How to bike in the Seattle rain

Green spaces like Interlaken Park really come alive in the rainy months.

One of the best parts about living in Seattle is that you can easily bike year-round. It rarely drops below freezing in the winter, and it never gets too hot to bike in the summer. However, from October through June, you gotta be ready for some rainy rides.

But for me, biking is the rain is not a chore. Especially once days get really short and gray, biking is my best defense against seasonal affective disorder. Pedaling is like generating your own sunshine. It keeps you feeling energized and in touch with Seattle’s natural rainy whimsy that you might miss otherwise (one rainy ride up Interlaken or Colman Parks and you’ll see what I mean).

But feeling uncomfortable or unprepared is an impediment to more rainy biking. So here is the official Seattle Bike Blog guide to biking in the rain. You may surprised to find that most of what you need is already sitting in your closet…

What to wear

Do you own warm clothes that you wear when walking in the rain? Then you already own everything you need to bike in the rain.

Most city bike trips do not require special clothing, even in the rain. Over time, you will discover outfits and items of clothing that make rainy biking more comfortable. But don’t get intimidated by your lack of bike-specific clothing. If what you own keeps you dry enough to wait for a bus or to walk a few blocks from a parked car to your destination, then it is good enough for a quick bike trip across town.

What bike to ride

The bike you already have! Any bike can be a rain-riding bike. You don’t need special tires or even fenders (though, seriously, fenders will go a long way toward keeping you dry, and the person biking behind you will thank you for not spraying them in the face).

One thing your bike does need you should already own: Front and rear lights. You should use your lights when it is raining, even if it is light out. Remember, even if you can see well in the rain, you want to be seen through foggy car windows and windshields with faulty wipers.

Additional advice

Okay, now that we’ve got the “necessities” out of the way, let’s talk about ways to make rainy biking more comfortable. Anything you find that makes cycling in the rain comfortable for you is great. There is no “best” solution. As reader Chris Nygaard put it:

“Make mistakes by trying things and realizing they are wrong for you, not because someone told you they were wrong.”

I’ve met people who simply throw on a poncho and ride away. I’ve also met people who prefer to dress entirely in rain-ready bike clothes (sometimes modern Lycra, sometimes vintage wool jerseys). Some people look ready to climb a mountain, others look like they’re headed to a Parisian catwalk.

When I first started biking in Seattle, I was relatively ill-prepared. I didn’t have fenders or a rain jacket. This was not a problem until sometime in October when I hit my first real downpour. However, I noticed the wettest parts of my body were my shins and feet due to the constant spray coming from my front wheel. This problem was easily solved by buying fenders (probably the single most important rain-specific item you can buy).

Then I went and bought a synthetic rain jacket. I also borrowed a pair of rain pants for a few trips (I personally didn’t like them because they felt too hot, but lots of people swear by them). The rain jacket is obviously a favorite among Seattle bike commuters (you’ve probably noticed their near-ubiquity around town by now). They are functional and they do not take up much room in your bag when not in use.

However, if synthetic rain jackets don’t really fit your style (or if you don’t have it in your budget to buy a decent one), then look for wool sweaters, jackets and coats. Cotton absorbs water (that’s why it is used to make towels), but wool resists water and dries fairly quickly. Another plus to wool: Thrift stores are full of cheap wool clothes. So if you don’t like wearing the same jacket every day (or don’t have the budget for a wardrobe full of REI stuff), then wool is your friend.

My next best piece of advice: Warm gloves. As I noted earlier in this post, you very likely already have these in your winter wardrobe. However, if your gloves do not dry quickly, it’s not a bad idea to have a second pair on hand or to get some gloves that are more water-resistant (putting on cold wet gloves sucks).

I’m also a huge fan of wool pants. When I first started biking in the rain, I wore jeans. But since jeans are made of cotton, they take forever to dry. And wearing wet pants sucks worse than putting on wet gloves. I’m not organized enough to have a set of dry clothes on my at all times (and I don’t like wearing rain pants), so I found switching to wool pants made my life a lot easier during the winter.

After all, since biking and rain are both parts of my daily life in Seattle, wearing clothes that are good for biking in the rain has simply become my style.

Advice for women

I asked my partner Kelli, who probably bikes more rainy miles than I do, for some rainy biking advice for women. Here’s what she wrote:

In my experience fleece-lined leggings are a winter staple. As an avid skirt lover, I find these warm leggings help me wear skirts and dresses year-round. They are synthetic fibers and usually resist getting soaked for the duration of a typical commute. You can find fleece-lined leggings at a variety of places around town. My favorite pairs came from (Seattle Bike Blog sponsor) Hub & Bespoke, but I have seen cheaper versions at Target. Wool tights are another great option for keeping legs warm.

As far as skirts and dresses are concerned, avoid cotton because the fabric easily soaks through and will stay damp for a while.

That pair of really cute boots you have in your closet will also serve you well biking in winter weather since they cover the shins. Wool socks and leather boots keep feet dry and your look polished (of course, keep your suede boots in the closet for those dry days).

Finally, if it is really pouring just pack your work clothes in your bike bag and change when you get there.

Well, there you have it. Seattle Bike Blog’s purposefully-incomplete guide to biking in the rain. For more helpful tips, check recent posts on Cascade’s blog and Bike Portland.

Have some good advice for someone looking to stay comfortable on a bike through a Seattle winter? Have a specific question about staying warm and dry? Discuss all things rainy biking below.

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46 Responses to How to bike in the Seattle rain

  1. Jack says:

    Well done. I like that you kept it simple.

    It really is a “trial and error” process to figure what works.

    My own thoughts, Fenders make a HUGE difference. Get ‘em.

    I’ve lived here now for over 20 years. I’ve done a lot of activities in the rain. Several of them suck.

    Skiing in the rain- sucks. Camping in the rain- kinda sucks. Cycling in the rain – isn’t that bad. One tends to stay warm and usually its a finite period of time with no additional costs.

    Give it a shot!

  2. Megbikes says:

    Great article, Tom! A few more hints:

    1) I find I can’t leave home on rainy days without a decent pair of gloves- my hands are always prone to cold, even more so when they are wet. Cycling-specific gloves have extra reinforcement in the palms, but any thin glove will do (you want to still be able to hold the handlebars and brakes easily).

    2) On the topic of brakes, they aren’t as effective in the rain. Be sure to give yourself more room when braking (start stopping sooner than you would when it is dry out). You can also switch your black brake pads for rain-specific (softer) brake pads- those tend to work a little better in the rain and cold.

    3) It can also be slippery in places, especially along bike paths where a particular kind of moss grows, that gets very slippery when wet. Ride a bit more cautiously than you would in dry weather.

    4) Be aware that drivers may not see you as easily in the rain (especially if they’re driving around with rain-induced window fog). Consider wearing brighter colors or adding more lights/ reflection, especially at night.

  3. Becky says:

    Investing in waterproof panniers was also a great idea, for me. Before that I’d stuff all the important stuff in a plastic bag and put it in my backpack, which then was awkward and heavy and also very wet.

    I think there are two really major important points here: 1) There’s no one right thing to wear/way to do it, and 2) when it’s really pouring you probably ought to bring a change of clothes.

    Re: gloves, I’ve found that a thin pair of full-fingered bike gloves actually keeps my hands warm enough. They get wet, but allow me to keep moving and using them to brake.

    One thing I still struggle with is being able to regulate my body temperature with the hills. Dressing for comfortable downhill riding means getting really hot on the way uphill, even when it’s in the low 40s or colder.

  4. Jessie K says:

    I’m a huge fan of fleece-lined tights and boots! If you have a good pair of tights, you’ll have to get really soaked before you even feel wet. I really hate the friction feeling of wet pants rubbing against my legs, so I almost exclusively go for tights and skirts when it’s rainy out. I also vastly prefer wearing (thrifted) wool sweaters rather than a rain jacket for normal Seattle drizzle, though I usually keep a thin rain jacket with me in case it actually starts raining.

    Great tips—especially about the lights and bright colors. Drivers have so much more to pay attention to when it’s raining, and visibility’s worse, to boot. I always just assume that no one can see me, and act accordingly. It’s saved me from getting squashed more than a few times.

  5. Steve A says:

    Avoid steel rims! From one who took more than an entire block to stop coming down the hill from Bryant Elementary.

    • John says:

      Oh god, yeah. The first time you try to stop in the rain and realize you aren’t is horrifying. Aluminum rims all the way.

  6. doug says:

    Some nice tips! Here are some of my own thoughts, after years of riding in the rain:

    I finally got some shoe covers for my bike shoes this season. It makes a huge difference for me, since no fender has done a good job of keeping my feet dry. I still carry an extra pair of wool socks with me to make sure I have dry feet when I get to work.

    I find a pair of cheap rag-wool gloves keeps my hands quite warm well into the 30s, despite their lack of wind or water proof-ness. When the going gets really cold, I use a pair of OR overmittens with thin glove liners underneath.

    I’ve used wool pants for years and agree they’re great for winter riding. I’ve since switched to REI synthetic pants, since finding a pair of wool pants that fit me well, looked good, and are durable was proving difficult. The pants I wear now, the “Adventure” model, are durable and dry very quickly. For days below freezing, I wear long underwear as well.

    I bought a pair of “Rain Legs,” which cover the tops of your thighs. I found that the material used with them was not waterproof at all. Perhaps I got a defective pair, but I was not impressed at all.

  7. Al Dimond says:

    One problem specific to biking in 30-40 degree weather (or running in sub-zero weather, but there isn’t a lot of sub-zero weather in this town) is losing blood circulation to the hands… at least it is for me. I’ve found that no glove is good enough if I don’t keep my forearms and torso warm. So if you get cold hands, make sure to layer up on your arms. If you need an extra layer on your arms but your torso is getting hot, arm warmers are nice (I don’t know if bike shops carry these; some sporting goods and running stores do).

    • Al Dimond says:

      Oh, and there’s like one exception to not abandoning things because someone told you it was wrong: tires with significant tread patterns (knobby off-road tires). If you want to maximize grip on wet paved surfaces get smooth tires, get them as wide as will work with your equipment (rims, fork, brakes, fenders), and run them at appropriate pressures for their width and load. Often wider tires designed for road use have either thin grooves like motorcycle tires or small amounts of tread; both are OK, and neither really affect grip or handling (the grooves don’t constitute much surface area and though it’s possible that certain patterns can affect handling and wear on motorcycles, biking doesn’t subject the tire to such large forces or high speeds; small protruding treads are smashed under the weight of the rider within the contact patch and make no difference at all).

      Car tires need tread to avoid hydroplaning. Bikes have narrower, higher-pressure tires, and operate at lower speeds, so bikes do not hydroplane. The traction of bike tires is thus determined by the material properties of the tire and the total area in contact with the ground. Serious knobs reduce the amount of rubber in contact with the road (they’re designed for, and useful for, soft surfaces). And you really, really don’t want the tires that are smooth in the center and seriously knobby on the edges — if you lean into a turn enough to engage the edge of the tire you actually lose grip.

  8. Gary says:

    If you like wool, ibex.com is your friend… buy their stuff on sale and on ebay.

    I also love kevlar extraction gloves. They come in bright colors, and when you fall, your hands will still not be scraped up. Get two pairs, one to ride to work, one to ride home.

    Don’t be afraid to make a coat rack in your cube/office. A piece of PVC pipe, some coat hangers and a pair of pliers to wire/rig the pipe up as a rod and you can dry everything out during the day. Just wash it at least once a week to keep the odor down, but by drying it daily the ride home is nice for at least the first few minutes no matter what the weather.

  9. Bill says:

    Two items to keep your head warm and dry:

    1. A helmet cover. Some people wear plastic bags or shower caps, but a helmet cover will allow some cooling airflow while keeping your head dry.

    2. A thin wool skullcap. These are easy to carry in a pocket and you can use them off the bike, too.

    Rainlegs can be very good, depending on how warm your legs get. Some people find them too warm (especially when wearing wool). They are not breathable, so you will still be wet if you sweat a lot. The waterproof coating is not super durable. They provide good wind protection even when the coating is shot.

    Bar Mitts — neoprene handlebar covers — are great. With these I can ride through winter rain with short-finger gloves.

  10. Drew says:

    It may be tempting, but don’t run over banana slugs on the BG. People have lost control and been badly injured as a result.

  11. Joseph says:

    Great suggestions, Tom! But let’s not forget the most important part: caring for your bike after it’s been in the rain a lot. Here is some things I’ve found useful:

    -wipe down the rims when you get home (while they’re still wet); that will get rid of most of the grime. Grime will wear down brake shoes and rims in zero time.

    -check your brake shoes; they’ll need to be replaced more often in the winter.

    -clean your drivetrain regularly: that means the chain, chain rings and cassette, and especially the two pulleys below the rear derailleur, where a lot of the dirt tends to accumulate. Clean the works with some degreaser, wipe it all dry (I use a hair dryer), and lube it all. This is all best done with the rear wheel off. If you don’t know how to do all that, ask a friend, take a class, or read up on it.

    Lots more you can do, but these are my basics.

    You may want to set one day a week when you do all this; your bike will be grateful, and your rides will be easier – and safer!

    • Gary says:

      On keeping your bike clean, the building I used to work at had a hose with warm water, and a large enclosed tiled “tub” for washing down the garbage cans. I used it to wash my bike about once a week and that helped cut the grime by a huge amount. So look around your building for similar facilities!

  12. Beno says:

    Staying warm in cold, rainy conditions is paramount.
    My first 2 to 3 years of rain/warm clothes for biking consisted of an improvised (read: tight budget) mish-mash of mountain-bike style shorts with knee & leg warmers and layers of upper body wool/cotton/parka. Over the last year I’ve invested a bit more in my rainy/cold riding comfort: REI’s Novara ‘Headwind’ long-sleeve zip jersey (purchased early this year) and Headwind pants (purchased last month). I LOVE these two products, and combined with a light-weight Gore-Tex parka, a long-sleeve smart-wool base layer, an ear covering headband and a bike-hat under my helmet make for supremely comfortable cold, rainy riding. With knee warmers under the pants for when it’s really nasty out, I’ve actually been a bit too warm in this combo, and I’m looking forward to colder temperatures!
    And no, I’m not affiliated with REI in any shape or form – I just think the Headwind stuff is a great deal for the money, considering how expensive bike clothes can get.
    Keep the rubber side down!

  13. amy says:

    Anyone have a suggestion for fogged up glasses? I regularly wear glasses, but find they fog up too much in the rain. So then I switched to contacts but everytime I go even moderately quickly, the contacts come out of one or both or my eyes. So then I bought a pair of Tifosis that have a vent in the sides of the lenses, but the minute I stop, they get just as foggy as my regular glasses and I’m blind for a block. Super hard to deal with in the dark and wet. Would love any tips because I don’t mind the rain at all, but I need to be able to see to keep cycling in it!

    • Kirk from Ballard says:

      I too wear glasses, but they don’t seem to get fogged up. I have a helmet with a visor that works well to keep the rain off my glasses. A bike hat with a visor might help too. Another option would be a no fog cloth that they sell at ski stores for skiing goggles.

  14. Astrid says:

    I knitted some earwarmers that work a treat. The helmet straps slide into the sides. Here’s a link to the free pattern: http://brineydeepdesigns.blogspot.com/2008/10/free-pattern-bike-helmet-earmuffs.html

  15. Lawrence Doan says:

    Re: Fogged glasses

    There are products out there for that, but what I do is just wash them with soap and water, and then let them drip-dry so a thin film of soap remains. You have to experiment a little to avoid leaving streaks, but you’ll know it’s right when the water doesn’t bead and there’s not much soap.

    Dish soap works best. Just a drop smeared with the fingers on and rinsed off does the trick.

    Usually works for an hour, and it will come off in actual rain, but it’s cheap and your glasses are clean as a bonus.

  16. rich.elgin@facebook.com says:

    Old school here … And inexpensive … But if you don’t mind your hand getting all sweaty during a ride, kitchen rubber gloves are amazing. If you are like me and your hands get wet and cold once wet against the wind while riding your problems will be solved. You center also buy a cheap slightly larger pair if wool gloves to tuck the kitchen gloves inside if you need it on dark cold wet rides.

  17. Kirk from Ballard says:

    Great comments by all and really good advice. What works for me:
    Breathable nylon rainshells, both pants and bright green jacket.
    Under the shell, lightweight or medium weight REI Polartec zip turtlenecks and long johns. If it’s early in the rainy season, I wear bike shorts under the shell. I find the zipping t-neck and the venting of the jacket can be fine tuned to keep me warm enough and cool enough all the way until freezing temperatures with just the polartec underneath.
    Skull cap under the helmet. Keeping the ears warm is key to staying warm.
    Bright green rain cover for the helmet with lots of extra reflectors ironed on.
    I love the Pearl Izumi bike shoe toe covers. I found I don’t need the full coverage of a bootie, and that booties are too much of a hassle to put on and take off. I can leave the toe cover on all season, and it keeps my feet warm and dry.
    I like the long finger Pearl Izumi Cyclone gloves in bright green. They keep me warm down to about 40 degrees. They dry slowly, so I have two pairs. The guys at REI turned me on to Komperdell Freeride cross country ski gloves for cold days. They were expensive, but so worth it. Waterproof, breathable, textured palms, perfect. An easy match for a freezing day.
    The bike has full fenders covered with green reflector stickers on every backwards facing surface, and a couple of red ones to comply with the letter of the law.
    Bright headlight and tail light and another tailight on the helmet.
    And the best part are the MonkeyLectric led wheel lights. Google it. They make my entire front wheel light up. I actually really miss them when it gets light enough in the spring to not turn them on.
    As everybody else noted, visibilty is key to keeping safe. Lots of bright colors, lights and reflectors.

  18. Andrew Squirrel says:

    3-words:
    Boot & Glove Dryer

  19. Chris Covert-Bowlds says:

    2 pairs of mittens, to keep my hands warm. neoprene boots over my cycling shoes, keep out water for awhile, then even when soaked through, keep my feet warm.

  20. jeanette says:

    i love the wool suggestions and would love to try it (my nylon rain jacket loves to collect my sweat underneath it), but i’m allergic to wool! i am surprised this hasn’t been mentioned yet, but maybe it’s not as common as i thought. also, i keep a space heater under my desk at work to dry out shoes and other gear on days that it’s pouring during the morning commute.

  21. Tim says:

    I have my wardrobe from MEC in Vancouver (REI) in the US. I have a new drencho jacket which has kept me dry and sweat free with the cool rains we have, the rain pant, shoe covers and rain gloves. I found that the rain gloves got clammy. I now use them with a thin cycling glove inside them and now they comfortable for a 45 minute commute. I also like to use clear safety glasses to keep the rain out of my eyes. I am considering the helmet cover but so far I have found I don’t really need it as I usually do my hair at the gym at work when I get in. Now with the cooler water I don’t need a shower though.

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  29. Stuart Strand says:

    Nice half measures to keep out the creeping seep, but the real solution is to ride recumbent with a front fairing, a tail box and a fabric “body stocking” between. Go as hard as you want: no moisture buildup. Ride in comfort, recumbent!

  30. All great points. Particularly the assertion that you don’t need to look like you are scuba diving to ride a bike in the winter. Wool works great. Less clammy, resists water up to a point, and it breathes.
    Fenders are essential and I am always surprised when it starts getting wet, how many people ride without them. But if you have fenders, a front mud flap works like a miracle to help keep your feet dry (er) and your drive train cleaner.
    Jan Heine has some good articles on this and on making your own. See links from my blog post here: http://thelowcycle.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/thinking-about-mudflaps/

  31. C. Wilton says:

    RE: Wool

    I absolutely love my Ibex, but have found adding to my wardrobe at the thrift stores to get too-big wool and then take it home and boil it. Shrinks up to make a denser more wind and water resistant garment. Next to try is soaking them in paraffin for more water-resistance. Recipes in google.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Interesting! I’ve never thought about buying large and shrinking on purpose to make it more dense. Might have to try that. Thanks for the idea!

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  33. Carey says:

    XC Ski Gloves – I find them better than bike gloves when raining. Often bike gloves soak up the wet and bleed the dye, whereas the XC’s don’t because they are designed for the wet. I use a relatively thin, non-insulated pair and when colder add a wool or synthetic liner glove.

  34. Roy Wilkie says:

    Sorry, Tom, but as someone who worked as a bike courier for ~10 years in Seattle, I get tired of hearing this type of advice. What you’re basically saying is – “it’s OK, just wear/ride whatever, you’ll cope”, followed by the same list of half-measures that will only last you a short commute if you’re lucky.
    But that’s not the information people are seeking, they want to know what really works. Encouragement just to go experiment and see what works? Nice, for what it’s worth – but why not give more info.

    Here’s a quick rundown of my best rain-riding advice;

    What bike you ride in the rain matters a lot. It’s worth mentioning even for the shortest commutes. Generally, off-road bikes will handle wet roads better. Tires are the most important part – road bikes with <25mm tires will suffer in the rain, both in handling and puncture resistance. Wet rubber cuts much more easily. Ideally you want larger, lower pressure tires with some sort of lining. The lower pressure helps for traction, too. By far the best performing tires I've used were Schwalbe Marathons (for puncture resistance – they ride like sh*t though). Steel frames will need some anti-rust treatment like Frame Saver. Everything rubber will disintegrate faster; use the salmon colored brake pads, the black ones come apart and catch debris too quickly. Disc brakes are the best. As for the chain, use wet-weather lube OR be prepared to clean & re-lube it very often.

    Rain jackets are great but if it's not breathable-waterproof fabric, it's just going to turn into a big bag of sweat and make you cold from the inside out. This applies to even short commutes. Seriously. You'd have to go at a pretty slow crawl for a very short distance for that not to matter. If you're going to spend money on anything, get a good gore-tex (or knockoff, their patent ran out years ago) shell.

    Wool absolutely DOES absorb water. It's hydrophilic. It's fibers are bent in such a way as to attract water inside, so it doesn't feel wet and has an insulating effect – not unlike neoprene – but it definitely always has a saturation point, and when that point is reached, it's like wearing a wet sponge. I always found that wearing wool in between a wicking synthetic layer and a breathable-waterproof outer layer worked best.

    The same thing that's true for jackets is true for gloves, and shoes – the more waterproof – the faster it'll become a cold bag of sweat. After a lot of experimentation I can attest that neoprene or neoprene-like materials are the best for gloves in the rain. Sporting goods stores sell these 100% neoprene gloves meant for hunters which keep your hands warm for hours in the most torrential rain. I have a pair of those and a pair of polar fleece ones, which are OK in lighter rain. For shoes in the worst rain I'd wear the most breathable bike shoes – actually Adidas indoor-cycling shoes, they were mostly mesh material, let the water straight through. Never wear cotton socks – wear 100% synthetic socks (or better, for extreme conditions; neoprene socks like those made for swimming wetsuits) to keep feet warm. Wool socks are OK too, but feet will get wet faster than anything.

    Of course there's plenty more to be said – not the least in actual riding techniques, the dangers and hazards to look out for – but I'll just save that for a more complete article on my blog or somewhere.

  35. Todd says:

    When I bought my ‘expensive’ bike, I made a promise to myself that weather was no excuse. I live in the greater Seattle area for gawd’s sake so it was important to equip myself with the proper gear. My first order of business was to purchase pricey waterproof pannier bags to hold my rain gear if needed. The next thing was to step up and get a pricey waterproof, breathable jacket followed up by pants. Over time, I picked up other items like some quality waterproof gloves. Being comfortable and rain dry is essential to sitting in the saddle. Since I ride yearly with cyclocross tires, staying connected with the pavement is pretty good. Having the basic gear which allows you to ride in the rain is essential. Because then you can learn through experience the essentials like always cross railroad tracks at a perpendicular angle even if slightly wet…

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