Family Biking: Bikes and kids and rain, oh my!

Posted by on October 6th, 2021 at 2:13 pm

It will be their first rainy season on the bike. Wish us luck.
(Photo: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

The rain has begun.

Having the right gear is only part of it… the even bigger hurdle is psychological.

Which means, for all Portland area bike riders, and especially those riding with children, it’s decision time: will we be fair weather riders, safely packing away the bikes in some dusty corner until the sun reliably returns next spring? Or will we choose to bike on the occasional dry day or sunny afternoon throughout the rainy season? Or (you knew this was coming) will we decide to venture boldly forth, in drizzle, rain, and cold, continuing the biking journey in all the dripping glory and bluster of winter’s wetter weather?

(As your Family Biking Columnist, do I really have a choice? Because I can definitely see the appeal of option #1. Actually, that was my plan. Ask my husband, who bought me not-waterproof-at-all panniers, because why would I bike to the library in the rain?)

Don’t get me wrong. I love Portland’s rain. It’s my favorite sort of weather. Grey, wet, a bit misty and drizzly. Perfectly enjoyable from an armchair in the living room, cozied up beneath my favorite blanket, with autumn scented candle lit, a cup of steaming coffee within easy reach, and a good book in hand.

Yet I don’t want that to be the limit of my interaction with Portland’s lovely rainy season. I have greatly enjoyed a summer of biking with my children, and I want to continue through the rain. But the rain and cold provide new challenges. We have never done any family biking in the rain before.

To get our feet wet, we went on two mildly drizzly rides this past week, and all sorts of questions (or potential problems) quickly came into view: what sort of rain gear do I need for winter biking in Portland? Immediately, I wanted gloves. My hands were cold. But the gloves I have seem unfit for the task. I want something waterproof (or maybe water-resistant will work?) and yet flexible, not bulky, with a good grip. My snow gloves, and regular fabric gloves, and mittens don’t seem right for the bike. But a Google Search of “biking gloves” is absolutely overwhelming. Me reading reviews of biking rain gear could keep us off the bike for a week.

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Some folks like this guy have the psychological part well in hand.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Further issues: winter hats and rain hoods…do I loosen every kid’s helmet to fit a winter hat beneath? What about the hat getting wet? Does a jacket’s rain hood also go over the hat and beneath the helmet? Or should the whole helmet get covered? What about pants? Rain pants with tapered legs for biking? (I’m in third trimester maternity clothing now too, just to make this a lot more fun. I had been fruitlessly searching online for maternity rain-coats, until I discovered the tips from Madi Carlson’s previous rain gear post suggesting rain capes and ponchos: genius! A poncho is pretty much the one piece of rain gear that should fit a late-stage pregnant, and eventually not-pregnant Mama, and help keep pants dry too.

Next consideration: I have a front cargo basket on my bike, but I don’t have the option of purchasing a rain tent contraption (my bike is not a standard model). Maybe hubby will build me something someday. Fortunately, I have rain clothes for all my kids and we’ll just have to experiment a bit, to find what options make everyone happy, including two-year-olds. Or maybe two-year-olds are the most likely to be happy in the rain? I’m probably the biggest concern. The grumpy old pregnant adult who is responsible for all the household laundry and muddy boot print clean-up. I think I will be happier with a poncho anyway, and rain gloves, and…maybe a travel mug of hot coffee. (Any suggestions for rigging that up on the handlebars?)

As you can see, we are just at the beginning of our first Portland fall/winter of family biking. We have lots of questions, and I’m trying to strike a balance between online research and just getting outside on the bike and giving it a try. Some things must be learned a step (or pedal stroke) at a time, by actually doing them. And having the right gear is only part of it. Perhaps, especially when it comes to getting a bunch of young children ready for biking with me in the rain, the even bigger hurdle is psychological: how will we make ourselves get out on the bike in the rain, when we don’t technically have to ride? As always, the biggest challenge is often just getting out the door.

Which is what we are going to make ourselves keep doing. I hope.

I can still enjoy that cozy chair, blanket, cuppa coffee, slippers and indoor heating. I suspect it will be even more delightful after a good bike ride in the rain.

(Please help! Leave me your suggestions in the comment section. Favorite biking gloves? Other rain gear? Kid gear? I’m all ears.)

— Shannon Johnson, shannon4bikeportland@gmail.com
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Kyle BanerjeeEl BicicleroKorrinEd RubinBradley Bondy Recent comment authors
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Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
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I know this might look weird since I just edited this post and I own this site… but I’ll start. ..

We have local companies that make great stuff to help you stay dry and keep your drink hot.

First… Showers Pass! They have awesome stuff (especially the gloves, which tick all your boxes) and they’re having their huge annual warehouse sale (biased because they’re buying ads on here right now.. thanks Showers Pass!).

And to hold your cup I like the Portland Design Works “Hot Take”. Been using one for a while now and it works great.

Good luck!

Matt
Guest
Matt

I was going to suggest the PDW Bar-ista to carry a hot cup. Turns out, which one you want depends on which kind of vessel you’re carrying (conical, or cylindrical).

Marshall
Guest
Marshall

Here’s my overkill list:

Lobster-claw mittens with some waterproof spray if needed.

Skip the rain tent, grab a large adult rain jacket with a bit of insulation and a zipper that comes up from the bottom to allow some tolerance for bent knees or frames, and make that an overcoat for your kids. Mine wraps all the way around my kiddo and the yepp seat. With the hood up over the helmet, it takes just enough of the bite of the damp and cold to keep kiddos happy. My body blocks most of the rain headed towards her face, and kids like to get a little wet, it turns out.

Waterproof bags, not panniers, are great in front baskets, but they do add bulk, so for small baskets, grab a small tarp, some bungees, and make a wrap/cover. The Big ikea bags, folded over, are a great budget solution.

Lights. Tail – Minimum one very bright favoring the left side. If you have panniers or a wide rack, two of them positioned like tail lights. A head lamp in addition to your front light. Grab a cheap reflective vest or reflective triangle and attach that to the back of the tent/coat.

Clear goggles with good ventilation and anti-fog spray. Keeps that tear inducing winter wind out of your eyes.

A waterproof speaker for your kids. Distract them from the rain.

Here’s a stripped down version in action: https://photos.app.goo.gl/aFtJ8Gt6d5qW3FEC7

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Guest
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

I love the grown up rain jacket for kids idea, especially as a Goodwill find. Thanks for the suggestions!

FullLaneFemme
Guest

I really enjoyed this little thread of photos of a rainy day in Amsterdam today
https://twitter.com/BrooklynSpoke/status/1445853382187487233?s=20

Marshall
Guest
Marshall

I would rock that Polka dot jacket.

Mike Quigley
Guest
Mike Quigley

All this happy talk about riding a bike in the rain? I’ve never seen anyone riding in (steady) rain who looks the least bit happy. Showers, yeah, but real rain?

Marshall
Guest
Marshall

If you have “real rain”, and I’m from Iowa, I know what a thunderstorm is, then you need real equipment. I have a cheap jacket, and in a downpour, water leaks through the zipper. I know I could spend more and get a more watertight jacket. Pants are easy though, my Bi-Mart pants work great.

Am I as happy riding in a thunderstorm as I am in a light drizzle? No. Am I happier than in a car? Most of the time, yes.

SERider
Guest
SERider

The thing about Tstorms and heavy rain is that they usually don’t last long. Most times it’s best just to wait it out.

Kath Youell
Guest
Kath Youell

Heck, yeah! Somewhere there’s a photo of a very drenched and very happy me. I made my husband take it before I unloaded the groceries and came inside because I wanted the downpour in the background. It’s true. The more it rains the happier I get because it’s all so ludicrous!

Matt
Guest
Matt

Ditto! I think it was 2016 when the tail end of a monsoon crossed the Pacific to hit Portland, and when I rode home from work, the rain was coming down in sheets. I was happier than a pig in slop.

Korrin
Guest
Korrin

I have RBF. I probably never LOOK like I’m having fun riding my bike, but I love it. The exception is if you are riding a cargo bike or riding with all the kids – then I will make an effort to smile and ring my bell. Otherwise RBF.

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

I enjoy rain — partly because I find it funny how much people worry about getting wet (people don’t even do watersports when it’s raining). It’s not like taking a shower is a traumatic event.

Portland weather is mild and this is a compact city. With very rare exceptions, what people here call cold, heat, humidity, rain, and snow just isn’t. There’s a reason people elsewhere make jokes about us, and it’s funny for those of us who came from places where these things exist in the normal sense of the word.

One key to having fun is to want what you have. When we get conditions everyone dreads, my reaction is usually the exact opposite — more along the lines of “finally something to be out in!” As a double bonus, I find the weather washes away the screwballs making the ride even more pleasant. The other key is to not struggle against inevitability. Even if you simply don’t like rain, thinking about how you wish it were different is only going to make things worse.

El Biciclero makes a good point about the lights. Always carry backup lights for both tail and front. Aside that you might find yourself wanting both lights in front anyway, riding unlit in poor vis conditions is a really bad idea

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

Rain gear is one thing, but more important is keeping the bike upright. Wet leaves are low traction and can hide upsetting obstacles. If you notice a sheen on the pavement, it is oil or hydraulic fluid and can be slicker than wet ice. Riding in the rain is not that it a deal if you are careful.

Marshall
Guest
Marshall

Can confirm. Take it slow and manage your center of gravity around those turns.

Milli
Guest
Milli

Back when I bike commuted I used these gloves and was happy with them: https://www.rei.com/product/745948/seirus-all-weather-gloves-womens

SilkySlim
Guest
SilkySlim

I think I’ve made this comment almost annually on similar threads: get an app like Dark Sky to avoid the rain! If you have a bit of flexibility in your schedule, it can be the difference between stepping into a downpour and waiting 15′ and biking under a rainbow. In short, the app does a pretty good job micro forecasting weather changes, with messages like “rain stopping in 15 minutes.” I’m already getting in habit of opening it up around 730, and eyeballing best window to bike with toddler to daycare.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Guest
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Yes, I am glad you repeated this recommendation. I only have an Android phone and it looks like Dark Sky isn’t available for me… anyone use a similar Android app that works well? At a glance, other options had very mixed reviews….

Bradley Bondy
Guest
Bradley Bondy

Accuweather has the same feature, and works great on my android.

Kate
Guest
Kate

When I finally started wearing rain pants it was a real game changer for my comfort level on the bike/ at my destination. Sounds like you’ve got lots of good glove recs already but they are a worthy investment to spend a little more on no matter what you go with. For the head, I’ve never been that into hats or hood because I get too warm – but I swear by the fuzzy head band/ear bands that you see runners or cx skiers use. I put those on as soon as it starts getting cool and ride in them through spring. Have that warm ear cover makes a huge difference in my comfort without trapping too much heat. Lights, lights, lights! Don’t forget your front and rear fenders. enjoy the zen of a bike in foggy drizzle 😉

Marshall
Guest
Marshall

Agreed on the fuzzy earbands, work great with a little adjustment of the helmet (if you’re the helmet-wearing type) and actually stay in place with long hair, unlike full head coverings.

Rosie
Guest
Rosie

Biking in the rain is invigorating. You will love doing this so big cheers for taking it on. The most important thing is that your kids stay warm. Layer up and allow extra time for stopping to check in with them. Are they too hot, take the time to remove layers, especially for the ones that are actually peddling. And don’t worry about muddy clothes. If you have waterproof layers, the underneath won’t get dirty, then you just have hooks in the garage (ask school for a designated space) so they can dry. And yes, Showerpass has fantastic options for waterproofing, including booties for dry and Warm. If you do go with a poncho be sure you can get off bike quickly and also that it is breathable.

Kyle Banerjee
Guest

Riding in the rain is fun.

To truly enjoy it, it’s essential to embrace it for what it is — nothing is more futile than spending loads of time in the wet and thinking you’ll wind up bone dry. You’ll go out if you look forward to it and that attitude is likely to rub off on others (e.g. kids), but not if you have to force yourself because you dread the experience.

Clothing really does matter. If you have lightweight breathable waterproof gear, you won’t only be more comfortable, you’ll be warmer and drier. If you wear stuff that doesn’t breathe and/or dress too heavily, you’ll get wet from sweat. Fit is a super important part of comfort and temperature regulation. If you wear something that flaps around, the microclimate between you and your clothing is constantly disrupted which again will make you freeze.

Nonintuitively, overdressing is a great way to freeze. Water transfers heat 26 times more efficiently than air which means that if you’re damp from sweat, it will efficiently transfer your body heat away. Most Portland commuters way overdress, causing the exact problem they fear.

Waterproof gloves are a waste of time. I say this as a product tester for a leading manufacturer of waterproof gear who’s put tens of thousands of miles wearing them. That same magic that keeps the water out also traps the water in when it flows in from your arms and prevents them from drying out. Better to focus on things that still perform well when they get wet. Keeping your head dry doesn’t really work for distances of any significance between sweat and water working its way from the front.

The bigger issues with rain riding to me is poor visibility in the dark, much louder sound reflections from all the mechanized racket, that it hides sharps which are lubricated so they drive more easily into your tires, and that it acts like grinding paste on all components requiring much maintenance, lubrication, etc. Plus, there’s the slickness and that water hides a lot of threats.

As unfun as it sounds, rain riding is awesome. The air is cleaner, you feel more free, you don’t have to be on crowded, unreliable, hopelessly slow public transit or stuck in traffic and jockeying for parking places

rick
Guest
rick

Panaracer-made Rene Herse tires, but no one appears to make very smooth tires for 24″ and 20″ wheels for cargo bike usage. Can any soft bmx tires handle 450 or more pounds?

Matt
Guest
Matt

If you look at the sort of tricks that street BMX riders are doing nowadays, I wouldn’t even blink at using any quality BMX tire on a cargo bike.

Kath Youell
Guest
Kath Youell

I would have Bar Mitts if I wasn’t a knitter — which means I have convertible mitts custom fitted to my hand. Heck, I might even get those too one day.

To add to my CleverHood from Madi’s article you reference I also have shoe covers (because I used to favor Mary Janes and my socks would get wet), but I don’t use them with my Dansko clogs.

I make sure that my coat is in layers (I have one from Columbia but I’m sure there are others) so that I can separate the warm liner from the waterproof layer as my temperature changes. I also have a very fine gauge sweater I bought at the Goodwill bins and I cut the sleeves off to wear only the sleeves (I pin it to my shirt) because as Martina told me years ago it’s our limbs that get cold and our core stays warm while riding. Sometimes those sweater sleeves and my cape are all I need.

My final, newest piece is a flannel-lined face mask. I’ve been trying for years to knit myself a cowl that would stay over my nose and keep my face warm in the winter. The one good thing I got out of Winter 2020 was that a flannel-lined mask does just what I had wanted and never slips down.

Kath Youell
Guest
Kath Youell

And I also second the PDW cup holders. Just make sure your cup really does seal or you get coffee on your knees when you hit a bump. Ask me how I know. 😀

Madi Carlson
Guest

Hooray for biking in the rain! It’s so hard to stay a fair-weather biker bc it’s just too fun to want to stop biking when the weather turns, eh? I LOVE having handlebar mittens aka pogies for rain. My Portland Pogies are no longer around, but I had neoprene BarMitts before them and they were almost as nice. I remember when I used to go out with four sets of various gloves (one to ride to preschool drop off, one to ride from preschool to kindie drop off, one to ride to an errand/meeting, and one to ride back home). I’d also sometimes drape an upside down picnic blanket (fuzzy side towards the kids, nylon water-resistant side up) over the kids to keep them warmer and drier. I love GearTies (think industrial strength pipe cleaners) for securing a blanket around a kid. Can’t wait to read your next post!!

Ed Rubin
Guest
Ed Rubin

From slightly left field, be careful in playgrounds, wet slides and rain pants can result in kids catching air and landing hard as our then 3 year old found out.
From a rider standpoint, I found a waterproof helmet cover was the best winter commute option since I got more air circulation and didn’t have the restriction of a hood and Endura makes some good waterproof gloves

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Oh, the rain. As Kyle B. states, you will never stay dry riding in the rain. For me, the choice to wear rain gear or not is similar to deciding whether I’d rather wet my pants or sit in a puddle. The thing I tend to forget is that I, as the pedaler, will have much different weather accommodation requirements than my sedentary passengers. They will freeze while I roast if we all dress the same. For non-active passengers, waterproof is more important than breathable; for the “driver”, it’s the reverse.

It sounds a bit dorky, but for my hands, I’ve used some lightweight glove “liners” or even some knit work gloves, and then put–don’t spew your coffee–dishwashing/cleaning gloves over them. Think Playtex “Living Gloves”. They come in bright yellow, which is a plus for signaling. They do not breathe, which actually makes them warmer without being bulkier, the long cuffs extend far enough up under jacket sleeves to keep rain from running into them, and they allow for more dexterity for ringing bells or pushing headlight buttons, not to mention shifting or flipping the top on your travel mug. Also, they are magically wind-proof. YMMV.

I do need glasses to see, and that can be very tricky. I have yet to be brave enough to try rain-x, since I don’t know what it would do to my coated lenses. I have found that lenses with an anti-glare coating tend to be more hydrophobic than uncoated lenses, as long as I keep them clean… Another hyperdork suggestion that I have tried in the past is to find some old-school clip-on, flip-up sunglasses. Those can serve in two ways. If you have a short trip, you can leave them down until they are too annoyingly droplet-covered, then flip them up and get a second go with your plain lenses. They can also help a tiny bit left in the flipped-up position to shield your lenses like the bill of a cap.

As long as I’m warm enough, I don’t mind getting wet in the rain, but my rain pet peeve is having wet socks and that squishy sponge feeling in my shoes. Barf. If you can wear boots that fit under your pant legs, that’s probably the best, but balancing that with skinny pant legs can be nearly impossible. I’ve fashioned “pedal fenders” before by cutting up a 2-liter bottle and covering my old-school toe clips with the pieces, but you have to be comfortable with toe clips, and that only works for short trips again. The best shoe covers I have had are gore-tex wrap-around, high-tops with a rear velcro(tm) closure. Those are super-spendy (thanks, Santa!), but they fit over “regular” shoes quite well. My only issue is that I use “regular” metal cage pedals that shred the bottoms of them.

Panniers == Ortlieb. There are no other panniers.

Having a waterproof headlight is also very important. Very few “weatherproof” lights really are. I can’t make any solid recommendation there, as I use a pretty old Cygolite, but it has gotten me home on my (former) hour-long commute in nighttime rain several times.