I rode down to the local thrift shop the other day to take advantage of their 50% off sale. Half off on second hand stuff that's already so cheap , it doesn't need to be on sale. But hey, I love a bargain as much as the next person. I was on a mission to see if you could assemble a decent winter bike commuting wardrobe with thrift shop finds.

Over the years, I've used a lot of stuff from thrift shops as my cycling gear. Not specialty gear stuff; that never gets donated. It's so pricey, that if it doesn't work you return it to the place of purchase right away to get your money back. And if it does work, boy, you hold on to it, cherish it, and get every last red cent of use out of it, and when it starts to fall apart, you see if you can get one more season out of it, and then build it a funeral pyre.

I certainly have some stuff that will be going on the funeral pyre at some, hopefully very distant, point in the future, especially since many of those items are no longer in production, and it would definitely take some research to find comparable replacements. Great stuff is worth the money, there is no cheap substitute, and you’d be wasting your time trying to find it used.
So, back to the thrift store racks. Can I find equivalents, or at least adequate substitutes for technical gear?

Things definitely worth trying:

  • Wool Socks
    Yes, there are some funky thrift store socks out there. But there were also a bunch of Wigwam wool blend socks for 50 cents on half-off day! They were actually in decent shape. I’d say if you can find them, just wash them and see what happens.

  • Gloves
    You can usually find pairs of very warm looking ski mittens (for $2-4, they are certainly worth the risk), and in the past, I have found a terrific pair of fully winterized leather motorcycle gloves. But you gotta look.

  • Merino Tops
    Surprisingly, thrift stores often have fine-gauge merino wool crewnecks and turtlenecks, both in women's and men's department. They are not technical garments, but can work as decent, low bulk, warm cycling layers. Check the label. The best ones are pure merino wool, but sometimes a blend is OK. Go for the thin ones.

  • Mid-Layer Tops
    For layering, head over to the vest department, and see if you can find a fleece or tightly knit wool vest. In the activewear department, you can usually find pullover or zip-front synthetic fleece tops. For a few bucks apiece, these make serviceable layers for your torso. Keeping your torso warm helps to warm the extremities.

  • Bottom Layers
    There are some good, stretchy fleece pants. If you find some in good shape and not too bulky, you can turn them into an insulating layer by pairing them with the next item.

  • Wind Pants
    Thrift shops can be a veritable treasure trove of thin nylon over pants. Take your pick, though you may have to pick from some pretty arresting colors. That might be a good thing when you're on a bike. Note that these are not waterproof, but can be used as an emergency wind-cutting garment. Choose ones that are light-weight and unlined.

Forget it:

  • Base-Layer Tights
    Most of the ones I found are cotton, and that’s the last thing you want next to the skin when you’re perspiring on a cold day. It’s worth getting the real thing, like these Ridge Merino Midweight Tights (click here for more on next-to-skin layers).

  • Windfront Tights
    Nothing like that here. Any tights they have are pretty worn and gross. For cold but relatively dry weather, I recommend quality technical tights such as Showers Pass Skyline Pant (and here are my recommendations for foul weather gear).

  • Head Coverings.
    Thrift shop choices are not too great and way too bulky for use with a helmet. For $15-$40 you get a new headband (for milder weather) or a balaclava (for colder conditions) at a bike shop.

  • Technical Jackets.
    No way. You may find a light-weight windproof top similar to the pants for under five bucks. But if you want a warm, water resistant layer, go for the real thing.

That's it for my bargain tips. Tomorrow, I may tell you how to spend money at Rapid Transit.