Water Tight Gear
Below are the waterproof items and strategies we use for staying dry when riding in the rain, including:
-panniers and accessory bags
-outer wear (rain jackets and pants)
-waterproof overmittens & seam sealing
-managing perspiration moisture
-assessing the water tightness of gear
A complete list and discussion of our winter wardrobe can be found in the Gear file Warm & Dry.
The 2 German-made brands of waterproof panniers, Ortlieb and Vaude, are the only panniers we use. Both brands are designed like water sports dry bags with roll-down top closures that really keep the water out. They are heavy, expensive and lack any pockets or zippered compartments to help organize the contents but our belongings are always dry, no matter what the weather. Using plastic bags for waterproofing inside lesser panniers works for short trips, but they disintegrate under the relentless friction of long distance touring.
We use the less expensive, lighter weight and less durable waterproof bags by the US firm Outdoor Research for a back rack bag and sometimes for an overflow bag on the front rack instead of a pannier. The #7 Advanced Stuff Sack snuggles nicely between the panniers on the back rack. These bags also are completely waterproof but are definitely less rugged than the German panniers so need protection from both friction and puncture damage. With due care, we can haul one around for a year without it leaking. These bags have no rack attachment system built-in like the panniers so we make nylon webbing straps with plastic buckles to secure them to our racks, front or back.
Shower caps make cheap and readily available helmet covers for the rain. Breathable fabrics are of course better, but they are expensive, don't always fit over the visors on helmets, and aren't easily replaced overseas. In very heavy winds, you may need to tape the cap to the helmet to keep it on.
Specs for Both Jackets & Pants
-light-weight, compact and expensive Gore-Tex PacLite is our favorite fabric for jackets and pants
-waterproof, shiny black plastic zippers with concealed teeth vs traditional fabric zippers are a must
-only one pocket for maximum garment breathability
-dual-direction zippers on pant legs and jacket fronts for optimal ventilation in dry spells or light rain
-yellow or red colored fabric for visibility
-snug collar closure to keep out the rain during downpours
-no attached hood to minimize bulk at the back of the neck and snagging on helmet back
-Velcro sleeve cuff closures to let in cooling air or seal out the rain
-Velcro taps on front closure for ventilation when zipper isn't needed in light rain
-long tail for good coverage in back
-ventilating 'pit zips' in sleeves if the zippers are waterproof
-black colored fabric to conceal grease and grime
-tapering cuff closures to keep pants fabric out of pedals and chain
-generous fit for ease of donning over winter layers while standing on one leg on the roadside
These are the specifications for our ideal rain jacket and pants but we haven't yet had all these features in a single garment.
Gore-Tex Outer Socks
We wear Gore-Tex waterproof socks inside our Shimano cycling sandals to keep our feet dry in the rain. I remove the elastic fabric at the top of the socks and stitch on a garter to get the effective length out of the upper portion of the socks so as to maximize the overlap with my rain pants. Bill doesn't require any modification to his socks as he has plenty of lower leg coverage in his riding position.
Elastic strap & bungee cuff closures.
Garter for a Gore-Tex sock & white insole.
Home-Made Outer Mitts
We made our overmittens as breathable, waterproof shells are difficult to buy. Almost all waterproof mittens or gloves are insulated and therefore very bulky to stash and sometimes too warm to wear. It's more versatile to have thin waterproof shells to be worn over either heavy mittens or fingerless gloves, depending on the day's temperature.
To make your own mittens, first select a simple, easy to construct pattern for fleece mittens--our Kwik-Sew pattern #2613 has only 3 pieces. Make one sample mitten from a cheap fabric or pattern paper to ensure the mitten will fit over your bulkiest glove or mitten with ease. We made our cuffs extra long so they extend almost 2/3's the length of our forearms.
Select a durable, waterproof and breathable fabric in a
bright color (to improve your visibility when signaling turns in traffic). We
didn't find Ultrex to be durable enough, though have had good results with
miscellaneous other heavier, waterproof fabrics. Remember not to puncture your fabric by
pinning anywhere but in the seam allowances when cutting or stitching.
We tried both an elastic casing closure at the mitten opening and a Velcro tab and decided that the tab was the best approach. The Velcro tabs keep the rain out as well as the elastic and the mittens made with tabs are easier to put on, dry more quickly because of the wider opening and the tabs substitute for clothes pins when hanging them to dry. I made short waterproof gaiters to cover the mitten tops but have found I stay dry enough without using them.
After stitching your mitten pieces together, seal all the seams from the inside. We use McNett's brand Seam Grip for our seam sealer. It's expensive and difficult to use, but it does the job. Don't expect to use an opened tube a couple months later as it doesn't store well once opened. And do dust cured sealer with talc or house dust to prevent it from sticking to other things. We damaged the waterproof layer on just sewn Ultrex garments the night before we flew overseas for 10 months because the cured sealer adhered to the waterproof coating on fabric. I believe the Seam Grip packaging now indicates that the cured product should be dusted, though that tip wasn't always included in the instructions.
We were once advised by a professional to apply the sealer to the outside of a garment, which is much easier to do. But the sealer didn't adhere well at all--a couple of sessions in the rain and it was peeling off and we had to redo the messy job on the inside of the mittens.
If this seems like too much trouble, you might look for a product we recently learned about from a British cyclotourist. The mittens are made by a British company, Terra Nova, and are called "Extremities Tuff Bags". They are a well designed Gore-Tex overmitten with taped seams and draw cord cuffs, though the heavy duty palm fabric makes them a little bulky for storing. We would have snapped up a couple of pair but the $72 price tag stopped us in our tracks, though the price isn't out of line if your income is tied to the British economy. Upon checking their website www.terra-nova.co.uk Bill discovered a non-Gore-Tex "Hand Bag" that is about $14 cheaper. Maybe sewing your own doesn't look so bad after all.
Getting truly waterproof garments and keeping them that way is hard enough, but one must also manage the moisture build-up from condensing perspiration, especially when doing the sweaty work of hill climbing.
For me, wearing only very breathable, highly wicking long johns under my waterproof outer wear is critical. The traditional Lycra tights or shorts just don't wick enough moisture away and become soggy and then cold. I also don't wear any wind breaking nylon vests or other moisture retaining garments under my outer wear. Even so, I find that my medium weight long john top doesn't keep me dry, so I wear a very heavy weight fleece shirt under my jacket. The condensed perspiration coats the outside of the shirt rather than being retained within the fibers and the water will visibly shake off the shirt during sheltered rest breaks.
We love our for-Gore-Tex heavy socks inside the waterproof outer socks. Though they are thick and bulky and seem like they take up way too much room in our panniers all those months when we aren't wearing them, we live in them in the cold, wet weather. Bill and I have different brands and they both seem just fine. I purchased mine from REI in the States for $14 and they are the "InGenius Hiker" and Bill's "Bridgedale Summit" socks were purchased at a camping store in Scotland for a premium of $21. Laundering them is a problem though, as hand washing and then drying them under traveling conditions usually means they won't be dry by morning.
Using thin, polystyrene-like foam insoles designed for cold, damp feet improved my warmth and comfort in my Gore-Tex socks immensely. I have sweaty feet, so managing the perspiration build-up is key to my comfort when wearing waterproof gear for hours, especially over about 4 hours. Using the insoles inside the waterproof socks gives me the extra insulation and buffering from the accumulating moisture that I need. The product I like best is one we purchased in Spanish grocery stores though I'll look for a comparable product in the US when we return home.
If I must wear rain gear all day, I try hard to air it out and/or mop it off at rest stops. I take every advantage of rain breaks or good shelter to dehumidify my clothes, almost no matter what the temperature. Even on a cold day I won't hesitate to sit on a bench or low wall to remove my shoes and layers of socks to give them all a breather. And rain pants legs get unzipped down to the knee in the first let-up in the rain to air out the lower body fabrics.
If I can during a break, I take off my jacket and fleece shirt, turn my jacket inside out, and give them both a good shake to remove much of the visible, condensed moisture. For a lunch break, I don other clothes from my pannier to keep the chill off while the inside of my jacket and shirt air dry a bit. Bus shelters can be wonderful rain breaks for fiddling with gear but I've even stood with my bike leaning against me under a rail over pass while I removed my jacket and fleece shirt to shake them out. And my viscose camp towel is great for mopping off the visible moisture inside my jacket that shaking doesn't dislodge.
If it's an all day downpour without shelter, I do what I can to dry out. That may mean unzipping my jacket and pant legs just a little bit in favorable winds or a brief slackening in the rain. If after a couple hours of riding with my rain gear zipped shut without out any shelter opportunities appearing, I'll use the viscose towel to mop out the inside of my jacket as best I can while wearing it. Even snaking the towel down an arm or letting it rest in an arm pit while eating can noticeably reduce the dampness level. And keeping the dampness level down is the key to fending off an end of the day chill.
If we stop for food shopping, I do my best to dry my clothes out while in the market. I turn my jacket inside out and drape it over part of the shopping cart to dry off the perspiration after a good shake outdoors. I'll also spread my inner and outer gloves out on the bottom of the cart for a good airing. I even take in my helmet as nothing is nastier on a cold day than putting a damp helmet back on your head after it has cooled off. I usually do the shopping but we strive to position the bikes so Bill can police them while standing out just inside the store door so he too can warm and dry out.
When in Doubt....Test It
Wonder no more if your expensive rain gear is really water proof--test it. When I suspected my well-worn Gore-Tex socks were failing, I filled them both with water. A series of water droplets bulged out of each sock when filled. Yup, each had a cluster of small tears on the top of the foot away from any regular contact points. When I then looked at the fabric from the inside, I could then differentiate the offending membrane tears from the other, watertight discolorations. I did the same with a suspicious overmitt and discovered a couple of stitches that didn't get enough seam sealer and Bill found a tiny break in one fabric layer of his mitts.
I also stood in the shower wearing a jacket that I suspected was letting water in and quickly had my answer. And when a store clerk contested the zippers on my garment as not being watertight, I checked it out. I held a sagging section of fabric under the faucet then watched for water coming through the zipper--there was none.
Of course, these tests go beyond the design specifications of the garments, but they do give you quick, worst case scenario information about your products. And such experiments can sort out if accumulating dampness is due to condensing perspiration or faulty clothing.
Let us know if you have some great waterproof gear or strategies that help you stay comfortable on those cold, wet days.