My solutions for comfortable clothing and dry gear.
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.
- light, wicking shorts and t-shirt
- waterproof/breathable rain pants
- waterproof/breathable hooded jacket
- waterproof mittens
- Neos overshoes
- Summer Rain Gear
- Winter Rain Gear
- Dry Stuff
- Related Pages
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!)
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.
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.
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.”
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”
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.
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