I guess it’s safe to say that most mountain bikers experience cold feet in the literal sense. It’s not just the unpleasant sensation, it makes pedaling harder when you can’t feel your toes anymore. So how do you keep your feet warm? In short:
- Keep your head and core warm
- Don’t overdress
- Warm-up before riding
- Wear the right shoes and socks
- Keep your feet dry
- Take supplements
With a little bit of prep work, you can keep your feet warmer in cold conditions, especially in winter. In this list, we’ll explore the steps that you can take to keep your piggies warm and toasty on your next ride.
I hate being improperly dressed when riding my MTB, but especially in the fall or winter. It takes away some of the fun and I can’t ride for too long before I find myself freezing.
Here’s the deal:
You should always remember that, as a mountain biker, there really is no such thing as bad weather (to some extent). It’s all just a matter of preparing yourself for specific weather conditions.
Many riders blame their cold feet on poor circulation, power through the numbness, or give up on winter riding entirely because it’s just too uncomfortable. What they don’t know is that the problem often lies in the gear that they’re using, or not using, for that matter.
You don’t have to pick between suffering through your training and being idle during the winter months. I love winter rides, every season has its perks and it shouldn’t stop you from going out there.
All you have to do is target the source of your discomfort and solve the problem. So let’s take a look at some causes and what you can do to keep your feet warm when mountain biking.
Start with Your Head and Core
Those who are at the end of their rope tend to focus too much on their feet. This is, after all, where you experience the most discomfort. So the natural way of troubleshooting this is by layering on multiple pairs of socks and calling it a day.
But here’s the kicker:
What they don’t know is that most of our body heat escapes through the head and neck, or any part that’s exposed. Similarly, when we start losing warmth in the torso, the body’s natural response is to pull heat through the extremities by reducing the blood flow to them.
When your body kicks into survival mode, its top priority is to keep your vital organs insulated. Since we don’t have vital organs down south, our limbs won’t receive a regular amount of blood flow if the rest of your body starts freezing up.
In this case, you can assume that chilled feet are directly caused by losing heat everywhere else. So before we discuss the gear for your feet, let’s first discuss what you should be wearing up top.
Don’t Overdress and Layer up Properly
One of the most common mistakes to make during the winter overdressing, and not the fashion type of mistake. Overdressing is just as bad as underdressing. Ideally, you want to be slightly cold when you get into your gear. It will take your body a couple of minutes to acclimate to the weather outside, but cycling will warm up your body soon enough.
Being too toasty is actually counterintuitive. By piling on layer upon layer of winter clothing, you may start sweating too much, and this could lead to hypothermia by way of dehydration.
Start with a good long-sleeved base layer that will soak up your sweat. You need to be as dry as possible in icy conditions. Get one that’s made from merino wool, treated polyester, or nylon. Don’t wear a base layer made of cotton because it tends to stay moist.
For outerwear, invest in a good softshell jacket with vents along the chest, back, and under the arms. There are some good brands out there that have waterproof options now. You also want to look for one with a high neck. For dry non-snowy conditions, you can get away with just a thick gilet.
Head and Hands
As for your head, look around for a wool stocking cap that is thin enough to be worn under your helmet. Protect your neck with a neck tube, which can be worn either as a scarf or balaclava if you want to keep your ears warm as well.
Then protect your hands with good winter gloves. Don’t get gloves that have too much padding in the palm area because these make it more difficult for you to grip slippery handlebars. Instead, look for a pair with outer covering designed for better traction.
Generally, your hands stay static during mountain biking and they tend to freeze up quickly too, so make sure your gloves retain heat well, are windproof, and waterproof. If you’re not happy with your gloves right now and can’t buy a new pair right away, wear latex gloves under them as liners.
Wear knee warmers to keep your joints from aching. You can find some that are completely waterproof.
The bottom line is:
Dress to stay dry and don’t wear too many layers even though this might sound like a good idea. Allow your body’s natural capability of warming itself to work to your advantage.
Winter Ride Preliminaries
Give yourself a good head start by making sure your blood vessels are not constricted before you leave the house. Before you put your gear on, it’s best to stretch and lounge around a fire or heater. You may also take a warm bath or shower, but you probably need another one when you get back.
It’s also important to remember that the atmosphere during winter is drier, therefore leaving our bodies more parched. That’s why it helps to stay hydrated during the winter months, which can be difficult to do. During winter, we tend not to drink water that often because we hardly feel thirsty unlike in warmer weather. Remember to hydrate even if you don’t feel like doing so. Your body will thank you for it.
Make sure you’re not skipping meals. Without proper nourishment, your body will not be able to generate enough heat or energy for a comfortable ride. Having a nice hot meal or even just a snack an hour or two before you hit the saddle will up your ability to stay warm. Avoid eating right before you ride because digestion takes up a lot of energy.
It’s also advisable to empty your bladder before you go riding. Instead of heat being allocated to maintain your urine temperature at 98.6 degrees, this heat will be far more useful in keeping your extremities warm.
Some might say that this is a bit of a long shot, but a lot of other riders beg to differ. Regularly consuming supplements that contain magnesium, potassium, and taurine will help combat freezing and numbness in your extremities.
Wear the Right Shoes
And now onto feet! To get the best protection, buy shoes that were specifically designed for winter wear – meaning waterproof and insulated mountain biking shoes. If you intend to keep riding during the winter months, these will prove to be a great investment. Not only will you have the right gear for this specific activity, but a good pair should also last you a long time.
Wearing your usual clipless shoes will not accommodate thick socks (which we’ll get to in a bit). So instead, consider shoes for flat pedals, these will keep your feet much warmer. I wear a pair that keep my feet surprisingly warm but also has a few more tricks up their sleeves. Here’s what I like about them.
When buying new shoes for winter mountain biking, get a pair that’s a half size bigger than your feet so that there’s a bit of room left for socks and ventilation.
Cramming a heavily padded foot into a tight shoe will limit airflow and cut off the blood circulation to your feet. Limiting blood flow to your feet will cause your toes to go numb.
In more extreme conditions, I suggest that you wear overshoes or neoprene toe warmers to keep water and mud from getting into your shoes. The fit should be snug but not too tight, so pay attention to sizing.
If overshoes seem like a bit of a hassle for you, the other option is investing in a pair of winter boots. Winter boots provide lots of insulation for your feet and are already integrated with overshoes. The good ones are breathable to keep your feet from being sweaty.
An alternative suggestion:
Some riders prefer to swap their shoes for a pair of cycling sandals. As a concept, these might make you feel more exposed to the harsh weather, but that’s not the case. Paired with multiple layers of wool socks, sandals with adjustable straps will not inhibit blood flow to your feet. This is a great tip if you plan on biking somewhere without any streams or puddles.
Wear the Right Socks
Instead of wearing more than one pair of socks, just get ones that are made particularly for riding in cold weather. You’ll find that a lot of these socks are made from merino wool, which offers a lot of warmth and moisture-wicking. They’re also a tad thicker than traditional riding socks, which is why I’ve suggested that you go up half a size for your winter riding shoes.
As I mentioned before, make sure you stay away from clothes made out of cotton, which tend to stay damp after you’ve sweated in them. So layer up!
Synthetic fibers or wool will always be your best bets when deciding on what you ought to wear in chilly conditions.
Use Insoles and Inserts
If you think you need extra warmth because you have chronically cold feet, go ahead and use chemical warmers. These are much like hand warmers only you stick them under the soles of your feet. Remove the insoles your shoes came with and swap them out with one of these babies. They’re a great heat source if you don’t want something battery-powered.
A lot of snowboarders and winter cyclists use this product because they can provide heat for up to 8 hours, perfect for prolonged exposure to harsh conditions. You’re going to have to bring a pack of these if you decide to go on a multi-day ride because these are not reusable.
For a more DIY approach, you can try wrapping your feet in plastic bags before you put on your shoes. Some cyclists recommend blocking air vents in their shoes with duct tape. Styles vary wildly because we all sweat and react to temperatures differently. Just pay attention to what your body is saying.
Want to know what definitely won’t fail you?
Battery-heated insoles. They’re a bit more expensive, but the difference in comfort will definitely be noticeable.
Swap your metal cleats for plastic ones
Steel and aluminum cleats draw a lot of heat from your feet. Riders report the balls of their feet freezing up even while they’re wearing heavily insulated shoes, socks, and insoles. To keep this from happening, replace them with plastic cleats because they won’t conduct nearly as much heat.
Keep Your Feet Dry
Here’s something that you might have overlooked:
As a mountain biker, you’re often subjected to wet conditions, particularly around your feet. On top of sweat, there’s the damp greenery, mud, puddles, and creek crossings that you’ve got to watch out for.
We’ve already mentioned how to keep moisture at bay by using waterproof gear, but what else can you do to keep your feet dry?
Tweak your riding style. Get as comfortable as possible on your saddle to make your blood vessels dilate. Always keep in mind that increased blood flow equals more warmth.
Here are a couple of riding tips for stream crossing and otherwise watery trails. Remember, added insulation will only work if you keep your feet dry.
1. Take off your shoes and socks, and just walk across the water
Take the extra time to go barefoot and walk across the stream you encounter, especially if it’s on the deeper end. Once you’re back on a dry trail, dry off your feet thoroughly before putting on your gear again. This will prevent you from riding in soggy footwear, which you know will do a number on your toes eventually.
2. Ride in such a way that the pedals don’t touch the water
This technique is called the “pedal shuffle,” where you alternate pedaling forward and backward, keeping the pedals in a relatively horizontal position. This is an advanced move because it’s hard to pull off on an uneven terrain.
3. Lift your feet off the pedals
For more shallow and less rocky crossings, this trick will do. Gain some speed before you hit the water, and when you get there, lift your feet off the pedals. Your feet will be high and dry while your pedals are submerged. Just make sure that you build up enough momentum to get you across the stream.
This is another difficult maneuver, as you’ll be shifting all your weight onto the saddle and balancing your legs in a rather strained position.
4. Go fast
Another great technique for going over shallow streams is to ride through them as quickly as possible. A good amount of speed will cause the water to splash sideways, leaving you and your bike dry. So if you see a small stream or puddle of mud ahead, build up some speed and gun it across.
5. Keep your eyes on the path
The last thing you want is to lose balance on a rocky, wet surface. Not only will you get drenched, but you might also get injured. If you see algae buildup on the bottom of the stream, do not attempt to ride across it if you’re not confident in your skills. It’s important to note that even the most excellent riders have trouble maneuvering across slippery terrain.
There’s going to be some trial and error here, but I hope you’ve picked up a bunch of valuable tips from this list. In general, what you’re fighting against is moisture. The dryer you are, the warmer you’ll feel.
Like with any sport, it’s important to get the proper gear for mountain biking in colder climates. Don’t just power through the discomfort because, as I’ve illustrated here, there are plenty of things you can do to restore your enjoyment and avoid any injuries.