I’m a firm believer in training year round. It stretches you and makes you a more well-rounded athlete… that, and I absolutely LOVE winter! Yes, I’m one of that strange breed who cannot wait to get outside once the temperature drops and the snow falls!
Most folks are shocked that there are those of us who venture out and participate in endurance sports despite the frigid temperatures. But I honestly can’t last longer than :15 on a treadmill or bike trainer. Gotta get my fresh air.
Plus, there’s nothing quite like riding fresh powder under a full moon on a crisp clear winter night. It’s truly an experience from another world.
The trick, I’ve learned, is to have the proper gear to dress in. Once I found a good combination of gear I had no problem getting out and staying out in temperatures down into the single digits.
Now, I’m certainly no Mike Curiak or Gnat (legendary mountain bikers who have done things like snow mountain biking the Iditarod course. Yes, seriously.), but I can offer you a snapshot of what works for me. Hopefully it’s of use to you… have fun out there!
HEAD: Heavy knit, fleece-lined wool/cashmere cap (made by the Canadian company Nobis – not pictured) if it’s above 20 degrees out. If it’s colder than that it’s time to break out the (faux) fur mad bomber hat (also by Nobis). Might look funny, but works great. I’m primarily riding snowpack / icepack in the winter, so I rarely wear a helmet. If riding on singletrack than you’ll want to put on a microfleece balaclava under your helmet.
NECK: I wear a knit neck warmer also made by Nobis (pictured to the left of the hat). Like a scarf, but more ideal for athletic pursuits. Plus, can fit up over your nose which is nice for those “cold enough to freeze your nose hairs” mornings.
HANDS: Tight-fitting running gloves worn under heavy outer gloves (Champion C9 @ Target). An outer mitt is even warmer. These aren’t cycling-specific (i.e. – saved myself some serious coin) but certainly do the trick.
FEET: SmartWool socks, cycling cleats, neoprene outer booties (Pearl Izumi Barrier – were worth every penny).
LEGS: Cycling tights with Columbia OmniHeat long underwear underneath. OmniHeat is well worth the money if you’re going to use it regularly; it allows you to stay warmer and dryer while wearing fewer layers.
TOP: Micro-fleece lined shell (Champion C9 @ Target… $30, bulletproof, functional) with Columbia OmniHeat Long Sleeved Compression Tee underneath. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but I can wear this into the teens and be plenty warm. (I’ll throw on a compression tank under that if it’s in the single digits.)
HYDRATION: I wear a hydration pack when mountain biking, but you have to insulate the hose and mouth piece or it will freeze. Solid. In under 10 minutes depending how cold it is out there. I try to drink frequently to keep that from happening; and/or stick the hose down inside my jacket. You can also keep a small water bottle inside your jacket so your body heat keeps it from freezing. It’s easy to forget to hydrate when out in the cold, but it’s even more important to do so than in the heat. Force yourself to drink frequently.
HYPOTHERMIA: I never cease to be amazed by how many people don’t take hypothermia seriously. Especially in the winter. Here’s a scenario: you’re 3 miles out on the trail, you get a flat tire. It takes you 10 minutes to figure out that your spare tube acquired a leak from the freezing cold air and your fingers are now going numb from fiddling around with your repair kit. Plus, changing a frozen kevlar-walled tire in cold weather is a real beast. You decide to hike-a-bike back to the car… which, while pushing a bike through the snow is going to take you over an hour. By now your sweat is starting to get cold and you’re shivering… Three miles out? Not far fetched at all. Know the symptoms and warning signs of hypothermia. Know them really well, because if you’re fighting it than you won’t have the presence of mind to recall everything you thought you read up on.
EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS: Always make sure someone knows where you are and when you expect to get back (INeverSolo.com is a GREAT resource for this). Carry a charged cell phone, but don’t rely on it because in really cold temps your phone can crash and shut down. The cell phone is only your Plan B. Carry a “space blanket.” These small foil blankets take up practically no room in your pack and add negligible weight; but in a pinch they can literally be a lifesaver. Do you know how to start a fire in the winter? You should. Trails are more lightly traveled in the winter. Help can become less accessible even in an area that doesn’t seem like backcountry. But break a leg out there and you may be waiting a few hours for help to arrive if you can’t get yourself out. And in that amount of time you could go seriously hypothermic. Sounds like overkill to carry a lighter and a small chunk of firestarter log in the bottom of your hydration pack, but… considering it could be the difference between going home or going to the hospital, it’s well worth the small amount of space that it takes up.
THE FAMILY JEWELS: Guys (sorry Ladies, I’ve got no experience on this in your shoes), this may be one of the more awkward topics of cold weather endurance sports, but for those of us who have frozen the family jewels, we can attest to what a painful (and downright scary) thawing out process it can be. Do yourself a big favor if you’re going to be training outdoors in temps below 30 degrees and buy a WindBrief. Seriously. You can thank me later.
There you have it. Not rocket science, but definitely little details that add up to make for a more enjoyable and safer outdoors experience in the freezing cold. The list would be a bit different for Trail Running (which is also one of my favorites in the winter), but you can probably take some tips from this list and apply them there. Hopefully my learned-from-trial-and-error-advice is helpful. Have fun out there!
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