Photo: Scott Dickerson/Tandemstock

How To Choose the Right Bike Jacket

To keep warm and to guard against precipitation, many riders turn to a cycling jacket.

Whether you’re heading to work, sprinting across your favorite stretch of tarmac, or ripping down singletrack, you’ll likely want to add a layer when the weather turns cold. To keep warm and to guard against precipitation, many riders turn to a cycling jacket. How you ride and the conditions you’ll face—not to mention how much you want to spend—will determine what shell layer makes sense for you. Here’s how to pick the right bike jacket for cold-weather riding.

Questions To Ask Yourself

Before you buy, consider where you ride and the kind of riding you like to do.

What style of riding will I use this jacket for? 

Jackets are designed for mountain biking, road riding, and commuting—get one that matches your preferred riding discipline.

What conditions will I ride in?

If you never ride in cold, wet weather, don’t buy a jacket designed for those conditions; the added warmth and waterproofing will just hamper your performance. Instead, buy a jacket that’s suited to the conditions you’ll use it in. Go light if you just need an emergency layer to get you through the last two miles in a surprise rain shower. Or, if you ride through even the gnarliest weather, look for robust features beyond added warmth for a cold ride.

What features do I value? 

No one jacket will have maximum breathability and low weight along with maximum waterproofing, windproofing, warmth, and comfort. More cost-effective jackets will often be highly waterproof but not very breathable, for example, or they’ll be breathable and not very waterproof. Decide which of these features is most important to you before you start shopping. 

Jacket Cuts

A cycling jacket should be cut to work with the way you ride. This means it often has a longer tail to cover your lower back as you bend over the bars, form-fitting sleeves to keep the fabric from flapping in the wind, and added protection at the chest, which is where wind and precipitation will hit you especially hard. Beyond that, jackets are cut for specific riding disciplines.

Road Jackets

Jackets for road riding are often cut similarly to road cycling jerseys. They will be form-fitting with little excess fabric for better aerodynamics. Often, road jackets will have three rear storage pockets for water and fuel, just like a cycling jersey.

Mountain Bike Jackets

Compared to road jackets, these often have a looser fit, since aerodynamics are less of a concern for MTB riders. Many have added protective features like a hood, and they’re often highly packable, so you can store them on your bike and take them on and off during your ride. That versatility is helpful for dealing with the changing conditions of MTB riding, like hustling uphill and then coasting down.

MTB jackets’ looser design allows more freedom of movement, and it also makes them useful for off-bike activities like hiking—or post-ride beers.

Commuter Jackets

These are closer to MTB jackets and will have a more casual look that’s suitable for off-bike wear. Commuter jackets often have a hood to protect you from precipitation as well as more rugged, heavier waterproofing and insulation. These jackets prioritize protection over weight savings—for commuters, arriving at a destination dry and warm is more important than shaving ounces.

Women’s Jackets

Regardless of riding discipline, many jackets now come in specific women’s cuts that more closely match the proportions of female bodies. The result is a more comfortable, ergonomic fit on the bike.

Photo: Scott Dickerson/Tandemstock

Jacket Styles

Below are the main bike jacket styles—each with their own pros and cons.

Windproof Jackets

These are the simplest, lightest, and most packable option. They offer a little bit of weatherproofing (to protect you from a mist or light drizzle), block the wind from cutting through to your chest, and give you warmth by not breathing well. With these thin jackets you control your temperature by opening or closing the front zipper.

Waterproof Hard Shells

These are generally heavier and made of thicker materials. They often use a water-resistant membrane like Gore-Tex, eVent, or Polartec NeoShell that blocks moisture while also allowing some heat to escape from your body.

These shells are ideal for especially wet and cold conditions, or when you must arrive at your destination dry and comfortable. Hard shells are often sold either as a simple shell or paired with internal insulation, like fleece, to keep you warm on cold days.

Soft Shell

These have a soft exterior, as opposed to the slick, synthetic feel of wind- and waterproof jackets. Soft-shell jackets are often insulated with fleece or down for warmth, and the exterior is usually coated with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish to give some protection from light rain and road spray. 

Compared to other options, the soft fabric offers increased flexibility and breathability and a more comfortable feel. Depending on the fabric technology used, it’s also possible to get soft shells that are completely windproof. These jackets are great for cold-weather cycling in dry conditions.

Additional Features

Aside from cut and materials used, consider a few other key features when choosing a bike jacket.

Visibility

For road cyclists and commuters, staying visible to road traffic is a necessity for safe riding. While getting a good set of lights is the best way to do that, reflectivity in your clothing, especially your jacket, can help drivers notice you as well. Look for jackets with sections of reflective material on the body of the jacket, pockets, and/or piping. 

Vents

Vents help you regulate your temperature by allowing cool air to flow in and hot air to flow out. Many jackets will have zippered vents in high-heat areas like the armpits or back. By opening the vents (either partially or all the way), you’ll increase air circulation and cool down without having to completely unzip the front of your jacket. If you get too cold, you can always close up the vents.

Pockets

Jackets come with a variety of pocket systems. While many road cycling jackets have three back pockets, it’s also common to find options with front hand pockets, especially on mountain bike and commuter jackets. You can also find jackets with a single large lumbar pocket (almost like a built-in fanny pack). Pay attention to how they close: Pockets with elastic mouths are easy to access, while Velcro and zippered closures offer increased security to keep loose items in place as you ride.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.