Staying Warm

In an attempt to keep my hands warm I've tried:-

    thick gloves
    thermal gloves
    World War 2 flying gloves
    skiing gloves
    silk inner gloves
    thermal inners
    handlebar muffs
    cut down milk containers
    heated inners
    heated handlebar grips

The wind chill factor is considerable on a bike, and the hands, being stuck out in the wind and having a large surface area to lose heat from get cold quickly. They are probably the part that riders getting cold feel first, and because they need to be wrapped in gloves that still allow you to operate the controls, probably the most difficult part of the body to keep warm. From that list above. the best things for keeping my hands warm were the heated inners, then the heated grips. But before you dash out and purchase either, don't make the same mistake I did.


    Hypothermia isn't uncommon when riding a bike
    Circulation of blood through the surface capillaries and to the extremities of the body is controlled by body core temperature
    Blood in the arms and legs is cooled by windblast - their large surfaces act as radiators - and returned to the core of the body, where is is re-heated before being pumped out again, cooling the core bit by bit
    When the core temperature gets too lows, circulation to the extremities and the surface capillaries shuts down to reduce further heat loss
    When peripheral circulation shuts down, your hands and feet (and legs and arms) get cold
    When your hands and feet get cold, muscles become stiff and unresponsive,  you can't control the bike and the pain when you warm up again causes you to burst into tears
    Your brain switches out of circuit as the first stages of hypothermia set in!

If you wear heated gloves you treat the symptom - not the disease... it will help to keep you hands warm but the body core is still receiving large amounts of cooled blood from the other extremities and if the body's metabolism is unable to supply enough extra heat (through shivering and burning food more quickly), the core temperature still goes down... you hands may FEEL toasty, but circulation to the arms, legs (and brain) are all reduced - so sooner or later arms and legs with stiffen up, your feet still get cold and you will not be on top form mentally.

If you maintain a high temperature at the core, you maintain circulation to the extremities, hence your hands (and feet) get a constant supply of warm blood. This may not completely overcome the cooling effect but goes someway towards it - they may get cold but they don't go numb.

This is not idle speculation - this comes straight from sports physiology research. Heat is lost from the body by three routes:


Thermal clothing, either through wearing a special designed clothing or by using lots of layers to trap air, works up to a point - the point where the temperature gradient across the insulation is steep enough for the rate of heat loss to exceed the body's ability to heat itself... from that point on you are going to chill. Admittedly the better the thermal insulation the lower that threshold temperature is, and the slower you chill, so you may never even notice on a short ride, but it will happen if it is cold enough and if you are on the bike long enough or riding at high speeds. All thermal clothing does, however good it is, is to delay the onset of chilling and prolong the agony, as it were, and this is a serious problem if you are habitually a short distance rider and suddenly do a long trip. (It took me years to understand why I got so cold on long runs when the clothing kept me nice and warm on short rides). You get even colder in wet weather, when evaporating the water on your clothes causes even more heat loss.

But surely you could keep adding thermal clothing until you stay toasty? Up to a point - you end up looking like the Michelin Man. Problems with flexibility and bulkiness (try looking over your shoulder!) caused by lots of thick thermal clothing makes riding awkward.

Aha - I hear you suggest the lightweight aluminised linings like Thinsulate that reflect heat back to the body might be the answer... well, the jackets I have tried that aren't bulky aren't actually all that warm, and the material is fragile - it soon fails in gloves.

So what is the solution? By far and away the best way to stay warm on a bike is to wear a heated waistcoat, with a windproof, reasonably well insulated jacket or riding suit on top - the sort of thing you'd wear in spring or autumn with a tee-shirt underneath. If it's chilly (10 - 5C) wear a light fleece over the tee-shirt then the heated waistcoat - if it's cold (around 0) reverse the fleece/waistcoat order. Colder still and I usually put unlined plastic waterproofs over the riding suit, and that will keep me going down to about -10C. Even then the clothing is flexible and thin enough for me to bend and look over my shoulder! The heated jacket adds heat, and common sense tells you that given the same insulation, the combined sources of heat will push the point where you start to chill and thus shut down the circulation to a lower temperature. In practice, I have ridden in -10C temps with the heated jacket and got cool, but not chilled through after 3 hours riding, so its probably just about losing heat at that point... in the more normal temperatures we experience in the southern UK winter of 0-5C, I can ride all day with no discomfort.

A word of warning - don't put the heated waistcoat next to the skin - the heating element can get pretty hot and you will end up looking like you barbecued yourself! Some of the waistcoats come with adjustable temperature controllers so you can set the temperature to just toasty. If you have an uncontrolled one, you can always wire an on-off switch up on the dash of the bike. Don't forget to fit an inline fuse to avoid self-immolation.

Heated waistcoats are available from smallish independents (Gerbing and Widder in the US and Giali in the UK) at around £100. Unlike heated grips and gloves, the wiring does not have to flex that much and so they last that longer. I generally reckoned on a year for heated grips before the wiring failed and one winter for the gloves, sometimes just a couple of months. My Gerbing waistcoat is into its fourth winter and has a lifetime guarantee (though I might have to take it back to the States to get it mended should it fail - I guess you can't have everything). You can also get heated gloves, socks, leggings and collars from some manufacturers that daisy-chain to the wiring, but make sure your bike's alternator can cope with all that lot. Only the oldest bikes will have problems with a waistcoat - they draw no more than about 30W.

Other tips - plug the leaks! Keep wind out of your clothing by tightening wrist straps, using a scarf or neckwarmer and zipping jackets to trousers or wearing one-piece suits. Several thin layers are better than one thick one, unless it is a fleece - the idea is to trap air and stop it moving. If you have a separate jacket, bib-and-brace type trousers help keep the kidneys warm. A cheap one piece rain suit over the top will do wonders if you have separate jacket and jeans.

OK, final point. Why haven't clothing manufacturers realised this and given us warm and lightweight heated winter riding gear? As far as I know just one mainstream manufacturer produces a heated jacket but it is at a premium price. A cynical person might suggest that the answer is of course that they know very well! But as long as we get cold on bikes, they can tell us that their latest thermal jacket is better than the last (I doubt very much if it really is, of course - in my experience the last real improvements came with Thinsulate and Goretex in the early 80's) and get us to shell out vast wads of cash - you can spend £1000 on winter riding suits, and after you've spent that amount you ARE going to notice the difference, aren't you???

If you want to stay warm on a bike this winter, spend some smart money on a heated waistcoat!