Winter Riding Guide: Tips for the Pacific Northwest

A winter riding prep guide for rainy, dark weather.

“Wet, unpredictable, challenging and a hell of a lot of fun.” This is how bike commuter Patrick Edgarton of Seattle, WA, describes an average winter day cycling around the city. When asked if these words might also adequately describe a typical winter ride elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Edgarton replied, smiling, “It depends on the minute.”

Winter cycling in the Pacific Northwest is wet, cold and changes by the minute. As you plan your rides for this upcoming winter, remember to take the hourly forecast with a grain of salt, and that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.

Before You Ride

David Minton of Hutch’s Bicycles in Bend, OR, said, “Clothing is definitely the most important part of cycling in the winter.” Winters in the northwest range from wet on the coast to dry and snowy inland. While the past few years have seen an above-average amount of snow in the area, the snow eventually turns to slush. Adequate layers are key.

While Minton recommends arm and leg warmers for the cold, a quality jacket can also be just as effective. Showers Pass, which is among the brands Minton recommends, is a Portland-based gear and clothing company that specializes in multi-functional all-weather products. Their Elite 2.0 jacket is one of the best on the market. It has a patented three-layer fabric system that allows for maximum water resistance and high-tech breathability to prevent in-ride overheating.

Adequate hand and foot protection is essential because that’s where you feel the cold first. I always recommend a pair of DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks, which will keep your feet warm and wick away body moisture. For an added layer of defense for blocking the wet and cold, Sealskinz Chillblockers are a good mid-calf-length sock that combats this dual aggravation. Riders can also benefit best from an outer-shoe cover, such as the Showers Pass Club shoe covers, or the clipless-compatible Louis Garneau Neo Protect shoe covers.

A bad choice of glove can cut your ride short. A glove should allow for mobility, warmth and deflection of the elements. The Specialized Radiant, BG Deflect and Element WireTap gloves excel in these departments. For extreme cold, the Pearl Izumi Barrier Lobster glove is the best.

While You Ride

John Abernathy from Wheelsport East bike shop in Spokane, WA, suggests to all riders that they ride with lights, a few tools and a spare tube on all winter rides. “It can get dark fairly early,” Abernathy said. “Make sure to be seen.”

He also suggested outfitting your bike with fenders. They won’t always keep you dry, but they’ll save you cleaning time. Planet Bike makes a wide selection of different-sized fenders for all types of bikes, and SKS makes the Race Blade fender, which can be attached to road bikes that don’t have mount points for standard fenders.

The most important pieces of equipment for your ride itself are your tires. For wet weather, I recommend the Continental Contact Extralight tire, which comes in both 26-inch and 700c. It is an ideal water-diverting tire. The center of the tire stays in contact with the road while guiding water out through the side channels.

Knobby tires, such as the 700c Continental Cyclocross Race tire or the 26-inch Kenda Kinetics, add an element of stability to rainy riding, though the knobs can work against you if the rain turns to snow.

After You Ride

The purpose of this gear is to keep you safe and dry in bad weather, but chances are that no matter what you do, you’re still going to get wet.

If you’re commuting and you need to bring along a change of clothes, invest in a set of waterproof panniers, such as the Ortlieb Back-Roller classics. A waterproof backpack, like the Ivan Rolltop from Chrome, can also make a good ride partner.

The rain and slush will take their toll on your bike. After every ride, wipe away excess moisture from the drivetrain. Grit sticks to moisture and can wear down moving parts, which may cause mechanical problems if neglected. Wipe down your braking surfaces with rubbing alcohol to extend the life of your brake pads and ensure continued stopping power.

Winter riding in the Pacific Northwest isn’t always picture-perfect, but if approached with preparedness and confidence, you might find yourself missing it when it’s gone.


  • Joseph Herbert

    my cheap + highly effective foot-solution, for wet weather:

    Sandals (Tevas or Chocos),
    no socks,
    + soft booties (made of wetsuit-type-material… sorry, I don’t know they’re called, but it’s the exact same stretchy, insulating, fabric that scuba-diving wetsuits are made from).

    Yes, my feet are wet — BUT they stay warm (even in 40-degree weather),

    and my feet — plus the sandals — are VERY easy to wash & dry…. much easier, quicker, and more durable than shoes/socks.

  • David C

    Your advice on tires is dangerous. Knobby tires on wet pavement provide far less traction than slick tires. Knobby patterns provide less contact area, and knobs on the tread can flex around, particularly in corners. Having some tread in you tire pattern could be of some merit for road debris, such as fallen leaves, but going with an inverse tread pattern makes much more sense.

  • Gerhardt Bikykle

    I pretty much agree with the gist of what the article says. I, too, am a “penny-pincher” and have come up with these options.
    Shower cap over the helmet. Polka-dots add a Fashion Statement.
    Industrial strength rubber gloves (~$3.00 at grocery stores) large enough to accommodate wool or polypro gloves on your hands & fingers. Do NOT get them too small so they are tight.
    I wear an “expensive” Shower’s Pass rain jacket. And army-surplus water-proof pants for my 45-minute commute.
    High-top rubber boots that FIT MY FEET (with socks) that I have cut down to ankle-high. Dry Feet = GOOD!! Use rubber bands to close pants (see above) around the top of these boots.
    I do not “race” to work, and I do not dawdle. When I get to work the rain pants are slightly moist inside from sweat, and maybe the glove liners need drying out — which is totally easy and takes ~ an hour (leather takes longer).
    Full fenders on bike!

  • Kenneth Cohen

    I like the article for the topics it covers, but I don’t feel the need to go to expensive gear to survive. I commute 11 miles each way and I use expensive gloves for sub-freezing, but synthetic liners like inexpensive tees and tights with a decent windbreaker can make up for a $200 + coat. In the wet, when it’s cold, a pair of plastic shopping bags to keep the feet dry are good for a commute like mine. It’s not long enough to cause your feet to sweat too much and it keeps your feet dry and warm, I love wool and look for sale items anytime I can find them. Wool socks, an under-the-helmet cap, and glove liners are good, inexpensive alternative to the bicycling-specific products that are often too expensive to justify.

  • Phil

    I appreciate an article on the subject but this was more of a product showcase rather than being informative or helpful for me. Personally the major factors I’ve gleaned from winter riding in Vancouver are the following:
    • invest in a good pair of cycling tights – forget any kind of water proof pants. You will get wet, but with the heat trapped in those water proof pants, you will get wetty sweat any way. The tights allow your legs to breathe and if you’re riding at a good pace your legs will not get cold.
    • Screw buying expensive bike gloves engineered to be warm and repel water. Buy yourself a cheap pair of leather gloves – they’ll get soaked but they’ll keep you fairly comfortable and shouldn’t overheat your hands – dry them out and they’re good to go. And you won’t have any anxiety about dropping them in a puddle of dirt and mud.
    • Invest in powerful front and rear lights, totally worth it. Definitely get substantial fenders installed (other riders will thank you)… consider purchasing a closed helmet. I use one designed for Snowboarders (with warm lining) but it is rated for cycling.

  • Raymond Parker

    Some good tips, but I’d differ with the idea that knobby tires “add an element of stability to rainy riding, though the knobs can work against you if the rain turns to snow.”

    Knobs won’t do a thing for you on pavement, where it’s preferable to keep as much rubber on the road as possible. The tires recommended are made for soft surfaces, where knobs may indeed give more grip (that includes snow, though studs may also help).

    Hydroplaning on bikes is impossible, unless the rider can reach around 200 km/h.

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