyester padded jacket; for pants, I prefer action slacks and some nice warm cotton socks. In the rain, it’s nice just to rock some old shoes, preferably vans or something.

  5. Seemingly, I change gloves annually to try to find something that works. This year, I’m trying a two-glove setup (er, on each hand, that is). First, I put on standard, padded fingerless bike gloves. Over those, I wear regular gloves that are a polyester/wool blend. Even if the latter get wet, the wool keeps my hands warmer.

    1. We somewhat intentionally left gloves out of this conversation. We need to do a full post on that complex topic!

  6. If it is under 45 degrees I wear a headband ( found in my ski gear bag) and cheap gloves I found at target. These gloves are stretchy and cheap- only 1.00! I wear them over my every day biking gloves. I also find warmth in wearing a bandana over my face. It protects my face from cold driving rain and warms the air I breathe

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