Keeping warm during winter riding is a bit of an art. First off, you need the right gear. Once you’ve got what you need, you need to know how to use it properly to keep the cold out. In this article we will take a quick look at how to use the right gear to beat the cold and then share with you some of our top picks of cycling jackets for the road and trail.
The key to keeping warm
Essentially it is about staying dry, not letting water in but also not sweating under your layers. Water conducts heat away from the body much faster than air does (around 50 times faster than air in fact) and thus if your body is wet from water seeping in through clothing or from sweat under clothing, you are at a much greater risk of getting cold.
The way to manage this is by making sure that the layer of clothing closest to your skin is moisture wicking and that your outer layers are breathable. Breathability means that the clothing item lets water vapour pass through its layers. Take note that once you are sweating, the liquid sweat won’t pass through a breathable fabric if it is also waterproof.
Our good friend and pro cyclist Mariske Strauss says that if you really want to stay warm and dry, “stay in bed..haha” but if you are going out, a good base layer is most important, “then choose a gear according to temperature (which you figure out what works for you by trial and error. Generally (and especially for MTB) you don’t need as much as you think. As long as you are going to do a constant effort my go-to would be a base layer and long sleeve jacket.”
There is an old adage that says one should “start cold”. You will always heat up once you begin your ride. Run on the spot or do some push ups before heading out to get the blood pumping if you’re not keen on waiting the 5 minutes of pedalling it takes to warm up!
Understanding waterproofing levels and breathability
To measure the waterproofing of a fabric / material, a square column of 1 inch X 1 inch is placed on a piece of the material and filled up with water until that water starts to push through the material (or has an equivalent pressure to the water column placed on it). The height of the water column (in mm) is where that number in the rating comes from.
A rating of 2 000 – 5 000 mm is only suitable for drizzle and light showers at a push. 10 000 mm is somewhat the standard level of waterproofing for outdoor gear and should keep you dry in anything up to heavy rainfall.
Once you go over the 15 000 mm mark you’re into some very effective waterproofing and Gore-Tex products, for reference, mark the upper end of the spectrum at 28 000 mm and literally guarantee dryness (waterproof and breathable), you can just about swim in the stuff!
Taped seams and waterproof zippers are also important for keeping water out as those are definite weak points in the system that need to be accounted for.
DWR (Durable Water Repellent) is a coating applied to fabrics that works to reduce soaking and rather makes water bead up and run off of the material to reduce the amount of water that gets to the waterproofing membrane itself.
Breathability is usually measured with an equitable number to the waterproofing and this is the rate at which the garment will release water vapour off of your body (in g/m²). It should ideally be a number similar to the waterproofing number to ensure good thermoregulation and reduce the chance of greenhousing yourself. A moisture wicking base layer paired with your cycling jacket will make this system most effective.
What to look for in a winter cycling jacket?
Front pockets on your cycling jacket to keep the hands warm are a win! Chest pockets are great for earbuds and other small items, even a cellphone. You’ll find some jackets may have a small storage pocket at the rear. Less pockets does mean less weight though if you’re going for the minimalist vibe.
Low-cut back panel
The rear wheel of a bicycle is remarkably good at throwing water and mud from the trail up your back. Having a cycling jacket with a low cut at the rear protects your behind a little more and should stop the spray and muddy slop going up under the jacket itself, which is as unpleasant as you could imagine.
As we discussed earlier, staying dry is paramount when trying to stay warm but this is tricky to manage when you may be working hard on a climb before the impending icy descent or taking a break at the top of the trail. Generous climbing vents under the arms, on the rear of the cycling jacket (or even on the front as Leatt has done) can help prevent overheating and sweating during a climb.
Some of the lighter weight cycling jacket options can fold up real small into a pocket making them great for stashing in your frame or riding pack / pockets in the event of the weather turning. Not an essential but a real nice-to-have!
If you spend much time on the road, reflective trims are a must! Being visible to cars and other riders can be a literal life saver.
Hood under or over helmet
Some cycling jacket hoods are designed to go under the helmet, some over. Under-hoods will keep you warmer, potentially dryer, and I find allow better mobility of the neck.
Over-hoods are easy to pop on and off, are generally cooler, but might limit your mobility. As for the styles, you can decide for yourself why the over-hood looks better, or not!
Our Top 5 Winter Cycling Jacket Picks
Price: R3 999
Waterproofing: 10 000 mm
Breathability: Not specified
The Apex Pachetto Waterproof Jacket is a new release from local cycling brand Ciovita and is a great waterproof packable option for the road, trail, or even off the bike. The hood can go under or over your helmet and there is one pocket located on the rear for storing essentials or the jacket itself.
You get a nice low cut back for spray and some reflective markers in a lightweight minimalist package. Available in men’s and women’s cuts. For almost half the price (but windproof, not waterproof) you can get the Trovare Jacket if it better suits your needs.
Price: R4 200
Breathability: “Highly Breathable”
Packable: Not specified
You’ve got hand pockets on the front and a small rear pocket. Reflective threading for 360 degree visibility. Lightweight and slim fitting design that is supposed to breathe well. Great for road cycling and marathon riding. If you’re looking for something more trail focused, see their Trail Rain Jacket (R 3500) for a looser fit and more waterproofing that packs into a pocket.
Price: R3 221
Waterproof: 20 000 mm
Breathability: 20 000 g/m²
This is the big daddy of this group. If you want to face a tropical cyclone on your bike and stay dry while you’re at it, this is the jacket you pick. Worried about overheating? Leatt has some of the biggest vents in the business to keep you cool on the climbs. The South African based company does have a whole range of cycling jackets and so you might find the packable and lighter MTB HydraDri 2.0 Jacket with 10 000 mm waterproofing better suits your non-storm-chasing needs. Both have over-helmet hoods and low cut tails in a loose MTB specific cut.
Price: R1 599
Breathability: Not specified
Packable: Not specified
If it is just some wind protection and light drizzle repelling power that you’re looking for, check out the First Ascent Strike Cycling Jackets. With slim fit and lightweight, they won’t be slowing you down on the bike but will help fight that early morning bite. The low cut rear is present here as are some reflective strips. Available in men’s and women’s specific cuts with several colour options and you get a small pocket on the rear of the jacket for essentials.
Waterproof: 2 000 mm
Breathability: RET 6 (fairly breathable)
If you’re on a budget, the global megastore Decathlon is the place to go. This rain jacket is a lightweight, packable, breathable and ‘waterproof’ option. I wouldn’t choose this for anything more than light showers but it would do the trick to keep one dry in the drizzle and some brief light rain. Reflective strips are good to see and the trusty low-cut back panel. Practical and affordable as ever from Decathlon.
Caring for your waterproof gear
Yes we know it’s a hack but you’ve paid a lot of cash for this new cycling jacket and just taking a little extra time to care for it properly will dramatically extend its lifespan.
Normal washing detergents can damage your jacket’s waterproofing so be sure to use waterproof specific washing detergent to clear your gear.
If you’re going to machine wash the jacket (or other waterproof gear) it is worth doing a hot rinse of the machine before to clean out any residual detergent before washing the jacket in a 30 degree wash with the waterproof specific detergent (or as instructed by the item’s specific care instruction on the label or website).
This will ensure your best bet of keeping the waterproofing at its best for as long as possible! It is worth the effort, believe a man who has neglected these instructions and ended up very very wet in the rain despite his fancy waterproof jacket being worn.
No go forth and conquer the storm!