First thing you learn on a boat is to keep yourself dry, if it’s winter. It’s not different when you’ re on your bike. Being wet is not just uncomfortable, it can quickly become a health issue – from catching cold to having arthritis, depending on exposure time. On a bike, keeping yourself dry is easier said then done. Unfortunately, waterproofing works both ways: while you may keep away the rain, you may be soaked in your clothing due to excess sweating. You may not even imagine how much sweat human body can produce. Ask bike trainer users: without a huge fan, sometimes two, you’ll be dripping all over the place. While cruising on your bike at a relatively high pace, you don’t sweat that much, even under the hot sun thanks to wind. With waterproof clothing, wind does not help.
Why not Gore-Tex ?
There are some products, like Gore-Tex, promising to keep you dry in both ways: sweat out, but water does not come in. I had lots of Gore-Tex products, with varying success rates, and I’m not a huge fan of it anymore. Why? PTFE. AKA Teflon. This is basically a very-high tech plastic. It does not dissolve, and in powder form, it’s a huge health threat. Some companies like Helly Hansen and Fjallraven are trying to replace it, but I don’t know how well it goes. Even Patagonia, which is a zero-waste, hyper-green, let’s do it all nice company, cannot get away from Gore-Tex. However, humanity could keep them dry before Gore-Tex ever existed.
You may not know, but you can’t buy Gore-Tex fabric off-the-shelf, and make your own clothes. In fact, Gore-Tex works with manufacturers, and licence their products. You may be surprised to hear this, but considerable amount of “waterproofing” comes from “engineered” design and harsh testing; resulting an engineered clothing rather than a “designed” one. Various Gore-Tex cloth types are strategically placed, some critical areas that needs good ventilation like armpit areas are rather made from breathable clothes or thinner fabric, etc.
What is waterproof, anyway?
“Waterproof” is a vague word: it’s not “water-tight”, right? When you look at the tent specs, you come across various numbers, denoting how long / much they can withstand rain. This applies to all waterproof products. Unless “watertight”, they are only waterproof to some degree. Basically, we have water-tight, waterproof, and water-repellant products. Water tight means, you cannot wear them when riding a bike. Think it like rubber boots. They are not elastic, and keep all sweat in. Water-repellant is, practically, water runs through the material, but it will get inside after prolonged
My personal take on “waterproof products” is that, if you want a waterproof clothing, you cannot entirely depend on “waterproof” material: it would be uncomfortable, and won’t help much under heavy rain or prolonged use. So, you have to use clothes “strategically”. One great product is, panchos made for bikes. These keep everything dry except your feet and lower legs, and gets air underneath.
There is a good way to stay dry in rain, and my strategy for that is to avoid it altogether! Weather apps are incredibly accurate most of the time, so it’s best to avoid it. If you have a huge passion for bikes, and couldn’t skip a ride, either get a trainer, or schedule your ride. Sometimes, rain cannot be avoided. I always carry a raincoat with my bike, no matter how hot it is. If you ride long enough, you may come across with rain, even the place you are coming from is arid. That happened to me few times. If the weather is hot, not a huge deal. I carry 2 different raincoats depending on weather. For summer, I carry a 20+ year old, orange raincoat. It was hip and very expensive when I bought it, so I couldn’t throw it away even after the protective coating peeled away. I’ll tell you what I did. Other one is for more foul weather, also larger in size, which permits thicker clothing. It’s a Marmot, my favorite outdoor brand, and I must say it’s pretty awesome despite the fact that it does not protect my legs and my feet.
I got used to carrying a crappy pannier bag which I bought for nothing. Good ones were big, expensive and heavy. Knowing it will soak even the humidity, let alone rain (says “water repellant”) I had a plan when I bought it.
Waterproofing fun fact
The original rainproof coat was made by Mr. Burberry, and designed for British soldiers in WWI. It’s called a trench coat, because… it’s intended for soldiers in trenches. Obviously, it got popular and immensely expensive in time, like anything serving a purpose 100 years ago, but became futile with the technology. You just need a style icon, and I believe that was Humprey Bogart and Casablanca.
Gabardine is the fabric used in classic Burberry trench coats, made up of wool and tightly woven. A good gabardine fabric is not cheap, as it’s wool, but crappy ones with almost entirely made with polyester is dirt cheap. It has good wear resistance, and before the use of plastics, was the best fabric to keep you dry.
Of course, people have some tricks to keep themselves dry throughout the history, one being the umbrella, utterly useless on a bike, and other one is, beeswax. Beeswax is like silicone of our grandfathers. In fact, I’ll give you a formula to keep your things dry which includes beeswax. Beeswax is also used as a chain lube. I never tried that, though.
DIY waterproofing – silicone method
I tried 2 formulas with good success so far. I’ve used this formula for shoes, leather, pannier bags, garments, and backpacks. There are more waterproofing materials which I didn’t try yet; as these ones are looked more promising.
First one is permanent. It’s almost perfect to permanently waterproof anything – it makes fabrics almost watertight. Downside is, it feels sticky, not suitable for leather, and looks ugly because it’s shiny. Main ingredient is silicone for caulking. You must make sure it’s 100% silicone. Then you’ll need something to thin it. I tried mineral spirit first, but found out it’s not strong enough. I thought of using acetone, seems like a good candidate due to it’s a very good solvent, but it also evaporate almost instantly. I think the best solvent for such task is, at least what I’ve tried, lacquer thinner. It’s a mighty solvent, it does not evaporate as fast as acetone, easy to find and cheap. Be warned; it’s highly flammable and quite toxic, so use outdoors! Also, do not ever use this on real or faux leather; it will damage both. It may damage some fabrics; probably most, so test on a small part before using it.
You’ll need a glass or metal container. Laquer thinner will melt most plastics, so they are not suitable. Then you’ll need a bristle brush. Wall paint brushes don’t work because lacquer thinner melts them too. You’ll also need a wooden or metallic stick to stir and melt silicon. Dump some silicone into your container, and add some laquer thinner. I think 1 part silicone to 2 parts laquer thinner is a good starting point. If it’s too thick, add some laquer thinner. If it’s too runny, wait for some time: thinner will evaporate and you’ll have a thicker compound. Don’t let it sit more then a few hours, you don’t want the silicone to set!
For best results, apply a thicker coat, wait 1-2 days for it to cure by hanging the threated item outside, ideally in a sunny day. Then, apply a thinner coat, without brushing it too much, as the new coat may dissolve the first coat. Let it dry again.
This is a very effective method, waterproofing efficiency concerned. If you apply it on a cheap, useless pannier bag, you’ll have a pannier bag almost as waterproof as an Ortlieb Classic. Apply thicker coats on stitches. Don’t forget the zippers, but I advice you to tape zipper teeth first: if you run it down to teeth, zipper will stuck.
DIY waterproofing – beeswax/vaseline method
This is very effective, cheap and non-toxic. In fact, it’s something like what Fjallraven “Greenland Wax”: while the “Greenland Wax” has a consistency of a bar soap, the formula I use is much softer.
You also don’t need a heat source to apply, unlike “Greenland Wax”.
I use this formula on my leather shoes. It’s not slippery or sticky, at least after penetrates to leather. I don’t have a Brooks saddle now, but I assume it’s safe for it, too. Added benefit is, it will keep sweat out, and make leather saddles rain proof. Also conditions leather.
Lately, I used this formula on my flimsy and cheap pannier bag. It was like a pair of socks in waterproof department. I showered it after the application and it does not get wet inside. I don’t need something super waterproof, so it serves me well. For a super waterproof bag, a waterproofing agent itself not enough. You also need waterproof zippers, and tight seams.
It’s very cheap to make: I bought a kilo of vaseline which cost me less than 5$. A 250 gr beeswax cost me the same. This mix will give you a 1.250 grams of compound for 10$, while 100 gr of Greenland Wax costs a bit more.
I use 1 parts of beeswax to 4 parts vaseline. You’ll need two containers, one is bigger to contain the smaller one, to melt beeswax and vaseline: double container method is the way to go, as both are inflammable. Get a cheese grater, grate the beeswax beforehand, as beeswax in big chunks is harder to melt. Put some water into outer, big container, and put the beeswax into smaller, dry container. Set your cooker to half or a bit more; let it melt slowly. Then add vaseline, let it melt too, then stir and pour to a container for storage. I used an empty cheese box. I keep such containers instead of tossing them to waste basket. They are handy. You may want to keep such containers too, instead of paying for them when needed. It saves money, time and reduces waste. Use a wider, shallow container with a lid. It will become solid in a few hours, with a consistency like butter.
There are various ways to apply this “cream” to items you want to waterproof. For leather, best way is to use a small sponge, dipping into the cream and applying in a swirling motion. For clothes, you can heat it up to make it softer or liquid, then apply it with a brush. For stiffer clothes like bags, I like to soften it a bit first and use my fingers to rub it onto the surface.
For clothes, you may want to apply multiple coats. A good trick is to apply less coats, thinner coats, or no coat at all to areas where ventilation is needed, like the armpits.
This is not a permanent solution as the silicone method. You may need to reapply it in every few months, depending on usage.
You may use liquid paraffin instead of vaseline, but liquid paraffin smell is quite unpleasant. Vaseline is almost the same thing without any nasty odor. I use medical grade stuff – it’s still a petroleum product, though. It doesn’t smell bad, has a faint beeswax odor, but you can also add some scents if you like.