Home
How to find the best winter outer layer for you

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, goes the old saying that always does the rounds at this time of year. After incredible developments in textiles over the past decade, there's no reason to wear the wrong cycling clothing any more and there's a large selection of winter jackets that'll keep you warm, dry and comfortable.

A winter jacket not only has to protect you from the elements, it has to cope with the heat and sweat that you produce when you ride at a decent pace. Producing materials that are highly protective and breathable at the same time is the key challenge facing fabric engineers.

The right clothing is more important than those fancy wheels you have your eyes on, a 20g lighter saddle, or any other bling. If you really want to get out and ride your bike this winter then invest your money in good clothing. It’ll transform your winter cycling.

Jackets for the conditions

First, you need to decide what type of winter jacket you need; there is a jacket designed specifically for every type of weather you might encounter. The most common conditions you’re likely to face in a typical British winter are rain, wind and cold down to freezing point or just below.

Cycling jackets can be broadly distilled into three types: waterproof, windproof, and soft shell. Add in variations on those and cross-over jackets and you’re suddenly looking at a huge choice.

Keeping dry: waterproof jackets

A waterproof jacket will keep the rain out but all but the very best ones (that is, the most expensive) compromise on breathability. It's practically impossible for a waterproof fabric to allow out as much sweat as a hard-working cyclist can produce, so you can get very hot and sweaty if you're going hard. Nevertheless, a good waterproof jacket is crucial for those days when it’s pouring heavily for the entirety of your ride.

It’s easy to make a fabric waterproof, but waterproof and breathable is tricky. You can keep the water out, but you need to allow the moisture that your body generates to escape somewhere, otherwise you’ll end up in a sweaty mess. Manufacturers are able to produce fabrics with pores that are big enough to let the small water molecules in the moist air escape, but small enough to keep water droplets outside.

/sites/default/files/cropped/lightbox-large/images/dhb%20EQ2.5%20Waterproof%20Cycling%20Jacket/dhb%20EQ2.5%20Waterproof%20Cycling%20Jacket%20-%20bottom.jpg

Fabrics are getting better all the time, and there’s a wide choice.The more expensive the jacket, the more likely it is that a branded fabric like eVent or Gore-Tex will be used. Gore-Tex is one of the most common fabrics you’ll see used on higher end jackets. Gore-Tex is created by laminating a PTFE (polyetrafluoroethylene) membrane, with pores 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, in the fabric. This makes it completely waterproof.

Some manufacturers make full use of the latest fabrics offered by companies like Gore but some go their own way and produce their own fabrics that aim to offer the same technical merits. DWR (durable water repellent) is a finish used in conjunction with waterproof membrane fabrics that encourages water to bead up and roll off, preventing the material from becoming saturated with water.

How the jacket is constructed is important, and for a jacket to be properly waterproof the seams have to be taped to prevent leaks. For the best possible breathability, some vents are a must, and these have to be designed so they let sweat out, but don't let water in. They're usually under the armpits, or conclealed under flaps round the body.

Keeping out the wind: windproof jackets

If you’re not planning to ride in the rain, then a windproof jacket is a good option. Windproof jackets are commonly made from a fabric that's lighter than a waterproof one and much more breathable. They are usually designed only to be a little water resistant making them fine only for a light shower. This makes them a good choice for many conditions, especially if you get to pick when you ride, but not necessarily the best choice if you have to head out come what may, like if you're commuting.

 

Keeping the cold out: soft shells

And then there's the soft shell, a relatively new style of jacket. Waterproof and windproof jackets are sometimes referred to as hard shells, because they’re designed solely to keep the weather out, not keep you warm. That’s the idea behind a layering approach to clothing, using multiple layers to provide warmth and comfort.

Soft shells turn this idea on its head and essentially combine an outer and mid-layer, providing insulation and keeping the elements out. They’re softer and more flexible than hard shells so are more comfortable, and they're comfortable next to the skin. You can wear one over just a short sleeve base layer and feel fine.

Hard shell v soft shell

In the last few years soft shells have risen in popularity among cyclists. The greatest appeal of a soft shell is that, unlike a hard shell, you can wear it most of the time, even when it's not raining. A soft shell isn’t waterproof, instead it is water resistant and much more breathable so it copes with a far wider range of typical British winter conditions.

A hard shell provides the ultimate protection against prolonged rain but the compromise is that it doesn't provide the best breathability so you can get sweaty inside. A hard shell needs to be worn as part of a layering system and deciding how many layers for any given ride can take some experience and trial and error to get right.

/sites/default/files/cropped/lightbox-large/images/Sugoi%20RS%20Zero%20jersey/Sugoi%20RS%20Zero%20jersey%20-%20liner.jpg

Soft shells, on the other hand, can simply be worn over a base layer of your choice when it’s not too cold. Add a thicker long sleeve mid-layer for really cold days and you begin to see that soft shells are the best solution for cyclists looking for a do-everything winter jacket. Paired with a lightweight, packable waterproof jacket, it’s a good combination.

Features

Generally, the more features a jacket has, the more it costs, but good features can improve the performance considerably.

Well-designed pockets are useful and many winter jackets come with three rear pockets or variations on this theme. For more versatility, chest pockets and side pockets can be useful for things like keys and phones, or keeping your hands warm when you’re not riding. Some people like lots of pockets, some don’t — it's up to you.

/sites/default/files/cropped/lightbox-large/images/Rapha%20Women%27s%20Rain%20Jacket/Rapha-Women%27s-Rain-Jacket---neck.jpg

A decent full-length front zip is a must, with a good size puller that you can use even with thick winter gloves on. Some zips will have a storm flap behind to stop draughts, and a zip garage (a fold of fabric at the top) will prevent the zip snagging the soft skin of your neck.

/sites/default/files/cropped/lightbox-large/images/Castelli%20Expresso%20Due%20Jacket%20/Castelli%20Expresso%20Due%20Jacket%20-%20side%20pocket.jpg

Velcro cuffs will keep baggy sleeves in order and drawcords at the waist will help tailor the fit. Hoods are occasional options and can be useful for dual-purpose commuting jackets, but separate headwear is typically a preferred option.

Most cycling jackets will have a dropped tail, the rear section extending lower than the front. This is so that when you're on the bike the jacket keeps your bum covered and the front doesn't bunch up around your stomach. The more race orientated a jacket, the more extreme this cut will be.

/sites/default/files/cropped/lightbox-large/images/Rapha%20City%20Rain%20Jacket/Rapha%20City%20Rain%20Jacket%20-%20rear.jpg

Many jackets will feature some sort of ventilation. Of course, there’s the full-length front zip that is an almost universal feature. Extra zipped ports on the chest and under the arms can help deal with any excess heat when you’re riding. The more breathable a fabric is, the less it’ll need extra vents.

Fit

Like any garment, a cycling jacket needs to fit well. One key consideration is the arms. They need to be long enough to cover your wrists when you stretch to the handlebars.

The fit of the jacket can range from loose for casually style jackets, popular with leisure and commuting cyclists, to more snugly fitted jackets with an emphasis on aerodynamics that are suited to more performance-driven cyclists. When trying on a jacket it’s vital you consider how many layers you could be wearing underneath and allow a bit of space for, say, two long sleeve layers.

Some jackets, especially those lightweight shells designed for occasional emergency use, skimp on the features in pursuit of lightness, so don’t expect pockets or other extras from this style of jacket.

Choices, choices, choices

Now you know your waterproof jackets from your windproof shells, let’s take a look at some of the options out there. We’ve picked a few of each type to present the choices currently available.

Soft shells

Madison Sportive men's softshell jacket — £59.99

The Madison Sportive Men's Softshell Jacket offers a good fit, generous warmth for the chilliest winter rides, looks smart and is reasonably priced.

Read our review of the Madison Sportive Men's Softshell Jacket
Find a Madison dealer

​Proviz PixElite Softshell Cycling Jacket — £66.49

Proviz PixElite Softshell Cycling Jacket - riding.jpg

Proviz PixElite Softshell Cycling Jacket - riding.jpg

Reflective cycle clothing has improved a lot in recent years – and become a lot more acceptable – and the Proviz PixElite Softshell is among the new generation of jackets that discreetly feature large panels of reflective material without looking like a shiny beacon during the daytime when you don't need it.

It's a very good jacket, this. During the day it's just a black and grey jacket. Very understated, though not perhaps what you might describe as stylish. But at night it comes alive: the large panels of pixel fabric do their thing and light you up like a lantern when the beam of a car's headlight falls upon you.

Read our review of the ​Proviz PixElite Softshell
Find a Proviz dealer

Sportful Fiandre Light WS Jacket — £160

In designing clothing for Flandrian weather, Sportful have created clothing that is perfectly suited to typical UK weather conditions: lots of rain, rapidly changing conditions, fluctuating temperatures during the course of a ride. It's difficult to know what to wear sometimes. This Light WS Jacket makes it all a bit easier, as it copes with all of that weather with ease.

Read our review of the Sportful Fiandre Light WS Jacket

Ashmei Cycle Softshell Jacket — £210

The Ashmei Cycle Softshell Jacket is a very high-quality top that's particularly suited to spring and autumn days, and it comes with a multitude of excellent features. It's an incredibly well designed piece of kit.

Read our review of the Ashmei Cycle Softshell Jacket

Lightweight windproof shells

B'Twin 700 UltraLight Wind Jacket — £19.99

The Ultralight Wind Jacket from B'Twin (Decathlon's in-house cycling brand) is a low-priced lightweight jacket designed to give you some protection when the weather catches you out. It stuffs into its own tiny pocket, about the size of a fist, and weighs very little, so it's no chore to keep it in your bag or pannier for when it's needed. As you might expect, it's aimed more at the casual cyclist than those wanting highly technical cycling wear, but it does a decent job especially at this price.

Read our review of the B'Twin 700 UltraLight Wind Jacket
Find a B'Twin dealer

Polaris RBS Pack Me Jacket — £49.49

RBS stands for Really Bright Stuff, and you're certainly going to get noticed with this on. It's a packable light weight windproof that's just right autumn and milder winter days. Its windproof qualities keep the morning chill at bay. The 100% polyester fabric is thin but is a good barrier against the wind and will stand up to a bit of light drizzle too.

Read our review of the Polaris RBS Pack Me Jacket
Find a Polaris dealer

Rh+ Acquaria Pocket Cycling Jacket — £48

This three season windbreaker looks good while striking the difficult balance of warmth against breathability. It's made of a single layer, coated fabric called Airdry which is intended for mild and windy conditions and which is quite soft; it feels just like a normal jersey against the skin.

There are vents at the rear which helps the warm air escape should your work rate increase, but it's more at home when descending or riding in a group, not necessarily pushing too hard sitting on a wheel.

Read our review of the RH+ Acquaria Pocket Jacket
Find an Rh+ dealer

Windproof jackets

Endura FS260-Pro Adrenaline Race Cape — £59.99

Endura FS260-Pro Adrenaline Race Cape - riding.jpg

Endura FS260-Pro Adrenaline Race Cape - riding.jpg

The FS260-Pro Adrenaline Race Cape is a great garment from Endura, proving breathable race capes can be relatively affordable. Packable race-light 'shells' are usually either super-expensive yet breathable and comfortable, or cheap and boil-in-the-bag. I'm delighted to report here that the FS260-Pro straddles the two definitions.

It performs very well. Of course, there's a limit to how effective any breathable fabric can be. Even industry standard Gore-Tex meets its match in the right (or wrong) combination of humidity, warmth and exertion. But, if you're riding at a high tempo, theEndura keeps you as dry as I've experienced in a shell such as this. It works best in cooler conditions – and layering up too much negates its effectiveness – but it really is quite impressive.

Read the full review of the FS260-Pro Adrenaline Race Cape
Find an Endura dealer

Primal Hi Viz Race Cut Fusion Jacket — £90

Primal's HiViz Fusion jacket is for riders who like to start winter rides early — or finish them late. It's really bright. The Fusion is made from a mixture of thermal materials. Primal's more wind resistant Strata material is used on the parts of the body that will be more exposed to wind, such as shoulders and the chest, while the slightly stretchier Traverso is used in other places that are a bit more sheltered.

It's another garment that crosses the poles between jersey and jacket. It'll keep you warm, but if rain's threatening (and in the UK winter when isn't it?) you'll want a packable waterproof in your back pocket, just in case.

Read our review of the Primal Hi Viz Race Cut Fusion Jacket
Find a Primal dealer

oneten Alpha Winter Jacket — £49.99

Oneten's Alpha is in its element taking on the bad weather. It's water resistant and windproof thanks to a metallic membrane, which may sound a bit space age but it delivers on warmth and breathability.

The front of the Alpha is all about keeping the elements out with a layering system of various materials. Thanks to the polyurethane membrane the jacket has quite a rigid feel to the material so it's not quite as free moving as some and you can feel the extra weight.

Read our review of the oneten Alpha Winter Jacket

Waterproof jackets

B'Twin 500 High Visibility Waterproof Cycling Jacket — £19.99

The B'Twin 500 High Visibility Waterproof Cycling Jacket provides excellent rain protection with a coated membrane material and taped seams plus plenty of reflective details to help you been seen on the commute to work. There are vents and breathability is very good. 

Read our review of the B'Twin 500 jacket
Find a B'Twin dealer

Vermarc Extreme Rain Jacket — £74.69

The Vermarc Extreme SPL Rain Jacket is a very light, very thin jacket that manages to pack in a load of technical features at a reasonable price while fitting into a jersey pocket. And it keeps you dry too.

At 209g for a medium size the SPL seems almost too light. The fact that it can scrunch up and be put into a jersey pocket without much fuss might lead you to think that this is not a serious contender for keeping you dry come a UK winter. You'd be wrong.

Read our review of the Vermarc Extreme Rain Jacket
Find a Vermarc dealer

Gore Bike Wear One GTX Active — £220

Gore Bike Wear ONE GORE-TEX Active Bike Jacket - riding.jpg

Gore Bike Wear ONE GORE-TEX Active Bike Jacket - riding.jpg

Gore stands out in the cycle jacket market because it designs and develops its own fabrics, many of which are used by the leading brands in the market. Gore Bike Wear's stunning One Active waterproof jacket comes as close to the Holy Grail of perfect waterproof jacket as any we've tested.

Gore's One Active fabric replaces the durable water repellent treatment of its previous Active fabric with a new Permanent Beading Surface. This allows Gore to reduce the construction of the jacket from three to two layers, improving breathability, making it very easy to pack away and reducing its weight to not much more than an emergency gilet, It's the benchmark lightweight waterproof jacket.

Read our review of the Gore Bike Wear One GTX Active
Find a Gore dealer

For even more choice view all our cycling jacket reviews.

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.