Sooner or later, if you’re a serious rider, you’re going to encounter rain. The fair-weather open pipes enthusiasts, who only use their chrome barges as transport to-and-from poker runs and coffee shops on sunny days, don’t have to put much consideration into waterproof gear [Tell us what you really think, Zac! – Ed.], but for the rest of us, it’s important to stay dry. Wet clothes, plus wind chill, can add up to a cold, miserable ride, or worse, hypothermia.
With that in mind, there are three different approaches to waterproof riding gear:
Rainsuits are simple. Get a waterproof jacket and pants, pull them over your riding gear, and away you go.
There are some advantages to this approach. You can buy a rainsuit for a decently low price, and they’re easy to find. Many riders simply use off-the-shelf frogg toggs, designed for hiking or other outdoor pursuits. You can find these rainsuits anywhere for around $100 or less, at places like Wal-Mart or Canadian Tire. Army surplus stores are another good source for rugged waterproofs, although some riders may not like the camouflage look, as it’s not as noticeable as hi-viz on the highway.
If you want to spend more, there are motorcycle-specific rainsuits on the market. Some are very basic, just repackaged outdoorswear with some reflectors. Others are designed to be stretchy, moving with you on the bike, with extra straps, gussets and drawcords built in, for the ultimate fit.
If you put a hole in a rainsuit, it’s probably simple to fix, as long as you’ve got some sort of patch kit with you and the hole isn’t too big.
When the rain is over, your gear under the rainsuit isn’t soaked (theoretically), so you’re not walking around in soggy jacket and pants. You can go back to wearing your leathers, or vented textile gear, or whatever, in comfort.
There are a couple of problems with a rainsuit, though. The first is, where do you keep it? Unless your bike has saddlebags or a tail trunk, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place where the rainsuit can stow away inconspicuously. The second is, rainsuits aren’t as rugged as regular riding gear. This isn’t a problem for most motorcyclists, but if you’re riding off-road, you may end up with rips in your rain jacket or pants from trailside brush or other debris poking holes in the suit.
But the thing with rainsuits is that they follow the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. They just plain work, even if they’re mostly sort of ugly and flappy in the wind. If they’re not working, it’s easy to figure out why, and fix the problem.
The majority of waterproof motorcycle jackets and pants use a liner to keep rain at bay.
This is arguably an advantage for adventure riding gear. It means your waterproofing is protected by the tough exterior of your riding gear. Sticks, bushes and even minor falls aren’t going to compromise your rain gear.
Liners often pack up into compact bundles, so they’re easier to stow away on your bike, and they don’t flap in the breeze like an exterior rain suit does.
However, liners have major disadvantages, particularly when used in pants. Say you’re riding, and you see rain ahead. You pull over to install your rain liners, but realize you’ve got to stand roadside in your skivvies while you zip the liner into your motorcycle pants.
If you install the rain liners ahead of your ride, you’re not going to have the same breathability in your riding gear.
Either way, when it rains, internal rain liners feel kind of trickly, clammy and unpleasant if worn without another liner underneath. Some gear makers include a thermal liner to wear under your rain liner for this reason.
Another problem with rain liners: they tend to allow leaks between the jacket and pants.
All in all, liners are a good backup, and better than nothing, but there are good reasons to avoid using them, especially when touring or on longer day rides. For shorter around-town jaunts, they’re not so bad.
Some gearmakers provide jackets and pants with waterproofing and abrasion protection packed into a single layer, with no extra liner or outer rainsuit needed.
Most commonly, this is done by making a sort of fabric sandwich, with Cordura or similar crash-resistant material on the outside, and Gore-Tex or some other waterproofing bonded to the inside. Usually, there are some waterproof zippers for venting.
Another approach is to take a fabric and soak it with a waterproofing substance. This is how the old Belstaff and Barbour riding jackets were made, from waxed cotton. Several other gearmakers use similar processes now (Aerostich, Merlin, Richa).
Single-layer waterproof jackets are, in many ways, the ultimate solution. You don’t have to remember to bring anything, because the gear is always ready for whatever the weather throws at you.
However, they do tend to be heavier than other motorcycle jackets, and more sweaty. And when the waterproofing in the single-layer jacket starts to leak, it can be a pain to fix, or impossible. Waxed cotton isn’t so bad — it can be re-waterproofed — but if your single-layer jacket relies on a Gore-Tex layer that becomes compromised, good luck fixing it.
However, at least in the spring and fall, it’s hard to beat the utility of single-layer gear, as long as it actually works.
One point about single-layer waterproof gear: although the inner liner should theoretically be enough to keep the rain out, a lot of this gear will benefit from application of waterproof sprays or wash-in chemicals like Nikwax (and, as mentioned above, waxed cotton is designed to be refinished at certain intervals). Check with the manufacturer of your jacket or pants for their recommendations.
You have three choices here: Rain covers (the equivalent of rain suits), boots/gloves that come with factory waterproofing, or boots/gloves that you waterproof yourself.
Boot rain covers are cheap, and while they don’t work well for walking around off the bike, they’re fine while you’re riding. Most boots with factory waterproofing don’t stay that way for long, even the more expensive boots, and they just don’t breathe that well. However, if you’ve got a place to store them, they’re an excellent choice for street riding.
Rain covers for gloves are less common, but Aerostich makes sets that come highly recommended, and would work well in almost any riding scenario.
Of course, you can buy boots or gloves that claim to be waterproof from the factory. Some waterproof boots do work fairly well, especially if they’re lined with Gore-Tex. However, I have yet to see a pair last more than five years. As for gloves, I find all factory waterproof gloves tend to eventually leak through the cuff anyway, and the waterproof liner layer makes them hard to pull on and off. For that reason, I’m not a fan at all, although I have several pairs.
You can also take a pair of non-waterproof boots or gloves and apply mink oil, Nikwax, Sno-Seal or another waterproofing agent. This is a good solution for shorter rides, and will also help boots that are starting to lose their factory waterproofing. You can even use Vaseline as a crude waterproofing agent by rubbing it into leather riding gloves.
Even if your gear has waterproof zippers, eventually water tends to leak through. You can keep the seepage at bay by waxing your zippers. You can get all fancy and buy wax from a dive shop that’s made for this purpose, or you can use plain ol’ fashioned lip balm, or even candle wax.
A touring bike with a big fairing or cleverly-designed bodywork will help keep the rain off you. Touring and adventure touring bikes are particularly excellent in this regard. It also helps if you can run heated gear; if you do get wet, this will keep your core temperature from dropping.
Pick the right clothes for under your riding gear. If you wear a hoodie, the hood hanging out of your jacket will soak up rain and eventually seep downwards. Wool is the best choice for rainy days, because if you do get wet, it will still help you stay warm. Pick up some merino from Costco, or go with something from the army surplus store, or the classic Canadian standard, Stanfields.
The bottom line
From my personal experience, it’s difficult to find waterproof gear that can be relied on. On my last trip to BC, I had a pair of Alpinestars Revenant pants leak in the crotch, despite their $899 price tag in Canada, and that’s in the first season of use. You’d think that you’d be guaranteed waterproofing for that kind of money, but you aren’t. I’ve had allegedly waterproof boots that likewise only lasted a season, and I have yet to find a pair of gloves I’ve been happy with in the rain.
Having said that, some brands are better than others, and I’ve personally found Aerostich to be mostly good, although it’s expensive and the infamous “‘Stich Crotch” leak still pops up for some users. Klim also has an excellent reputation; although I’ve never personally used Klim, Warren had great luck with his Latitude gear in a 2015 test.
With that in mind, if you’re headed out on a tour, I’d recommend you check any allegedly waterproof gear you own, if possible. Ride in the rain around home, or have a friend spray you with a garden hose, or in the shower, or something. If you find leaks, buy a rainsuit. It’s cheap insurance. And if you have a recommendation, or a warning, let us all know in the comments below.