Heading into cooler weather means that it’s critical to keep your head and neck warm—but sweat-free—while you ride. It’s tempting to just grab your beanie from running or skiing to cram under your helmet, but try it once you know that’s not the ideal solution.
Wearing a cap while also wearing a properly fitted helmet can be tricky. Thankfully, there are great options that keep your head warm while keeping your helmet in place. Here, we’re sharing a few of our favorites…
BEST CAP: Le Col Cycling Cap
We love a simple cycling cap: In fact, cycling caps are arguably the most classic piece of cycling equipment, and a piece that hasn’t necessarily needed an update as the decades have passed. We appreciate the classic style of the cotton and polyester cycling cap from Le Col. For temperatures hovering around and above freezing, this type of head covering is all you really need to keep in warmth under your helmet.
We also have been impressed with how this cap fits under a helmet, and how it looks off the bike as well. While in chillier conditions, it may not be enough to keep you warm since it won’t cover your ears, it’s great for those in-between temperatures.
- Material Cotton and polyester
- MSRP: $29
PROS: Only gets better with age
CONS: Some riders report it’s a bit small-fitting
BEST TOQUE: Chrome Merino Beanie
A good toque/beanie that can fit neatly under a helmet and provide deep coverage is hard to find. This lightweight, super-thin merino wool beanie from Chrome doesn’t look like much, but it packs a powerful punch when it comes to keeping your head warm in winter weather. The fit is just right: Slim enough to fit under a helmet, but not so tight that it feels like the beanie is cutting off circulation to your brain.
It’s also super useful for off-the-bike: One Bikerumor staffer who spends winters in Canada finds it’s ideal to put under a more casual beanie for a double layer of warmth when XC skiing. And it can handle the rigors of constant use, wash, and wear, remaining good-as-new looking even after a few seasons.
- Material: 65% polyester, 35% merino wool
- MSRP: $25
PROS: Ultra comfortable, great price
CONS: Not ideal for ponytail wearers
BEST CAP/TOQUE COMBO: Castelli Difesa Thermal Cap
If you want the benefits of a cycling cap brim, have ears that get cold easily, and want a beanie/cap combo that can fit under a helmet, Castelli has you covered with one of our all-time favorite head coverings.
We love the Thermoflex Core2 ear covers for windy days, though if you ride in a busy area, consider opting for the beanie listed above to keep ears open to better hear traffic. For warmth though, you can’t beat this one. And it holds its shape: The brim of the cap part of the hat stands up to multiple wash cycles without deforming.
- Material: Thermoflex Core2 ear covers, wool blend body
- MSRP: $40
CONS: Not ideal for ponytail wearers
BEST HEADBAND: Rapha Merino Headband
For those who tend to get a bit sweatier or those who need a space to let a ponytail out, a merino wool headband is a great compromise. We love the Rapha Merino Wool Headband for durability and comfort—one Bikerumor editor has had hers for over five years and it’s still the go-to for shoulder season rides and runs where a full hat would be overkill and breathability is an issue.
It’s a shoulder-season staple, and even in the summer, it can be used as a running headband to keep sweat out of your eyes. It washes well, holds its shape, and can be tossed in the dryer without fear of shrinking.
- Material: Merino Wool
- MSRP: $30
PROS: Great for ponytail wearers
CONS: Not ideal for balding riders
BEST BUFF: Original Buff
When it comes to the multi-purpose buff, you can’t beat the original Buff. The sleeve of Repreve performance—a polyester microfiber made from recycled materials—can be worn as a headband, a hat, a balaclava, a face mask, a scarf, and even sweat wiping wristband when wrapped around twice.
We recommend every rider has one, even if you have favorite hats or headbands, because adding a buff allows you to turn any head covering into a balaclava by using it to cover your face and neck. They also make excellent gifts for cyclists who are impossible to shop for, since they’re always useful and fit everyone!
- Material: Repreve polyester microfiber
- MSRP: $20-24 depending on pattern and color
PROS: Available in multiple colors and patterns
CONS: Not as warm as merino wool
BEST WATERPROOF CAP: Velocio Rain Cap
Consider this cap the ‘all-seasons’ option for cycling cap lovers. For those riders who live in wintery climates that are more chilly and drizzly rather than cold and snowy, a waterproof rain cap is the surprise clutch addition to a winter wardrobe.
This cap from Velocio is made with Polartec NeoShell in order to provide water- and wind-proof coverage while still being breathable. And we love that the cap is high-tech but doesn’t look like it: The fabric is matte and the colors are simple, giving it the vibe of a cap from the 80s rather than a futuristic hat.
- Material: Polar NeoShell
- MSRP: $49
PROS: Great for rainy days when staying dry is as important as staying warm
CONS: Pricey for a cap
BEST COLD WEATHER RACING: Rapha Cross Lightweight Snood
Thinner and shorter than a Buff but still as versatile, we love the Rapha Cross Lightweight Snood for racing thanks to its ability to go from scarf to face mask to the headband, without a lot of extra fabric or heavy material. It’s ultra-lightweight and absorbs sweat easily. And it’s a stretchy material so if you are wearing it to the start line by accident, it’s relatively easy to pull off over a helmet if needed. It can also tuck into a saddlebag for those weird-weather rides where you may want an extra layer. Plus, we love the neutral but gravel-inspired design.
- Material: PrimaLoft® – an insulating, high-performance thermal yarn
- MSRP: $20
PROS: Great price for a versatile extra
CONS: None, really
BEST BALACLAVA: Pearl Izumi Barrier Balaclava
Below freezing conditions, or planning a ride during a snowstorm? We like the Pearl Izumi Barrier Balaclava because, for a full coverage balaclava, it offers a solid amount of flexibility. It’s easy to adjust as you ride, so if conditions warm-up, you can pull the mouth covering down and let your face be exposed. (But when you do need full coverage, it won’t slip down.) This one handles wash-and-wear well and can get tossed in the dryer without consequences, which is great since it’s impossible to wear it and not end up with it slightly sweaty/spit and snot-covered. Gross, yes, but it will keep you warm!
- Material: P.R.O. Thermal (90% polyester, 10% elastane), P.R.O. Barrier (100% polyester)
- MSRP: $35
PROS: Ideal for mixed conditions
CONS: Gets a bit sweaty if you wear it in warmer conditions
BEST FAT BIKING HEADGEAR: Gorewear Windstopper Balaclava
Last but certainly not least, the Gore Windstopper Balaclava is for the heartiest winter riders who scoff at staying indoors and riding the trainer just because of some blizzard outside. We appreciate details like the cutouts for better air flow to your mouth and nose, and plenty of space in the neck to tuck into your winter coat. Be warned though, this balaclava is not adjustable. It’ll keep your face warm and protected from the wind, but you won’t be able to pull it down if you start to overheat. If you’re an avid fat biker, this is the balaclava for you.
- Material: Gore Windstopper
- MSRP: $50
PROS: The ultimate in on-bike warmth
CONS: Only useful in truly cold conditions
BEST NECK GAITER: DeFeet Dickadee
Some of us prefer a separate head and neck covering, allowing for easier temperature control, and the DeFeet Dickadee is the best neck gaiter we’ve tried. It has a dropped front to sit under your jersey, letting you unzip a bit while still maintaining wind protection.
The top can pull up over your mouth and nose, or scrunch down below your chin. It comes in two sizes, both only in black. Just remember to pull it on before putting your helmet and sunglasses on!
- Material: 62% Recycled Polyester, 33% Nylon, 5% Lycra
- MSRP: $25
PROS: Perfect shape for cycling, running, and other outdoor activities
CONS: None, really
Buyers Guide for Winter Cycling Caps
Know your temperature range. If you live in an area where temperatures rarely dip below freezing in winter months, you likely only need a cap and something versatile like a buff for most riding. If temps are regularly around and slightly below freezing, having a beanie as well as a buff for neck coverage is helpful. And if you regularly ride in snowy conditions, a full balaclava will come in handy.
Look at material. While we love the options we’ve listed above, if you’re shopping for something, not on this list, look for materials like Polar’s NeoTech, Gore’s Windstopper, or merino wool as the primary fabrics. Polyester is fine as long as it’s in a blend with one of those. Cotton won’t be as warm as the other options, so unless you live in mild winter climates and just need a bit of coverage, look for more performance-oriented fabrics.
Consider fit with your hair. Obviously, those who wear ponytails will struggle a bit with winter hats. Remember how you prefer to wear your hair: a headband and buff combo may make more sense than a beanie or a balaclava.
Consider fit with your helmet. If you have a close-fitting helmet, you may struggle to wear a balaclava with it. This could mean you need a slightly larger helmet for winter riding if conditions are cold in your area, or it may mean you need to stick to thinner materials.
Frequently Asked Questions About Winter Cycling Caps
What cap do I need for riding?
It depends on the temperature outside. Above freezing, a basic cap or at most, a headband or buff to keep your ears warm if it’s windy out will be enough. Anything else will likely leave your head sweating. As temperatures drop below freezing, add full head coverage. The nice thing about even the biggest balaclava is that it’s easy to remove if you do overheat.
What fabric is the warmest?
Merino wool will be the best bang for your buck in terms of staying warm but allowing your skin to breathe.
What fabric is the driest?
Again, merino wool might be the MVP in the material game here. Not only is it quick-drying, but it also doesn’t feel as wet as cotton/polyester blends tend to once it gets damp. It stays warm despite wetter conditions, making it the optimal baselayer from head to toe.
What sunglasses should I wear with winter hats?
The same sunglasses you wear the rest of the year should work fine with a winter cap. However, you may want to consider a slightly different lens with yellow or red tint may help you see ruts in snow better than your darker sunglasses. But protecting your eyes from the glare of the sun on white snow while riding in snowy conditions is important. Sunglasses will also help protect your eyes from wind and snow irritation, so don’t skip them, even on overcast days. (A pair with clear lenses can be helpful if you often ride in the dark.)
What if I have a large (or small) head size?
If you know that finding a regular hat or cap is a challenge, pay attention to sizing on cycling caps. Generally, they’re one-size-fits-all, which is fine for the stretchier beanies and buffs, but tricky for caps. If you’re unsure how well a cap will fit you, use a soft tape measure to get a measurement around your head, or measure a cap that does fit you well, and contact the company to see what they recommend.
Should I wear goggles to fat bike?
It’s up to you, but many people love wearing goggles from skiing (or downhill mountain biking) on the fat bike for some extra warmth and in order to avoid them fogging up as easily as regular glasses do. Ski goggles typically have better lens tints for snow, offering much better contrast than MTB goggles for whited out ground.
Feature photos c. Jody Wilson