This article was originally published on February 23, 2017. Now that the temperature is dropping, we thought you'd appreciate the advice.
Getting around without a car isn’t so hard. But does it require some uncomfortable exposure to the elements? Maybe, but maybe not. I recently asked my fellow Greater Greater Washington contributors about what they wear when they bike and walk to work and they had lots of good advice, from how to stay warm (or cool) to how to deal with your hair and what to do about needing to change into work clothes.
Get to know your route before you go shopping
“I'm a big proponent of doing your new commute first and then figuring out what you need,” says Caanan Merchant. ”Yes, that might mean one bad day where you come to work over or under prepared but so many people think they need more than they really do. I thought I'd need to bring extra clothing when I started biking. Turns out I don't.”
Zach Teutsch agrees: “It’s best to ride the route first before spending a ton of money on gear. Most people can pretty much use gear they already have. The key features are comfort, visibility, wind resistance, and breathe-ability.”
You will wear out your shoes. Plan accordingly.
“For folks that walk to work, having a stash of shoes at the office is key,” says Mike Grinnell. “Rather than wearing down a nice pair of dress shoes that run $100 or $200 you can use a pair of sneakers. At work I would recommend keeping one pair of dress brown, one pair of dress black, and a third more versatile shoe (think nice canvas). For those that wanting to slip into work unnoticed you might also opt for a darker single colored sneaker for your commute as opposed to the popular flashy running shoes you see at local races.”
Drew Dupuy says that’s good advice if you’re on a bike too. “I messed up a nice pair of shoes when my foot slipped and I tore the leather on my pedal.”
“I hear people about footwear,” says Aimee Custis, “But I do enough non-commute-specific walking that I just end up buying a couple of new pairs of shoes a year… a few new pairs of shoes is still vastly cheaper than a car payment. I wear mostly ballet flats and sandals in the summer, and flat tall or short boots in the winter. I have rain boots too, for when that's a thing. Summer shoes, I wear a lot of ballet flats or sandals at the office, and honestly I usually just bike in those… but if I'm wearing fancy shoes, I have a pair of very secure Teva sandals I'll wear and then change at the office.”
Like Aimee, I don’t do heels either, if at all. Joanne Pierce favors Converses and keeps rain boots under her desk. I favor black Reebok classics and I just got a new black set of rain boots from Target. I also like to wear a shoe that has a good grip when I’m on my bike to avoid what happened to Drew.
Here’s how to not freeze:
“When it's really cold and I’m biking, I'll wear a ski mask like this,” says Staff Editor Jonathan Neeley. “That can be a bit annoying because I usually wear glasses and this will fog them up to the point where I can't see, so I have to put my contacts in and then change back out of them at work since I don't like wearing them while I look at a screen all day. But it’s better than having a cold face and neck.”
Also for riding a bike, Steve Seelig and Payton Chung both have a different outfit every 10 degrees of warmth or lack thereof.
“Depending on how far you travel, it is not the cold that gets you per se, but your own sweat next to your body that will make you freeze,” says Steve.
And if you’re on a budget, Steve says that wool is the way to go, especially for cold weather commutes. He notes that many local stores tend to have wool layers on sale currently. “Wool tends not to smell so that you can reuse for several days running,” he adds.
Payton also adds that not all weather is tolerable for riding: “I won’t ride if it’s less than 10 degrees outside, more than 90 degrees or if there’s a sustained wind speed of 20 miles per hour. The cold messes with my sinuses, the heat is miserable, and the wind can knock you off your bike.”
Joanne notes that even walkers should consider having different sets for different layers of cold: “Lately, it's been too cold for me to wear a wool coat so I broke out my insulated coat (Columbia brand) that I originally purchased for hiking in Montana. It's only been worn a few times but it's a worthwhile purchase to avoid freezing.”
Aimee and Steve insist on wearing a scarf. Personally, you’ll rarely see me without one if it’s under 50 degrees, and sometimes I still wear one in the 60-80 range depending on whether I’ll be spending the day in air-conditioned buildings or not.
Zach also covers his ears, and notes 80s style earmuffs can fit over your bike helmet. I wear my big headphones sometimes even when I’m not listening to music because they’re essentially earmuffs. Wind in your ears is just not fun.
Aimee also won’t bike without her cashmere gloves when it’s under 45 degrees. Neither will Zach nor I, and we both advocate for different gloves for different temperatures. We’ve both had success with heavy duty gloves from Home Depot. And I grabbed a light set of gloves from Five Below that allow me to use my phone without taking them off, which makes calling Ubers and fiddling with maps easier.
Stay dry, visible, and cool
Zach has a good note about rain proof gear: “For those who bike in the rain, Patagonia, Frog Toggs, and many other companies make rain-proof gear. It's easy to find any two of these three: cheap, breathable, and waterproof but nearly impossible to find all three in one product. Also, be careful since not only are stopping distances much longer in the rain, visibility is worse and drivers seem less predictable.”
Zach also notes that it’s good to get a reflective vest for visibility.
Steve also had a good note about getting too hot. “Folks need to understand that for most cycling they will build up body heat and each person is different. I dress knowing that when I warm up, it will seem 20 degrees warmer once I get going. So if it is 30 degrees outside, I will dress for cycling as if I would dress for 50 degrees if I am just walking around. I run hotter than some, and each person will need to figure out what is best for them.”
And for Payton when it’s hot, it’s a good thing to be wet. “I'll often choose slower and shadier routes, and sometimes douse myself with cold water at some point (even when embarking; the cooling effect lasts about 15-20 minutes, enough to get me most of the way there).” This might not work so well for someone who’s riding longer than his three-mile commute, Payton admits.
Let’s discuss hair
I, Kristen, am going to start this section and make a note about my own kinky textured hair. I’ve made peace with the fact that my helmet, if I choose to wear one, will smush my hair. However, this doesn’t have to be a professional death sentence for you or me. I can’t do dry shampoos, but I can head to the restroom and section my hair and spray my scalp down with water at work and apple cider vinegar at night at home. (You could do the ACV rinse at work, but you might smell funny all day). My hair’s on the longer side, but I have it cut in layers so the fro fluffs out nicely no matter what shape it’s in. I can also put it in a ponytail or poof.
Aimee’s got shorter hair, and she’ll just dip her hair under the sink and then dry it off with a towel. None of the men had any hair-specific advice, but you’re welcome to add more in the comments.
Finally, what about your actual work clothes?
“My office was pretty casual, so, in the summer, I commuted on the Metro in a Mets jersey and shorts,” says Tracey Jonstone. “Getting off at Union Station, I saw a lot of other Capitol Hill folks also wearing shorts, etc. I kept a set of work clothes at the office and had them laundered on the Hill.”
Drew echoes this. “I wear/own almost no specialized bike clothing. The one exception is a thermal skull cap that I wear in winter; it fits under my helmet and covers my ears, but it doesn't make your head itch the way a wool hat does. If it's particularly cold, I'll wear ski gloves instead of my normal thin gloves. Otherwise, I pretty much wear my work clothes (I work in a casual/business casual office) and a non-athletic overcoat/jacket. In summer, I only wear an undershirt (and, you know, pants) while riding in and stuff my shirt in my bag — having an iron or a steamer at the office to dewrinkle the clothes you stuffed in your bag is handy.”
Brian Barnett-Woods rolls his change of clothes up for the commute and keeps deodorant and baby powder and dress shoes at his desk. He also admits that he will always sweat through his clothes, thanks to his 18 mile bike commute.
Likewise for Mitch Wander, a year-round bicyclist, he just stores everything he needs to change into at the office, where he has a shower awaiting him after his 3.3 mile commute.
Ultimately, we all agree that you should test your commute for what you need, adjust to what would be minor weather adjustments outside of a vehicle, and be mindful of your hair and shoes. Also, most of what you need can be found at a price that fits your budget.