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Tips For Winter Bicycle Touring

October 30th, 2010 17 comments


The winter days are closing in here in Holland.

Along the towpathsThe bike paths that were full of cyclists in the summer, many of them on extended tours along the North Sea Cycle Route or around Europe, are now empty.

What a shame. We think winter is one of the best times to go bicycle touring and we’re now preparing our bikes for excursions into the snowy scenery of December and January.

Winter bike touring is about crisp days and stark but beautiful landscapes. It’s a time when you don’t have to worry about pre-booking your hotel or campground. It’s when that hot cup of tea at the end of a day’s ride tastes better than ever.

It’s when we seem to feel every sensation more intensely, from the cold breath we inhale to the warm glow that comes over us when we crawl inside our sleeping bags at night.

Still, no one said it was easy. Winter bike touring requires a certain degree of preparation. Here’s what we recommend you do differently, when bike touring in the cold:

1. CARRY A THERMOS

A Thermos: Crucial for winter bike touringThe hard part about bike touring in the winter is not the riding, it’s the stopping. Once you are off the bike, your body cools down quickly. The last thing you’ll want to be doing is trying to set up a stove with numb fingers, waiting for the water to boil, and doing the dishes afterwards. It’s much better to have thermos full of hot tea or coffee, ready to pour whenever you feel like it.

We bought a Primus flask from a local camping store for winter touring. We fill the thermos before setting out in the morning and the water is still hot at the end of the day; perfect for an instant pick-me-up when we set up camp.

As we cook supper, we boil enough water to fill the thermos again. That means coffee is ready as soon as we wake up, and no one has to fight about who gets out of the tent on a frosty morning to make the first cup!

The only bad thing about carrying a thermos is the extra weight, but it’s a few additional grams we’re willing to lug around for the convenience and pleasure of tea on demand.

2. GET A WARM SLEEPING BAG & MAT

Andrew in our tentThere’s nothing worse than a cold night of shivering in the tent. It’s miserable and even dangerous on freezing winter nights. Make sure you know what temperatures to expect, and get the appropriate sleeping gear to match. If you already have a summer sleeping bag, you may not need a new one. Many camping shops can re-stuff your sleeping bag with extra down, for a fraction of the price of a new one.

The same goes for sleeping mats. Depending on local conditions, you’ll want a 3 or 4 season mat. We use Exped sleeping mats, which are rated down to temperatures around -15°C.

If you already have a good mat but just want to boost its power, buy a thin solid-foam mat (the kind they sell at department stores for a few dollars) to put underneath your current mat. Another way of adding extra insulation is with the reflective car sunshades that go in the windshield. Cut it to size to fit your mat and you’ve got a few extra degrees of warmth for very little money.

Don’t forget long johns and a top to sleep in as well!

3. GLOVES AND A HAT

New mittens to keep our hands warm!If there’s one downside to winter touring, it’s the wind that can whip against your body, chilling your hands and head to the bone. Lesson? Get a hat and gloves! When it comes to a hat, get something that covers your ears. Otherwise, you’ll find your ears and joints literally aching with pain on the first big downhill run. As for gloves, if you can afford it the more expensive models are very warm, but thin enough to offer a lot of dexterity (great for when you need to dig into your panniers or set up the tent).

4. WIDE TIRES

Ice and snow make for slippery roads. Even a bit of rain can freeze overnight in the winter and create a sheet of glass by the next morning. Fields and trails are also muddier in winter. That’s why it’s worth investing in wider, more grippy tires to give you better control. Schwalbe even make tires with studs, if you are in a really severe winter climate!

Tom Allen has reviewed Schwalbe’s studded tires for winter touring.

5. LIGHTS & HIGH VISIBILITY GEAR

Winter days are shorter. You will probably want to start cycling before it’s fully light or ride into the dusk at the end of the day. That’s why it’s crucial to have lights on your bike and high visibility gear, like a neon yellow vest. You get some great sunsets in the winter!

Tents at last lights

6. CHECK THE WEATHER

In the summer, it’s not such a big deal if you get wet. In winter, it’s near impossible to dry out. And let’s not even talk about being stuck in a snowstorm…

Check the weather and if it looks terrible, postpone by a day or two.

7. BUDGET FOR EXTRA FOOD

You burn more calories cycling in the winter. It takes a lot of energy to keep your body warm, and you’re probably carrying extra gear as well (that thermos, the winter sleeping bag…). Do yourself a favour and set aside a bit of extra cash for treats. Your treat might be a hot chocolate from a cafe, or an extra big bar of dark chocolate from the supermarket. It doesn’t really matter, as long as there’s a bit of wiggle room.

What are your experiences with winter bike touring? Please share, by leaving a comment below.

If you want to read more, see the story of a winter bike tour in Holland.

Dreaming of a Bike Tour? see our Survival Guide
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15 Responses to “Tips For Winter Bicycle Touring”

  1. Fantastic comments! I always thought I’d have to hold off cycling/camping until April at least, but what you say makes a lot of sense. I’m contemplating giving it a go (perhaps only 2 or 3 nights) but I do worry that it rains far too much here in Scotland. That, coupled with cold can be dangerous…still, with the right equipment..!

  2. I feel like Julie does. I remember the ice inside the tent from when I revelled in it. Perhaps my summer down bag inside a bigger summer synthetic with a silk liner and polartech top/bottoms!!!!
    I find the hardest thing is the long hours of darkness. Without company or spending hours in the pub, I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll try it over the New Year, weather permitting. Great ideas, thanks for sharing them :-)

    • friedel says:

      You definitely have to get warm gear, that’s crucial. Then you don’t mind the cold so much. I love those long winter nights. It’s great to just lay in the tent, listening to podcasts or reading a book, and then “hibernating” for longer than you would in the summer… what a great excuse to sleep in :)

  3. Demian says:

    I went on my first proper tour from London to Cádiz in January earlier this year. I can verify that it’s a wonderfully fulfilling experience, and the only time I felt cold was first thing in the morning in the rush to pack up the icy tent. 20mins of riding and I’d be taking my jumper off. No sweating, less water needed. I’m hoping to go on another tour this Winter.

  4. John Staples says:

    Winter is great! With regard to the thermos; Take a look at http://www.bikebuddy.co.uk/. They make bicycle bottle carriers which adjust to hold large bottles & vacuum flasks. I use three down sleeping bags: 8 deg C; 0 deg C; and a -5 deg C, put them all together and I can go down to about -18 deg C.
    See http://www.phdesigns.co.uk for quality down bags, not cheap, but very good, light and compact. See http://www.exped.com for a quality ice mat …happy touring.

    • friedel says:

      John, we have sleeping bags from PHD Designs. Agreed – they are awesome bags. We just got ours re-stuffed with extra down, but they held up really well for 2+ years of constant touring, without any maintenance (aside from being cleaned once). I will look up the bike buddy. It would be great to get the thermos out of our bags and on to the frame.

      • Doug W says:

        The bike buddy is pretty neat, but I’d be concerned the contents won’t stay as warm for as long if the thermos is out in the elements and not at least inside a pannier, mildly insulated.

  5. Kaitlyn says:

    I used to bike to work year round. I *STRONGLY* recommend a cheap set of lightly tinted ski goggles for anyone biking below freezing. They are large enough not to obscure too much of your vision, made not to fog up, and are shatter-proof. Best of all, they will stop 100% of the cold wind from stinging your eyes and will radically improve you ability to see.

  6. John Staples says:

    Can anybody recommend a good quality pair of wind proof and preferably waterproof gloves suitable for winter touring at below 0 deg C in the Scottish Highlands. Would a layered system be better, using mitts as an outer cover?

    • Layering always works well. Fingered theraml liners with gloves over and mitts on top works really well and is adjustable but a bit clumsy.It is easier to make mitts totally waterproof as there are far less seams, but Sealskinz socks and gloves are great products (and hats)
      I use Sealskinz ‘Allweather gloves’ have a look at their website http://www.sealskinz.com The other options can be put together from any good outdoor shop.
      I also have windproof fleece gloves from ‘The North Face’, made for Ice climbing and superb for keeping the warmth in. They are not waterproof though.
      Have fun in Scotland this winter!

  7. WilliamNB says:

    I haven’t done any winter touring, but I ride my bike in all weather. Where I live we occasionally get snow in winter, but mostly it rains. As a result, gloves MUST be waterproof, else my fingers pretty much freeze.

    The past two winters I’ve been using the same set-up: I have a decent-ish pair of thinsulate gloves that do a fine job keeping my hands warm, until the temp drops below around freezing. They aren’t quite water-proof, though.

    Additionally, I have a pair of skiing gloves that I wear over the other pair. These are no-name brand gloves that are quite bulky, but still allow me to change gears and even fasten my helmet strap.

    Now the effective temp I’m exposed to seldom (if at all) drops below around -10, so my set-up may not be good enough for you, and you may wish to have a pair of mittens over the skiing gloves.

    I recently acquired a pair of Crane Bike winter gloves, to replace the thinner pair of gloves I use. The Crane gloves are rated as “winter gloves” and are water proof, so it should be an improvement.

  8. John Staples says:

    Many thanks William & Graeme
    I am going to try a pair of Assos Early Winter 851 gloves as a base layer and then look for a waterproof shell outer mitt.
    I use Paul Road Thumbies for gear changing, which as their name applies, only needs the thumb to change gear.

  9. Jeff says:

    The latest-and-greatest invention for cold hands are pogies: https://www.revelatedesigns.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=store.catalog&CategoryID=5&ProductID=14
    Half the bikes in Alaska sport these in winter. I still wear good winter gloves inside them, but I don’t have to use the giant mittens any more.

    And my experience has shown that a good sleeping pad is much more important than a good sleeping bag. You can drop a lot of money on a good bag. (Look to Feathered Friends for the best stuff around.) But a few extra ounces in a good pad will make more of a difference.

    And if you go for studded tires, you have to go deep. There is a world of difference between the pricey Nokian and Schwalbe tires and the less-expensive alternatives. If you need studs, go ahead and spend the money the first time.

  10. David H says:

    Does anyone have any pressing recommendations for a tent to use on a bike tour starting in northern Europe in January? We are setting out this time of year to avoid monsoon season at our destination but as two teenagers on our first tour it’d be nice if these early stages were as comfortable/bearable as possible! Any advice is welcomed, cheers!

    • friedel says:

      To be honest, I would take monsoon season over northern Europe in winter! We cycled SE Asia in the rainy season and it wasn’t so bad.

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