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Many people retire their bikes as soon as the leaves turn and only dig them out of storage when springtime flowers re-emerge. But these people are missing out. Cycling is great all year round, and there’s a special magic to bicycling and commuting in the winter.
But there’s a downside to cycling during the cold season: that crisp air turns downright freezing when it’s whipping by you at 15 mph. As far as cold weather cycling gear goes, you probably already know to wear layers, woolen socks, and gloves. That leaves one neglected part of the body: your ears. They can quickly get chilled, then grow painfully cold in a way that leaves you very uncomfortable.
It’s hard to enjoy your bike ride when it feels like frozen ice picks are driving into your head. Continued exposure to cold air can also affect your ears’ health.
How Can You Keep Your Ears Warm While Cycling?
To keep your ears warm while cycling, add a layer to protect them from the cold air, such as earmuffs, a headband, or a beanie. Otherwise, try more specialized solutions such as bicycle helmet covers, or go DIY and repurpose clip-on style headphones with earpads.
Sounds like overkill? Cold ears are more than a minor annoyance. Let’s take a deeper look into what’s happening when your ears are exposed to chilly air and what you can do about it.
Why Do Your Ears Get So Cold While Cycling?
Often, your ears will start to feel cold long before the rest of your face does. Why? Your ears are built differently from the face:
- Ears are mostly cartilage without an insulating layer of fat and muscle
- Ears stick out from the head and have little natural protection
- Ears don’t have a robust blood supply to help regulate warmth
Why Is It Important To Keep Your Ears Warm?
Ice-cold ears can be highly uncomfortable. They make you feel colder than your body actually is. The pain is unpleasant, nagging, and a distraction when you’re on the trail.
Long periods of cold exposure can also lead to hearing loss. First of all, cold winter winds whistling by exposes your ears to damaging levels of sound. Some people also develop exostosis, or increased growth of bone, inside the ear canal. This bone growth affects your hearing. It also traps moisture and leads to earwax buildup. This may trigger repeated ear infections that can harm your ability to hear.
Why Can’t You Just Wear a Hood To Keep Your Ears Warm?
If your jacket’s hood is good enough when you’re walking, it should work while on a bike, right? Unfortunately, no. Hoods pose a number of problems when you’re cycling:
- Many hoods are incompatible with a bike helmet and will slide off or prevent proper helmet positioning
- Hoods tend to have open gaps at the chin or cheeks, allowing icy breezes to come in and hit your ears
- Hoods tend to be made of bulky material that restricts your vision, particularly when you’re looking around to make a turn
Instead of fiddling with an unsafe, uncomfortable hood during your winter bike rides, choose an ear-warming option that’s specifically meant for these situations. Which one should you pick? Start by considering the outside temperature.
Have you ever heard the saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes”? This famous Swedish wisdom is a way of life for the active, outdoorsy people of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Cold temperatures and snow can’t keep them from going outside and doing what they love. They understand the importance of layering to protect the entire body, ears included.
What Temperature Is Too Cold for Cycling?
Everyone has a different tolerance for cold weather conditions, and this can change if they acclimate by regularly cycling in the winter. Investing in the right layers is very helpful, too. Many riders consider -4° F to be their cut-off point. Other riders report that in temperatures below -31° F, their axle grease stiffens up and the bike becomes too difficult to control.
Use your best judgement and experiment with which temperatures work for you. Remember to factor in humidity and wind chill, which can make 30° feel a lot colder.
A Rough Guide to Winter Ear Protection
Here are a few general recommendations for protection to wear on your ears during cycling in various degrees of cold weather:
|Temperature||Ear protection required|
|59 F and above||15 C and above||Usually no protection needed, or a light headband to cut wind whistle|
|50 to 59 F||10 to 15 C||A thin layer such as a buff or skullcap under the helmet|
|32 to 50 F||0 to 10 C||Beanies or fuzzy earmuffs|
|14 to 32 F||-10 to 0 C||Caps with ear covers or full balaclava for cycling|
|-4 to 14 F||-20 to -10 C||Multiple layers, fleece beanies, or fur-lined winter caps; don’t forget to protect exposed skin on the face|
7 Ways To Keep Ears Warm While Cycling
Earmuffs gently clamp two cups of fleece and foam over the ears, protecting them without adding bulk around the head. You can DIY using headphones with an ear-hook design that securely connects over the ears.
- Some styles of earmuffs have a petite size, which means they are unlikely to interfere with helmet use
- These are a light-coverage option, great for warmer winter days when you need only a little protection
- Can be flimsy and break if sat on
- Ear muffs are not enough when the weather’s really cold
The Degrees by 180s Winter Ear Warmers are popular among cyclists:
Headbands and Earbands
A wide, fuzzy headband pulls double-duty. In the summer it absorbs sweat. In the winter, this fuzzy layer protects the ears. Meanwhile, earbands (sometimes called ear warmers) are similar but widen over the ears for more protection.
- Affordable and multipurpose
- They tend to stay in place with little slipping
- Headbands and similar products absorb a lot of sweat and require frequent washing
- If you have a larger head, it can be hard to find ones that aren’t too tight
The YOSUNPING Fleece Headband is an example of an effective headband:
Buffs and Cycling Balaclavas
These ear warming solutions pull over parts or the entire head, offering 360 degrees of protection. They can be made of thin sports material, chunky wool knits, and everything in between.
- Protect the face, head, and ears
- Thinner ones perform like a skull cap and are compatible with most helmets
- Buffs are multipurpose and can be pulled over the nose and mouth or used to warm the neck
- They can feel too tight or claustrophobic, particularly when they’re brand new
- You may need to wrestle them off, especially after sweaty, intense rides
The Giro Balaclava Cycling Cap is an example of a popular balaclava:
Skull Caps and Cycling Caps
Everything in this category is a tight-fitting cap of thin material that keeps the whole head warm.
- Great choice for cycling since it can fit under many helmet styles
- Great for warmer winter weather
- Can be layered under a hat when the temperatures drop
- Poor noise protection
- Some materials get hot and sweaty during long rides
The BALEAF Thermal Skull Cap is an example of a popular skull cap:
These hats are one step up from the light skull caps mentioned above.
- Affordable and available almost everywhere
- Moderately protective
- Offer some extra cushioning
- Can be bulky and incompatible with some helmets
- May shift around or bunch up during the ride
- The wrong material will get even sweatier than a skull cap
Trooper or Trapper Hat
If your beanie isn’t enough, upgrade to these winter hats with ear flaps. They’re bulky, fur-lined, and offer a lot of protection (if you can manage to cram it under your helmet).
- The warmest option yet for keeping your ears toasty
- Fur and fleece linings feel comfortable against the skin
- Bulky and incompatible with many helmets
- Best used with a thin inner layer to absorb sweat
How about the Fjallraven Singi Heater?
Don’t want the hassle of keeping track of yet another cycling accessory? Some helmet designs offer winter ear protection. One class is designed with fairings over the ears that direct cold winds away. Others have a detachable winter liner with built-in ear flaps. Don’t forget about helmet covers, either. These block cold air and wet weather from getting through your helmet’s air vents, letting you layer up as temperatures plummet.
- Peace of mind that your helmet is properly fitted and you’re riding safely
- Everything’s built in with no risk of losing an important layer right before you go out
- If you block air flow, you may sweat in the helmet more and it may require more cleaning
- Specialized helmets can be more expensive than standard models
- Your favorite manufacturer may not carry these designs
The Giro Timberwolf Helmet has removable ear pads and thermostat control:
Not convinced that winter cycling is for you? Give it another chance with proper ear warmers. This essential piece of cold-weather bike gear can reduce a lot of the discomfort of cycling in cold conditions. You’ll look stylish and feel toasty in one of the ear-warming solutions we’ve talked about.