Monday, January 16, 2017

Cold Hands, Slipping Feet: The Trials of Wintertime Outdoors

After fourteen winters in Colorado, with most of those including a liberal amount of time spent outdoors, one might make the assumption that I have mastered winter dressing for time in the cold, but those who would make such a leap would not necessarily be correct. While I have managed to acquire enough wool layers (socks, base layers, heavier top layers) and appropriate coats and jackets over the years there are still two items that vex me more than any other winter garments: gloves and shoes/boots.

Let it be known that I tend to have naturally cold hands even when in heated, indoor environments. I am currently seated in a fairly warm room as I type, and my hands are quite cold. Additionally, my feet seem to be on the same system and I find that even indoors (unless in the heat of summer) I prefer to keep warm, wool socks on my feet, even if I am not wearing shoes to keep my whole body from turning cold.

I find that when my feet and/or hands are cold, my whole body seems to become chilled, and I've also found that sometimes I am able to counteract the coldness in my hands and feet if I work to heat up my body. For example, if I do a round of jumping jacks, squats, or other movement my body tends to heat up and this generally spreads the heat to my hands and feet.  When it comes to going outdoors in the cold though, it isn't always possible to heat up the body prior to departure in such a manner. Which is where gloves come in to hopefully help stave off cold.

Ah, gloves. I think I have experimented with just about every brand or type at one point or another, but there always seems to be a quality that isn't well suited for my needs. If gloves don't provide any wind protection, on very cold days, I might just as well not don gloves at all (or at least that is how my hands feel). Whether physically windy outside isn't the point. Any one who rides a bicycle in colder weather understands that the wind created through movement is more often than not enough to freeze hands on its own.

If a glove isn't water resistant (or proof) the instant they get wet, hands tend to go numb too in freezing or even close-to-freezing temperatures. Some gloves that are wind and water proof don't allow the hands to breathe causing hands to sweat and this can also cause freezing, numb hands.

Over the years and depending on how cold the day is, I have started to layer my hands as I would my body, thinking that it makes sense to have more than one layer of protection. The gloves used are usually liner-type gloves layered over each other, starting with a soft, next-to-skin option and adding as needed. While this does work on cold, dry days for the most part, it does little to help in rain or snow. Additionally, if I wear too many layers (which can sometimes be just two pair of gloves), my hands can begin to sweat causing numbness and freezing anyway, regardless of the thickness, quality, or number of gloves worn.

Through all of the experiments over the last several years, I have had varying success with a couple of options. First, and I cannot stress this enough, if my hands are cold prior to putting on gloves, I find it far more challenging to get them warm while out riding, walking or being outdoors. So, I have learned to warm my hands up before I even attempt to put on a glove. This may mean rubbing them together in a warm area prior to heading outside or even wearing gloves in an indoor area to heat up my hands before I put on gloves for outdoor trips. I have also used hand warmers (and some people even make their own - though I've honestly never tried it).
Ibex Conductive Glove/Liner
These are pretty thin, but do enough just to keep the chill out. If they get wet in freezing temperatures, they are pretty much useless.
For a first layer, I like Ibex's Conductive Glove Liner, but there are options from many manufacturers. Ibex had another version of this glove that I've had in the past and I liked them as well (for the life of me I cannot remember the model name, and I'm not sure that they make these any longer, regardless). Be forewarned though, the Ibex model tends to fall apart fairly quickly. I've only been able to get single season use out of any of them without repairs so I tend to purchase when they're on sale. One of the qualities I appreciate about these liners though is that they are 100% wool.

I've also used Icebreaker models (these are generally 90-96% wool). There are several options available from lighter to heavier weight from this manufacturer, so if you prefer a thicker liner, there are options. SmartWool also makes a liner, though their option is only 46% wool. A bit disappointing when looking for a wool liner, but I have a pair of these as well and they work too in some situations. There are models from Hestra and Minus33 and others as well. It's just a matter of finding one that is appropriate for individual needs.

I like the Ibex liner because I can keep it on if I need to stop and use my cell phone and it works perfectly. It's also very lightweight, so if it's mildly cold and it's dry, sometimes I can get away with just using this glove alone. The fit is good for dexterity, and while I wish Ibex would return to manufacturing an extra small size, the small size is workable (my glove size is a women's 7, which often tend to be slightly large, but I have long palms and long thumbs making fit sometimes a challenge). There is just a bit of extra fabric at the end of my fingers, but until I find the perfect liner, these are close enough to work for my purposes.
Burton snowboard liners. I use these sometimes on top of the Ibex liners, but they provide no real protection from wet, so I only use these as a second layer in dry conditions and when it's not super cold. I also use these as a single layer at times. They are slightly warmer than the wool liners, but not thick enough for colder conditions.
Second layers tend to be a bit more challenging for me than the first, and again, depending on the weather and the temperature, this option can change and vary quite a bit. If the conditions are dry, it may mean I simply put on another liner. I have used double layers of wool, I've mixed wool with liners such as a Burton snowboard liner, I've chosen a Gore tex Windstopper glove for some wind relief, but whatever option is chosen, the temperature and conditions are the deciding factor.
I've had many of these types of gloves over the years, but just about any windproof or Gore Tex glove seems to work well with a wool liner beneath it in conditions down to about 30F/-1C, depending on conditions. This particular pair is supposed to aid in keeping warmth in the palm. I'm not sure it really works all that well in reality, but as a wind resistant layer, it works nicely.
When conditions are colder an Outdoor Research glove or an older version of these Marmot Randonnee gloves (mine worked great except in the very coldest conditions until one of the dogs got a hold and damaged them) have worked well as a second layer. This past year, I picked up a pair of 45NRTH Sturmfist 5 gloves on sale and off-season, and they have become my favorite second layer (and sometimes only layer), cold weather glove of choice. I also ordered the Sturmfist 4, but couldn't seem to get the interior liner to cooperate and had to send them back. I suspect these might work a bit better though, even in colder conditions, if one received a pair that were undamaged.
I love these Marmot Randonnee gloves. I bought them on a clearance table several years ago and they work well - or did, until a puppy got to them. I still use them occasionally, but they are in need of replacement. These keep my hands quite warm in all but the very coldest weather, particularly if I add an extra wool liner.
With a lightweight wool liner and the Sturmfist 5 gloves (which have their own sewn-in liner), I have ridden several times in temperatures around 5F/-15C. Temperatures can get much lower locally at times, but I've not had the opportunity to test this combination thoroughly enough to know whether it will work functionally in lower temperatures. Truthfully, I try not to ride in conditions much lower than the stated temperature above, but it does happen on occasion. In reality, if temperatures are lower, I think much hardier options are likely the best choice. Lobster claw type gloves, much heavier snowboard gloves, or something along these lines is likely the best choice.
The 45NRTH Sturmfist gloves are the latest attempt to stay warm. They aren't super bulky, but they do seem to work fairly well. The lowest temperature I've ridden with these was -15F/-26C. I didn't ride very far (about 3 miles), so it was difficult to know how well they'd work at higher speeds/longer stretches of time. My suspicion is that the 4-finger version would work nicely as well (perhaps even better). 
Another option is to look into pogies/bar mitts. These can be a costly option in some cases, and I have not had an opportunity to test them enough to know which brands are more functional/effective. I will say that Sam picked up a couple pair of ATV bar mitts online for a very low price, but we have not yet had the opportunity to test these out either. I think that these along with wearing a good pair of gloves, could be an outstanding option for very cold weather rides as well.

The fit of gloves is often a major hassle itself, and how important it is to move digits independently is a factor each individual must determine him/herself. Ideally, mitten-style makes the most sense in my mind because fingers are kept together and work together to keep heated, but it is a highly impractical style when requiring at least some dexterity. Lobster claw gloves would probably be the next option, followed by a 5-finger glove style. Bar mitts potentially eliminate dexterity issues, but some find them to present their own dangers (such as having hands "trapped" inside in emergency situations).

For some reason, I have not struggled as extensively with keeping feet warm during cold weather rides. Which is not to say that it hasn't or doesn't happen, but simply that for me, my hands seem to be the more challenging body part to keep comfortable in winter conditions (assuming, of course, that my feet don't end up wet). If I wear thick wool socks - or even two pair - and shoes that don't allow moisture in, I seem to be okay for the most part when it comes to keeping warm. Wind blockers over shoes are also helpful, but I don't recall the last time I had need for these as an addition to footwear.

My biggest obstacle in regard to feet and winter riding is slipping off pedals. Because I use platform pedals, slick surface area is often the biggest challenge. All of my platforms have pins to allow for greater grip; however, when there is snow or ice accumulation on shoes, I find the risk of sliding right off the pedal much higher. It doesn't help matters that I've yet to find a shoe or boot that is more slip resistant.

The best to-date option has been to use hiking shoes that are waterproof, but those that work best for my feet still don't seem to provide much traction on slick surfaces, causing me to continue to search for the right set up. Additionally, in deeper snow, I find that my socks end up wet, which is followed by very cold/frozen feet.

As is apparent, I have not yet found the right solution for me... but the hunt continues!

I think the biggest point I would make in regard to the items I use is that I am not riding at great speed in the winter months. I think increased speed can definitely have an affect on how comfortable a person is in cold weather. My maximum tends to hover around 12-13mph/19-21kph in the winter months as I tend to take my time. More often than not, my speed is somewhere around 8-10mph/12-16kph, or even slower, so I understand that those who maintain higher speeds in very cold conditions may have entirely different experiences.

My experience has also been that if I keep the core of my body warm, I tend to have better success with gloves and footwear in regard to warmth. The challenging piece is finding the right combinations for particular scenarios, and I think it can change from day to day quite easily, making what seems perfect one day a complete disaster on another trip.

I would love to hear about items or techniques that have worked for you while riding in cold weather and/or snowy/rainy conditions in the winter. Do you have layering techniques, or do you prefer a specific brand/product? Do you choose to forego cold weather rides entirely? If you have shoe/boot suggestions for snowy/icy weather, those would be appreciated as well.

6 comments:

  1. I've found that high-quality platform (aka, MTB) pedals and 5.10 MTB shoes work quite well in snow/ice. The VP Vice is a good pedal, as is the Spank Oozy. For winter riding, the 5.10 Freerider EPS shoes are an absolute godsend due to their insulation and seamless forefoot.

    I recently wrote up my list of winter riding favorites/essentials, which you can read here: http://www.gravelbike.com/winter-riding-essentials-favorites/

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    1. I'm surprised I missed that... I'll have to go and give it a read. Thanks for the link and suggestions!

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  2. GE - we all have unique body requirements in the cold, so please take my suggestions for what they are - merely suggestions. What works for me may not help you.

    For someone who gets cold hands frequently, I cannot stress enough that might try using mittens. Having warm hands should outweigh any lack of dexterity. How often do you shift? And perhaps just try commuting in the winter where you will be indoors periodically through your ride? My hands stay plenty warm during my 30 minute commute.

    For footwear, absolutely try regular thick outdoor boots, perhaps felt lined?

    I wear a down parka because I wish to start out warm. It has never failed me, even if I sweat beneath it on the way home. It's easy to vent, unzip the top and bottom.

    Indoors, try using fingerless gloves. I cut the tips off a dollar store synthetic pair. I used to use these in my previous job where the indoor temps. were less than optimal.

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    1. Annie,
      Thanks for your suggestions. I do, at times, ride in mittens. I find I prefer having all of my fingers available for use when possible, but sometimes it doesn't make sense. We've had a few below freezing days thus far this winter, but it's been warmer than usual many days (30s-40sF), so I haven't had the cold-cold sink in for long stretches (yet). Sometimes it feels as though my body is permanently frozen when we don't get out of the teens (or lower) for many days/weeks (a feeling, I'm sure you are all-too-familiar with in your neck of the woods).

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  3. We don't get that many very cold days where I live, but keeping my hands warm is always a struggle, especially in winter. Even when temps aren't that cold -- say 30-degrees or so -- my hands will be very painful after only 20 minutes or so on the bike. I think Annie's suggestion about mittens is a good one. I used to live in Michigan and found mittens the only way to get through a true winter day. I'm seriously thinking about bar mitts for my bike. As far as I can tell, they function very much like a mitten that goes on your handelbars instead of your hands. I should be able to use a thin glove or glove liner inside of them. I've been avoiding going this route because, like I said, we don't have that many days when it's an issue here so I didn't want the hassle of taking them on and off. At this point, though, I'm willing to give it a try.

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    1. I can understand why you would be hesitant to try bar mitts when the extreme cold isn't necessarily a daily trial in your region, but I think it could be worth a try to see if it helps with cold hands. I'll try to update here when I have an opportunity to test the ATV bar mitts Sam picked up too. Let me know how your experiment goes, if you decide to do the bar mitts as well. I'd love to know if they meet your needs.

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