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Question: Apart from running out of snacks, what’s the one thing that’s guaranteed to take the shine off an otherwise awesome bikepacking trip? Answer: Getting soaked through to the skin in the rain.
This can happen either because your existing jacket isn’t as waterproof as the manufacturer claimed (or it’s lost its waterproofness over time). Or because the ultralight pack that you went for unfortunately included leaving your too-heavy and not-very-packable rain jacket at home.
The trouble with getting drenched on a bikepacking trip is that you can tend to stay that way for quite a while afterwards until the sun comes back out to play. So, the best solution is to have a rain jacket with you that does two jobs. The first is to actually be waterproof (and not merely “water-resistant”) so that it keeps you dry. Secondly, to be light and packable so that you actually take it with you rather than leaving it on the spare bed at home in the nice-to-have-but-not-really-required pile of gear.
Today, we’re going to have an in-depth look at the key aspects you need to consider when you’re looking to buy a new rain jacket for bikepacking. Along the way I’ll also pass along some recommendations for my all-time favorite light and packable rain jackets.
By the way, best place to store your rain jacket? In your saddle bag. Why? Well, it’s the perfect location for a couple reasons. Saddle bags are great for light but bulky items like sleeping bags and (you guessed it) rain jackets. Also, if you store your jacket at the opening end of the saddle bag then you’ll be ready for the next downpour: rain starts falling, pull over and stop, open bag, whip out rain jacket and, in one stylish manoeuvre (like a bull-fighting matador) twirl the jacket round, slide your arms in and pull the zipper up.
How to choose a rain jacket for bikepacking
We’ve seen that there are two features that a rain jacket absolutely has to have in order to be a good choice for bikepacking:
It clearly has to be waterproof. Steer away from jackets that are just water-resistance. Also steer away from cycling jackets that say they are ‘winter’ and ‘thermal’ – many of these are excellent, but they are probably not waterproof and will need to be teamed up with an additional waterproof layer over the top.
Light and packable
As bikepackers we are concerned (some might even say, obsessed) about the amount of kit weight that we carry on us and our bikes. This might seem a little over the top to non-cyclists, but an extra ounce here or half a pound there can really start adding up. When you’re pedaling this weight for tens or hundreds of miles (or even worse, on an endless hike-a-bike section) the energy it will consume can be considerable.
So, light jackets are important. A jacket that is packable is also essential as our storage space, whether in our saddle bags or handlebar bags, is always tight).
What additional features is it important to look for when choosing the right rain jacket for our bikepacking adventures?
Longer rear hem
One of the main differences you’ll notice between non-cycling and cycling upper body apparel is that the cycling gear will have a longer rear seam than front seam. Why is this the case? The reason is that the normal cycling position tends to be somewhat hunched forward over the handlebars. This has the effect of pulling up the rear hem as your back arches. If the seams were the same length you’d end up with the a slice of lower back that was chilly and would get rain dripping on it and trail water splashing up onto it. Not good.
Unless you’re going hunting, then I believe that being as visible as possible on a bike is a good thing. Even if most of your bikepacking miles will be in the wilderness, there will be times when you’re cycling along roads, or in poor light conditions, or both at the same time.
Visibility for a rain jacket is a combination of two things: bright colors and reflective elements. The rain jackets on the list above all have some combo of both of these.
There are a couple schools of thought on pit zips, but what are they? They are zippers on rain jackets under your armpits. As you heat up on the bike you can undo the zippers and allow some cooling breeze in. These are useful in that, with a waterproof rain jacket, you can get an excess build-up of heat quickly and this can cause you to get sweaty. On the flip side, the zippers will add weight to the jacket and can also be a source of water ingress.
On balance though, having tried jackets with and without pit zips, I have to say that I’m a fan and would choose a jacket that had them over one (with a similar spec otherwise) that didn’t. Having that ability to micro adjust your temperature on the fly is useful enough that it outweighs the extra ounce or two.
Another controversial one! And what isn’t in the world of cycling…
Some rain jackets have a hood that will go under (or, in some cases, over) your bike helmet. I must admit that I didn’t use to see the point in them. But, actually, having a seamless join from your head to body that stops rain water dribbling down your neck is really quite appealing and these days my jacket of choice is always one that has a hood. Yes, they can mess somewhat with your aerodynamics but on a bikepacking tour it’s more about the views and less about setting a PB, so that’s not really an issue for me.
Cycling jerseys and thermal layers often come with plenty of pockets but sometimes you’ll see rain jackets that don’t. I know the zippers and extra fabric adds weight but the convenience of being able to easily access phone, snacks, etc whilst riding in the jacket means that I’d always choose more pockets over fewer pockets.
A breast pocket is great for storing a phone or wallet. A pair of side hand pockets are excellent for snacks and also for keeping your fingers warm at the campground in the evening.
Close-fitting sleeves and adjustable cuffs
Much like with the lower rear hem, you can tell a cycling jacket a mile off by the close-fit sleeves and Velcro-fastening or elasticated cuffs. Roomier sleeves are great for hiking but they don’t work well when you’re creating a stiff breeze cycling along. Where they’ll just flap about and generally annoy the heck out of you.
Looking at the cuffs I prefer to go with Velcro-fasteners (hook and look tape) over elastic cuffs. These give the opportunity to have the cuffs tight to your gloves during the day’s cycle and looser when you’re off the bike (but still in the rain – sigh…) in the evening.
Bikepacking in the rain is one of those inevitabilities in life. But, unlike Death and Taxes (which are sadly unavoidable), you can stay dry on your adventures by choosing a rain jacket that does the job properly. Choose the right one for you that is waterproof, light and packable, and has all the other features that are important and you’ll keep the smile on your face as you pedal along through the downpour.
Don’t let the rain take the shine off your next bikepacking trip.
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