Winter cycling in Korea is fantastic – the landscape is filled with willow-lined rivers, mountains, pine forests and modern cities and is starkly beautiful. At any time of year, South Korea is an ideal country to explore by bike. In Seoul there are massive dedicated cycle paths like motorways that run from one side of the city to the other as well as bike paths that criss-cross the countryside – it’s even possible to cycle the entire length of the nation and barely encounter any cars.
Most people put their bike away for the winter or abandon the idea of exploring on two wheels during a visit to Korea because they think it’s too cold or too dangerous. Suprisingly, Korea’s weather in winter isn’t too bad as long as you’re prepared. Except for at higher altitudes, the peninsula doesn’t usually get a lot of snow and what it does get is quite wet and usually melts within a couple of days. Expect high temperatures of around 10c and lows as cold as -20c overnight. Of course it’s cold enough to be dangerous or unpleasant if you’re not prepared – but it’s surprisingly cheap and easy to gear up so that you’ll be warm and safe on your two wheeled outings. Here are some tips to help you cycle in Korea during the colder months in comfort.
Once the temperature gets down below 10c, if you’re riding in regular fingerless cycling gloves, your digits will start to lose feeling. Below about 5c even regular winter gloves don’t seem to help much. When this happens, I find the best solution is windproof mittens with cotton or wicking inserts. Keeping your fingers all together in the one space keeps the heat in more efficiently. If it gets really cold you can also wear some light woolen gloves inside the mittens, although this can make it difficult to move your fingers. You can buy cycling mittens at most bike-shops in countries that have a snowy winter, or you can grab some online. The link is to some Gore mittens because Gore bike stuff is pretty awesome but the ones I use are cheaper and work just fine.
Merino Socks and Shoe Covers
I find that my toes are even harder to keep warm than my fingers. Obviously, your toes aren’t so vital to controlling your bike as your fingers are but you’ll find it’s hard to walk if you can’t feel your toes. The best solution I’ve found is to wear a thin, light pair socks underneath a thick pair of merino wool socks. It’s important to wear shoes that aren’t too tight with all those socks in them so that there is still some space for pockets of warm air inside. If it’s below 0c, it’s also a good idea to wear windproof shoe covers – they may not be very thick but they make a huge difference. I use some generic brand ones I picked up here in Korea years ago, but these ones look like just the ticket.
Once it drops below about 8c you’ll want to cover your neck and ears or the cold air constantly rushing over these extremities will make you feel you’ve dunked your head in icy water. A buff is perfect for keeping off the chill. Between 10c and 0c I usually wear just one and pull it up over the bottom half of my face, some people prefer not to cover their mouth as your breathing will make it wet – personally it doesn’t worry me. Once it gets below 0c I’ll wear a second buff over my head under my helmet to keep my head warm (they’re thin so it fits just fine) and a fleece neck-warmer as well. Amazon also sells them or you can pick one up in most hiking stores in Korea.
A Russian friend of mine often complains about the Korean winter – not because it’s too cold, but because it’s not cold enough! You see it’s cold enough to snow but it’s not really cold enough for the snow to be dry and powdery (as it is in Russia apparently)– it tends to be wet and slushy a lot of the time. It’s a good idea to have a breathable, lightweight, waterproof jacket and pants handy. I tend to use hiking gear, not the stuff that’s marketed for cyclists because it’s often cheaper and looks more normal. I‘ve found this jacket and these pants from Marmot lightweight and effective.
Even when it’s really cold outside, if you overdress when cycling you can end up sweating inside your clothes. This is bad because when you stop exercising you can find yourself wet and getting even colder than before. It can be extremely uncomfortable and even dangerous if you’re out in the countryside. Avoid this problem by layering lighter clothes underneath water/wind-proof shell and bringing a spare top layer. This way it’s easy to control your body temperature by peeling off a layer.
I wear my Marmot rain jacket anytime it’s below about 10c as it stops the cold wind from blowing right through me. If it’s between 5c and 10c I’ll just wear a thin merino wool top underneath and that keeps me toasty warm. Any colder and I throw a fleece jacket on between the merino and the Marmot jacket. For my bottom half, if it’s colder than 8c I’ll wear a pair of light synthetic long-johns under my regular cycling pants.
Riding on Snow…
You won’t see snow stay on the ground that often in Korea except during unusually cold winters or in the mountains. It’s not too slippery when it’s fresh but you should always be careful. If it’s just a light covering of snow, the best thing you can do is let down your tires to their minimum inflation for a little bit of extra grip and ride a little more slowly than you usually would.
If you get a few centimeters of snow on the ground then riding can be bit more difficult and dangerous – you can buy special snow and ice tires for these situations which have metal studs. I’ve never used them myself but, I’ve read that if they’re used on a surface that is not snow and ice, the metal studs will start to fall out rendering them useless. If you’ll be riding a lot in the mountains then they can be a good solution (you can grab some Schwalbe ice tires here), however at lower altitudes Korea doesn’t usually get enough snow to make these worthwhile.
Use special tires or don’t do it. Occasionally in Korea, after several feet of snow have fallen, it will begin to melt during the day and turn into a half-solid/half-liquid mush which is just solid enough to hold footprints and tire-ruts. At night the temperature drops to below 0c freezing the mush into ridiculously slippery ice complete with ruts. This is a deathtrap for cyclists. One minute you’re on you bike thinking “This isn’t so bad…” the next you’re lying on your side in the ground wondering what the heck happened. My advice is don’t even try it! Luckily it doesn’t happen often. If you come across a patch of solid ice, just get off and walk – immediately.
Keep these tips in mind and you should have a great time exploring Korea on your two wheels. The solitude and the starkly beautiful landscapes make it well worth it. Let us know if we’ve left anything out or if you have any questions. Happy riding!