The days are getting shorter, the temperatures are dropping and that can only mean one thing: more people getting off their bikes and into their cars. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a few adjustments you can be comfortable riding well into the winter.

Here are your five winter biking essentials:

1. Lights and reflectors. Once we turn the clocks back an hour, most of us will be biking home from work in the dark. On well-lit streets, the purpose of your lights will be less about seeing and more about being seen. Be sure to have a good front and back light on your bike at all times, preferably ones with blinking modes, which help distinguish you from all the other taillights on the road. It’s also not a bad idea to get some reflective tape for your helmet, fender and bike bag. If you are riding on trails or in poorly-lit areas, you’ll need a more powerful bike “torch” in order to properly see the road in front of you. Mine conveniently charges up via a USB cable.

2. Hands and Feet. Gloves are essential in the cooler temperatures. It’s no fun trying to use your brakes when your hands are numb. They may look silly, but lobster gloves are where it’s at when the cold wind is whipping by. These gloves separate your four fingers into two couples, and the extra warmth of your fingers being together makes a huge difference. I have never worn shoe covers, but these are a great option if your feet tend to get cold or you’ll be riding in the rain.

3. Ears. Keeping your ears warm is essential. If you have an easily adjustable helmet, adding another layer on your head is no problem. My favorite item is a fleece headband that wraps from your forehead over your ears. When it’s really cold I have a thin, microfiber beanie that will fit underneath my helmet.

4. Neck and Face. Hands down, the best $10 I’ve ever spent was on a neck gaiter. This cozy piece of fabric (picture a floppy neck brace) covers my neck (and when it’s really cold I can pull it up to cover my mouth and nose, too). I find the gaiter/head band combo to be a little less intimidating than an “I promise I’m not about to rob you” full face mask.

5. Layers. Layering is the best way to make sure you stay warm but don’t overheat. Try experimenting with different base layers and jackets to see what works best for your particular ride. I love the warmth of a fleece as mid-layer protection with light rain jacket on top. (Don’t forget to keep a “normal” coat at the office so you don’t have to wear your bike layers out to lunch!)

And there are cheap alternatives to bike-specific clothing. Instead of buying expensive leg warmers I wear tight-fitting, knee-high soccer socks to protect exposed legs. And when one layer on my legs just won’t cut it, I throw on a pair of old sweatpants on top. (No judgment!).

6. BONUS: A back-up plan: Riding in a mid-summer rain shower is one thing. Riding in a “wintry mix” is quite another. If you don’t have the right rain or sub-freezing gear, riding in the elements can be anywhere from uncomfortable to dangerous. Plan ahead for days like this by getting your local bus schedule or a carpool buddy, and try not to feel guilty about it.

Of course, these are just basic guidelines for those of us in reasonable winter climates without snow or ice on the ground. Please check out my original bike commuting series for more advice on gear, dealing with sweat and wrinkles and shoe drawers!

[Image: Cycling in Winter in Copenhagen. Image source: Colville-Andersen/Flickr via a Creative Commons license]

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