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The ultimate guide to enjoying wet, winter and night riding in the PNW

Justin Vander Pol is the founder of Abit Gear and was Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance's first Executive Director. He loves doing trail maintenance in the pouring rain. Check out our Enduro MTB shorts that come in Slim Fit and Athletic Fit. 

We live in one of the best places for year-round riding... if you know how to dress and where to ride. It doesn't rain hard here, but it does rain freakishly often during the wet season, which is half the year. 

Contents

  1. How to Dress
  2. Where to ride
  3. How to set up your MTB
  4. Night riding

Trail maintenance in the rain

Let me start by saying, it's trail building season! Trail work is what I prefer to do when the weather is dismal. The community of trail builders is second to none and you'll find it's one heckuva party in the woods. Jump over to Evergreen, WMBC or your local trail association and discover the unique joy of throwing dirt in the winter.

How to Dress for Wet Weather Riding in the PNW

Year-round riding is fantastic here, but you need to know how to dress to enjoy it. You'll be balancing being hot and sweaty when climbing, getting damp from rain, and cold wind on descents. Don't try to stay dry, focus on staying comfortable.

Head

You'll want an ear or head covering in your winter kit. If you've got a good amount if hair a thin ear band is the ticket. If you have less natural insulation on top, a thin cycling specific skull cap that you can wear under your helmet is what you want. 

Hands

Insulated wind and waterproof gloves are essential for riding when it's below 40F or raining. Unfortunately many of them have annoying gel inserts that ruin your bar feel, so you'll need to look around. Gore makes some good ones, as well as Endura and 100%.

When it's cold or wet, bring two pair of gloves. If I'm using insulated gloves I'll bring some standard MTB gloves to switch into once I start to sweat. On cool days that aren't frigid I'll bring two pair of standard full finger gloves and switch into a dry pair half way through the ride or before descending. Putting on dry gloves mid-ride is pure bliss! 

A next-level trick for keeping hands warm is to ditch the aluminum levers and switch to carbon fiber or plastic. More on that below. 

Torso

For merely cool rides, I just put an extra layer of thin merino, stash my windbreaker vest in my hip pack and hit the trails. When the weather gets colder, wetter and more variable is when a bit of planning pays off. 

I rarely ride in a waterproof "breathable" Gore-Tex style jacket. If I do, it goes in the pack as soon as I'm warmed up and I pull it back out for longer descents. They can't breathe enough for our long, slow climbs, and you'll quickly get soaked in sweat. For most of us, save your money and skip the fancy jacket.

Instead, layer up with a thin merino wool base layer with one or two thin layers on top of that. Even in moderate rain I prefer wool to a clammy-ass jacket. On longer rides, putting a dry merino shirt on at the summit can keep your comfy. More on the benefits of merino, below. 

You will want some protection from the wind. Wind is what makes you cold, much more so than temperature. But it's a battle finding wind protection that is breathable enough, which is why waterproof jackets don't work well. My go to is an ultra-light and ultra-packable windbreaker vest, which is perfect for the slower tech trails I tend to ride in the wet season. For long, fast descents, such as Olallie or Raging Ridge, a breathable windbreaker jacket is good option to keep your arms warm.

Merino Wool is the Answer

Merino wool is amazingly soft and luxurious. Unlike polyester, it insulates perfectly when wet and never feels clammy. It also never stinks. If you haven't tried it, you should, it's like magic. 

I always wear thin merino as my next to skin layer year-round. Thin layers dry faster, and are easier to modulate as you layer up or strip down when warm. Polyester works great as your outer layer. It dries fast and is more durable in crashes, but I stick with merino for all my riding shirts so I can comfortably drop down to a single layer mid-ride.

The only downside to merino is that it's less abrasion resistant. Buy merino that has a nylon core for strength. This material is usually 11% nylon and 89% merino, and lasts three times as long as 100% merino for me (I'm hard on gear).

 Pros Cons
Polyester

Cheaper, dries fast, durable

Cold and clammy when wet, gets the perma-funk
Merino Wool Warm when wet, doesn't feel clammy, never stinks Cost, prone to getting holes and snags if 100% wool

Shorts and Pants 

If it's cool and dry, I ride in my great fitting Abit Gear shorts that have a DWR (water repellent) finish to shed mist and spray. Underneath I use merino bike underwear and knee pads that are comfortable to pedal in. 

Once temps drop to around freezing, add bike tights under your baggies or some merino-spandex long johns.

For underwear, I avoid thick chamois pads when I know I'm going to get wet, they hold too much moisture and feel like a gross, wet diaper.

When sloppy and wet, partially waterproof shorts are fantastic. I prefer shorts with a waterproof rear and breathable front like the Endura MT500 Spray. They keep the brown stripe from soaking through, and have some stretch. Most totally waterproof shorts suffer from poor fit, lack of stretch, and high cost. 

Feet

Again, wool is your friend. Don't ride in synthetic socks. Just don't. Wear slightly thicker wool socks such as the Woolie Boolie, they're what I ride year-round. 

You'll want some method of keeping your feet dry from splashes, and either waterproof shoes or waterproof socks work well. 

If you clip in there are solid options for warm and/or waterproof shoes like those made by Lake. You can also try shoe covers, both thin waterproof and neoprene are common. Back in the day when I clipped in more I used these, but I tended to destroy them pretty quickly. 

One note about clipping in for those who suffer from cold feet: during sub-freezing temps the metal cleat can suck the heat out of your feet, so consider plastic flat pedals or high-end winter clip-in boots.

The only decent option for waterproof flat pedal shoes right now is the Five.Ten Freerider EPS. They work, but you may want to add seam sealer to stop water from getting in around the lower part of the tongue gusset. They're somewhat insulated, but I wouldn't call them a true cold weather shoe. I find they're comfy from 30 to 55 degrees when wearing Woolie Boolies. The mid tops resist splashes better, but tend to funnel pebbles and dirt around your socks more than low tops.

The upcoming Five.Ten Trail Cross Mid GTX might be the flat pedal answer we've been waiting for, but it's not out until fall 2020. I'll definitely be getting a pair of these.

Waterproof socks are another great way to go. Look at Sealskinz or Showers Pass socks. You'll need to make sure your shoes are slightly oversized to stuff an extra layer of sock in them.

Just like with brake levers, you can go to (affordable!) composite plastic pedals instead of aluminum, which will help keep your warmer. See below more details. 

Get a Boot Dryer

You'll thank me for this one. Dry your shoes, boots, gloves and knee pads in a couple hours with gentle heat. Throwing this gear in the dryer ruins the silicon grippy bits. Never put on soggy, clammy, gross shoes or pads again!

Boot dryer from DryGuy

Boot dryer from DryGuy. I've been using this for 10+ years and love it. Bonus, they're a local Seattle company.

Bottom Line

We're all a bit different, so start with this as a starting point and play around to find what works best for your body and how you ride. Get it dialed and you'll love winter riding!

Where to Mountain Bike in the Seattle Area in the Winter and When it's Wet

We've got some of the best dirt in the world around here, and some of the best trail builders. The glacial till (gold, baby!) we have in abundance makes for excellent winter riding if the trails are well designed. That said, not every trail can handle wet riding. If your favorite trail has lots of clay, you need to stay off until it firms back up. As a rule, if riding leaves a rut, stay off that trail. 

Riding frozen trails is good fun. But be aware that damage can happen when frozen trails thaw out and turn to peanut butter. Stay off trails with frost heave until they have several days to settle and firm back up. Frost heave is worse in open areas with no tree cover, due to radiant cooling, so keep that in mind when choosing if to ride during a thaw cycle.

Frost heave on a section of doubletrack

Frost heave in exposed trail. OK to ride when frozen solid, but avoid when it's thawing and mushy.

I'm going to focus on Seattle area rides, since I've built a lot of trails in the area and that's what I know best. But I've done a lot of wet riding in Whistler, Squamish, North Vancouver and beyond, and many of their trails are also excellent wet rides, as long as you're below the snow line. The key is to identify which trails won't be damaged when ridden wet.

Weather radar and Tokul East - Last Frontier Trail - Stinky French Wh.... drop

Even when the radar looks like this, the trails at Tokul East drain out fast - rider John Chelico. 

Most Seattle area trails are built to handle wet weather riding without damage. Just give them a day to drain and you'll be good to go. But if you don't want to wait, or you hate puddles, ride Tokul East.

Tokul

Tokul East and Tokul West are the best places to ride when other spots are too wet or snowy. (Rec pass required). With a top elevation of 1000 feet the trails are rarely snowed out. Tokul's soils are gravely and drain well, so there are few puddles and hardly any mud.  I helped build a number of the trails there (HLC represent!), and we designed them specifically for wet weather. The flip side to trails that are amazing in the wet is that they get loose and blown out in the summer. 

Tokul East takes the nod for the best zone when it's really wet. The trails can handle it, and don't have many puddles even when it's raining. This is your go-to zone when everything else is miserable. 

Abit Gear's recommended Tokul East wet weather route on TrailForks

Our recommended Tokul East wet weather route on TrailForks.

Other Wet Weather Puget Sound Trails

The best options are listed first.

360 Trails:  Drains well and rides great in the rain. Like Tokul, 360 runs better when wet than when dry.

Black Diamond Open Space (BDOS): Another system with good soils and low elevation. 

Chuckanut: The trails here are rockier than Galbraith, and can handle riders when the ground it saturated and it's best to travel light on Galbraith. Gotta love your wet roots for this one!

Fort Ebey: Also hiding in the rain shadow on Whidbey Island, an xc system with well draining gravel soils. 

Anacortes Community Forest Land (ACFL): Often in the Olympic rain shadow and rocky. Good, punchy xc riding in the winter. 

Duthie Hill and Grand Ridge: You'll see some puddles, but pretty darn good and low elevation. Grand Ridge used to suck in the rain, but recent upgrades have made it a good option winter training rides.

Olallie: Good in the wet, but the fun "lower" part is at 1300 to 2600 feet elevation, so often snowed out.

Saint Edward and Big Finn Hill: Decent local spots in wet weather. A notch below Tokul and BDOS, but great options if you live in the area.

Galbraith:  Great in light rain, but when it's really been dumping and the soil is saturated, it's best to give the trails a few days to dry out.

Tiger Mountain: I'm only mentioning Tiger because it's so popular. Rain clouds like to hug the summit, so it's often the wettest spot in the region. With the trail head at 1300 feet, snow is often a factor. The trails can handle wet riding, but you're likely to get soaked. Master Link, Inside Passage, Silent Swamp (yeah, really), Joyride, NW Timber and Predator are decent in the wet. A nice, short, mid-elevation route that tops out at 2150 feet and is doable some winters is Master Link > Inside Passage > Joyride or EBAD > NW Timber.

Raging River: Also mentioned just because it's so popular. Good in light rain, not good if it's really wet. Flow trails like Poppin Tops will puddle more than tech trails, and there are segments in clear cuts that will be miserable in the rain. Give it a day or two to drain after heavy rain, and consider Tokul instead.

How to set up your MTB for riding in the wet

In general, you don't need to do much differently for winter riding than for riding the rest of the year. My winter setup is identical to what I usually ride, except that I'll sometimes run a faster rolling rear tire from June through September.

Tires are Critical

You absolutely need a grippy tire with aggressive tread and soft rubber. Not only are roots slick as snot, rubber gets harder and less grippy as the temps drop.

In the rear you want Maxxis MaxTerra rubber compound, Schwalbe Addix Soft, or E.Thirteen Race compound.

Maxxis Minion DHF in the mud
Tires are the most important gear on your bike, and can be confusing, so check out our Definitive (and simple) guide to mountain bike tires in the PNW.
In the front the above compounds work, or step your grip up a notch with Maxxis MaxxGrip, Schwalbe Ultra Soft or E.Thirteen MoPo.

Fenders

You'll want a minimalist front fender, such as the Mucky Nuts. This style fender is durable and unobtrusive, and does a great job minimizing splatter hitting your face. Run these year round, there's not reason not to. No matter what fender your run, you'll still get an occasional mud blob flying toward your eyes, so wear eye protection.

Rear fenders are more problematic. Many of us have tried them, and few of us run them. They get in the way when riding low and off the back of your seat, hit your frame in odd ways, and tend to break or fall off. The only rear fender worth considering is the Mudhugger, invented by the Brits who have even soggier weather than we do. Note that it won't work on all bikes.

Mudhugger rear fender
The Mudhugger is the only rear fender that isn't a pain in the ass. Mudhugger USA.

Get Rid of Aluminum Touch Points

If you want warmer hands and feet switch your brake levers and pedals from aluminum to plastic or carbon fiber. Aluminum is an effective heat sink, but plastic is an insulator that will keep you comfy. I've recently upgraded to carbon Code levers and plastic pedals, and the difference is profound.

Brake levers: higher end SRAM, and most Magura brakes can be retrofitted with carbon fiber levers. Any shop can order them for you for about $120. Shimano annoyingly does't offer replacement parts, but most brands offer at least one model with a carbon lever. 

Composite pedals: this one is nice since these pedals are cheaper than aluminum. OneUp, Deity and Kona are all independent Cascadia brands that have excellent composite pedals that sacrifice almost nothing over their aluminum siblings.

Carbon bars: According to Andrew Major from NSMB.com, carbon bars make a big difference in really cold climates, but are the least important cold weather touch point on the milder side of the Cascades. 

Night Riding

Weeknight riding in the PNW is essentially night riding with our short and dark winter days. The only thing different about night riding is getting lit, and you can ride pretty much any trail you usually ride in the winter. 

Lights: to get started, pick up a helmet mounted LED bike light with at least 1000 lumens. If you're only running one light, helmet mounted is the way to go. Running only a bar light is problematic when turning your bars on twisty trail.

The better setup is to run both a bar and helmet light, with your helmet being the brighter unit with 2000 lumens or more. The bar light throws nice shadows, and having a second light is a great idea for backup when one of your batteries dies. You don't want to be stuck out on the trail in the dark.

Gemino Duo bike light mounted to a PNW Range stem with GoPro mount

Gemini Duo light mounted to a PNW Range stem.

The ubiquitous MagicShine is the low budget way to get started. The batteries are low quality, and they overstate their brightness, but they should work for a year or two. Going with one of the established brands will be more reliable and less junk in the landfill. Look at Night Rider, Light and Motion, Gemini, Gloworm and any other known brand for good quality LED lights. 

I like Gemini and Gloworm since their batteries are interchangeable with Magicshine, and it makes sharing batteries mid-ride easy to keep everyone rolling. 

You now know everything you need in order to stay comfortable and enjoy wet, winter riding in the PNW. Winter riding is fantastic here, and mountain biking year round does wonders for keeping your sane when it's dismal and dark outside. 

Slim Fit and Athletic Fit enduro mountain bike shorts


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