A reader writes:
Tom, I always enjoy your updates and reports. No big questions here, but one that does come to mind is what are your tips and tricks for riding in the rain. Most of us just do it, and have learned some ways to make it less than miserable like using a visor to keep drops off of glasses, and opening pit zips to vent. But I’d like to hear what you have learned from your travels.
The question of “what do cycle tourers do when it rains?” used to be a frequent one in Q&As about Janapar – and back then, I had a very simple answer:
“When it rains, I get wet. And then I get dry again, because it always stops raining eventually.”
It usually got a bit of a laugh, because it reduced what people assumed was an extensive body of hard-won knowledge into something blindingly obvious.
But it isn’t particularly useful advice on actually making cycle touring in the rain less miserable. So thank you for this opportunity to go deeper into the subject of wet-weather cycle touring!
As requested, this is going to be a list of rain-related tips and tricks, not an essay or treatise.
Some of the following advice might sound obvious, but I’d rather not make any assumptions about anyone’s wet weather touring experience, so let’s start with the basics.
General Tips & Tricks For Wet Weather Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
When it starts raining on a cycle tour or bikepacking trip, shelter may be available nearby. If it is, my advice is to use it – assuming you prefer staying dry and your plans allow for it.
But it often isn’t available, or you won’t be in a position to stop and wait. You’ll have little choice but ride on into the rain in search of… well, whatever’s motivating you to ride in the first place. Anticipate this.
Once over the mental hurdle, sustaining a cycle tour – or any kind of bike ride – into wet weather of unknown duration boils down to (no pun intended) being able to maintain your core body temperature.
As long as you can keep warm, you can outlast the longest storm.
Conversely, standing around in a bus shelter in wet clothes is a great way to get cold while waiting for the rain to stop. As unappealing as it might feel, it’s usually better to keep on riding in the rain until you reach somewhere where you can go indoors and get warm and dry.
Given that, your first line of defence against water falling out of the sky is, of course, what you’re wearing. So let’s take a closer look at clothing for wet weather riding.
Waterproof Clothing For Cycle Tours & Bikepacking Trips
A very expensive breathable waterproof jacket will extend the amount of time you can ride in the rain without water seeping through to your baselayer and sucking warmth away from your core.
So, for less than 1% of the price, will a bin bag with head and arm holes cut in it.
A slightly upgrade from a bin bag, a poncho (a large sheet of waterproof fabric with a head-hole and a hood) might sound good in theory, but they tend to act like giant sails while actually riding.
Ponchos are, however, undeniably useful when you’re off the bike and there’s no other shelter, as well as to cover bikes and gear overnight. Options range from cheap, single-use, emergency ponchos to ultralight one with room for a backpack inside.
(Personally, I like army surplus ones with corner grommets which are big enough to be rigged up as tarp shelters.)
Some waterproof jackets’ hoods are big enough to go over a bike helmet. The ones that aren’t can be worn underneath, strapping the helmet on top. (Or, do neither and wait for water to fill up your hood and/or start running down the back of your neck.)
Below the waist, many cyclists will advise you to wear only a thin pair of quick-drying cycling shorts when it’s raining, at least at mild temperatures. Why? Well, your legs will get wet, but they’ll stay warm because you’re pedalling; your core won’t be affected; and there’s less fabric to get saturated with water. However, over time, water running down your jacket will soak into your shorts, including the padding, and then into the saddle. Not everyone finds this pleasant, hygienic, or sustainable.
Waterproof overtrousers are useful when you’re trying to keep an insulating layer dry in colder conditions, you just can’t bear riding in wet shorts, or you’re riding through the rain for an extended duration of time. Waterproof cycling trousers (or pants, for Americans) work best if you have overboots or some other way to stop rainwater running down your legs and into your shoes. Truly breathable waterproof cycling trousers can be pricey; I have some Patagonia ones but only for very special occasions.
If you do have waterproofs, it’s usually best to stop and put them on with the first spot of rain, rather than waiting until you’re already a bit wet and then locking that moisture in.
A visor works well not just as a sun shade but as a rain protector for your face when cycling. However, most visors built into waterproof jacket hoods, especially on jackets that aren’t cycling-specific, don’t protrude far enough to keep rain out of your eyes at the speed of a bicycle. If you wear a helmet, try to get one with a visor; otherwise use a separate sports visor or baseball cap with plenty of coverage.
The best thing I have found for keeping my hands warm and dry in cold, wet conditions is a pair of insulated GoreTex skiing mitts (ie: without separate fingers).
I also once bought a pair of rubber washing-up gloves from a village shop and wore them over my riding gloves just to put some kind of waterproof barrier between my hands and the cold bits of metal I was clinging on to. These were quite a bit cheaper than GoreTex mitts. (Hat tip to Rich Lytle for this trick.)
On the subject of waterproof footwear, on my 2023 tour in Australia – which took place in mostly hot weather with plenty of wet days – I wore exclusively Crocs, and can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. (Crocs are indeed waterproof, though not in the usual sense of the word.)
How To Dress When Cycle Touring Or Bikepacking In The Rain
When it comes to underclothing, wool is your friend in the wet because it retains much of its insulating power. Merino wool in particular has become the gold standard, and for good reason. After years of stubbornly refusing to spend money on premium gear, I eventually started wearing merino wool socks (I have several pairs of Darn Tough socks and love them) and lightweight base-layer tops (I have a nice Patagonia one and a cheaper but equally effective Decathlon one). These really come into their own in wet weather and I rarely hit the road without them.
Some of the most challenging weather conditions to dress for when cycle touring, in my experience, are in prolonged heavy rain at temperatures just above freezing.
I spent a miserable few weeks riding the Black Sea coast of Turkey in November–December 2007 in just these conditions. At low temperatures, body heat and moisture management are a fine balancing act: your core may be dry, but your extremities soon go numb from the wet and cold; pedalling harder to warm them up leads to sweat and condensation that you can’t vent fast enough, so you slow down again and the cycle repeats. I don’t have a solution to this, unfortunately, other than occasionally getting off and jogging.
(On a slight tangent, at a couple of degrees below freezing you get snow instead of rain or sleet. Snow is much easier to deal with as it’s drier than rain! In fact, as I found out in Arctic Lapland in the winter of 2011, the sweet spot is around ‑10ºC (14ºF), give or take a few degrees. Much warmer and things started getting slushy and wet again.)
As people in the UK outdoor industry love to point out, cotton is a terrible choice of clothing fabric when it’s wet and cold, because it absorbs moisture, loses all insulating power, and takes ages to dry out. A cotton T‑shirt is one of the worst things you could be wearing under an ineffective waterproof jacket while you’re struggling to stay warm on a wet day.
(On the other hand, when it’s extremely hot, the slow-drying properties of wet cotton make it a great means of disposing of excess body heat via evaporation, but that’s a topic for another post.)
One final tip on clothing for wet-weather cycle touring: when it does eventually stop raining, the best way to dry wet clothes (including waterproofs) is to continue wearing them. Ride on and peel them off layer by layer, letting the combination of breeze and body heat evaporate the remaining moisture away.
Keeping Bikes & Gear Working Well On Wet Weather Cycle Tours
In and amongst the generally demoralising misery of wet-weather cycle touring, it’s easy to forget about the effect it might have on your bike and equipment. Here are a few of my top tips on that front:
For safety reasons it’s important to make sure you can be seen in the reduced visibility of rainy weather. Even if you don’t intend to cycle at night, a rear red light is a good way to alert other road users behind you to your presence.
Using wet weather-specific chain lube (I’ve been using Green Oil for a while) will keep your drivetrain running well, but you’ll still need to reapply it regularly if you’ve been doing a lot of wet-weather riding.
Road crud in the water splashed up in wet weather may lead to faster rim-brake wear, so it’s also clever to rinse or wipe down braking surfaces and wash any dirt and grit out of the brake shoes and mechanisms after a long wet-weather ride. You might even switch to special brake shoes for severe conditions if you’re expecting a lot of it.
If you’re using a leather saddle such as the Brooks B17, as many cycle tourers do, be aware of the effect the rain will have on it. A young, unstretched saddle soaked through may suddenly become much more supple, but resist over-adjusting it to compensate; this is something to do when it’s dried out.
The same goes for re-proofing a leather saddle, which will help waterproof and protect it against rain: always apply the proofing compound (use Proofide for Brooks saddles) when the saddle is fully dry, and don’t forget to coat the underside to protect it against road spray.
Mudguards (or fenders if you prefer) can be a bit awkward, but there’s a reason they come fitted to almost every commonly-available touring bike, and why many road cyclists fit them to their winter training bikes: they help keep grimy road spray not just off the bike but off you, the rider. Even if you’re a fair-weather cyclist, roads stay wet for a while after rain.
Smartphones can be a pain to operate with cold, wet hands, especially in gloves, especially if the phone is not weather-resistant and needs to be kept in a special waterproof pouch. In this case, do yourself a favour and put the damn thing away until the weather clears up. There are always other ways to navigate, and social media can wait!
Wet Weather Camping Tips & Tricks For Cycle Tourers & Bikepackers
Finally, now we’ve covered general considerations, clothing, and equipment care when cycle touring in the rain, let’s take a quick look at the effect it might have on your camping routine:
If you’re riding and wild camping through several days of wet weather, it’s critical to be able to sleep dry. Shivering all night in a wet sleeping bag will leave you sleepless at best and hypothermic at worst. Keep sleeping gear dry at all costs, store it in a separate drybag, and be fastidious about stripping down and drying off before you go to bed.
You can stay dry inside a wet tent as long as you don’t touch the fabric. Remember that your camping mat or sleeping pad is a waterproof floor barrier as well as an insulating layer. (This brings back memories of an April 2012 ride through Washington and Oregon, when it rained every day, I was almost exclusively wild camping, and my tent remained wet for an entire month!)
At some point during your first night camping through heavy rain, you will wish you’d brought a pair of earplugs.
At some point during your first full day of sheltering from heavy rain in the ultralight 1‑berth tent you pitched the night before, you may wish you’d bought the 2‑berth version instead, and/or the optional footprint (separate ground-sheet) that extends into the awning. More on tent choice for cycle touring and bikepacking here.
And when you inevitably need to leave the aforementioned tent in order to relieve yourself, or get that one thing from your bike you forgot to bring inside, you’ll realise that the sound of rain on a flysheet is usually worse than the rain itself…
Thus ends my assorted selection of tips and tricks for cycle touring in the rain (for now, at least). Feel free to add yours in the comments below. This is a rich seam of knowledge people tend to learn from experience, so let’s try and get a good collection together.
More important than all of this, of course, is – when you’re soaked to the skin, the forecast shows endless oncoming downpours, and there’s no Warmshowers host or accommodation for the next thousand miles – to remember: this too shall pass.
Put another way, always pack your sense of humour.
Hope this helps!