29
Dec 2006
by mark

Bike Gear and Clothing Recommendations for Commuting in the Rain

My solutions for comfortable clothing and dry gear.

Rainy day gorge tour I was afraid of the rain. The car used to protect me from it when I got around. After several years of being car-free, I’ve been able to replace this fear with an understanding of how to stay comfortable when bike commuting in the rain.

What I’ve learned along the way that is the staying comfortable in the rain takes an all or nothing approach: Repel it or enjoy it.

Here are my strategies for both cases.

Quick List

Warm Rain

  • sandals
  • light, wicking shorts and t-shirt

Cool Rain

  • waterproof/breathable rain pants
  • waterproof/breathable hooded jacket
  • waterproof mittens
  • Neos overshoes

Summer Rain Gear

Rain gear for the summer is easy. Enjoy the cooling rain! I used to get all covered up in waterproof rain gear for summer rain. Not only did I feel a bit smothered, it was fairly easy to start sweating and becoming uncomfortable from this arrangement anyway.

What I’ve found is much more enjoyable is to wear clothes that are comfortable when wet, and carry clothes for my destination in a dry bag with me. This is the same clothes that are comfortable to wear on longer summer bike rides anyway, so there is nothing extra to purchase for the wardrobe here.

I’ll wear a wicking shirt– polypropylene or a lightweight merino wool– and some quick drying shorts, with material like swim trunks have. Cotton fails miserably for this purpose. Cotton becomes heavy with the water and sort of grates along the skin rather than glides. Just think of tight, wet jeans. The key atttributes when shopping here would be “wicking”, “quick drying” or even directly “comfortable when wet”.

I like to wear a bill cap to keep a little of the rain out of my eyes as well.

Similarly, I may wear quick-drying sandals in this weather, and forgo biking gloves. The thin strips on my Chaco “Z” series dry quickly, making them comfortable to wear even while they are wet or drying of. If required for my destination, I may pack additional shoes and socks.

The overall effect is that a bike ride in summer rain can be rather enjoyable.

I also mix and match this approach with the covered-up approach described next. Sandals might be paired by rain pants if seems comfortable on a particular day.

Winter Rain Gear

In a cold winter rain my approach is rather different. I achieve comfort by staying maximally covered and thus dry. Some of the particular clothing elements I use for cold rain include waterproof overmitts for my hands and a hooded hard-shell waterproof/breathable jacket. (Some of the softshell ones look interesting too, but I haven’t tried one yet!)

Legs

My favorite winter rain pants are soft shell pants. Since I’m tall but
not “big and tall”, I ordered some custom-sized pants from Beyond Clothing. These pants
are extremely comfortable, like sweat pants– I wear them all day on the
weekends sometimes, just because they are comfortable. They are not
100% waterproof, but are highly water resistant. A small company that
also makes custom-sized soft shell pants is Foxwear.

I’ve also tried some rain paints that didn’t work quite so well. First I tried the rubbery rain paints– think of the bright yellow outfit of the Gorton’s man. Besides not being designed for a bicycle seat, the material was so impermeable, I was destined to get wet from sweat if not rain. They quickly left my warddrobe.

Next up were some lightweight, waterproof breathable nylon pants with full length leg zippers from Marmot. The leg zippers were great for pulling them on and off in public. Being breathable reduced sweating a lot, and being lightweight made them super easy to transport. They were a big improvement. Ultimately, I was disappointed in their longevity. After two or three seasons, the ultra-thin waterproofing wore through in the crotch. Unfortunately, being 5% wet didn’t mean I was 95% comfortable. It was more like having a hole in a dam. The expensive pants became nearly worthless in a hurry. I tried a spray-on waterproofing (“G-line” from Granger’s), which didn’t help.

Those pants were “good enough”, but I decided to try something new, which is how I arrived at the Power Stretch pants I have now. I have yet to see how these pants will eventually fail, but it’s clear they don’t depend on the same kind of ultrathin waterproof layer for protection.

Feet

My favorite solution for dry feet in the winter is Neos Overshoes. I have the “Explorer” model. They go over my dress shoes (or any shoes!) are totally waterproof as well adding an extra layer of warmth. Since they are overshoes, there is no problem of how to carry another pair of shoes, since I’ve wearing them both! Their tall height also saves pant legs for possible splashing, and the top cinch to keep cold air and water from running into the boots. They are also lightweight and collapsible, so despite being boots, they compact very well to carry them as a “just in case” option. They really seem ideal for sloshing around in wet snow, but they certainly work great for bike commuting, too! I know that Pedal People wears Neos for their bike-powered hauling business during the snowy Northeastern winters.

As a second option, I also have some Neoprene booties, which leave the bottom of the shoe exposed to clip into bicycle pedals. I chose these if I want to prioritize wearing bike shoes, carrying little extra weight, or if there seems to be a low risk of rain. These booties are not 100% waterproof because of the open bottoms. The design also means that any water or mud on the shoes will remain when the booties are removed. Further, unlike the Neos, the booties aren’t durable enough to spend much time wearing them to walk on foot. Overall, they simply don’t have the durability of the Neos. ”Update, 2011: I haven’t bothered with the booties in a couple years. Perhaps I would pack them for a bike tour, but around town I always use the Neos for Rain and snow-slush protection for my feet.”

One more piece of rain gear for feet I have is some small gaiters. These are used to close the gap between pants and shoes, keeping the rain out of this transition. Another experiment, they offer no benefit in combination with the Neos, and little additional benefit when worn in combination with the neoprene booties. They are best suited for walking across wet ground, when I just need to protect the bottom of my pants or socks, without full rain pants. For bicycle commuting, they have offered little benefit.

If I were reconstructing my wardrobe, I would buy the Neos first, and consider doing without neoprene booties, although their ability to compact certainly makes them attractive to consider for a multi-day bike trip. The gaiters would also stay on the “wait-and-see list”.

Head and face

Keeping my face comfortable in a cold rain involves the same gear used when constructing a bicycle wind shield. I just adjust how much I wear on my head and face based on how hard and how cold the rain is.

Dry Stuff

A Dry Seat

On my Rans Vrex recumbent bicycle, I put an inside-out grocery bag over the seat to keep it dry. Learn from my mistake of putting the bag on right-side-out: You don’t want to be walking around with copies of the Target logo transferred to the seat of your shorts. The grocery bag works very well while I’m on the bike. If I need to get off the bike for an extended period, I try to take seat inside to someplace dry, since the cushion is easily removable. When that’s not an option, I double-bag the seat if I can. That tends to be sufficient for keeping the cushion from getting wet. Even if it does, the plastic bag still creates a barrier between the wet cushion and me.

”Update 2011: I don’t ride the recumbent anymore. Around town, a saddle with a synthetic cover may need no cover… you can wipe the ride off before you. For my Brooks saddle, I enjoy the tidy look of the Brook-specific saddle cover. I turn it inside out to hide the Brooks logo on the cover.”

Dry Gear

The easiest way to keep gear dry for bike commuting is not transport it. I keep a spare pair of dress shoes and a change of clothes at work in case I get unexpectedly wet. I rarely ever need them.

With lunch supplies, it’s a different story. I use longer term supplies stored at work nearly daily. A rice steamer, a 25 pound bag of rice and frozen beans frequently form the foundation. About once a week I’ll bring in fresh vegetables to steam along with the rice and beans, and some fresh fruit for snacks. So on a daily basis, I don’t have to worry with hauling food to work. Although, fresh fruit and vegetables don’t have a problem getting wet anyway– they are used to the rain!

Still, there are a number of possibilities to keep gear dry on bike trips. I’ve enjoyed having a lightweight grocery-bag sized dry bag, which is completely waterproof. The beauty of this bag is the simplicity. The roll-top clasp doubles as a handle. On summer walks in the rain, I’ll carry this bag on it’s own, with dry clothes inside. For other trips, it’s easy to throw in a backpack, or drop in a bike pannier which may not be completely waterproof on its own. I often use it to transport smaller electronics that I want to make absolutely sure stay dry. A wallet and cell phone are good candidates to carry this way.

I also have a large, stiff, heavyweight dry bag. It’s big enough to fit a conventional sleeping bag in. Although it would certainly be 100% waterproof, the large, stiff nature detracts from its usefulness, making it heavier and more awkward to carry. It wouldn’t fit inside of a backpack or pannier if it was completely full itself. I only use it when the other bag is too small, or for the mission-critical purpose of keeping the tent or sleeping bag dry on a bike trip.

My general purpose solution on bike trips is to use Arkel panniers, which are fairly waterproof on their own, but also be used with optional rain covers. I carry the rain covers within each pannier for easy access, but find I rarely need them for daily commuting. They are still worthwhile for particularly long or hard rains.

For extra paranoia, internal plastic bags could also be used. I’ve employed Ziploc bags, garbage bags, and even grocery bags in a pinch.

Once on a bike tour I used garbage bags to protect various things. I bought one of the extra “tough” brands, which was indeed durable and puncture resistant. They seemed like expensive garbage bags, but they were cheap rain protection!

In summary, there are lots of options to keep gear dry on a bike. Even sensitive items like laptops can be kept safe.

”Update 2011: I hardly use my Arkel panniers around town. For small
stuff I carry my 99% waterproof “Walking Bag” from Courier Ware. It’s easily carried by a Yuba Mundo, Big Dummy or Bakfiets if I don’t want it on my shoulder. I like this because it’s a light stylish bike that’s more pleasant to carry off bike than the heavier and technical looking panniers. (Although not all panniers are as technical and awkward off-bike, see the some of the bags by Basil for example). For big stuff I put it under the canopy of the bakfiets, in the giant Go Getter bag on the Yuba Mundo, or perhaps drop a grocery bag, dry bag or garbage bag into the Freeloaders on the Big Dummy. The options are necessarily “better”, the change is partly because the longtail cargo bikes don’t accept panniers without extra accessories”

Related Pages

I also recommend Ken Kifer’s page on this topic. He has some great practical, low-cost suggestions that I’ve put to use myself. There’s a specific section on “waterproof bags”, but the rest of the page is interesting as well!

Roland at the Ebent Recumbent Cycling blog also has
a page about cycling rain gear. He recommends three different sets of rain gear depending on temperature.

Related Posts

If you thought that was interesting, you might also enjoy these related posts:

Tags: ,

  • http://rockyhillside.net theboy

    Hi:
    I’m wondering how the Foxwear pants held up?
    Thanks.

  • Mark Stosberg

    I don’t wear them anymore. The fabric and construction quality was fine, but the fit and style ended being unfortunate. The legs were too long and the elastic waist and leg bands screamed “sports clothes!” along with the built-in reflective stripes.
    Lately, I’ve worn my not-very-special micro-fiber polyester dress pants in the rain. They look normal and dry quickly, and I can wear wool tights under them if it’s cool.
    I also have a pair of pants from Beyond Clothing which are very similar to the material in the Foxwear pants, but they approach looking like normal dress pants, so I can wear them on rainy rides to work without the certainty that I’ll need to change when I arrive.

  • http://rockyhillside.net theboy

    Thanks. I had never heard of Beyond until you mentioned them. I see why they fit your purpose (and mine) a bit better. But – wow – they are pricey. Not saying they’re not worth it, just saying that they are too much for me.
    I’m thinking of taking some simple shell pants and sewing in a knee section to make them longer and less binding.

  • Mark Stosberg

    It’s true Beyond pants are pricing. The cost can easily be justified as part of a car-replacement plan, but while they are very nice, they not miracle pants. The soft-shell design is comfortable, but they still get wet in heavy rain.
    So I would just as often choose a lightweight wool dress pants now, which are warm when wet, and black ones don’t show wet spots much. Plus, they look exactly like dress pants. :)
    I wear my micro-fiber dress pants when for moderate temperatures, or for sun protection. They don’t claim to be warm-when-wet, but they are lightweight and dry quickly if I haven’t been totally soaked.

  • http://carradice.co.uk/rainwear/pro-route-rainwear.shtml Dave

    Ever try a rain cape? biggest obstacles are the need for really good fenders with flaps and not mounting lighting to handle bars but lower to front tube or forks. Works very well unless the wind really whips up, but still manageable. At least I do not get wet from rain nor sweat any more.

  • Mark Stosberg

    Dave,
    I haven’t tried a rain cape, or even seen one in person. They seem like a neat idea that I’m interested to try.

  • JHM

    Now, I know these things are expensive and there is certainly a lot of hipster representation on the website, but I’ve seen their pants in person and they are incredible. They can handle chicago winter and salt and that’s really all you need to know. They have a nanotech treatment that’s built into the cloth. (I saw someone rub ketchup and mustard all over them and then rinse it all off with half a glass of water.) Anyway, they’re on my very short X-mas list and I think they’d be a good buy for any randoneur with a day job. Check them out at http://outlier.cc/

  • http://mark.stosberg.com/ Mark Stosberg

    JHM,
    For the cost of the Outlier pants, you can buy about six pairs of Haggar’s Cool 18 pants (sometimes available physically from JCPenney). They do a good job of blocking wind, are somewhat water resistant and have thus far not attracted chain grease either. I have two pairs. In the winter I wear tights under them to make them a year-round pant. I bought them based on experience with a pair of dress pants I bought at Goodwill and wore for everything from bike tours to wedding receptions, and yet never picked up any chain grease. The fabric turned to be a “microfiber polyester”, which is also what the Haggar pants are made of.
    I also have a pair of “Beyond Clothing” pants that cost as much as the Outlier pants are made with similar high-tech fabrics and treatments. Most of the time, the Haggar dress pants work just as well.

  • http://mark.stosberg.com/ Mark Stosberg

    JMH,
    For another perspective: if riding your bike is helping to eliminate a car in your life, then you likely saving $200 to $300 per month on car expenses (AAA’s official estimate for auto expenses is much higher). So a few “luxury” items for cycling are easily justified from the savings…or even an additional bicycle. If they keep you out cycling in more situations, they will pay for themselves.

  • James Gorman

    Hey there fellow 100% carless rider! We are developing a product for wet/cold/snow riding which does not require waterproof clothes. A prototype of our new product is shown at our site, landzeppelin.com. We are near production and would be most interested in your thoughts and comments. Hint- if you were wondering- you may go faster also with the device.