How to carry clothes for every weather condition Mother Nature can throw your way

There is no such thing as bad weather, there is only bad clothing.

We experienced it all. Sweltering heat. Bitter cold. Freezing rain. Hail, fog, wind. You name it; we battled it.

And we had to be prepared for it all.

So how, you ask, does one carry clothes for four seasons in a small backpack or in bicycle panniers?

cycling in winter

We had hoped to get far enough south before the cold set in, but Old Man Winter caught up to us in Wyoming. Temperatures never got above freezing for the entire day, making for cold riding.

It’s all about layers

I had heard people talk about layers before. “Wear layers!” all the experts said. And truly – I thought I knew what they meant.

(As it turns out, I didn’t.)

The trick really is to pack layers in order to have clothing for all weather conditions.

I know… I know… There are all kinds of theories about how the first layer moves perspiration away from the body, the second layer traps in the heat, and the outer layer protects you from the elements. I’m going to say baloney to all that, and just look at what works.

cycling in fall

When you’re lucky enough to have beautiful fall temperatures, you’re lucky indeed. Throw on a few layers to stay warm and toasty, but not enough to get sweaty.

If I were to set out on my bike again, here’s what I would pack in the way of clothes:

  • 3 cotton t-shirts
  • 2 long sleeve t-shirts (I love merino wool, so these shirts would most likely be made of that to begin with. That said, nice merino wool won’t be available in most places around the world, so be prepared to replace these with whatever is available in the local market.)
  • 1 lightweight wool sweater
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 wool shawl (that can serve as a scarf for my head/neck, or can be an extra layer while sleeping)
  • 1 thin cotton scarf (great on your neck for when it’s not quite so cold, or as a thin head covering when a wool hat is too much. Many people like a Buff, but I preferred a regular scarf.)
  • 1 thin wool hat (that I can use with or without the scarves, depending on how cold it is)
  • 1 pair wool tights
  • 2 pair shorts
  • 3 pair regular socks
  • 2 pairs wool socks – a  lightweight liner and a heavy winter pair
  • 2 pairs wool gloves – a thin liner and a thick outer pair
  • A few bras and bike shorts as underwear
  • A stash of plastic bags – bread bags or Subway sandwich bags work great
cycling when it's cold

Notice the thin cotton scarf on my head. I was finding my ears were getting cold, but a wool hat was too much. My thin scarf fit beautifully under my helmet, kept my ears warm, but wasn’t hot and sweaty.

Basically, the key here is that when it’s hot, most of this is packed away. When it’s cold, everything you own is layered on. In between? That’s the fun part. This was my progression.

Hot

When it was hot, I dressed in a cotton t-shirt and shorts. Pretty basic, really. Even if it was raining, we just wore our shorts and t-shirts. The rain eventually stopped and then we dried out. (By the way, we always wore one set of clothes until we got someplace where we could wash them, then changed into our clean set. That meant that we always had clean clothes available, but also meant that we sometimes wore the same clothes for a week or more.)

cycling in extreme heat

Cycling in the Central American heat was a challenge. We had to drink gallons of water to replace what we sweat out. Needless to say, our warm clothes were stashed away during that whole time.

A little chilly

If I was a bit cold with only my t-shirt, I added a long sleeve shirt. No tights yet, just the shirt.

A bit chillier

My other long sleeve shirt went on at this stage.

Even colder

Now I started to add more t-shirts under my long sleeve shirts. I wore 2 t-shirts, and both my long sleeve shirts. I totally understand that conventional wisdom says that the “base layers” underneath should never, ever be cotton, but I’m talking about what works here – forget the theory.

Downright cold

At this point, my wool tights and wool sweater came out, unless it was raining. Knowing that I would want something warm and dry to put on when we reached camp, I only wore my wool tights if it wasn’t raining. If it was raining, I just got cold, knowing I would be able to warm up once we reached camp.

bundled up for winter

Ummm… what needs to be said here? When it’s cold, it’s all about layers. Lots and lots and lots of them

Downright cold and rainy

It was a delicate dance to figure out the right combination when it was raining. I rarely needed t-shirts, long sleeved shirts, wool sweater, AND a rain jacket, but it certainly happened. Mostly, I used all those layers in camp in the evening; not on the bike.

 

A note about feet

Keeping your feet warm and dry is nearly impossible when it’s raining. Even when it’s not raining, but is cold, feet are tough to protect. We found the magic ticket was adding plastic bags between layers of wool socks. Be sure your shoes are big enough for extra layers, but this trick works! It might not keep them dry, but will add significant warmth. The plastic bag trick works for hands as well, but makes it hard to manage shifting and braking. It was perfect for Daryl on the back of the tandem though.

cycling in rain

Riding in cold rain presented huge challenges for us. John and I just wore our shorts and toughed it out. The boys, however, couldn’t do that. Notice the plastic bags on Daryl’s feet in this pic. We discovered that putting the plastic bags on the outside like this was a pain in the patootie, but layering them inside the shoes, between wool socks, worked great.

Other tips

+ Be aware that you will need more layers going downhill, and less going uphill. Be sure to have extra layers handy so you can pull them out at the top.

+ On a long tour, clothes will wear out and need to be replaced. You don’t need all the fancy-schmancy performance fibers they’ll try to tell you that you will need. If it’s good enough for the locals, it’s good enough for you.

+ Natural fibers are the way to go if you can get them. Synthetics stink. Although it’s not a big deal to come home stinking to high heaven when on a day ride, it’s a very different story when you can’t take a shower and have to climb into your tent after a day in synthetics. Trust me – go with natural fibers.

+ Rain gear and shoes are the only items worth having shipped to another country – it’s hard to find quality gear in third world countries. Daryl outgrew his rain jacket in Argentina, so we replaced it with a locally-made jacket. It looked okay, but wasn’t up to the job. The poor kid was soaked every time we encountered rain for the last 2500 miles. Fortunately, it was never really, really cold then, so he wasn’t in danger of hypothermia. Good rain gear is essential.

+ Here is a post written by a friend about layering for skiing. Although that is generally overkill on a bike or while backpacking, she’s got some good info there.

+ Here is another post by a friend talking about his clothing choices for bike touring in all weather. While he does use a lot of wool, he has a lot of fancy gear that would not be replaceable in other countries. If you’re staying in the USA, then this might work for you.

cycling in the rain

When it rained in the tropics, we just pedaled on without bothering to get out rain jackets. We knew the rain would pass soon, and we would dry out.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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6 Responses to How to carry clothes for every weather condition Mother Nature can throw your way

  1. Arianwen September 26, 2013 at 11:49 pm #

    Awesome advice and hilarious photos! The very cold one is my favourite. It is very difficult to plan what to wear when you travel light and even harder when you’re cycling and don’t want to stop every 10 minutes to get changed!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Arianwen, I love those pics! And poor little Daryl was so very cold.

    [Reply]

  2. Melanie Murrish September 27, 2013 at 5:42 am #

    This is great info Nancy, it’s funny I have never liked wearing “sports” clothes, they make me sweat soooo much-natural fibres all the way for me!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Melanie Murrish, Agreed! I can’t stand being covered with sweat unless I’m really working hard. Synthetics leave me all stinky and sweaty even when I’m sitting around doing nothing.

    [Reply]

  3. Jess September 27, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    I’ve faced the scorn of the ‘you’re wearing COTTON?!’ people at times – it gets a bit silly. No, it won’t protect you from weather conditions that are incompatible with human life, and it stays damp for an annoyingly long time. But it’s cheap, easy to get, and usually comfortable.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Jess, Exactly. Personally, I don’t plan on getting caught out in some dire situation where I have to rely on synthetics to stay alive. And the cotton is more comfortable :)

    [Reply]

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