If you want to bike to work in normal clothes, then rain pants are a must-have.
They’re overkill for a drizzle, but worth their weight in gold when the clouds conspire against your commute.
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Quick pick: Shower Pass Transit Pants
We’ll get into plenty of details in a moment.
They’re simply the best rain all-around choice for commuters, or at least the most reasonable starting point.
Since buying mine a couple years back, it hasn’t even crossed my mind to try others. As the kind of person who wanders through REI for fun, swaps out his gear endlessly, and publishes a site that nitpicks its details, that’s saying something.
Any shortcomings? Arguably, the lack of upper-leg ventilation was an oversight. I don’t miss it much, but if you would, then consider the Showers Pass Refuge pants instead. Those cost about $100 more, so I wouldn’t recommend them otherwise.
The Transit pants are neither the cheapest or the fanciest. But they check every box for a daily commuter, full stop.
And what are those boxes?
Glad you asked…
First, here’s when you actually need waterproof cycling pants
Nobody likes getting soggy. But the reality is rain gear can’t breathe as fast as you can sweat.
Sure, you’ll wind up a little damp. But it won’t be from sweat, and it’ll generally dry out within an hour of heading inside.
But at some point, the rain is too heavy or the wind is too biting not to seal it out.
Nobody wants to shiver all the way to work, then spend the morning squishing around in water-logged socks and underwear. If that looks like a serious possibility, then it’s time to break out the rain pants.
(For the curious, here’s my full take on what urban cycling rainwear makes sense in which situations.)
What to look for in bike commuting rain pants
Loose-fitting, not baggy
Obviously, a loose fit will accommodate your clothes.
Less obviously, waterproof cycling pants usually don’t stretch, so a generous cut is the only way to move freely. It also maximizes airflow by leaving space between skin and fabric.
But just a few extra inches of fabric will suffice.
Beyond that point, it might wad up uncomfortably, and even catch on the nose of the saddle as you get on or off. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but waterproof MC Hammer pants may not be practical. Sorry.
Waterproof/breathable fabrics come in three varieties:
- 2 layers: outer shell + waterproof coating
- 2.5 layers: outer shell + waterproof coating + sprayed-on interior
- 3 layers: outer shell + waterproof membrane + inner fabric
As you go down the list, prices increase but so do the two things we need most in rain pants: breathability and durability.
Three-layer fabrics can simply take a beating that their lighter siblings can’t, and breathe (slightly) better all the while. That’s critical for clothing that will rub against the saddle thousands of times with each use.
Stitching creates needle holes and tiny gaps that water can permeate. Sealed seams (a.k.a. taped seams) solve that with a layer of waterproof material bonded to the underside of the stitching.
Voilà, no seepage!
You’re almost certain to find it on high-end or specialty cycling rainwear brands, but cheaper ones are hit-and-miss.
But proper seam finishing makes all the difference in a downpour, so check them top to bottom, and don’t hesitate to ask a salesperson or the manufacturer if in doubt.
Cuff cinches and zipper
Life is easier if you can don or shed your pants without shedding your shoes.
(Your rain pants. C’mon, I run a family-friendly operation here…)
For the sake of quickly suiting up and down, make sure there’s several inches of zipper running vertically from the cuffs.
However, pants that are wide enough to accommodate your shoes are also wide enough to catch on the chain.
To that end, your rain pants need cinches at ankle level and several inches above, so your clothes clear the chainring at every point in the pedal stroke. Simple Velcro works wonders, and is the easiest fastener to when you’re cold, wet, and begloved.
Most waterproof fabrics have no give at all. That’s necessary for toughness. That’s also why articulated knees are key for mobility.
“Articulated” sounds a little high-tech, but it simply means the knees have a slight flex sewn in.
It makes the knees bag out a little when standing, so it certainly doesn’t garner style points off the bike. Then again, if you’re wearing rain pants off the bike, style may not be a pressing a concern…
Lastly, it’s thoughtful if not essential to have reflective material on the pants.
It’s most helpful as a thick, top-to-bottom stripe on the sides. Your bicycle’s lights are less visible from that angle, so extra illumination can only help.
Remember your feet!
Over-pants cover your ankles, but strong rain may still find its way an inch or two under the cuffs.
I prefer simply to ride in boots, since there’s ample overlap to keep my feet dry. But if you’re partial to waterproof hiking shoes, or any other low- or mid-tip footwear, then go with shoes covers (also from Showers Pass, gaiters, or even these slightly odd-looking spats.
Other brands worth considering
I’ve already recommend the Showers Pass Transit pants as the go-to choice. They’re readily available and a good value for everyday commuting-top use.
But if they’re not quite your speed, you’ll find perfectly good options from almost every cycling apparel brand.
If you’re looking to save, then REI’s house brand is a great starting point for cheap-but-good gear.
Either way, if it’s rainy hard enough to need over-pants, then you’ll also want a proper rain jacket—ideally one stylish enough to work off the bike, too.
Here are my personal favorites to get you started.
And if you’re new to all-weather bike commuting, here’s everything you need to know about not just clothing, but essential gear and riding tips, too.