According to a League of American Cyclists study, my adopted hometown (Minneapolis) is among the most popular U.S. cities for bike commuters. With numerous bodies of water within city limits, it also has a dense network of recreational trails, and new ones are constantly being built.
But there’s a catch. According to The Weather Channel, the Twin Cities comprise the coldest major metropolitan area in the United States, a place where snow cover can persist for six months out of the year and temperatures routinely drop below zero. So serious cyclists here need to have thick skin (and a lot of clothing to protect it).
However, Minnesota does not have a monopoly on cold weather. If you live anywhere prone to freezing temperatures and frozen precipitation, you cannot cycle year-round without taking special precautions during the winter months.
Many people stash their bikes during the cold months and buy a gym membership, or bust out the skis or snowshoes to keep the outdoor exercise party going. But if a bike is your primary mode of transportation, you don’t have that luxury. And in terms of calories burned per mile, biking is more efficient than Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and walking (especially through snow), so it’s a great winter recreational activity as well.
But are the health and environmental benefits of winter cycling worth it? Biking in winter requires some special equipment and clothing, so it can be costly. It comes with special safety considerations as well. But it also has undeniable health benefits, and slicing through the crisp winter air on your bike can be exhilarating. It’s up to you to weigh these pros and cons to determine whether winter biking is a practical option.
Bike & Tire Options and Costs of Winter Biking
Cold-weather biking brings a unique risk: a higher likelihood (or, depending on where you live, near certainty) of encountering ice and snow. Certain bike setups may not be equipped to handle such slick conditions, especially if you venture off paved roads or paths. If you’re serious about biking in the winter, a special bike, special tires, or both may be required.
Then again, you shouldn’t worry about making an investment that will only serve you for a few months out of the year. Most bikes built for winter use are perfectly suitable for use in the warm season as well, though there may be tradeoffs related to speed or maneuverability. Ultimately, the bike and tire setup that you choose will depend on the surfaces on which you plan to ride (clear or plowed roads or bike paths, groomed trails, rugged trails, or deep snow) and your budget.
There are three basic types of bikes commonly used by winter bikers. The best choice for you depends on your budget and whether you want to buy a bike specifically for winter use. For instance, if you already own a regular road bike and don’t plan to bike off-road in winter, you can simply change out your summer tires for winter-ready tires and continue riding as usual. Also, it’s fairly easy to find deals on used bikes – even specialized fat bikes – on Craigslist, eBay, niche sites such as BikesDirect, and at local bike shops.
- Road Bike. If you’re sticking to paved surfaces, it’s perfectly acceptable to use a regular road bike in the winter, even when snow and ice are present. Thin road bike tires can actually cut through shallow snow and slush, reaching bare pavement and establishing stability. However, even with winter-ready tires, road bikes aren’t safe in rugged off-road conditions or in deep snow. Cost: New from $200 to more than $5,000; used from $100 to more than $3,000.
- Mountain/Hybrid Bike. Mountain bikes and hybrid bikes have thicker tires and more supple frames than road bikes. Furthermore, they can handle off-road trails and rugged conditions (including bumpy snow and ice on paved surfaces) better than road bikes. Hybrid bikes are a better choice if you spend the bulk of your time on the road but want the option to hit the trails too. Mountain bikes are better if you’re sticking mostly to trails, especially if you expect to encounter deep snow. Cost: New from $250 to more than $5,000; used from $100 to more than $3,000.
- Fat Bike. Fat bikes have thicker frames and very thick tires (at least four inches in diameter) that operate at extremely low pressures (as low as 10 PSI in some cases, compared to 90 to 110 PSI for road bikes). These attributes make them ideal for traversing deep or packed snow on trails without sinking in – riders often describe the sensation of using a fat bike as “floating above the snow.” Fat bikes have only been around for a few decades, and the market is still dominated by a handful of manufacturers, so they’re often pricier than mountain bikes. However, fat bikes also perform exceedingly well in mud, standing water, and similar obstacles, so they may be a superior choice if you ride off-road year-round. Cost: New from $300 to more than $7,000; used from $150 to more than $5,000.
If you live in an area that sees a lot of winter precipitation, buying a single-speed bike may save you money, time, and frustration. That’s because the combination of water, slush, road salt, and grit that accumulates on wintry roads causes bike gears and chains (collectively known as the drivetrain) to deteriorate and require replacement much faster than in dry conditions.
Since their pedals can be used as a braking mechanism that backs up their mechanical hand brakes, single-speed bikes may also provide more control on slippery roads and paths. All three winter-friendly bike types – fat bikes, mountain bikes, and road bikes – come with single-speed versions.
If you prefer a multi-geared bike, basic care and maintenance can lengthen your drivetrain’s lifespan. Use a mild detergent solution to wash the chain weekly, regardless of whether it has been wet or snowy, or you’ve been riding through mud or grit, and lubricate with cold-rated grease after drying. Repeat this process after riding on wet, salty roads or through bad weather.
You can also buy a bike with an internal gear hub, or buy one at a bike shop and install it yourself. Internal gear hubs limit your drivetrain’s contact with moisture and grit, potentially eliminating the need for frequent cleaning and extending lifespan.
There are several tire options available for winter bikers. Your range of choices may depend on the type of bike you use.
- Knobby Tires. Though mountain bike tires and fat tires have traction-enhancing knobs, the term “knobby tires” (or “knobbies”) typically refers to road bike tires with rough treads. These are great for riding on snowy or icy roads. However, knobbies produce a lot of friction with the road and can really slow you down on dry surfaces, so you should remove them once the weather warms and replace them with less grippy tires. Cost: $20 to more than $100 per tire.
- Mountain Bike Tires. Mountain bike tires are thick and have lots of traction. Some have grips that extend onto either side of the tire, almost down to the rim – an area that’s smooth in most tires. This enhances traction during turns on icy surfaces. Many mountain bike owners use the same tires for winter and summer riding, though you can purchase tires with rougher treads for winter use if you have the budget. Cost: $20 to more than $100 per tire.
- Fat Tires. Fat tires generally only fit on fat bike frames, so they’re not an option unless you own such a bike. Though they do have traction-enhancing knobs, fat tires are best suited for off-road situations in which deep snow or mud (or both) are present. You can use the same fat tires for winter and summer riding. Cost: $70 to more than $300 per tire.
- Studded Tires. Studded tires come in many different thicknesses and pressure ratings, so they can fit on a road bike, mountain bike, or fat bike. Studs – which are basically blunt screws with heads fixed to the tire body and shafts poking out – dramatically enhance traction on ice and packed snow. However, they also significantly reduce speed and can damage paved surfaces, so they’re not ideal for warm weather use. If you buy studded tires for a bike you plan to use year-round, switch them out with non-studded tires in spring. Cost: $50 to more than $200 per tire.
- Stud-Ready Tires. Stud-ready tires have depressions that can accommodate loose studs, which can be purchased in packs of 100 or 150 (sometimes other amounts). Installing and removing studs is straightforward: Just screw each one into place until it’s secure, and reverse the process to remove. Many knobbies and mountain bike tires (and some fat bike tires) come stud-ready. Stud-ready tires are useful if you use the same type of tire year-round and encounter icy conditions during the winter. Cost: $50 to more than $200 per tire; $30 to more than $100 for stud packs.
Cost of Additional Equipment
Initial Bike Equipment Needs
In addition to your bike and tires, winter biking demands specialized equipment. Before your first winter ride, you can expect to pay between $100 and $400 for everything you need, not including tires and studs.
- Headlights and Taillights. Winter days tend to be short, particularly if you live in the northern part of the United States, so it’s likely that you’ll find yourself biking in dusky or dark conditions at some point. Lights are important in inclement weather too, particularly if it arises without warning. Buying a headlight-taillight combo is usually more cost-effective than buying separately. Cost: $20 to more than $100.
- Pogies. These are basically waterproof hand protectors that attach to your handlebars. Pogies fully encase your hands when you grip the handlebars, shielding you from road debris and cold. While they’re not a substitute for gloves, they provide some thermal protection and may help you get away with lighter, more responsive gloves. Cost: $30 to more than $60.
- Cold Weather Lubricant. If your bike has a chain, you need to lubricate it often with a mixture rated down to very cold temperatures. (Some are rated as low as -60 degrees, which should be enough unless you’re a regular on the Tour de Antarctica.) Otherwise, the lubricant could seize up and actually wear out the chain faster. Cold weather lubricant isn’t much more expensive than regular lubricant and should be available at your local bike shop. Cost: $7 to $13 per bottle.
- Sturdy Backpack. During the winter, a sturdy, waterproof backpack is the best way to transport stuff on a bike. (Panniers, a superior option in dry weather, sit closer to the ground and get too dirty in wintry conditions.) To avoid jarring weight shifts, your backpack should fit snugly to your back without constricting upper body motion. You can find a great selection of sturdy brands – such as Swiss Gear, Columbia, and Osprey – at online retailers such as Amazon or at outdoor outfitters like REI. Cost: $25 to more than $100.
- Fenders. Bike fenders attach to your front and back wheels, reducing the amount of water, ice, and sludge that splashes up onto your clothing, bike, and face. Fenders aren’t mandatory in dry, cold conditions, but they’re essential during or just after a heavy precipitation event or on roads with lots of sand, salt, and grit. Cost: $25 to $100, depending on type and brand.
- Insulated Water Bottle. It might seem trivial, but an insulated water bottle can be a lifesaver on long-distance winter rides. There’s nothing more disappointing than grabbing your water bottle after cresting a long hill and finding it frozen solid or filled with slush. Use a Polar Bottle or similar device to keep your water above freezing temperature. If it doesn’t fit in your bike’s water bottle holder, put it in your backpack. Cost: $6 to more than $20.
Over time, you may also need to invest in bike maintenance and replacement equipment. Depending on how often and aggressively you ride, you can expect to pay between $25 and $100 per year for maintenance and replacements.
- Brake Pads. Your style of riding, the terrain on which you typically ride, how frequently you ride, and the position of your pad (front pads don’t last as long as back pads) determine how often you need to replace your bike’s brake pads. Check the notches in each pad to ascertain its condition. Once they become too shallow to discern, switch out for a new pad. Cost: $10 to more than $50 per pad.
- Chain and Lubricant. If your bike does have a chain, lubricate and wash it thoroughly at least once per week during the winter. As soon as you notice weak spots or loose connections in your chain, it’s time to replace it. Depending on how often you ride, you should expect to replace your chain at least once per winter. Cost: $7 to $13 per bottle of lubricant; $5 to more than $100 per chain (depending on bike and quality).
- Tire and Stud Wear. You should replace your tires (whether fat, knobby, or regular) and studs at the first sign or feeling that they’ve lost their grip. With studs, pay attention to their profile – if they wear down to the point that they’re hard to distinguish from the tire itself, they’re no longer useful and should be replaced. Cost: Tires cost $10 to more than $400 (with specialized fat tires running to $500 or more), while studs cost $30 to more than $100 depending on the number of studs per pack.
- Miscellaneous Expenses. You need to watch other elements of your bike as well. Your gears ($10 to more than $60, if you have them), seat ($15 to more than $50), pedals ($10 to more than $100 per pedal), and wheels ($30 to more than $300) could become damaged or wear out and require replacement. You should replace your gears when the teeth become noticeably worn down and/or the bike begins slipping in and out of gears while pedaling. The seat and pedals are ripe for replacement when they become uncomfortable, begin cracking, or show other signs of deterioration. And wheels need to be replaced once they start bending or warping. To tell, hold each wheel off the ground and spin it, noting whether it spins straight relative to the bike’s frame or wobbles on its axis.
Cost of Clothing
To stay comfortable and safe, you need cold weather clothing that goes above and beyond what you’d typically throw on for the wintertime dash to your car or bus stop. If you participate in other outdoor winter activities, you may already have some of these items. If you need to buy most or all of them, you can expect to pay between $120 and $700.
- Heavy Duty Gloves. Cold-weather biking is especially hard on your hands. In relatively mild conditions (30 to 50 degrees), thick biking gloves, driving gloves, or cloth winter gloves may be fine. Between 10 and 30 degrees, heavier winter gloves (ski gloves) may be necessary. If possible, opt for winter gloves with grippy palms. In very cold weather, try lobster claw gloves, which have a slot for your thumb and two slots for the remaining four fingers. They keep your digits warmer than four-fingered gloves and typically have good grips, though the finger configuration may take some getting used to. Cost: $10 to more than $50 for biking or driving gloves; $15 to more than $50 for regular winter gloves; $30 to more than $50 for lobster claw gloves. SealSkinz is one of the top bike apparel companies with an impressive array of winter-focused selections, including gloves.
- Helmet Liner or Cap. A regular winter cap may be too bulky to fit between your head and helmet. But if you just wear your helmet, your ears are liable to get cold (and possibly frostbitten) in a hurry. Use a thin, waterproof helmet liner to minimize heat loss through your scalp. Cost: $10 to $20.
- Scarf or Cowl. A regular scarf or cowl (neck warmer) can keep your neck and upper torso warm on chilly, dry days. Cost: $5 to more than $30.
- Face Mask. When it’s very cold or snowy, a waterproof face mask is essential to prevent heat loss and frostbite. Just don’t make any sudden movements when you pop into the convenience store for a snack. Cost: $15 to more than $50.
- Goggles. Even in dry conditions, ski goggles are more important than you might think. When you’re in motion, icy winds can stimulate unprotected eyes to produce tears, clouding your vision and causing an uncomfortable, possibly dangerous situation. Cost: $10 to more than $200.
- Waterproof Sock and Shoe Liners. Sock liners are worn beneath your socks and provide a base layer of water-wicking protection. Alternatively, you can use waterproof shoe liners that go between your socks and shoes. Gore-Tex and other clothing brands make both. Cost: $5 to more than $15 per pair, depending on type and brand.
- Wool Socks. Wool socks build on the protection offered by sock liners, keeping your feet warm and dry in cold, wet weather. If you’re worried about your feet overheating, opt for a higher-end option like SmartWool. If you’re allergic to sheep wool, try an alternative material such as alpaca fiber or cashmere – though be aware that these options can be more expensive. Avoid cotton, which readily absorbs water. Cost: $2 to $5 per pair for basic wool socks; $15 to $20 for SmartWool or other premium brand.
- Boots. Unless the weather is bone dry, sturdy, water-resistant footwear is a must for winter bikers. If you’re on a budget and don’t anticipate encountering really nasty conditions (deep snow, standing water, or dirty slush), lightweight hiking boots should be fine. For more rugged conditions, you can buy specialized winter biking boots (such as the 45NRTH Woolvhammer, at $200) that repel water and keep your feet warm. However, these are super pricey. If you’re committed to using regular sneakers or bike shoes through the winter, invest in waterproof shoe covers. Cost: $50 to more than $250 for hiking boots, $30 to $50 for shoe covers.
- Waterproof Underlayers. UnderArmour (or another brand of waterproof underlayer) can help keep water, slush, and sweat off your skin. This is important for comfort and temperature regulation. Many winter bikers use two pieces of underclothing: one for the legs, and one for the torso and arms. Serious bikers may swap out two-piece underlayers for a single-piece bibtight with sufficient cold-weather insulation; choose a well-reviewed product from an all-weather brand like Castelli. Cost: $15 to more than $60 per piece; upwards of $100 for a quality bibtight.
- Outerlayers. Your outerlayers – both for your upper and lower body – should be snug but flexible. Don’t worry about layering up as you would before a sporting event or other more sedentary outdoor activity – the exertion of biking keeps your core warm, so it’s surprisingly easy to overdress. A lightweight ski jacket or shell-fleece combination should be fine. If it’s very cold, an intermediate layer may be required. Cost: $15 to more than $70 for a fleece; $20 to more than $100 per jacket.
- Reflective Vest. A reflective vest is an important piece of safety equipment for winter bikers. Though you don’t need to wear one at all times, keep one with you if you’re caught in a sudden storm or if the sun goes down before your ride ends. Cost: $5 to more than $40.
Winter biking has some special health benefits compared to other forms of indoor and outdoor exercise.
Winter Biking Can Prevent Inactivity and SAD
A report by the Outdoor Foundation found that people tend to be less active outdoors in winter. Altogether, fewer than 7% of the population engages in popular winter sports such as downhill skiing, Nordic skiing, snowboarding, and showshoeing. That compares to well over 10% for warm-weather biking, and nearly 20% for activities such as jogging and hiking, which are much easier to do during warm months.
Though exercising at an indoor gym or with home exercise equipment may burn calories just as efficiently as outdoor exercise, winter brings a unique concern that indoor exercise may not be able to address: SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. SAD is a chemical imbalance (basically, too much melatonin and too little seratonin) thought to be caused by inadequate exposure to natural light during the dark months of winter, independent of physical activity. This can depress your mood and interrupt your circadian rhythms – the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle that governs human activity.
If you struggle with seasonal sadness or become sluggish in winter, winter biking could be a big help – particularly if the thought of floating over (or slicing through) the snow on a bike gets you more excited than the idea of trudging along on Nordic skis or snowshoes. Biking gets you outside and exposed to natural light, which can be an effective treatment for SAD.
It Is a Moderate Impact Exercise
Biking is one of the easiest and most efficient forms of exercise. It’s also among the lowest impact and least likely to result in injuries of the winter sports, including Nordic and alpine skiing. According to an NIH study, 75% of injuries in a cohort of frequent Nordic skiiers (in this case, the Swedish national team) were overuse injuries. Lower back problems are particularly common because that region of the body acts as a pivot between the upper and lower body during the repetitive, high-impact shuffling motion inherent in the sport.
By contrast, cycling involves sitting in a comfortable, fixed position, or moving slightly to adjust to terrain, and using only one half of the body (the legs) for locomotion. If you pedal at a steady pace, you’re less likely to experience torn ligaments, stress fractures, and other potentially serious injuries common to higher-impact sports.
Biking can be dangerous even in ideal conditions. In 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 726 American cyclists died in traffic accidents, representing 2.2% of all traffic fatalities for that year despite accounting for just 1.0% of total trips taken. Even as safer cars reduce the number of total road fatalities per year, cyclist fatalities are creeping up – from 1.5% in 2003 to 2.2% more recently. Part of this increase may be due to more cyclists taking to the roads, but the trend remains worrisome.
Whether you stick to plowed roads or tackle more rugged trails, winter cycling presents additional risks, including the following:
- Exposure. Though biking keeps your blood moving, prolonged exposure to cold conditions can be dangerous no matter what you’re doing. Also, winter biking involves pushing forward through cold air, creating a localized wind chill effect that can threaten exposed skin or parts of your body under inadequate clothing. As with other winter sports, frostbite is a concern. And if you become stranded in a remote area due to a sudden storm or accident, hypothermia is a risk as well. If you’re riding through remote areas in very cold weather, take extra precautions: Be sure your cell phone is charged (or, if you’re in an area with limited cell service, pack an emergency radio), and pack several meals (in the form of protein bars or other energy-dense sustenance), an emergency blanket, an insulated water bottle, and perhaps flares if you’re in the backcountry. Emergency gear may not be necessary if you’re biking to and from work or along urban paths – use your best judgment.
- Daytime Visibility. Winter weather can be unpredictable, especially in mountainous areas and near large bodies of water. Sudden snow squalls can dramatically reduce visibility in a matter of minutes, leading to a potentially dangerous situation. The risk is greater if you’re on a road with motor vehicles, since drivers may not be prepared for deteriorating conditions either.
- Slippery Surfaces. Frozen precipitation can stick around for a long time after it falls, so you need to maintain constant vigilance – even if you have a fat bike or great tire studs. Generally speaking, you should ride in an alert relaxed position – knees bent, arms loose, body slightly forward – to absorb the energy from sudden slips and slides. At night, black ice is a major concern. And when the temperature is close to the freezing mark, especially if it’s sunny, the thin layer of water that accumulates on top of slowly melting ice can be particularly dangerous.
- Obstacles. Winter roads and paths are veritable obstacle courses. On the road, snowbanks, ice piles, and debris from car accidents all present serious safety hazards for winter bikers. And in places where it snows a lot, snowbanks on curbs and shoulders can significantly narrow right-of-ways, creating conflict between cyclists and drivers. If you’re biking on a road, stick as close as possible to the curb or bank. If you’re on an unplowed trail, especially one that isn’t groomed, watch out for subsurface hazards such as ruts, potholes, and tree branches.
- Short Days. Depending on where you live, your winter days could be very short. And if you bike to and from work, or prefer to get your outdoor exercise before or after work, that means you may bike in low light or total darkness. Even if you have reflective clothing, headlights, and taillights, biking in the dark is always risky – especially when you’re sharing the road with cars, which have to deal with visibility issue, obstacles, and slippery surfaces too.
For those of us who live in colder climates, winter can be a sedentary season. When the mercury drops and the snow starts to fly, it’s tempting to dial back on the outdoor activity and wait for warmer times. And even if you use a gym membership to stay fit through the winter, treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, and free weights can become monotonous.
Though it’s not quite as strenuous as Nordic skiing, winter biking is a great way to stay in shape through dark, cold times. I’m not saying you’ll learn to love winter by donning special clothing and hopping on a bike – but you might find it to be a bit more tolerable.
Is biking through ice, snow, and wind exhilarating or crazy?