How Do I Prevent Freezing Feet on Cold Winter Bike Rides?
QUESTION: I’ve tried every trick imaginable to keep my feet warm during cold-weather rides — larger shoes with 2 pairs of socks, battery-powered socks, spray antiperspirant to reduce sweating, plastic bags to cut wind. But no luck. My frozen feet are always the limiting factor in winter riding. Any tips? — Judy D.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: Painfully cold feet is an age-old problem for cyclists. In general, it seems to be highly individual. Some riders suffer like Judy despite all precautions. Others do fine with minimal protection in glacial conditions.
For example, I wear my regular cycling shoes in winter with summer-weight socks, covered by cheap fabric shoe covers. I do fine as long as the temperature doesn’t dip below about 20F (-6C) degrees.
My wife Deb used to give up cycling when it was below 40F (4C) because her feet froze immediately. Now she wears light wool cycling socks with insulated fabric shoe covers and is good to 30F (-1C). Below that and it’s the indoor trainer or a run.
Because Judy has tried several usually effective methods without success, I’ll suggest a different solution: Fortifying what she wears on other parts of her body.
That’s because if a rider’s torso (core) gets chilly, blood is pulled from the extremities, accelerating the coldness felt in feet and hands. Sometimes a warmer hat under the helmet, an extra vest under the wind shell or heavier tights will do more to keep feet warm than extra layers on the feet themselves.
Tip: If your feet are still freezing on rides despite good socks, booties and gloves, adding liners might help. Liners are socks made of a thin cut of insulating materials such as wool or polypropylene. Liners don’t add bulk, so your regular shoes still fit comfortably. But they do add an additional layer to trap body heat, and they wick moisture to keep skin drier, which helps it stay warmer. If your local bike shops don’t carry liners, check at stores that deal in gear for hiking, outdoor or winter sports.
Use Your Head
Here in Michigan we have 2 choices: learn how to deal with cold feet or forget about riding 7 months of the year. As runners learned years ago, at least 75% of heat loss is through the neck and head. Keep them cozy, and the rest of the body will follow. We have found that turtleneck polypro long-sleeve undershirts, head covers and/or balaclavas, plus helmet covers, go a long way to keeping tootsies “less cold.” Proper hydration also helps. — Paul A.
The Core of the Matter
I’m chiming in from Minnesota, another cold-weather state. The most important key to keeping feet from freezing is your suggestion to keep the torso warm and dry so the body’s core temperature stays up. Perhaps a simple technical explanation of why this works will convince people to pay attention to this misunderstood process. When the temperature sensors in your tootsies and fingers get cold, they send a signal to the brain that tells the blood circulation system to reduce that nice warm flow to your extremities. That’s nature’s way of conserving heat in the vital core area to keep you alive. You can stay alive with frozen hands or feet, but you die when your core temperature drops too low. It’s apparent, then, that chilled feet or hands is a worsening spiral unless you take action to warm your core temperature with warmer clothes, increased exertion rate, warm liquid intake, and so on. — Don Y.
Start Warm to Stay Warm
Don’t leave the house with semi-cold feet. If you keep your house cool to save on heating costs, this can be an issue. When your feet and hands get cold, the small blood vessels constrict in a spasm and stay constricted until external heat, such as a hot bath, is applied. In my case, a ride is best begun with a few minutes lounging or stretching in front of your home’s heat source. — John S. in Pennsylvania
Winter Shoes & Boots
- I can sympathize with Judy. My solution is a pair of Northwave MTB winter shoes (windproof/waterproof) a half size bigger than normal. Then I slip a chemical toe warmer in and wear a medium-weight wool sock. — Lee R.
- I switched to winter-specific shoes 2 years ago (I have Northwave Fahrenheit, but I’m sure they’re all good) with midweight wool cycling socks. I add chemical toe warmers when it gets below 30F (-1C). Using this setup, my feet, which always used to freeze below 40F (5C), only get slightly cold in the harshest conditions. And I don’t have to hassle with booties! — Tony M.
- I had problems for years until I purchased Lake winter riding boots, wool socks and hand warmers. The boots are 2 sizes too big, the socks are extra heavy-duty mountaineering socks, and the chemical hand warmers I buy by the case at Costco. Opening the hand warmers 30 minutes before I leave, I stuff them into the toe box of the boots just before I head out the door. Voila, toasty toes and feet. — Jon P.
- Don’t waste time and money trying different sock/bootie setups. Break down and buy the Lake winter boots. They are so warm. Many people I ride with in the winter wear these boots. They are Michigan- and Northern Ontario-tested at below 0F (-18C) temps. — Singlespeed MTB
- Winter cycling shoes really work and youdo not have to screw around with booties while trying to get ready. Buy these one-half to a full size larger. I have been thrilled with my Sidi winter shoes the last couple of seasons. Along with a pair of SmartWool crew socks I’m comfortable for a couple of hours down below 30F (-1C). — K.S.
- I wear Steger Mukluks, which use extra thick felt liners, 2 sizes larger than my normal size. This leaves room for 2-3 pairs of wool socks and a warming packet. This combo is good to -20F. In very cold temps, you must eat a lot. — Yvonne in Alaska
- I’ve tried everything to keep my feet warm. I’ve found it’s not my feet so much as my toes. The only solution I’ve found is to not wear cycling shoes, but rather boots with normal soles. Then I walk for 5 minutes every 20 minutes (adjusting both durations depending on the temperature). The flexion seems to restore circulation, and my toes recover. It’s a nuisance, but it keeps me riding. — Richard R.
Wear Cycling Sandals
- I found that shoes with extra socks inhibit circulation, so I wear sandals year-round. I vary the number of pairs of wool socks depending on the temp. The coldest I have ridden in was 7F (-14C) degrees. I had on one pair of cycling socks, followed by a pair of Merino wool socks, followed by a pair of heavy wool socks. Then on top a pair of booties. With sandals, you can adjust the straps so there is plenty of room with the extra socks and circulation is not restricted. — Dick K.
- I rode cross-country from Los Angeles to Boston last May/June. In the high desert of New Mexico we encountered 40F (4C) temperatures with rain, hail, and some snow. I wore Shimano sandals without socks. I used them both for casual wear and cycling so as to reduce my baggage. I found that my feet were fine in the colder temps if I kept the rest of my body toasty warm. Other riders not dressed as warmly but wearing full shoes and socks had freezing feet. — Bob in Iowa
Beware Steel Cleats
Think about the nature of the pedal system being used. I find that metal cleats act as a heat sink bolted pretty much directly to the ball of the foot. These cleats conduct heat, drawing warmth away from your foot through the equally cold pedal and out into the freezing air. A plastic cleat conducts less heat. Since I switched to Look pedals, my feet are noticeably warmer. A Styrofoam insert makes a nice added insulator for the bottom of your foot. — Bob L.
Warmer Riding Through Chemistry
- The thing that finally helped me was those chemical toe warmers you get in hunting shops. When you open the pack they start a slow oxidation (burn) that gives off heat. I put them on the top of my toes outside the sox, then put on my shoes and booties. No more cold feet. These warmers are supposed to last up to 6 hours, but I find they give up after about 3. The brand name I use is Grabber Mycoal, and if you buy them in bulk you can get them for around a buck each. — Scott B.
- I’ve spent a fortune on winter shoes, all kinds of hi-tech (and old-fashioned) socks, booties…you name it, I tried it. This is what works: Go to the hiking/ hunting section of any department store and get the foot warmers that you shake up and put in the insoles that are made for them. Every fall, I buy 20-30 pairs of these warmers. They cost about $2.00 for three pairs. The insoles are about $5. They go right under the toes, which is really the only problem area for me. — Glen F.
- As an engineer, I realize that the thermal conductivity properties of aluminum cranks and pedals work very well to suck heat out of the bottom of cycling shoes, even insulated winter models. The top of my foot is warm, but the ball over the pedals can be numb. I’ve found that if I use a thin, air-activated chemical toe warmer under each sock, my tootsies are nice and toasty. If you ride for only an hour or so, these toe warmers still have a few hours of heat left. Seal them in an air-tight plastic bag. They will “shut down” and you can use them again. — Tom C.
- For chemical warmers, open the package when you start getting dressed or as you drive to the ride start. Fifteen minutes of open air helps them activate better. When using warmers I put on a very thin liner sock, the warmer, then a heavier wool sock. — KittySlayer
I have been using HotTronics foot warmers which consist of rechargeable battery packs wired to small disks that you place under your toes. These are meant for ski boots, but work great for cycling. — Dave T. in Illinois
- I’ve found hat taking a cayenne supplement such as Solgar’s “Cool Cayenne” keeps the entire system warmer. One dosage is 600mg of cayenne powder but in a capsule formulated for sensitive stomachs so I don’t get heartburn. I also find that taking a hot shower before a cold ride helps keep the toes toasty. — Dave P. in Tennessee
- What works for me is to avoid eating shortly before riding and limit food to a minimum during the ride. Digestion requires blood and therefore reduces the available blood for circulation and thermal regulation of extremities. But I make sure that I have enough energy by eating properly long enough before the ride. Remember, riding in the cold takes a lot more energy. — Sylvain in Canada
- A lot of us with icicle toes have a disease known as Raynaud’s Syndrome. I recently came across an alternative medicine website that recommend daily supplements of 200mg magnesium and 250mg taurine. I’ve tried this for a couple of weeks and the results seem to fluctuate a bit. I have a daily half-hour commute with temps a few degrees plus or minus freezing. So far my toes and fingers will get a bit cold by the end of the ride, but I won’t get the numbness that I would normally experience. Another interesting side effect is that I also have warm feet when I sleep, whereas they used to be ice cold. Both supplements are pretty inexpensive. — Steve in Idaho
Relax About It
As a regular yoga practitioner, I’ve found that finding the most relaxed position for my feet while riding brings instant heat to them. Makes sense when you consider that relaxation = blood vessel dilation = more blood bringing more warmth. Try this! — Dave in Wisconsin
Tips from the Frozen Tundra
I’ve done my share of winter riding (trained for Iditasport twice). Here are the things that have helped me:
- Drink warm fluids before you start to warm up your body’s core. When the body is cold the core region gets first dibs on warmth to protect your vital organs. When the core is warm, excess heat can be sent out to the extremities (hands and feet).
- Keep your bladder empty while riding. Your body will maintain urine at 98.6 degrees, which is wasted energy that could be used to send heat to your extremities.
- Eat and drink a little bit all the time to keep your metabolism (furnace) fired up.
- Put chemical hand warmers in your shoes with at least one layer of sock between skin and the packet so you don’t get burned. Chemical warmers are biodegradable and often sold in the hunting/fishing section of big stores like Wal-Mart, Tractor Supply Company, Target, etc. I use them under my toes, but on top of the toes works well, too.
- If you use a vapor barrier layer (like plastic bags) make sure you have a thin wicking sock inside the bag, and then an insulating sock on the outside of the bag. Without a sock outside the bag you get no benefit from the bag, just moisture.
- If you try all this and can’t stay warm switch from clipless pedals to regular winter boots with flat pedals (not metal) and toe clips. PowerGrips are an alternative to toe clips which make it easier to pull back and up on the pedal.
- Check out the IceBike website, where commuters and winter bikers share information. — Ann S.
Misc. Tips & Observations
- Put duct tape on the bottom of shoes to block the air vents. — Ed H. in D.C.
- Wear looser socks and shoes. Squeezing 2 pairs of socks into a shoe restricts blood flow, which causes more cold than the extra sock provides warmth. — Dave
- One trick I’ve found that avoids having to purchase a larger pair of shoes is to remove the insoles. Then there is room for good wool socks and a chemical warmer if you wish. Also make your shoe straps a bit looser before putting on any booties. — K.S.
- I find the following works for me when the temp drops below 40 here in Montrose, Colorado (Coach Fred’s hometown). I wear wool hiking socks inside my regular cycling shoes. I put neoprene toe covers on my shoes and then I put neoprene booties over them. This worked on days we rode in the low 20s (-5C) last winter. — Steve J.
- My best tip is to pull up when pedaling, and the absolute cure is to hop off and walk or run next to your bike for a minute. — Laila