20 Hard-Earned Survival Tips For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking In Winter

Filed under .

It’s been said that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”. I don’t imagine this phrase was uttered after a winter cycle tour or bikepacking trip, but it remains true: there’s nothing stopping you pedalling through darkening days and sub-zero temperatures, as long as you dress for the occasion – and bear a few other key points in mind.

I learned this the hard way when I spent a memorable February cycling and camping my way through Norway and Sweden, across the Arctic Circle and into Lapland (click here to watch the 2‑minute short film on Vimeo). After a very steep learning curve, it proved to be a magical experience, and one I constantly refer to when encouraging others to give winter cycle touring or bikepacking a try.

Rejoice, then, in the fact that you do not need to go to such extreme lengths as I did to enjoy yourself on two wheels this winter. Here’s how to survive the season:

1. Layer Up

Inappropriate clothing will leave you shivering, sweaty, or both. While you can simply crank up the pace to stay warm in autumn, winter requires a different approach. Combine warm yet wicking long-sleeve baselayers – ideally merino – with breathable microfleece midlayers, windproof shell jackets, and insulated winter tights. Versatility is key.

2. Vent Moisture

The harder you ride, the more you’ll sweat, and if sweat accumulates in your clothing at sub-zero temperatures you will literally freeze in your saddle. Good quality breathable and wicking clothing can only do so much, so ensure that your windproof outer layer has plentiful venting options, such as a full-length front zip, armpit zips and adjustable cuffs.

3. Drop Your Pace

You can reduce sweat build-up in another way: by slowing down. If you’re used to a nippy fair-weather pace, it’s often tough to change your habits, but the last thing you want is moisture freezing in the fibres of your clothing. Use the winter as an excuse to take longer, slower rides and work on endurance.

4. Control Exertion

Exertion and moisture isn’t just about pace, and other factors are amplified in winter when the equilibrium is more delicate. Pay attention to gradients, speed and windchill, sunlight and shade, cold sinks at the bottom of valleys, and time of day; all of which will affect your body temperature. Anticipate and adjust your exertion and layering appropriately.

5. Protect Extremities

Fingers and toes are vulnerable to cold with little blood flow. Prevent the worst by wearing ‘two-fingered’ mitts, woollen socks and neoprene overboots. If it’s really Arctic, wear plastic bags between liner socks and thick socks (I’m not joking), and consider ‘pogies’ for your handlebars. Your ears and neck are superconductors, so wear a beanie and a neck gaiter. Male riders shouldn’t forget that ‘other’ extremity – a spare glove or sock works well…

6. Winterize Your Bike

Clean and lube your drivetrain after every ride – particularly if you’re riding after the gritting trucks have been out, as salty road-spray will eat it for breakfast. Use a synthetic winter lubricant. Treat any exposed steel with anti-rust spray. Make sure cables are well-sealed and uncontaminated. You don’t want brake cables freezing up on icy roads.

7. Break Out The Winter Accessories

Mudguards may be unfashionable but they’ll keep your drivetrain and backside untarnished while you’re riding in slush or on salted roads. Consider thermal wraps for your water bottles, or bring Thermos flasks instead – or, if it’s stupidly cold, wear a Camelbak under your outer layer. A nice warm saddle cover might feel like a good idea after your first couple of sub-zero rides, too.

8. Don’t Slip (Or Sink)

Drop your tyre pressure for better traction in slush or on wet roads. Skinny tyres often cut through slush and snow better than fatter tyres and make better contact with the tarmac. If it’s truly iced up, however fit studded tyres, which work extremely well, as I discovered in Sweden while riding across a frozen lake. On the other hand, if there’s deep snow outside your window, high-volume tyres float best. (That’s why fatbikes were invented.)

9. Don’t Stop (For Long)

It’s easy to forget that the colder the air temperature, the more rapidly that hard-earned body heat will be sucked away from you. Keep rest breaks short, and never stop at the top of a long, shaded descent! Watch out for ice patches when dismounting, too – your studded tyres may not slip, but you yourself may end up a sprawling pile of limbs if you’re not careful.

10. Protect Your Lungs

In seriously cold conditions, a neck-warmer serves an important dual function as a membrane through which to breathe and protect your lungs from cold, dry air, which can cause respiratory problems and even nosebleeds in the unprepared.

11. Protect Your Eyes

A white snowy landscape under direct sunlight will divert far more UV rays towards your eyeballs than even the brightest of summer days. Protect your eyes appropriately with wraparound sunglasses with UVA/UVB filtered lenses. Some consider orange tinted lenses to help with contrast in snowy environments. Extreme cold may even call for goggles over glasses.

12. Understand Sunlight

Particularly further north, you’ll notice that the sun hangs lower in the sky as a result of Earth’s tilted axis. When planning a ride, consider where the sun is going to be at different times of day. You don’t want to be pedalling into a setting sun at rush hour, for example, when both your and other drivers’ abilities to see what’s ahead is seriously impaired.

13. Understand Moonlight

A full moon above a snow-covered landscape at night is a thing to behold, and the glow is quite enough to ride by. This is one of the greatest draws of the otherwise faintly ludicrous idea of winter night-riding: you will see familiar landscapes quite literally in a whole new light, one that is quite magical. Don’t forget lights for visibility of course; on which note…

14. Get Lit Up

Winter days mean a higher likelihood you’ll need lights to see and be seen – whether because the sunlight is weaker, or because there’s a chance you’ll misjudge the short daylight hours and be caught out in the dark. When choosing, remember that lithium batteries don’t like cold weather. Consider an inexpensive set of backup lights, and always check everything’s fully charged before you set out.

15. Get Fuelled Up

Your body will burn more calories to keep your core warm, as well to keep your legs spinning. This, of course, means eating ever bigger slices of cake during your breaks. If you take snacks with you, keep them in an inside pocket so they don’t harden or freeze. Finally, don’t forget to hydrate – even if cold water is the last thing you feel like drinking, you still need it.

16. Avoid The Verge

Otherwise rideable hard shoulders become a frozen mess of slush and debris in winter, meaning you’ll do well to stay further away from the edge of the road than you might be used to. It’s better to force motorists to give you a wide berth than to put yourself in a dangerous position, so don’t be afraid to take the lane – as many drivers will expect you to do in winter anyway.

17. Revisit Old Routes

Blankets of snow and the long shadows of winter give even the most familiar landscape a magical shroud, and you can’t beat a good ride to make the most of it. Not only that, but the roads will be much quieter than you’re used to as the fair weather cyclists stick to their turbo trainers – and you’ll discover new places to stop that really come into their own in wintertime.

18. Explore New Routes

Of course, there’s nothing to reinvigorate the senses than exploring somewhere new, and again, given the right preparation, your bike can take you places nobody else would think to ride or drive on the coldest and snowiest of winter’s days – even more so on icy roads with spiked tyres.

19. Camp Out!

I’m aware this will convince very few, but I really don’t think cycle touring is restricted to fair weather any more than road riding is. Wait for a clear, fine night; throw an extra-thick sleeping bag, a couple of woolly hats and a hip-flask of single malt into your panniers; then ride up to that excellent look-out point and bivvy out under the stars – better with company, of course.

20. Endure The Cold, Enjoy The Warmth

Above all, go forth and pedal in the knowledge that even if your water bottles do freeze solid, your toes go numb, and you make most of your descents on your backside rather than in the saddle, you’ll never be far away from a hot shower, a cup of tea and a massive slice of cake – which will all be that much more satisfying for the misery you endured while earning them.

Anything I’ve missed? Add your best winter cycle touring and bikepacking tips in the comments!

Comments (skip to respond)

20 responses to “20 Hard-Earned Survival Tips For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking In Winter”

  1. I recently went bikepacking for the first time in freezing conditions. It all went well, but when I set off the following morning my derailleur had frozen, leaving me stuck in one gear. I tried heating it up with a lighter, then after a decent hill climb (luckily that was the gear I was stuck in) it started working again. Any advice on preventing this happening in the future?

    1. I’m guessing you mean the rear derailleur? In any case, a thin coating of ice on a well-lubricated derailleur seems unlikely to produce that problem. I would guess that your shifter cables may have got some moisture inside the housing, and this is what froze overnight when the temperatures dropped, thereby disabling shifting. If you were riding in direct sun the following morning, or the temperature rose well above freezing, that would then explain why it started working again. A first step might be to see if you can replicate this at home, and if the theory proves correct then it’s probably time for new (good quality) cables. An interim solution might be to flush the cable housings with WD-40 (which displaces water) and see if that helps. Let us know how it goes…

  2. Have not tried touring in the winter, but I’ve cycled to work year round for some 7 years. I remember people recommending disc brakes for winter cycling, but the cables easily freeze on bikes that have the rear brake mounted on the chainstay. The end of the outer cable points up so there is a big risk of water getting in and freezing when the temperature drops. Using synthetic motor oil as lube might help.

    Hydraulic discs should not have this problem, but for some reason they sometimes stop working properly in the winter too.

    I’ve been often told at bike shops that v‑brakes loose all braking power below zero. I don’t think this is true. Sometimes water or wet snow does form an icy layer on the brakepads and it feels if you don’t have brakes at all. This typically happens when there is slush on the ground and temperature has just dropped. The trick is to sqeeze the levers thew times before actually having to brake. Friction makes the thin layer of ice melt pretty quickly. Have to pay attention to ones surroundings tho.

    I would prefer a relatively windproof cotton or wool jacket, not modern materials, for outer layer when it’s not wet or snowing. Gore tex stops working in subzero temperatures. Sweat might even turn into snow and ice under it. On tour you might not want to carry an extra coat so I’m guessing zippers for ventilation help.

    Thin gloves under mittens are handy. Cold wind makes the warmth disappear in an instant from bare skin.

    Btw spikes are more important on the front wheel. I use to cycle pretty agressively. With full tyre pressure the spikes are like sharp rocks and they will cause punctures on the rear wheel if you hit something hard hidden under soft snow.

    1. Thank you for this comment – some good tips here from hard-earned experience. I actually wore a skiing jacket on my deep winter tour, which was synthetic, waterproof and insulated, but had endless ventilation options. I figured the needs of a skier to moderate body heat and moisture under medium exertion at speed would be similar to that of a cyclist in the snow and ice, and for the most part it worked well (not very aerodynamic though!).

      1. Skiing jacket sounds like a good idea. If that’s designed for downhill, then maybe using clothes for cross country as mid layer could work too. Worth considering.

        1. Actually I did buy a woollen midlayer locally in Oslo which I wore underneath the ski jacket – worked a treat!

  3. Richard Brown avatar
    Richard Brown

    Regarding bivving out on a fine, clear night — I whole heartedly support this endeavour, but it’s worth considering the level of expected dew/condensation when heading out cooler nights. If there is nothing between you (e.g. cloud, tree or tarp) and the vast empty universe, the probability of condensation is much higher, because of radiative cooling.

    If it’s cold enough this might end up being frost rather than liquid moisture (which I actually prefer). In UK conditions it might not be cold enough for frost but it might be cold enough to make all of your stuff very wet. Obviously the bivvi bag is your main defence against this, but even in a bivvi waking up to a sunrise to wet ground, sleeping pad and gear is a different experience to waking up to them dry!

    For me the ideal bivvi spot for clear autumn or winter nights is a solitary tree at a look out point, giving just a bit of canopy cover to stave off the worst of the condensation but plenty of visible sky for star gazing.

    1. Thank you, Richard – there are some very good points here. There is definitely a learning curve to bivvying comfortably! Some of my own observations include the roominess and breathability of the bivvy bag itself playing a role – the British Army surplus one remains my favourite in colder weather as I can easily get a winter sleeping bag and mattress inside it. The filling of the sleeping bag is worth considering too – synthetic bags seem to perform better in colder conditions as they wick moisture better, retain their insulating properties better when damp, and seem less prone to compression inside a cramped bivvy bag. If there aren’t any trees around, the simplest tarp shelter can keep some dew and frost off as well.

  4. Tanel Mõttus avatar
    Tanel Mõttus

    Good tips for the road. Its always a good thing to run over the basics once in a while.
    A small tip from me also. While breaks when there is a need to take gloves off, its wise to but them under your garment to keep them warm. Its quite nasty to put cold gloves on you hands when you need to warm them up.

    1. Yes! Hands are very difficult to warm up once cold. Stuffing gloves inside your jacket near your armpits is a great idea when you stop. (This can actually also help dry them out through evaporation if they’ve got wet for any reason.)

  5. Hi! I am happy to find this page, I am planning a cycle trip in Northern Germany/Holland and lower Sweden this November/December- I am wondering about the safety of some of the major roadways when the conditions get gnarly- did you avoid highways? What strategies did you use to keep yourself safe in traffic on unpredictable winter roads?

    1. Hey Clancy ! How can I reach you ? I’m planning more or less the same trip in January and I would be glad to have your feedback. Cheers !

    2. Hello Clancy, Holland has separate cycle paths almost everywhere so you won’t need to cycle there on highways or share the road with cars. Also, for the past couple of years there has been very little snow but the roads get icy regularly. Rain and strong winds are common.

  6. Andrew Norris avatar
    Andrew Norris

    Another tip learned the “hard” way: ice is most likely in rural lanes with big trees or anything to block sunlight in the day. Brake and corner gently. Tell people where you are going. 

    It can seem safe but you can suddenly hit ice as you approach rural areas.

    Best to get the spiked tyres. Not that expensive from planetx, esp. if they save you a fall / injury . and you will get full use out of them over the years.

    1. Thanks for all these tips, Andrew! 🙂

    2. Better yet fat bikes are the way to go. I live in Whitehorse , Yukon and 90% of winter riders ride these bikes. A touring company will be offering back country tours in the winter. The ultra has a bike ski snow shoe race, along with the Yukon Quest sled dog race.

  7. Andrew Norris avatar
    Andrew Norris

    Also watch out for shimano freewheels. These have a habit of breaking in the cold, leaving you stranded when you least need it.So any sign it may be slipping (usually after coasting it then takes longer to engage or it can slip a bit now and again when putting power on). Watch these small signs and it means it can suddenly go completely on you. I find it best not to rince them out with a hose, just use light spinkling of water and a brush / genle degreaser then lightly rince off. Not full hose power. Grease washes out. 

    They CAN be bodged to get you home in one gear. Best is to use a spare gear or brake cable to tie it to the spokes. And then ride home carefully with low torque at all times. walk for hills!

    1. I’ve had this happen to me in extreme cold. It seems that the slippage is a result of the grease becoming more viscous and not allowing the sprung pawls inside the freehub to return correctly. A fix for this which I tried myself is to flush the freehub out completely with a strong degreaser (I used unleaded petrol) and then pump plenty of light oil through it. Seemed to work, though I did eventually replace the whole freehub unit for good measure.

      The cassette can also be ‘fixed’ in place using lots of cable ties. Hadn’t thought of using a gear/brake cable for the same thing – that’s a great little hack 🙂

  8. Andrew Norris avatar
    Andrew Norris

    Great tips. On one / planet x have excellent deals on quality studied tyres. These really make a difference. You can ride on ice. What it does for peace of mind! Quality ones don’t wear out in normal conditions either (tungsten carbide spikes).

    My biggest mistake has been to not layer down when coming to really hilly areas. If you suddenly hit a really steep hill than even your lowest year has you straining all out to get up it. It really helps to takes layers off, even in the cold! As once they get wet you have had it, they will insulate nowhere near as well. 

    Otherwise it’s best to avoid such hills and be wise and plan a flatter route! They will often take you up to snow and nice where it was not before and it will get colder, not good when you sweat all your layers out! But if you have the spikes, and whip layers off quickly enough, you can do it. Like it said, it really is a great experience, and to come back and get warmed up is indeed a nice feeling. You feel you really did something / a whole new adventure!

    1. Yep, avoiding hills is by far the best remedy! But if you can’t, as you say, layering down is critical. I’d also add layering up at the top of a hill to avoid losing too much body heat on the way down…

Something to add?