Warm feet for winter cycling are almost as elusive as warm hands. But it is possible, and not excessively difficult to keep your feet warm while cycling in the cold.
Are You Getting Cold Feet?
Riding a bike seems like it uses your feet, and it does, but it does not use your foot muscles as much as walking or running. It is super common for cold feet to be the biggest challenge facing winter cyclists. Cycling is fun, and cycling in winter is no less fun, and should be more fun thanks to the lack of heat exhaustion and mosquitoes. But it wont be fun if you have cold feet.
The Science in Your Socks.
The human body produces heat as a byproduct of muscle activity. If you flex a muscle, it will warm up. But since feet don’t get flexed all that much while cycling, they have to depend on warm blood reaching them as part of general circulation. There are many things that can slow down the circulation to the feet, and many things that can be done about it.
There are also a bunch of factors to cooling feet, and if the rate of cooling of feet exceeds the rate they get warmed, then they will get cold. The mechanisms of cooling are conduction, convection, evaporation and radiation. Slowing down the cooling of feet is an effective way to prevent them from getting cold, even if they aren’t getting that much use.
Conduction to Pedals
Metal pedals conduct heat. Plastic ones do too, but anywhere from 100 to 1000 times less. Unfortunately, I do not like plastic pedals for reasons outside the scope of this article, so there is heat loss through the bottom of my boot to the pedal and beyond. I minimise this with extra closed cell foam insulated insoles, as well as a credit card between the outtermost liner and the boot outer to isolate the pedal from the foot pressing down on it.
Extra insulation in the soles of your boots can help as well. I have some insoles that I put under the stock insoles of some of my boots. They are cut from a blue closed-cell foam camping mattress.
Update Nov 2020: I have now switched to OneUp composite pedals (Amazon link, they are cheaper in real stores) on several of my bikes. They seem to address my concerns about packing up with snow that I have about almost all other plastic pedals. I have only ridden with them to -20ºC, but they should be fine in serious cold.
The Easy Way Out.
If you don’t feel like reading what will surely be a long piece, then just do this. Get some Muck Arctic boots from this Amazon Associates Search. Buy them at least a full size too big, and line them with Bama Socks from this Amazon Associates link. Those will hold you for at least an hour at -30ºC, and the Bama Socks are easy to remove and dry before the next ride. They aren’t that great for winter bikepacking, since there isn’t an easy way to dry out the fleece inside the boots, and the socks are difficult to dry in a sleeping bag. But do read on for the other tips, especially about getting warm blood to your feet.
Get out of a jam.
When I am inadequately prepared, and my feet get cold, like on my trip with my friend Guy where we accidentally found winter I will often get off my bike and jog or walk briskly pushing my bike for the only purpose of warming my feet. On the trip with Guy, I was wearing summer hiking boots, and my feet got cold enough to do this several times. This is not the fastest way to travel by bike, but it is a great way to inject warmth into your feet.
Before We Start Throwing Money Into Footwear.
If blood returning from your legs is cold, your body will slow the circulation to your extremities to conserve heat. This means that if you are wearing shorts, blood will cool in your legs on the way to your feet and will not warm your feet. It also means that because the blood returning from your legs will be cold, your body will slow down the circulation to your legs and feet. Since blood returns to your core via your hips, cold hips and butt matter way more than you’d expect when it comes to keeping feet warm.
Now it doesn’t take a ton of insulation to prevent excessive cooling of your legs, but it takes some, wind protection can help a lot. Down to about -5ºC, a pair of long johns or tights will do. They can be wool or synthetic, with wool being less smelly for longer use. Below that, down to about -20ºC, I move to a pair of stretch fleece tights over the long johns, preferably with a wind resistant front. Below -20ºC, I change out the fleece tights to heavy fleece tights with some kind of wind protection, I prefer the wind resistant stretch fleece, or soft shell fabrics, but other wind layers work too, like rain pants or snow pants.
Hips, the Surprise Extremity
Look at a chart of the human circulatory system. Big arteries go down the insides of the thighs, the hips are at the end of the chain. Cold hips are sending cold blood back to your core. Insulate them, or that cold blood will, you guessed it, slow down the blood flow to the other extremities, like your feet.
But Real Cyclists Ride Clipless!
I am not getting involved in the debate. My best winter clipless results came from triathlon transition platforms, which were a plate that straps to the bottom of a running shoe to give stiffness and clipless cleat mounting. I modified them to fit a pair of winter boots. I also tried various combinations of stock and modified Lake winter bike boots, and a few others. I now use flat pedals on all my bikes. In my testing, and I had trained to be good at pulling up, I am very slightly faster on flat pedals, close enough to call it a draw. But I can walk in flat-pedal compatible footwear (see above, there could be walking).
If you forced me to buy clipless pedals tomorrow, I would get some 45 North Wolfgar boots (if they made my size) and I’d be done with it. They are good, they are expensive, and thy are fine for commuting or for day rides, they are easily modified for multi-day rides, see below for how.
Socks: the Cheaper Footwear
My mom knits the best socks in the world, just for me. But even though she isn’t going to knit any socks for you (unless you are one of my siblings, children, nieces and nephews, hi y’all) you can still have the benefits of better socks.
More is not the Same as Better:
Warm blood getting to the feet is the game we are playing. If you are wearing tight socks, less warm blood gets to the feet. The same applies to layered socks, if the pair on the outside is the same size as the one on the inside, it is effectively tight. Similarly, wearing thicker socks or more sock will fail as a strategy as soon as you are putting them into footwear sized for thin socks.
Mind the Gap
Short socks may be stylish, I’m not what you would mistake for fashionable. But if there is a gap between your sock and your pant cuff, that bare skin is going to lose a bunch of heat. For normal pants, I’d advise at least a calf length sock to cover the ankle and any areas that might get drafts up the pant cuff. For tights and long underwear, the sock can be shorter, as long as all the skin is covered, and the overlap is not tight enough to constrict circulation.
My personal sock system is a single pair of wool socks that cover to above the ankle, just below my calf muscle. For bikepacking, I usually add a second sock, sometimes with a vapour barrier in between. I really like Darn Tough socks like from this Amazon Associates link, or Icebreaker wool socks. You don’t have to ditch your dress socks, just use them as a decorative layer in your footwear system.
Throwing Money at Footwear
Some people love Sorel Pac boots, and they have kept me warm over the years. Their disadvantages are significant though. First, the boot liners collect moisture because the rubber lowers hold it in. This is fine for a short time, but after a while it becomes a problem when water collects in the bottom of the boot, freezes, and you are standing on a block of ice. These boots are great for snowmobiling, where your feet don’t sweat much, and the extra weight doesn’t affect your pedalling or pushing a bike. If you want some, get them from this Amazon Associate link that pays me a small commission at no extra cost to you for recommending against them. If you do get some, read on for some of the things that you can do to make them work much better on a bike.
Water, the Enemy of Warm Feet
Water conducts heat away from feet, it evaporates, cooling feet, and sometimes it freezes, and then it conducts and absorbs heat. Feet sweat, which is the prime source of moisture in footwear, but water can also come from rivers, melting snow, or when there are warm daytime temperatures.
There are three ways to manage moisture in boots, keep them dry by giving moisture a place to go, to keep the water away from any insulation it could compromise, or use insulation that isn’t compromised by moisture. The only insulation that does not get compromised by moisture in serious is closed-cell foam, or felt/batting that has been sealed from any contact with water. Even though there are many types of insulation that do not absorb water, as ice builds from the outside in, it will bridge the insulation.
An Anecdote With Kids in it
When we first went camping at Lake O’Hara in the winter, the kids played all weekend in their ski boots. They had pac boots with them, but they talked a lot about how the ski boots were much warmer. I realized when I thought a bit more about it, that though ski boots have less insulation, it’s closed-cell foam insulation, so it wasn’t affected by moisture.
Ski touring has a lot in common with winter bikepacking. Rigid ski boots limit foot movement, so feet tend to get cold, just like on a bike. Skis and bindings conduct heat from the bottoms of feet, just like pedals, and of course, both are taking place in winter. Which brings me to my next recommendation: Intuition liners. These liners are found in many ski touring boots, and just about every major arctic skiing expedition has used boots with Intuition liners, or they’ve replaced the stock liners with them. The biggest reason for how good they are is the liners being waterproof. That is to say, they provide as much insulation after you fall in the creek as before.
I do not make a commission on Intuition liners, though I would gladly accept free product from them if they offered, but the pair I owned were the best, so I cannot fail to mention them. Get some at Their Online Store and tell them I sent you. Put them inside the pac boots of your choice, or, even better, in some Neos overboots. Note, while they will still be warm on day 20 of your epic winter bikepacking journey, they will stink badly enough that you will want to keep them far from your nose when you take them off at night.
Hey Doug, I Know That You Have a Cheaper Suggestion, Something With Zip Ties?
Ever step on a zip tie? No, it doesn’t include zip ties, but yes, there is a cheaper way. The work has been done for me, so go read Mike Curiak’s brilliant footwear recommendations, then come back and apply what he does, to any absorbent boot liner. When I do it, I use mylar balloons with the tops cut off (I saved them up when my kids got them at parties) instead of trash bags as the inner bag for the boot liner, but I even use the same brand of glue. I’ve applied this to some very budget pac boots, and though they tend to be heavy and clunky, they are plenty warm for around town or a multi-day mountain trip. This is how I make the Sorel pac boots mentioned above work. though they still aren’t light.
Vapour Barrier Liner
Vapour Barrier Liners (VBL) are intended to keep moisture from sweat from migrating through insulation, thereby keeping it dryer. Plastic bags in shoes is the most primitive example of this, but there are now commercial VBL socks from Rab and other outdoor companies. Anecdotal evidence suggests that feet begin to sweat less as their environment gets more moist, so VBL don’t seem to fill up with sweat like one would expect.
The plastic sock that people wear when thermoforming boots or skates, is a great budget VBL, and I personally favour mylar balloons that my kids used to get at parties. I cut the opening to fit my ankles, and have a budget solution that also prevents radiant heat loss with it’s reflective layer.
All boots and boot systems work better with VBL. Even the trash-bag waterproofed liner above, which is a VB. Yes, the inner sock will be damp, but since this dampness is contained, it cannot evaporate and does not cool the foot. I do not know of any scientific research around it, but all the people I know who use VBL report that their rate of sweating slows as the sock gets damp, and I don’t know anyone who has ended up with a plastic sock full of water.
About Boot Ratings
Don’t completely trust them when it comes to warm feet for winter cycling. Boot manufacturers give approximate temperature ratings for boots, and that’s great, but it is hard to know if those are active (walking) temperatures, or standing on metal pedals temperatures. It is also hard to tell between comfortable ratings and not-losing-a-toe ratings. I usually look for a boot rated to -50ºC to be comfortable on a bike at -30ºC. Now I am willing to walk to warm up my feet, so I can push the temperature range if I want a lighter boot. If the boot has an “active” rating, take 20ºC off that rating to get what I call the “waiting for the bus” rating.
I like big platform pedals and flexible soles, and here’s why. Up top I mention that one of the reasons that feet get cold on a bike is because they aren’t really flexed when riding. The second part to this is that in stiff soled shoes, they flex a lot less when walking as well. Feet stay warmer in more flexible boots. Loose boots can provide the same benefit, but at the expense of having floppy boots interfering with your pedalling.
Frozen Boots in the Morning
On the ITI, there was a warm day followed by a -35ºC night. The boots that I was using got wet in the day and froze overnight. This was the cause of my most serious winter bikepacking injury, blisters from the stiff frozen boots rubbing on my feet. I could have prevented this in a number of ways. The boots I was wearing did not have removable liners, so I rally should have prevented them from getting wet. I have vapour barrier liners, and I had brought Neos overboots (more about these in a minute), so I could easily have stopped water coming in from the outside and kept the boots dry.
With the benefit of more experience, I’d probably choose an entirely different footwear system, but at the time, I was convinced that a pair of light hiking-style boots would be ideal. I was correct, they were comfortable to walk in, with my transition platforms they were also great for biking, and they were warm enough while they were dry. In fact, they were just fine aside from the saturation and freezing problem.
Keep the Snow Out
When snow gets in to boots, it melts. This phase change takes a lot of energy in the form of heat from your feet. If you are going to be walking in snow above your ankles, your boots need either a closure at the top, pants that go over the boot, gaiters, or a combination to keep the snow from getting in.
The warmth of your boot is inside the insulation, the shell of your boot is at outside temperature. If the outside temperature is much below freezing, water vapour is not going to reach the outer shell of your boot. The shell will let vapour pass, but once it has condensed into water and ice, it isn’t getting out. functionally, there is very little difference between fully waterproof and waterproof breathable once it gets cold.
Leather and cotton will wick liquid water, and so as a shell material are much more breathable than waterproof breathables, it isn’t a case of the material not performing to spec, just a case of not considering the state of the water that you want to let out.
Price is no object bikepacking:
Let the Moisture Out
Empire Wool and Canvas Company boots: Like the Steger Mukluks mentioned below, these are not at all waterproof, instead, they keep the liners dryer by wicking moisture out through the canvas and leather outers. These are easier to get on and off than the Steger Mukluks, and the lacing makes them more secure on your feet for easier bike riding and pushing. These boots do benefit from VBL, but it reduces their low smell advantage.
Steger Arctic Mukluks: Again, these are not waterproof city boots, but they are warm. They are not ideal for mud and puddles. I have used these extensively on multi-day trips, and they are great, they are lightweight, and warm. I pull the liners out at night and sleep in them, this helps to keep my feet warm and avoids me having to put on frozen boots in the morning. The liners will dry out in my sleeping bag overnight if they are just damp, and they tend not to get saturated in winter outside. I have some nylon mesh screens that I keep in the bottom of the boot to collect moisture, I then let them freeze, bang the ice out of the mesh and keep the liners even more dry.
Keep the Moisture in
Light Pac Boots with Intuition Liners: I mentioned the liners earlier, and they are great. Any pac boots will work with the Intuition liners, but I like something light, the best I’ve found are Neos Overshoes like from this Amazon Associates Link. I like the uninsulated ones for use with a liner. I would prefer that they lace up rather than slip on for better support, especially for walking, but they are nice and light right out of the box. You will want to keep these somewhere far away from your nose at night. The big advantage to these is the low maintenance. Though they are waterproof, the Intuition liners will get wet on the inside fabric and so they can be icy in the morning, so these benefit from a VBL sock. I have slept in them, but they get very foul smelling if they are worn day and night, and your feet stay pretty damp. I haven’t used these beyond 3 nights, but they work as well on day 4 as on day 1.
Footwear is not the place to save money, when it gets seriously cold, you either pay in dollars or pay in frozen toes. That said, I don’t feel bad recommending Helly Hansen Bivy Boots. I have a pair, and they are just fine for warmth, with a few disclaimers. First, they need to be laced all the way. if the laces are at all loose, the top speed lace eyelet will catch on the loose lace or knot of the opposite boot, pulling out the grommet, and tripping you. Secondly, it is a good thing they use closed-cell foam liners because the shells are fragile and will have rips in them after few trips. A friend in forestry described a pair that his co-worker shredded within a month. I get no incentives from Marks, and I believe these boots are HH branded Marks boots, so I don’t know about availability outside Canada. I use these, and other than the safety issue I mentioned, they are the perfect boot for temperatures down to about -30ºC, they are light warm and not too cumbersome.
Day Rides Mountain Biking
This is probably the least demanding segment for footwear. If they fit, 45North Wolfgar boots are ideal for clipless pedals, and the liners can be pulled out and dried. Many of the hiking boot style winter boots will work fine until extreme cold, and wearing a pair a size too large and adding a pair of bama socks will make for happy feet for even longer and at colder temperatures.
Of course, all the bikepacking systems and the city systems will work just as well.
In the City
For commuting and utility riding the problem of riding in the cold is compounded by needing to be able to walk around when you get there, and by salt and slush on the roads, and by the variability of the weather. I live in Calgary, many people who live here talk about weeks of -40º weather. That never happens. A really bad week has a few lows at night in the -32ºC range, I have been in real cold, but not in Calgary. I weight my recommendations on being outside riding for at least an hour. If you live somewhere colder, then please look more closely at my bikepacking advice, since the mountains are often colder. Note that there is always wind chill on a bike, sometimes multiplied(headwind) and sometimes reduced (tailwind). I dress for the temperature, and I just assume there will be a big wind – even though I amn’t really fast enough to create one.
My friend Tom Babin who literally wrote the book on cycling in the cold, really likes Blundstone Boots like found in this Amazon Associates Link. He wrote an article on them here and his perspective is a solid one rooted in experience. He takes into account the variability of temperatures, and the relatively few, truly cold, days in a year. Read his article, it is great advice about warm feet for winter cycling.
Because the city weather is so variable, I like to have a pair of insulated hiking boots to round out my choices. They are great for covering the many days when the temperatures range within 10º of freezing. The odd time that I get caught out in these boots in a surprise cold snap, I can always get off the bike and jog for a bit.
If I am going to be inside at my destination, I just follow Tom’s advice (except I like Lem’s hiking boots, Blundstones are way too narrow for my feet) and I supplement them on truly cold days with Some Neos Insulated Overshoes like on this Amazon Associate link. That way you arrive at your destination with real footwear under your overshoes which can be left at the door, or packed away. The Neos are light, warm, and very practical. The soles do wear quickly compared to standard footwear, but since I’m just using them for the coldest days, mine have lasted 20 years.
Many of my destinations are outside, so I often use one of my bikepacking boot recommendations since they are most applicable to standing around in the park babysitting kids.
Sheepskin is warm, but the soles of these shoes will suck the life force (and the heat) out of you and into the pedals or ground.
I wish they made these in a double-wide version. They are warm, light, versatile, and look great. Their resistance to water and salt is not so good, so they aren’t the best choice for the city when there is salty slush around. I just spent 2 hours this week cleaning the salt from my daughter’s. Note that the fur around the ankle of most northern people’s footwear is in sync with what I have been saying about keeping blood warm on the way to the feet, not just the feet themselves. Fiona and Tania use them for bikepacking.
This article is littered with Amazon Associate links. If you buy the stuff, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. If I link to stuff I don’t endorse, I try to make it clear that I don’t like it. All the other links are to stores or products that do not pay me. I don’t endorse anything that I don’t like.