[This article was updated on December 14, 2017]
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).
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 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, and at this price they're an absolute steal.
As well as protecting your feet from cold and wet, Northwave's H2O overshoes have plenty of reflective areas. Making your feet glow in headlights is an ideal way to improve visibility to other road users because they are moving at 90rpm. For a piece of kit that is generally used in poor light that's a really good move.
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 MW7 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.
The latest version of these lightweight, fully waterproof and well-insulated boots is very much the luxury option in winter foot protection. We tested and liked the mountain bike version back in 2013 and first impressions of the 2016 version we currently have on test are very favourable. The full price of £230 is a bit ouchy, but if you’re wearing them your feet won’t be, and they can be found quite a bit cheaper.
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.
The ultimate luxury option has to be the Plus-T +Winter heated insoles, above. They have a heating element at the front of the inner sole so the heat is concentrated where it needs to be, around the toes. The heat that the sole outputs is noticeable but it's not so extreme that it's going to cause discomfort even on the max setting. Instead, the soles emit a nice warming sensation that staves off the cold on the very coldest rides. While it doesn't exactly provide you with toasty tootsies, it does fend off the icicles for a good few hours.
We'd recommend them wholeheartedly if they weren't €139, but if you really suffer with cold feet, like our Dave Arthur, you might be prepared to spend that for warm feet.
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 Hothands foot warmers. Available from outdoor shops, these self-activating small foot warmers are slim enough to go inside your shoes and provide up to eight 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.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.