I live car-free in the Pacific Northwest, and this year all my friends are asking “what gear do I need so I can keep biking all winter long?” That’s so awesome! Biking is great fun and it can be fun in the winter too, with the right gear. The short answer is “shop at Showers Pass. You can’t go wrong.” They’re a Portland-based company and all they do is make rain gear for biking. They’re good at it. Here’s the long answer, in order by what you should invest in first:
First up, fenders. Always fenders. Cheap plastic ones will do fine. Metal ones will last longer and be less fussy, for twice the price. Make sure to get front and back full coverage ones. It’s worth buying from your local bike shop and paying for installation them because it can be fiddly.
Gloves are the most important. Your hands are exposed to the wind and the rain and the cold, and by the end of a ride they can make you miserable. Any gloves you have lying around are great, if they give you enough dexterity to shift and brake. I like having lightweight gloves for autumn and spring since they give you more dexterity. Also over-heavy gloves can quickly overheat you. When the weather gets colder or the rain gets heavier I like the Showers Pass Crosspoint Waterproof Softshell. On a long enough ride all gloves will wet through, so carrying a second pair is a great way to make the ride home more fun, particularly if you’re commuting.
You’ll need something to keep your head warm. All those nice airy holes in your helmet keep you cool in summer but in winter the raindrops will be falling on your head. These Blackstrap convertible balaclavas are absolutely fantastic. They’re thin so they can fit under your helmet and they’re not too hot. They also convert easily between full face coverage, just the head and neck, or neck gaiter only. If you wear glasses, consider a runner’s cap instead. They’re thin and have no buttons or big seams, so they’ll fit nicely under your helmet and keep some of the rain off your face.
Rain pants are key. If you have ski or hiking rain pants they’ll work alright, but biking rain pants often have better reinforcement in the crotch and thighs, bigger darts at the knees, more room in the butt so they don’t slide down, and reflective piping. They’ll last longer and perform better on the bike than other rain pants. I have the Showers Pass Transit Pant and love it.
For a rain jacket, again whatever rain jacket you already have will work, but you will be more comfortable with a biking one. Look for: great ventilation under the armpits and across the back; a tail that hangs down a little lower to keep your butt covered when you’re leaning over; comfort when your arms are extended forward. I have the Showers Pass Elite 2.1 Jacket and love it.
Lastly, footgear. You can bring dry shoes and socks in your bag and change when you get where you’re going. But if your ride is long enough, cold wet shoes will make you miserable before you get there. Shoe covers solve that problem and are a surprisingly valuable piece of gear for rain riding. You can try waterproof socks instead. They work! But they can be overly hot and they’re not nearly as comfortable as regular socks.
Do you need to put special tires on your bike for traction in the rain? Nope! Slick tires work just fine on roads in the rain. But whether you’re riding knobbies or slicks, you have less traction and less visibility than usual, so slow down. It’s a good idea to test your brakes and your tires, too. Find an empty section of road, get up to a nice speed, then brake as hard as you are comfortable - with both brakes. If you start to feel a skid, release the brakes; now you know how hard you can safely brake in those conditions.
One last tip: the key is to make biking in the rain fun. Blasting your favorite tunes from a portable, waterproof, Bluetooth speaker can add a lot of joy (avoid earbuds, though; they are dangerous).
Addendum: bar mitts and rain capes? All my bike nerd friends who saw this post asked why I didn’t include these two great pieces of gear. Simple answer: I haven’t tried them yet! But they might work for you. Rain capes in particular are cheaper than rain pants and jackets, may not offer as good coverage, but are more breathable.