Do you struggle to keep your feet warm on cold rides? Years ago, I thought that was the norm for winter riding, but it turned out I just didn’t know the best way to deal with the cold. Back in those years, I was a roadie who took pride and legitimately enjoyed training through the snowy winter months chasing that oft-elusive early-season form. In the hills of southern Wisconsin and then the Front Range foothills of Colorado, I hammered around on a ‘cross bike outfitted with studded Nokians and fenders, with my torso and legs layered up for whatever the temperature. But for years on end, my feet absolutely froze, even with oversized shoes, extra socks, and a double layer of neoprene booties on the coldest days. Every long ride would end with my socks soaked in sweat and my toes painfully cold bricks. More often than not, I’d get home with an ironic combination of huge hunger, because I never ate nearly enough on rides, and screaming barfies as my toes started to painfully warm up.
One February, I was following along with the crazies up in Alaska racing their bikes on the snowy Iditarod Trail for hundreds and hundreds of miles, and the fact that they kept moving as temperatures plunged into the -40s was so difficult for me to fathom. Then I read a description of clothing systems used by these racers in one of journalist Craig Medred’s many captivating articles about the race for the Anchorage Daily News. Oversized boots and thick wool socks – yes, that was nothing new, but there was also mention of “vapor barriers,” a layering concept completely unfamiliar to me. The internet wormhole took me deep into mountaineering forums, and the next day, I spilled crumbs across the kitchen floor as I pulled empty bread bags onto my feet in between sock layers before heading out to ride. After 5 hours of riding in the single digits, I returned home and ravenously heated up some leftover pizza in the microwave and scarfed it down immediately. The all-too-familiar screaming barfies were nowhere to be seen – my toes were toasty warm all day!
Coincidentally, years later, I found myself up in Alaska, racing on the Iditarod Trail through some ridiculously cold temperatures. I had apparently joined the crazies. We’ve got far more sophisticated winter riding footwear than riders did in the late 2000s, and we’ve even got fat bikes that float on soft snow. Times have changed, but there are still some strategies for keeping feet warm that can help both wintertime roadies in the Rockies and fat bike enthusiast of the Upper Midwest alike. Here’s the type of system that has proven to work well for me all the way down to -50 F.
Let’s start at the skin and work outward to the boot. I’ve got annoyingly sweaty feet, so I spread an antiperspirant lotion made by Carpe all over my feet to help limit the sweating. Then comes the following layering sequence:
- A very thin liner sock like the REI Silk Liner. This is more for comfort than anything since bare skin against a vapor barrier usually isn’t particularly comfortable and can lead to blisters.
- The enigmatic (to me) vapor barrier layer. The purpose of this is to trap all moisture from sweat inside. Yes, you might end up with a soggy foot, but your insulating layers outside the vapor barrier remain dry and actually insulate instead of becoming damp with sweat. There are numerous vapor barrier socks made by various companies, but most aren’t as waterproof as they claim. Some folks use chicken or turkey basting bags, but they’re not the most durable, and it’s not uncommon for your toe to burst through the end when pulling a boot on. My favorite option is a big 4-mil ziplock bag the length of my foot with the zipper cut off, and I use a heat sealer to reinforce the seams around the bag. These are the best vapor barrier I’ve found; thicker plastic is even more durable, but creases underfoot can cause discomfort.
- A thick wool sock (or two), and just how thick depends on how cold it’ll be for your riding and how much extra volume you have in your boot. Toes should have ample room to move around and the sock shouldn’t at all be squished in the boot – air space is needed to help trap warmth! Chemical toe warmers could also be used if needed, another benefit of having extra space around your toes. In my experience, these toe warmers don’t last very long or provide much heat in boots since there’s not much oxygen in there to fuel the exothermic chemical reaction, but they do produce a bit of heat for a few hours.
- The boot and liner. We’ve got an array of clipless-friendly winter cycling shoes and boots these days, and Sorel- or Baffin-style boots are more affordable flat-pedal-compatible options. For really cold riding, I use the 45NRTH Wolfgar boot (sized 3 European sizes bigger than my normal shoe) with an Intuition Logan liners instead of the 45NRTH felt liner. The Intuition liner is thicker and warmer, it’s heat-moldable, and its closed-cell foam won’t absorb water if it gets wet. The Wolfgar boot is well insulated underfoot, is comfortably stiff, and still hikes quite well.
- Overboots and gaiters. I haven’t ever needed these, but some folks will use something like a NEOS overboot for an additional layer of insulation. Gatiers over the boot add yet a little more warmth around the ankle and keep snow from getting into the boot.
This strategy can work well for less frigid conditions, too – for most of my winter riding in the mountains of central Arizona when temperatures are in the 20s or 30s, I’ll use this same system with a much lighter-duty winter riding shoe like the Shimano MW501 that’s just one European size larger than I’d normally wear to provide a little extra room for a medium-thickness insulating sock (again, squishing a thick sock into a tight shoe won’t really add any warmth!). Winter-specific cycling footwear often has insulation beneath the foot, and this alone is very noticeable compared to typical cycling shoes with thin and non-insulated food beds.
If you struggle to keep your feet warm on colder winter rides, whether those rides are around freezing or dozens of degrees colder, play around with this sort of system. Riding is so much more enjoyable when you can feel your feet, and post-ride snacks are so much more enjoyable when you don’t have the screaming barfies!