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A beginner’s guide to riding in the rain – arrive at your destination safe, dry, and happy.
Before we get started with the how-to and the gear guide, let’s address the why – why should you bike in the rain? Especially when there are so many other options like buses, trains, private cars, taxis, subways, Car2Go, Modo, Evo, limousines, Uber, that other car-sharing service with the mustaches, walking with an umbrella, walking in a raincoat, walking in a wetsuit, or my personal favorite: not leaving your house at all.
Unfortunately, we do occasionally have to leave our houses when we don’t want to, and if those occasions happen with relative frequency (say, Monday to Friday mornings), those limousine fares are going to add up. So why not bike?
Rainy-day bike commuting does not exactly scream “Fun!” to most people, and that’s understandable. It’s wet, dark, a little more dangerous than riding in the sun, and did we mention that’s it wet? In my early days of bike commuting I too was a fair-weather rider. I would hang my bike up whenever it so much as sprinkled and take the bus – getting soaked just seemed too inconvenient.
But then I began to realize that not having your bike with you is even less convenient than a little water on your face, and that there is magical clothing that will keep you dry in even the most inclement of weather. Things began to change.
First a rain jacket and a ride to work in a light drizzle, then rain pants and a day of errands in a considerable rainfall. I ceased to loathe the wet weather, and began to truly love it. The streets are quieter, the bike lanes are nearly empty, there’s a certain satisfaction in the heaviness of your breath against the freshness of the rain on your face. The next thing I knew it was waterproof gloves, a full-on rain suit complete with booties, waterproof panniers and a leisure ride in a torrential downpour praying for a hurricane. Okay maybe not that hurricane part, but you get the idea.
All of this is only to say that riding in the rain is fun. Honestly, it is. It’s time we changed our collective attitude about biking in the rain to one that embraces the rough weather, because if we’re truly going to shift to a culture of everyday biking, we’re going to need to accept that on some of the days it’s going to rain, and we might still have to leave the house.
So now that you’re excited about the next downpour, let’s address the how. If you already know what you’re doing but you’re just on the hunt for some new gear, feel free to skip ahead for the lowdown on the best rain gear for biking.
Riding in wet weather is not all that different than riding in dry weather, but there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure you have the safest ride possible. Here are a few tips and tricks for cycling in the rain:
Be wary of slick spots on the roads
Railroad tracks, manhole covers, or any form of metal are all going to be much much more slippery in the rain. Similarly, piles of leaves and painted lines will be a bit slick, as will anywhere you see gasoline on the concrete as the new rain brings up oil and gas left from cars.
Don’t ride through puddles on roads you’re unfamiliar with
Although riding through puddles seems like a great idea at first, it won’t be quite as much fun when it sends you flying over your handlebars. The reflection on the water can easily disguise potholes or dips in the road, so your puddle jumping (wheeling?) is best left for streets where you’re certain of the contours.
Be highly visible
Lights, lights, and more lights. Reflective clothing if you have it. I tend to dress in muted colors, so in the rain season I keep a small, foldable hi-vis vest in my panniers that I throw over my jacket on particularly dark, rainy days. You can pick up hi-vis vests at any construction outfitters for around $10. More on waterproof bike lights below.
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Be extra wary of motorists’ blind spots
Even with all your beams of LED, it’s best to run on the assumption that motorists cannot see you. Rain really obscures vision, so ride defensively. Make eye contact with drivers wherever possible, and stay out of blind spots.
Adjust your braking
Disc and drum brakes work well in wet weather, but rim brakes do not. Give yourself twice as long to come to a stop as you normally would.
Ride more slowly
Know your limits
Okay, I know I said I like to go for leisure cruises as hurricanes make landfall, but I might have been exaggerating a bit. If you can’t see 10 feet in front of you, it might be best to leave the bike at home. Similarly, if the wind is blowing so hard the trees look they’re about to uproot and fall, it’s safe to assume you won’t have an easy time staying upright on your bike. Taking the bus or those mustache cars every once in a while doesn’t make you any less of an everyday cyclist. And if it’s really thundering down, you should probably just Netflix and chill. Your boss will understand.
Okay, let’s be clear, the single most important piece of gear you need for riding in the rain is a good set of lights. Everything else is secondary. Beyond that, I would definitely get a good waterproof jacket and some warm, waterproof gloves, and install some fenders so you don’t turn your spinal column into a dirt road. Everything else follows by point of preference on whichever body part you’d most like to keep dry.
But let’s assume for a moment that it’s pouring buckets and you’re en route to a party in your favorite crepe paper tuxedo. Here’s what you’re going to need to arrive with that thing in one piece:
Cycling rain jackets are optimized to be fully waterproof and breathable while allowing for a range of movement, and they often have subtle (or unsubtle) reflective accents. The thing to be mindful of when choosing one is the hood. If you ride in a helmet, is the hood big enough to fit over it? If you don’t always wear a helmet, is there a cinch at the back to get it out of your eyes when it’s just your head? Importantly, does it obscure your peripheral vision? When you’re trying the jacket on, cinch the hood around your face and try turning your head to the sides to check if you can still see.
Cycling rain jackets can cost anywhere from $100 – $500 USD depending on the brand and style. Arc’teryx, Endura, MEC, Novara, Showers Pass, Mission Workshop, 02 Cycling Rainwear, Patagonia, and Visijax all make excellent cycling rain jackets. Arc’teryx will put a dent in your pocket, but is a seriously good investment for its breathability, fitted hood and commitment to quality. Patagonia, North Face and Columbia don’t make cycling-specific jackets, but make gear optimized for movement and the outdoors, so they would still be good places to look.
If your commute is short and you’re looking for a stylish rain jacket that works well on and off the bike, check out Nau, Happy Rainy Days, Outdoor Research, Vespertine NYC, and Mia Melon. Cleverhood is not a jacket, but a rain cape designed with cyclists in mind. It has reflective piping and hooks to your thumbs to cover your legs, so can replace the need for a full kit on not-totally-soaking commutes.
Cycling rain pants are designed for breathability, and often have reflective accents and tapered seams or ankle straps to keep them out of your chain. There are a few waterproof pants on the market designed to be your primary pant, but for the most part the products available are simply over-pants that you throw on over your jeans and remove when you arrive at your destination. On the hunt for stylish rain pants? Wouldn’t bother. They’re rain pants, they’re not meant to be cool.
Rain pants cost anywhere from $60 – $150 USD depending on their breathability and features. Showers Pass, Novara, MEC, Gore Apparel, Patagonia, 02 Cycling Rainwear, and Endura all make cycling-specific rain pants. Anything made of Gore-tex is going to be more breathable if you’re regularly commuting long distances in the rain, but if you’re just looking for a waterproof pant to quickly throw on for short trips or in unexpected showers, something less expensive like the Showers Pass Storm pant will do just fine.
Your lights won’t do you much good if they spark and die out in a bit of water. Fortunately, most companies these days make their lights water-resistant at the very minimum. Depending on the kind of rain you expect to be riding in, look for something that has a balance between brightness and water-resistance.
Blackburn, Cat Eye, Knog, Lezyne, Light & Motion, PDW, Planet Bike, Sigma, and Nite Rider all make good waterproof bike lights, which range from $60 – $200 depending on the brightness and other features. The Planet Bike Blaze front light which I ride with is advertised as “water-resistant,” but has held up well in a Pacific Northwestern winter and is insanely bright. The Knog Blinder series are all fully waterproof and very bright, and are really reasonably-priced for their quality.
Alright, your crepe paper tuxedo won’t dissolve if your hands get wet, but it will significantly reduce your enjoyment of your ride. Unless you live in the tropics and ride exclusively in warm rain, all that water is going to make your fingers pretty numb pretty quickly – good, warm, waterproof gloves are a worthwhile investment.
If you’re not in a position to be buying expensive gloves, throw on a pair of fleece gloves from the dollar store and wear dish gloves over them. It doesn’t look great, but it does the trick.
I see some people riding all winter without fenders. I don’t get this. Fenders are pretty necessary for comfortable wet-weather rides. They keep all that water from spinning up your tires and landing all over your pants, back, and face. Fenders are available in materials ranging from metal, to wood, to plastic to bamboo, and range in price from $20 – $150 USD, with most sets sitting around $50.
Planet Bike, Axiom, Portland Design Works, SKS, Blackburn, Evo, Bontrager, Electra, and Soma all make fenders for a variety of weight and style preferences. Blackburn’s Central set are your basic, lightweight, plastic fenders, or if you want to go a little more organic, Planet Bike’s Grasshopper bamboo set is gorgeous and functional for a few bucks more. If it doesn’t rain often and you don’t want to go for full fenders, you can get clip-on fenders for about $20 USD which can be easily attached and removed in minutes, tool-free.
Gone are the days when wearing waterproof shoes meant looking like you’re dressed for an alpine expedition or a day on the farm. So many brands are making waterproof footwear that you’re sure to find a pair that suits your style.
Chrome Industries, DZR Performance Shoes, El Naturalista, L.L. Bean, Hunter, Blundstone, Sorel, Kodiak, Merrell, and Cougar are all great places to look for waterproof shoes in a range of styles. Even Nike and Converse are getting in on the trend, with Nike coming out with a waterproof sneaker this year, and Converse releasing a rubber version of their iconic Chuck Taylors.
If you just want to wear your regular shoes, you can get waterproof shoe covers that you can just take off and pack away when you arrive. Showers Pass, Gore and SealSkinz make cycling-specific shoe covers for $40 – $60 USD, all of which are designed to function with clip-in road bike shoes.
Alternatively, there is always good old rubber boots from the hardware store and you can just pack your inside shoes in your bag.
It’s all well and good if you arrive at your destination dry, but the enthusiasm will be short-lived when you realize you’ve put your laptop through nature’s wash cycle. So whether your preference is panniers, backpacks, or messenger bags, finding one that’s waterproof is key.
Ortlieb, Vaude, Detours, Banjo Bros, Altura, Green Guru, Novara, Chrome Industries, Thule, Rickshaw, Timbuk2, Two Wheel Gear, and Swift Industries all make waterproof panniers, and you can similarly find waterproof backpacks and messenger bags at Osprey and Mission Workshop, as well as most of the brands listed above.
Honestly, for commuting, I wouldn’t bother with cycling glasses. A lot of people like to ride with them on wet days because it keeps the rain out their eyes, but I’ve found it keeps the rain droplets stuck to the lenses right in front of my eyes, which seems only marginally better if not worse. But if you want cycling glasses for the rain, go for clear or yellow lenses to retain as much light as you can. Smith, Oakley, Tifosi, and Native Eyewear all make good cycling glasses, and they range from about $60 – $300 USD. You could also buy safety glasses from a construction outfitters or science lab supplier for a fraction of the price.
Moving away from glasses, a reader wrote us earlier this year with her method to avoid water in the eyes, which I’ve since adopted and highly encourage. Julianna says she just wears a baseball cap, which keeps the rain out of her face, her makeup intact, and has the added bonus of forcing the hood to turn when her head turns so she gets better peripheral vision. The downside is hat hair, but hey, nothing’s perfect.
Other than the rain, of course! There are a bunch of great products on the market to make your rainy-day bike commuting as comfortable as it possibly can be, but the most important thing (besides the bike), is just deciding to do it. Biking in the rain is great, it gives us the chance to connect with our environment and allows us to continue to do what we love despite the weather. And at the end of the day, it’s just a little water right?
Hilary Angus is the Online Editor at Momentum Mag. She gets everywhere by bike in the seemingly endless rains of Vancouver, BC. @HilaryAngus