Cycle Touring Tips – Outdoor Clothing

Everyone has their own ideas about what items are packing list essentials for a cycle tour. I often read spirited forum debates about what should or should not be found in your panniers. The first point to make before you read any further is ‘just do it’! Whatever gear you have, too little or too much, crack on and get out there. There’s no better way to know exactly what you need and what you don’t than by embarking on your first cycle tour. Just because you haven’t got super lightweight kit, posh panniers or high performance pants shouldn’t put pay to your plans.

The aim of this series of articles is to share some tips that will hopefully equip the first time cycle tourer so they can set off prepared and spend as little time as possible adjusting kit whilst on the road.  Every ones kit list will be different. Where and when you are touring will dictate your packing list greatly. Also the type of touring you intend to undertake, be it fully loaded for camping or the less gear reliant credit card type of touring.  I’ll split the article in to a few parts so that the reader can select the parts relevant to their type of tour.

Part 1 – Clothes for Cycle Touring

When and where you plan to tour will dictate what clothes you put in your panniers. Your clothes will need to cover all the elements you could possibly face during your tour. Your choice of garments should all compliment each other and each piece of clothing needs to serve its own purpose. This is called ‘layering’. Your underwear is equally as important as your outer. Clothing needs to be built up in layers and the right layers interchanged to suit the current weather / climate.

Cycle Specific Clothes

Don’t get bogged down with cycle specific clothing, in fact I avoid it. Cycle clothing just isn’t right for cycle touring, outdoor clothes meet the criteria far better. Cycling all day, camping at night and then waking up and doing it all again is true outdoor living and you need clothes that will cope with this way of life. During a cycle tour you will spend time off of the bike, maybe day walking, buying supplies and definitely at the pub, nobody likes doing these in skin tight lycra!

The Best Base Layers

This is a crucial part of your clothing system as it is the layer in direct contact with your skin. A base layers primary job is to draw perspiration away from your body. Whether you are expecting high temperatures or sub-zero ones you maybe riding for up to eight hours a day, you will work up a sweat. Garments that hold moisture such as cotton will make your core temperature drop, this maybe useful in extreme heat but in the cold, cotton should be avoided at all costs. Look for synthetic materials like polyester or natural fibres such as merino wool. These will both take sweat away from the skin and dry far quicker than regular cotton. Pants and bras are available in polyester or merino wool mixed with stretch fabrics to both wick and support.

In hot weather a zip neck poly or merino breathable t-shirt worn over your underwear will usually be enough. Another option is a long sleeve top for added sun protection.  If you are touring in cold temperatures you may consider full length long johns and a long sleeve top. Some people prefer to wear underwear beneath full length base layers, if so, make sure these are synthetic or merino wool too (as above)  Both synthetic fabrics and merino wool base layers are available in different weights and thickness’s, the heavier offering more warmth for colder weather.

Some cyclists like to wear cycling shorts with a padded chamois for comfort. Cycling shorts are great for day rides but aren’t hygienic over a cycle tour and washing and drying them is difficult. My advice is to invest in a good quality comfortable saddle that’s right for you and build the length of your rides steadily without wearing cycling shorts. Over time you shouldn’t have any comfort issues. If you really can’t get any level of comfort without wearing a chamois pad then you’ll need to bring several pairs of cycling shorts. Invest in the best you can afford, wash them regularly and alternate them whilst the other pair/s dry.  Cycling shorts are worn next to the skin as your underwear, your clothing system is worn over, starting with base leggings and top if cycling in cold temperatures.

Base Layer Pointers

Synthetics – Polyester

  • Generally very durable.
  • Synthetic base layers differ in performance. Some garments are meant purely as sports wear for running and gym work, they are fine for short exercise sessions but then need to be put in the wash.
  • Better quality synthetic fabrics will be more expensive but the performance is far superior and much better suited for riding in day after day.
  • Buy from outdoor manufacturers rather than sports manufacturers.

Natural fibre – Merino Wool

  • Great thermal qualities
  • Soft, comfortable feel
  • Generally more expensive than synthetic fabrics.
  • Much better odour control than even the best synthetics.
  • Less durable than synthetics.
  • May loose shape after time.

Good manufacturers invest heavily in research and development of their products and trial new materials often. Take a look at Arc’teryx and Icebreaker, both great companies that are leading the way in synthetic and natural base layers respectively.

The Best Mid Layers

This layer is your insulation. It’s worn over your base layer and beneath your outer layer (if an outer is needed)  The mid layers primary job is to capture your body heat. Mid layers are available with different warmth ratings and more than one mid layer can be worn if needed.

Mid layers needn’t be expensive, fleece tops make good base layers and are very reasonably priced. Woolly jumpers also make inexpensive insulating mid layers but aren’t very light. Again, as with most outdoor kit, the lighter, the better. Look for a garment within your budget that offers the best insulation for the least weight.

The other important factor is the cut and fit, consider how your mid layer will work with your base and outer layers. I had a mid layer top that was perfect to wear over my base layer but the collar height made it really uncomfortable when my outer layer was worn over it. As with my base layer, I prefer a relatively close fitting mid layer with a short up stand collar for my snood to tuck in to  and that doesn’t interfere with my collar and hood of my outer layer.

Which materials make the best mid layer?

I personally like down filled jackets like this one from Arc’teryx. It’s a super light 365 grams and packs down very small. Unfortunately, should down get wet it looses its lofting and then has virtually no insulation quality. Down filled garments offer the best level of warmth to weight.

Another consideration is a synthetic insulated jacket rather than natural down insulation. Synthetic insulated jackets are quite a bit heaver at the same thickness and warmth, and they don’t compress and pack down as well. However, synthetic fills keep much of their loft when wet meaning it still retains some of its insulating capability and therefore its warmth.

Wool was the original insulating mid layer material. If you prefer natural materials there are performance garments still made from it, albeit mainly merino wool mixed with a synthetic nowadays. See Icebreakers excellent Sierra Long zip which has merino fibres wrapped around a Nylon core plus Lycra for great comfort, fit and performance.

Fleece is a mixture of synthetic materials which on average deliver the same amount of insulation as wool. Fleece is lighter than wool, more comfortable, breathable and it insulates better when damp and dries much quicker. It is not as warm as down or synthetic insulation. Fleece tops can be bought for as little as £10 but these are usually a fairly regular ‘everyday’ cut. Fleece tops cut for active wear will be more expensive but will be much more comfortable to wear as a mid layer. Check out Patagonia’s R1 Fleece.

The Best Outer Shell Layer

The primary function of a shell is to protect you from the elements. Three types of outer shells are available: hard, soft and rain shells. A soft shell will be just that ‘soft’ and not restricting. It will be breathable and serve as a wind block, it may also be water-resistant but not water proof. A hard shell will be both waterproof and windproof but not as breathable or as flexible as a soft shell.  Rain shells are a massive improvement on old fashion waterproofs, they are much lighter, flexible and more breathable nowadays. Rain shells are only there to keep you dry rather than insulate like the hard and soft shells does.

Your choice on hard or soft shell protection should be made on the type of conditions you’re heading out in. If you are facing rain day after day and are touring in real extreme conditions it is definitely worth looking at a breathable hard shell. The best hard shell outers will have taped seams, waterproof zips and be made of materials that offer some breathability even though they are fully waterproof. If you are expecting intermittent wet spells during your cycle tour then the breathability of a soft shell maybe preferential but with a light weight rain shell ready in reserve to keep you riding through heavy rain. In my experience, I’ve not yet worn a hard shell that lives up to the manufacturers claims. It is either totally waterproof but has not sufficient breathability or has adequate breathability but isn’t totally waterproof. Manufacturers, I stand to be corrected, if you’d like me to test your hardshell contact me here

Layering your outdoor clothing offers ultimate versatility against the elements. Remember to select your layers for the conditions you expect to face. Wherever you’re touring you will be more comfortable with a base layer to wick perspiration, a mid layer to add warmth and an outer to protect you from the elements. Get your layers right and get the most from your tour !

More parts to this article coming soon.

1 thought on “Cycle Touring Tips – Outdoor Clothing

Leave a Comment