What to wear for an overnight ride

I recently rode Tom Deakins' Kingdom of the East Saxons 400km audax, which I wrote up here, which started at 11am and returned to the church hall at the start/finish at about 280km so riders could have something to eat and have a short sleep if they wanted to, before heading out for the final 127km.  For fun I extended the ride to 600km by leaving home at 7am and riding over 85km to the start, then riding straight through the 400km event without any sleep, and riding 130km home again afterwards.  It struck me that for once I'd got my apparel choices just about right for this event, and that writing it up for other riders to compare and contrast would be worth doing.

It seems everyone writes up their kit list at some point — this is my second write-up, focusing entirely on clothing.  Audax riders who've ridden many overnight rides will already know, pretty much, what they need to take to be comfortable at least most of the time.  You lot can stop reading now! wink 

There probably isn't a perfect set of kit to take, and a lot of choices are driven by what you own at that moment in time (and sometimes what's not in the wash!), but I hope that for someone just setting out on their first overnighter then this description of what I took, what I wore, and why, helps allay some of the fears of losing their nocturnal virginity.

Ultimately it comes down to having something for the hottest, something for the coldest, something for the sunniest and something for the wettest.  And somehow having something for everything in-between!  And then compromising on the day so you are comfortable enough to carry on.  For me, the only reason I would stop on a ride due to clothing would be either so hot I was suffering heat-stroke — and wasn't able to cool down — or so cold I was suffering hypothermia — and wasn't able to warm up; and it's okay to stop for a while to recover and then carry on.

Looking ahead at the weather

It should be pretty obvious, but looking ahead at the forecast weather gives a good indication of the conditions you'll experience.  As a rule of thumb, the daytime peak temperature should be about right, but in my experience nighttime temperatures are often 2-3ºC colder than the forecast temperature, which is just an average.  Also, if you're forecast sun then the temperature will feel about 5-10ºC warmer than the forecast temperature.

Back in 2013 I rode Tom's Green & Yellow Fields 300, which has a midnight start and so the first half is entirely through the night.  We were forecast 2ºC above zero, but on the night the temperature dropped to about 5ºC below zero!  There were a large number of riders who turned up in warm summer gear when really they needed full winter gear.  My front brake cable froze, as did my bidons, and I had to keep riding hard just to keep warm.  I was fortunate in that I did have spare gear with me and was able to lend some to other riders to help them.  The following day the temperature hit 12ºC, but it was sunny and felt much hotter (and I got sunburnt!).

On very long multi-day rides like London-Edinburgh-London (1400km/5 days) or Paris-Brest-Paris (1200km/4 days) then the range of temperatures and weather can be even more extreme.  Also, just because a ride takes place in the middle of summer that does not guarantee anything about the temperatures: on both LEL2013 and PBP2015 we suffered extremely high temperatures during the day — LEL reached 35ºC and in solid sunshine; PBP reach the high 20s — followed by comparatively chilly overnight temperatures — just 5ºC on both.

Other rides can be more benign, with warm nights and cool days, so a less severe temperature range to deal with.

When planning my overnights, I like to pack enough layers and arm/leg additions that I can mix up something very warm, something very cool, and a range in between.

How I saw the event beforehand

When I checked the weather for 'East Saxons' it looked a bit breezy with a stiff westerly blowing through the first day and rain in the air, a bit sunnier second day with a bit less breeze.  Temperature up to about 18ºC during the first day, similar on the second; down to 11ºC overnight.

For these conditions I opted for a short-sleeve jersey with a base layer, bib shorts (I usually wear short-shorts on overnighters, as it's easier to visit the loo, ahem), with arm- and leg-warmer options.  Warm socks with vented shoes.  A thin hat under the helmet.  And a choice of long- and short-finger gloves.

And for additional options I included a waterproof jacket and hat; my PBP gilet, which I usually find a bit too warm to be comfortable; a long-sleeve jersey; a buff and a woolly hat.

Saturday morning — ride to the start

The thermometer outside the back door gave just below 10ºC — we're at the bottom of a hill and it acts like a cold-sink, so the weather up-top would be 12ºC or so and warming.  For these warming conditions, in which I would be riding a fairly flat route at reasonably high tempo -- I left about half an hour later than planned and so had 85km to cover in about 3.5 hours, so I definitely didn't want any layers that were hard to remove if I got too warm.

Saturday morning to the start

Saturday morning to the start

I set out with my only Rapha garment, a lacy merino-mesh short-sleeve base layer with my Solo Superia ("better on your own", or something) short-sleeve jersey on top.  I never used to wear a base layer on summer rides, but — yet again — my friend Marcus made me do it facepalm

The top half supplemented with my warm arm warmers — a pair of cool arm warmers featured later.  And a pair of Gore Wind-stopper long-finger gloves, which I can ride in through wet, sub-zero rides to moderately warm summer rides.

Bib shorts today for a change — I usually wear short-shorts on overnighters, as it's easier to visit the loo, ahem … And a pair of warm Specialized knee warmers against the early morning chill.   

Warm merino-wool socks with vented shoes — I have a pair of wide-fit, sealed (but not waterproof) shoes that I wear in wintry and inclement weather, but they can be a bit warm in summer, so I opted for my summer shoes in spite of the threat of rain later.  Merino wool socks are nice, because even when wet they remain warm.

I chose a thin hat under my helmet — although the temperature was a bit cool for it, I was expecting it to warm rapidly and with the high tempo then I'd be warm.  Also, changing caps is not a quick pit-stop and I needed to not lose as much time as possible on the run to the start.

Helmet, naturally: I don't mind other cyclists choosing to wear only a cap, but I find it an essential piece of kit.  There's the obvious safety issue — on an overnight ride then the risk of falling off is even greater than usual, typically falling asleep and having a slow-speed hedge-tip.  In addition I have a mirror mounted on the side of my helmet, something I use constantly, and again even more important at night.  And on top I have a small Blackburn Flea 2.0 headlamp, for reading the routesheet in the few dark hours.

And glasses with interchangeable lenses — even at 7am the sun was bright enough to need the tinted lenses.  I wear contact lenses, so I always aim to wear some form of protective eye-wear in front of them, as from experience it is extremely uncomfortable getting a piece of grit in the eye.

All topped-off with my PBP gilet.  This is a heavy gilet and I found it horribly warm on PBP, choosing to ride with a lighter gilet instead, but I wanted to try something different on this ride.

About two-thirds of the way to the start I removed my gilet, without stopping, stuffing it into my jersey pocket.  Later this was strapped to the top of my Carradice saddlebag, in-reach when needed, while riding.

Saturday lunchtime — headwind and sunny periods

The ride to the first control was into a stiff cross-headwind, a decent amount of uphilliness, and sunny/cloudy.

I stripped off the arms and legs and packed them away — I wouldn't need them until the evening section.  However, everything else remained the same.

Me, just after the proper start (credit Nik Brunner — thank you)

Me, just after the proper start (credit Nik Brunner — thank you)

In particular, I kept the cap on: a stupid mistake in 2008 ascending the 3718m La Teide on Tenerife and a severely sunburnt scalp means it's now permanently sensitive to sun, so I have to keep it covered sad

Saturday afternoon — rain then sun

A turn with the wind on our backs, but rain in the air — as in, it was actually raining a bit — and the choice was tricky.  I opted — correctly as it turned out — to swap to fingerless gloves and left everything else the same. 

Rain is deceptive: most rain in the UK is a brief shower and doesn't need any rain-proofing against at all.  Occasionally a heavy shower blows through, but again it's short, and so it's a case of toughing it out or diving into a bus shelter for a few minutes — proper cycle wear dries incredibly quickly, so although getting a soaking may be a bit cool and uncomfortable for a few minutes, it's temporary and character-building.  The alternative of stopping to don a waterproof is double-bad for two reasons: on a warm day it's simply boil-in-the-bag; and you're going to have to stop again in a few minutes to take it off and repack it.

Never forget: you don't make progress while stopped, so unnecessary stops just waste distance on the road.  It's not a race, but getting to a planned stop sooner gives you more time to spend there.

After literally a couple of minutes the rain stopped and then it was a tailwind all the way to tea 100km away, so no-rainwear was the correct decision smile

Saturday early evening — storms and headwinds

Time to start making strategic decisions, taking shelter and swapping layers.

Lighweight longsleeve, fingerless gloves, clear lenses, lightweight arms, spare warm and cool socks

Lighweight longsleeve, fingerless gloves, clear lenses, lightweight arms, spare warm and cool socks

After tea at Harwich, the heavens opened and number of heavy storms blew through: it was completely dry on arrival and thunder and torrential rain on departure.  I figured the rain would blow through and so I put on lightweight arm warmers and donned my lightweight long-sleeve jersey over the top of my short-sleeve for the cooling temperatures.

I then hid under an overhanging eave waiting for the rain to blow through: in the end I opted for my PBP gilet but it was close-run as the rain seemed persistent and was heavy enough to justify it.  Again, the correct decision: the rain had stopped within a few km and this time I stopped to remove the gilet and repack on top of my saddle pack.

Half an hour later the rain started up again and I got a good soaking — I re-donned my gilet while riding.  The PBP gilet is so warm that, although it's not waterpoof, it's like a wetsuit: wet but warm — the full waterproof is too warm during warm days.  I wore the gilet through to the next control at Clacton-on-Sea.

Saturday late evening — clearing and cool

In the evening I swapped back to full-fingered gloves and dropped the gilet, for now.  I also switched from tinted to clear lenses.  I was expecting to be back at the hall around midnight, so I expected to have to re-don my gilet too, but not yet.

Indeed, a couple of hours into the stage I re-donned the gilet, again without stopping.

Sunday wyching hour — cold

The forecast 10ºC was a lie — it dropped to 5ºC and was noticeably even lower where cold air had gathered in hollows on the route.

The cold overnight temperature and obvious need for reflectives meant I retained the gilet.  I think I also switched the lightweight arm warmers to the heavyweight ones under my longsleeve.  The knee warmers also went back on.

While stopped at the church hall eating dinner, I also put on a clean — and more importantly, dry! — pair of merino socks, as the change feels nice, and damp socks in the cold definitely aren't very nice.

Sunday early morning — cool, still, sunny

At the final info control around 7am I stripped it all off and went back to lightweight arms and legs, but not longsleeve or gilet.  Also, the tinted lenses went back in.

After breakfast — sunny

For the final 130km, I set off in short sleeves and fingerless gloves.  However, the heat became difficult to manage and I do suffer in higher temperatures, so after lunch I stopped and removed the Rapha base layer (a bit stinky by now), swapped the woolly socks for a pair of lightweight summer socks, and soaked my cap to help cool me down.  For a while I even removed my gloves completely, but it was a bit uncomfortable so they went back on later.

In the sun I felt I was heading towards heatstroke, even wearing just lightweight layers, so I did stop and sleep in the shade on a safe verge for half an hour to bring myself back into the game — that worked well and I was racing other cyclists through the centre of Cambridge at over 30kph later on wink

Clothes taken but not worn

On paper it does look like I had all my clothing bases covered, but there were a few additional items that i took but didn't actually wear.

Woolly and waterproof hats, waterproof jacket, spare long-finger gloves, yacf Buff

Woolly and waterproof hats, waterproof jacket, spare long-finger gloves, yacf Buff

Habitually I keep a woolly hat and a Buff (for the neck) in my pack — they weigh next to nothing and can be ride-saving if the weather turns sub-zero.

I also always carry full-wets: British weather can be so unpredictable that it's not worth risking not carrying them.  An Endura jacket and SealSkinz hat.

And problems with sore palms and impaired muscle control cause me to carry a spare pair of gloves with a different padding pattern on the palm.  Since switching from 23mm to 25mm tyres then I've not had to use them and may drop them on future rides.

But for the ride last week they remained unused … although in the back of my mind I think I might've worn the Buff in the early hours, but tiredness and poor memory mean I can't quite recall …

Packing it all in

I use a Carradice Super C Audax saddle bag, which is quite small.  I keep tools + tubes in the two side pockets and gilet or active waterproof (as in: needed, because it's both cold and wet) strapped to the top, leaving the main pocket for everything else (including an inactive waterproof).

To pack everything in — and to enable me to easily find what I'm looking for — I keep everything organised in stuff sacs.

Everything packs into stuff sacs

Everything packs into stuff sacs

These are a mix of Granite Gear sacs — expensive in the UK but dirt cheap in the US, and the best-functioning zip-sacs that I've used; lightweight Alpkit sacs; and a SanDisk CompactFlash card case (or sometimes two) from the days when we used to use CF in cameras.

I pack all the arm and knee warmers, spare gloves, hats, Buffs and smaller items into one (sometimes two) large GG sacs — the light-blue sac top-left, above.

The longsleeve jersey is stuffed into the purple GG sac.

The Endura sac contains both the waterproof and the waterproof hat — note the Clipper, which is used when this pack's on the outside of the Carradice to prevent accidental loss.

The small, lightblue GG sac contains toiletries — toothbrush + toothpaste, contact lenses, Sudocrem — and pharmaceuticals — painkillers, ProPlus, Rennies, hayfever tabs.  I also keep a pack of each of the pharma bits in my top-tube bag so I can deal with pain, tiredness and intestinal discomfort without stopping (from experience).

The black Alpkit bag contains all the little bits that don't fit anywhere else: bungees, chain splitter, valve caps (?), webbing straps, spoke key, etc.  This sits at the bottom of the Carradice and hopefully nothing needs to be used.

The small SanDisk pac contains a full set of very short USB cables and converter tips for mini- and micro-USB and iPhone old and new.  There's also a spare camera battery.  These are all spares and so it also sits right at the bottom of the Carradice.

With everything in pacs then it's simply a case of slotting them into the Carradice in the best order for accessibility and fit.  Then whenever I need something, say arm warmers, I know exactly where they are in the pack, and I can repack quickly.

Loose stuff I didn't use

For any long ride there will be things that are carried but never used — hopefully they don't weigh much or push something else out of the bag that end up needing.

Unused space blanket, pillow, alarm clock, cutlery, microtowel

Unused space blanket, pillow, alarm clock, cutlery, microtowel

For any overnight ride then you have to consider your sleeping options.  These days for fully x-rated events then I carry an Alpkit bivvy bag, a cotton sleeping bag liner, a super-lightweight short mat and a cheap inflatable pillow.  With this I can sleep just about anywhere — I've slept in bus stops, under hedges, on grass verges, in McDonald's, etc.

I left everything except the pillow at the church hall in case I felt like a nap at midnight, which I didn't.  I also carried a space blanket — so if I needed a snooze then I could grab an uncomfortable few minutes in a silver blanket with a pillow.  Neither the space blanket nor the pillow were used in the end, but I would carry them anyway, as they could make all the difference and don't weigh much.

I did stop for a snooze on a grass verge and used the bivvy bag as a ground sheet to catch anything that fell out my pockets, and the sleep mat rolled up in its stuff sac as a pillow.

After Drew Buck's oversleeping cock-up on LEL in 2013 I now carry a tiny alarm clock.  I didn't use it — I used my phone's alarm on the grass verge snooze, since a failure to awake on the ECE wouldn't be a disaster, since I'd already bagged the main event (for my double-RRTY), and I didn't fancy fiddling with the little one.

The microtowel was in case I needed to wash my face — I did do this, but I used a wetwipe instead.  A Clipper to hook the wet towel onto the outside of the saddle bag to dry it.

The titanium cutlery weighs nothing, but could be the difference between eating or not at a supermarket stop — on two different rides I've been compromised on food choice due to lack of cutlery, although I didn't need them on this event.


Whatever you choose to pack for any ride, it helps if you give yourself enough options to cover unexpected events — hot, cold, wet.  Have the kit — and know you have it — and know when to use it — and use it!  You should rarely have to abandon due to poor clothing choices, only the very extremes of weather should cause such an eventuality, your options covering all other expected bases — plus a bit.

What I can tell you is that I have never abandoned any main event due to weather.  I have abandoned only one event-extension (ECE) due to an incredible headwind after having ridden 400km à tempo on fixed and I just couldn't make progress, so I had to turn back — but you can't dress for the wind.

FWIW, I have another overnight ride next weekend and I'll be taking almost exactly the same kit, apart from leaving the sleep kit at home (but taking the silver blanket and pillow, just in case).

Also, there's not much I'd change for a super-long event.  I think I'd pack a waterproof gilet, and soap and shampoo, but that's it.

Nick Wilkinson

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