Do you feel the cold in your feet on a ride? Unless you have exceptionally good circulation, you’re bound to feel the cold in your feet at some point during the winter. Your feet don’t have to work hard when you’re cycling, and the body can very quickly divert blood away from your toes to other parts of your body that need it more.
And when your feet get so cold that it hurts, there’s no chance of them getting any better until you finish your ride and get home. If you have any hope of putting in the miles over the winter, it’s essential to make sure you can cycle in relative comfort when the mercury is dipping below zero degrees.
Some people don't have a problem with cold feet at all during the winter, but some people can suffer very badly with painful and numb feet, turning a ride into a miserable experience. I count myself in the latter camp. My circulation is so bad that after just an hour, or even sooner, my feet and hands have had enough. Keeping them warm isn't easy.
There are many measures you can take to delay the onset of cold toes and feet, so here are a few tips for keeping them warm. We'd like to hear your tips too, so feel free to comment at the bottom of the article.
Your first layer of insulation is the most important, so good socks are vital and a very important investment. There’s a good selection of chunky socks that offer a bit more insulation than thin summer socks. Importantly, they should be thin enough not to squeeze your feet in your shoes.
Cram three pairs of socks into shoes that fit and all of a sudden they don't fit anymore. Plus, squeezing them in your shoes makes them tight so your circulation suffers, defeating the object.
Socks can either be made from synthetic or naturally occurring fabrics like Merino wool, one of our favourite sock materials.
Merino wool offers very good warmth and insulation and is very comfortable. The addition of synthetic fabrics can give socks better moisture management, keeping your feet drier for longer. Merino has the benefit of not only keeping your feet warm but also being very soft next to the skin, giving a little added luxury.
Winter socks can generally be a little longer than summer ones, providing an increased overlap with tights and overshoes. And as you’ll be wearing them with tights, it really doesn’t matter what they look like or what colour they are. Here are a few we really like.
These socks from Castelli aren’t cheap but they are comfortable and provide a good level of insulation for chilly off-season rides.
They’re made mostly from Merino wool – with acrylic, nylon, Lycra and elastic thrown into the mix – and are noticeably warmer than most synthetic socks of a similar weight. Plus, the wool naturally wicks moisture away from your skin to keep your feet feeling fresh when you work up a sweat.
The latest, higher-cuff version of the popular Merino Woolie Boolies are extremely comfortable and fairly priced; excellent winter socks. Without doubt, they will keep your feet warm in winter, but they're definitely thicker than 'normal' cycling socks, so you may find them a bit of a jam in your shoes (unless, like many wise cyclists, your winter shoes are a tad bigger than your summer shoes).
Sealskinz Thin Ankle Length Socks use a three-layer merino wool/nylon/elastane sandwich with a waterproof and breathable membrane that will not only keep the cold out, but also keep your feet dry.
The latest version of some socks we tested and rated highly back in 2011, these are thin enough to fit under your usual cycling shoes without shutting off your circulation, and made from a Merino mix that helps keep you warm at a very good price.
The next obvious line of defence is overshoes. As well as keeping cold wind out, overshoes will protect your feet from spray from front wheel and other road muck getting into your shoes. If you can stop the wind and rain getting at your shoes and then your feet, you shouldn’t suffer quite as much.
Overshoes are made from various materials including neoprene and various windproof and waterproof fabrics. Some are general purpose and some are designed specifically to keep out wind or water.
An overshoe needs to fit well, so correct sizing is important. The fewer openings there are on the shoe and around the back, the less cold air can sneak inside.
In extreme conditions, I’ve resorted to wearing two pairs of overshoes. A popular trick is to wear a neoprene toe warmer over the shoe and underneath your overshoes. Let's look at some of our favourites.
These brilliantly simple stretchy toe covers that are worth a tenner any day of the week. Made from 3mm neoprene these toe covers provide a lot of warmth for heavily vented summer shoes on a chilly ride. You've got an upper and a lower section stitched together at shoe sole height which makes for a good fit when they are on the shoe.
These affordable B'Twin Aerofit overshoes are constructed from a 0.3mm neoprene that provides decent insulation on cold days, keeping both the wind and rain out, and they don't have the bulk of some overshoes. And they're half the price of some overshoes.
SealSkinz Neoprene Halo Overshoes incorporate a powerful LED light in the heel, a clever idea that I'm surprised has never been done before. Don't discount them as being a gimmick, they really do work well and are ideal for regular after dark cyclists.
The Zap overshoes from Sugoi combine a full reflective outer layer to really boost your night time visibility on the roads, backed up with decent insulation to keep your toes warm.
Want more options? See our buyer's guide to overshoes and full archive of reviews of overshoes.
The alternative option to wrapping your cycling shoes with overshoes is to invest in some winter boots. Essentially, they are shoes with integrated overshoes. With all the vents closed up and lots of insulating and weather protecting materials, they provide the ultimate protection when the weather turns bad.
If you’re going to spend two or three months cycling through the winter, it does seem ever so slightly mad to do so in shoes that are really designed for the summer. There isn't a vast amount of choice in winter boots, so let's take a look at our favourites.
The windproof construction, insulated liner, and fleece insole of Shimano's MW81 Winter Boots all really help to keep the heat in. The Gore-Tex liner keeps out water, but your feet don't get overly sweaty thanks to its breathable properties.
A great addition to the winter wardrobe, Northwave Arctic Commuter R GTX shoes keep out the cold and wet in all but the most foul conditions.
These Gaerne G.Winter Road Gore-Tex road shoes offer the sort of protection you need if you're determined enough — or should that be mad enough? — to keep cycling through really bad weather. There's a Gore-Tex membrane inside the shoe which delivers impressive rain and road spray protection. Your feet stay dry even in prolonged downpours, or riding through flooded roads. In testing, we didn't find any conditions where the G.Winters couldn't cope with the rain and water.
The successor to the broadly similar MXZ302s, these are not strictly road orientated winter cycling boots; they have a two-bolt mountain bike sole. Tackling icy road surfaces with smooth road type soles is a dicey activity anyway, so the rugged Vibram outsole is definitely not a negative feature. The downside of this is that the MXZ303s are only suited to use with SPD cleats rather than road style cleats. Again though, if you’re a multi-cycle household (and let’s face it who isn’t?) then a boot you can pop on for road riding, touring or mountain biking has got to be a good thing, provided you run SPD pedals on all of them.
Heated insoles and inserts
If none of the above is enough, then heated insoles might offer a solution. There aren’t that many cycling brands offering them, though Italian brand Sidi did release a heated insole a couple of years ago, but they’ve since been discontinued.
There is still hope for heated insoles and a look to the outdoors/hiking world reveals a few possible products that could work well in cycling. We found the EXO2 HeatSole with a little searching. A cut-to-fit insole uses a FacRoc heat panel that self-regulates to 45°C. It's powered by small Li-Ion batteries that last up to seven hours. They’re expensive though, at £90.
A bit more searching and we stumbled across these 3M Thinsulate Thermal insoles. The microfibres of the Thinsulate fabric traps warm air and provide insulation. We haven’t tried them though, so we can't comment on how well they work.
And another left field solution to cold feet could be Heatmax Toasti Toes foot warmers. Available from outdoor shops, these self-activating small foot warmers are slim enough to go inside your shoes and provide up to five hours of heat. We’ve only ever used them snowboarding, but we're guessing that they should work on the bike too.
How do you tackle the problem of cold feet? We'd love to hear your tips.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.