Rain might not be a big deal on a recreational ride, but when we need to step into the office or store or restaurant, it’s nice to be dry.
However, that’s a little easier said than done. There are a ton of clothing options that all call themselves game-changers for wet-weather cycling, but if you’re new to bike commuting and urban riding in the light, where should you actually begin?
This is the perfect apparel for cycling in the rain
For short trips and low-speed city biking, a cycling poncho (also known as a rain cape) is the most convenient and breathable way to stay dry. It usually covers everything from your thighs up, so waterproof boots or gaiters also help. For longer rides, higher speeds, or windy conditions, consider actual rain pants and a rain jacket. But in a light drizzle, the cheapest and most comfortable option is any quick-drying synthetic jacket and slightly stretchy pants.
Let’s take a closer look at what these options are and how to know which ones make sense for you.
How the right apparel makes rainy rides better
More and more, I think overcomplicated our rainwear is half the reason many of us dislike riding in the rain to begin with.
Now, “simple” is relative to the conditions, and we’ll come back to that point in much more detail below.
To enjoy cycling in the rain, stick to the simplest and most minimal rainwear the conditions allows. A few more splashes are usually less unpleasant than having to suit up elaborately for a quick trip!
When all is said and done, clothing is a huge factor in making cycling a part of daily life. It’s helpful to have a bike that’s comfortable to ride in everyday clothing. Likewise, it’s helpful to keep your rainwear as straightforward and minimal as can be.
Fewer obstacles mean more cycling and more enjoyable cycling in any conditions.
What makes rain a nuisance for urban cycling?
I know, that sounds pretty obvious. Rain is wet. But it actually poses three different problems that might not all have come to mind.
First, nobody likes to arrive at their destination soaking wet, assuming they’re not planning to change.
Second, wet roads are a source of mud, oil, grime, brake pad dust, and all sorts of other things that you really don’t want on your clothing or cargo.
Finally, rain makes it hard to avoid a chill in temperatures that are too warm to snow but low enough to be uncomfortable. This is usually the high 30s through the low 50s.
We won’t worry too much about chills and hypothermia for now, since most urban cyclists aren’t out for long enough to face severe risk. (If you do find yourself chilled when damp, then try a wool base layer since they retain warmth when wet.)
As for keeping mud and road grime off of you, fenders are a simple and practically foolproof solution. The only catch is that they need to wrap nearly all the way around the front wheel to be truly effective.
It’s all too common that fenders are long enough to protect your upper body yet leave your shins and shoes exposed to filthy groundwater. Upgrades are almost always possible. If not, then you can make your own mud flap extension from a piece of heavy-duty vinyl from the hardware store, or perhaps even leather scraps.
With all that said, let’s go back to the first and biggest issue with rain: how to be dry when you get to your destination.
Rainwear options for urban cyclists
The right gear depends on the conditions. Since we’re not depending on our rain gear to survive days in the wilderness, it’s not all that hard to choose.
Here are my battle-tested recommendations after five-plus years of rainy, Pacific Northwest commutes and errands.
Skip the rain gear in mild conditions
At warmer temperatures, waterproof gear is uncomfortably toasty, even if it calls itself breathable (more on that in the next section).
Consider ditching the rain pants in favor of regular pants in a quick-drying synthetic fabric. For men, Outlier Slim Dungarees are a fantastic (but very expensive) option that has lasted me for years of bike commuting and general travel. Any mostly-synthetic blend, like Target’s terrific Goodfellow Tech Chino, will also work fine. Just look for a little stretch, since damp fabric has an unpleasant way of clinging to skin and restricting movement.
Even cycling jeans, like the ones covered here, will dry quickly enough to be bearable in a sprinkle.
Use a poncho for most rides
When wind is moderate or the ride isn’t very long, it’s almost impossible to beat the comfort and practicality of a cycling poncho.
Because they’re so loose, they can use 100% waterproof fabric without feeling like you’re in a plastic bag—even though, effectively, you are.
The obvious downside is that the same looseness that makes them comfortable also makes them like sails in strong wind. So, to reiterate, ponchos are most prudent when you’re not in heavy or gusty winds.
To clarify, just any poncho won’t do the trick. Hiking ponchos are cheap and easy to find, but they’re extremely long. Unless you’re about eight feet tall, that cut makes it almost impossible to sit on the bike and pedal it comfortably.
Cycling-specific ones will be longer in front and shorter in back, with a pyramid-like shape, allowing you to reach the handlebars without the garment getting tight or constricting.
Speaking of the handlebars, cycling ponchos have hand straps or thumb loops to make them easier to hold in place.
The good ones have plenty of reflective bits, too. That’s a small but invaluable feature during the poor visibility that comes with rainy days (and, especially, rainy nights).
Finally, riding ponchos have carefully designed hoods that cinch down to stay in place, out of your field vision. Nothing is scarier than venturing into a busy intersection as your hood shifts to block an eye!
A poncho obviously won’t protect your legs as well as actual rain pants. However, depending on its cut and on your riding position, it should roughly protect you from the knees up. The exact coverage depends on the poncho, of course, as well as on your riding posture and the position of your handlebars (since the front of the poncho will cover your hands, wherever they are).
In my experience, knee-and-up coverage is usually enough. Even plain old cotton jeans are bearable in the rain if the fabric around your upper thighs and hips stays dry. Of course, stretchy and quick-drying cycling jeans are a little better.
All the same, you might find rain pants or at least high gaiters useful during heavy rain exposure in a poncho.
When do rain jackets & pants make sense?
There’s one thing you absolutely must understand about rainwear, whether for cycling or any other purpose. Blocking more rain means causing more sweat.
It would be great to find an exception to that rule, and I’ve wasted heaps of money looking for one!
I’m well aware of fabrics that claim to be waterproof and breathable, and which carry a hefty price tag for their technical ingenuity. They’re not wrong—some moisture really does escape—but no current fabric can let much (or all) of your body’s evaporation out while still blocking the rain.
You simply get wet from your own sweat, or at least have significant condensation buildup on a gentler ride. The rain isn’t getting through, but you’re still not 100% dry.
That’s why a fully waterproof raincoat and rain pants are best reserved for extended rides (where wind chill from cold rain exposure gets dangerous), for high speeds or strong winds that make ponchos unusable, or for torrential downpours.
But if conditions warrant a true rain jacket, then look for what manufacturers call “mechanical ventilation.” That’s just industry jargon for openings via underarm zippers, two-way front zippers, upper-back vents, and so forth.
It’s ironic that most of the functional breathability in expensive “waterproof-breathable” rainwear actually comes from those low-tech features. Much to my surprise, I’m only slightly sweatier from my well-ventilated rubber raincoat than from my expensive Gore-Tex and NeoShell ones in the past.
The difference, of course, is that more traditional materials like rubberized cotton require practically no maintenance and can be a lot cheaper than the latest and greatest textiles. Just check for sealed seams and fully adjustable hoods, which traditional or fashion-oriented rain jackets may omit for cost reduction.
As with ponchos, take care to choose a fully adjustable hood.
Reflective bits are nice, but rarer on rain jackets than on ponchos. They’re also less critical. A cheap reflective vest is prudent in any weather and easily fits over most rain jackets.
If a rain jacket does make sense for your, then check out this guide for stylish options, plus more detailed tips to help you choose.
At the end of the day, go with what you’re most comfortable in and what will serve the widest variety of purposes. After all, part of integrating cycling into daily life is using (mostly) the same apparel as in daily life.
What about your feet?
Wet socks are nasty to spend the day in, and a literal hotbed for fungus.
Anything from rain-ready sneakers to full-on hiking or hunting boots can go a long way to prevent this.
Even though their material resists water, the ankle opening does not. In lighter rain, full-coverage fenders will keep most splashes off your feet and lower legs, and that’s usually good enough. For quick trips around town, it’s quicker and usually more pleasant to let yourself get slightly damp (and dry quickly) than to seal off every possible point of water contact.
For continuous exposure to heavier rain, you’ll need either gaiters or full-length rain pants that completely cover the tops of your shoes. Again, it’s overkill for most city riding. Sometimes the better answer is just to wait until the heaviest rain passes, just like you might do on foot.
(Pro tip: in warmer weather, simply wear sandals or sneakers without socks, and carry fancier footwear if the occasion calls for it. The best way to avoid wet socks is not to wear any!)
One last secret for year-round riding
Now that you have an idea of what to wear and why, here’s one final thing to keep in mind.
Less rain gear means more year-round riding.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting you venture naked into the storm. I’m saying that a closet full of rain gear for every conceivable combo of temperature and precipitation and humidity and barometric pressure will not actually get you out the door, on your bike, more often than a couple of essentials.
But it will cost you more.
Living life by bike (well, as much as possible) is all about simplicity. Removing unnecessary decisions, and learning to just deal with ever-so-slightly suboptimal clothes or conditions, is the key to making it happen.