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Home » Biking, Save Money, Summer of Saving, Transportation

Bike Commuter Gear & Tips To Enhance your Safety & Enjoyment

Last updated by on 7 Comments

Outside of sharing some tips on finding a commuter bike, I want to give a few tips on how to do the commuting itself so that your biking to work or anywhere else is not only safer, but more enjoyable.

I’ve been bike commuting for 5 years now in an urban environment (without major incident, thankfully) and I’ve picked up on a few things (a few of wish I had learned earlier in my commuting years than later) in the process.

So I’ll share what I know, with the goal of encouragement and subsiding fears – and hope other experienced bike commuters do the same.

Please don’t be overwhelmed or intimidated by this list, and please ask any questions you have. Commuting by bike is one of the most fun and rewarding healthy habits I’ve taken up over the years. When I am not able to do it, due to weather, I get anxious and irritable! The following commuter bike gear and tips will allow you to bike more often and enjoy it more when you do. Consider the safety ones mandatory, while many of the gear ones are related to personal preference.

1. Wear a Bike Helmet Properly

Look – if I don’t list this first, the bike helmet police are going to come out in full force.

I know they look dorky, they aren’t the most comfortable, and they can mess up your hair.

But they can also save your life.

Head injury is by far the greatest risk posed to bicyclists, comprising one-third of emergency department visits, two-thirds of hospital admissions, and three-fourths of deaths. And one of the best is only $20, so why wouldn’t you?

Here’s a visual guide on how to properly fit and wear a bike helmet.

bike helmet tips

2. Improve your Road Visibility

Make sure you are blatantly visible to all drivers. Here’s why:

1. Most drivers are on auto-pilot: You know how after driving to a destination enough times, you start looking back on the trip and realize you don’t remember any of it? Kind of scary isn’t it?

2. Many drivers are focused on things other than driving like smartphones, their gps, turning the radio station, watching and daydreaming.

3. Many drivers have poor visibility/eyesight.

So here’s what bikers can do to improve their visibility:

1. Wear bright colored clothing. You want to stand out, not blend in to your surroundings, especially when it gets dark.

2. Make eye contact when you can. Critically important at stop signs as many drivers look for other cars and don’t notice bikers. Don’t assume a driver sees you unless they look you in the eye and acknowledge you.

3. Use flashing bike lights (white in front, red in back) when it gets dark. Reflectors are not good enough. And if you can light up your path to avoid potholes or other roadblocks, while improving your visibility, you also improve your commuting experience.

4. Get these reflective leg bands. One-size-fits-all. Cheap. They can keep your pants out of your chain (and prevent annoying grease stains). And they improve your visibility through color and reflection.

5. You can even get reflective bike tires.

3. Learn how to Give Proper Biking Hand Signals

Some drivers don’t know biker lane change signal from a right turn signal. Some do.

You’re not going to know who does and doesn’t though. So ALWAYS signal.

More than anything else, your signal sends a message of “SLOW THE F DOWN AND PAY ATTENTION. I’M GOING TO DO SOMETHING.”

There are really only three hand signals you need to know: right turn, left turn, and stop. Here they are:

biking hand signals

4. Follow The Rules of the Road

When you bike, you are not a pedestrian. You treat yourself as a car, and should follow the rules of the road. This means:

  • you stop at stop signs, and wait your turn
  • you stop at stop lights
  • you stay in the road
  • be patient and maintain your composure

5. Wear Clothing to Make your Ride Comfortable

Outside of visibility, the clothing you wear serves another key purpose: comfort.

Wearing jeans on a 5 mile bike commute on a humid, 90-degree day or shorts and a cotton t-shirt on a windy, rainy, 50-degree day will quickly lead to you never wanting to bike commute again.

So here are some tips:

  • don’t overdress: if you are warm when you get on your bike, you’re going to be hot and sweaty by the time you get off.
  • don’t underdress: shorts in freezing rain is not only uncomfortable, it can be extremely dangerous. It doesn’t take much for hypothermia to kick in with wind resistance, cold, and rain.
  • synthetic materials are great if precipitation is likely: cotton/wool + rain = no fun.
  • tight clothing is better than loose: tight clothing tends to breath better and will offer less resistance against wind.
  • layering: for longer rides in cooler weather, layering clothing is a good way to go. If you do this, you will need a pannier, basket, or backpack to hold the extra layers that you strip. You don’t want to tie around your waste.
  • when below freezing: wear ear protection (I prefer a thin balaclava to cover my face and ears) and warm gloves and socks. Eye protection (sun or other glasses) is also helpful for your eyeballs literally don’t freeze and tear up.

6. Map Out your Bike Route

One of the most essential components to successfully bike commuting is to find a route that you love (or don’t hate, at least).

To that end, Google Maps has put together bike routes on top of their regular maps functionality. It gives turn-by-turn bike directions, in addition to bike path overlays. Just put in a starting and destination address, and Maps does the rest.

I switched up my route a year ago to a longer route through a park and bike path versus all street, and it has made the ride even more enjoyable.

7. The Bike to Work Hygiene Thing

One of the most common objections I hear about bike commuting is that people don’t want to be sweaty on the way in to work or get their clothes dirty.

I get the concern. But it’s a very low hurdle to jump over.

I pack my work clothes in a backpack, which solves the dirty clothes thing. However, I do get a bit sweaty with the backpack. To avoid that, you can get a rear bike rack and rear rear pannier, or side panniers.

I’m lucky enough that my employer has showers at work. If they didn’t, the extra set of clothes and a deodorant stick would go a long ways.

If your employer doesn’t have showers, try bringing it up with your facility staff as an employee perk idea.

If a shower isn’t an option, pack a towel, wet it down, cool yourself off, apply some deodorant and fresh clothing, and you should be good to go.

And if you have body odor issues, pack some disinfectant hand gel to use as a cleanser.

8. Bike Fenders!

There are few things worse than a bike ride in rainy conditions, in my opinion.

If you bike commute enough times, you’re going to get wet.

Bike fenders make for a less wet and less messy experience.

9. Know your Basic Bike Maintenance

Tomorrow’s post is going to cover bike maintenance 101.

You will find that learning a handful of skills and having the right tools on the road with you will accomplish 99% of everything you will ever need to know about bicycle maintenance.

Being able to repair a flat tire, while out on the road on your own is an essential bike commuting skill – for your sanity and safety.

Bike Commuter Gear & Tips Discussion:

  • Outside of bike maintenance gear (covered tomorrow) – what commuter bike gear do you recommend?
  • Are there any other commuter safety tips you can’t stress enough?
  • How do you handle hygiene when biking to work, if a shower is not an option for you?

About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 7,500+ others by getting FREE email updates. You'll also find every post by category & every post in order.


7 Comments »
  • Mike F says:

    I am a regular bike commuter in New York City. Luckily we have installed some pretty good cycling infrastructure that has made cycling quite safe. The point of G.E’s article is to make it even safer so here are some additional awareness thoughts.

    1) Give trucks a lot of space and be really wary when passing them if you ever choose to do so. If you are on the truck’s right when they make a right turn, steer into the parked cars or curb. Crashing into just about anything is better than being run over by the back wheels of a truck.

    2) Take the lane. This is sort of related to #1 but you will be more visible. You will get honked/cursed at on occasion by someone who is in too much of a hurry, but take that as a sign that other drivers see you. It will also move you away from parked cars opening their doors.

    3) Watch out for oncoming vehicles on a 2-way road making left turns who frequently will forget to yield to you. You will have a green light, they will have a green light. Be ready do decide one of 3 options: Break, Accelerate (to get through the intersection before they do), Turn Right. Your first reaction will be to slam on your breaks, perfectly throwing yourself over your handlebars into the path of the car.
    3a) Practice emergency breaking.

    I phrased these bluntly not to scare, but to make aware. Cycling is far healthier and safer than the alternative of sitting on your butt in a car getting no exercise–that is guaranteed to kill you.

  • Riky N says:

    I bike into Washington DC daily. Luckily DC is taking huge strides to be more bicycle friendly like the addition of our cycle tracks. These bike lanes make mine and less wizened riders much more comfortable. Otherwise, stay to the right side and try not to take up the entire lane if your slow. Be willing to stop and let people pass on 2 lane roads, it isn’t a competition, and I’ve seen a few close calls between two cars because one passed a bicycle out of impatience.

    Two things I think that everyone biking to work should have:
    A bright backpack with a rain cover.
    Cheap sunglasses that your willing to wear and break.

    I don’t wear spandex and never shower, but my ride is only 2.5 miles. Besides the towel, the key thing I do is have baby powder and a puff for certain areas, or use roll on deodorant like “Dry Idea” or “Arm and Hammer”. Bring a new pair of underwear/socks and change in the bathroom. I only have to wear a button up and slacks, so I keep my shoes on the floor and pants in a deep office drawer hanging from folders, the rest I pack in my backpack.

  • Kim says:

    I was a bike commuter for 6 months in Orlando, Florida and we had no showers at our office. I kept a box of baby wipes and a stick of deodorant at my desk, and biked to work in gym clothes before changing into professional attire. At first people thought it was weird that I would bike (we had a parking garage with our own spaces) but after about a week the funny looks wore off.

  • Marc says:

    My commute is a 3 mile ride on a mountain bike in Houston, Texas. The temperature and humidity here this past week is ~100 F and >50% respectively. So, believe me when I say the hygiene thing is really a non-issue.

    I don’t pack a change of clothes either. I ride to work in business casual clothing and change my shoes when I arrive (my dress shoes are too awkward to use when riding a bike) and that’s it. No deodorant needed (I got a confidant to check on a particularly hot day, so don’t worry). I was pretty self-conscious about how wet my shirt was when I first started but it’s generally accepted down here that if you’re outside for more than 10min that you’ll be soaked by the time you get inside. I’ve been riding for about a year now and my officemates are just learning NOW that I bike to work, so I don’t think anyone even notices the sweat. If you’re worried about sweating then just leave earlier when it’s cooler out and bike slowly. I can’t imagine biking at 10mph is any more strenuous than a brisk walk.

    I also have finger length curly hair and I ride with a helmet. My hair looks fine when I arrive. Unless your hair is done-up like Kim Kardashians then I doubt you’ll have a problem.

    One safety tip, buy a mirror. Not the ones that hang off the side of your bike – they’re garbage. They break as soon as your bike falls over. Get one that mounts on your helmet. You might look like an x-wing fighter pilot (is that really a bad thing?) but it can save your life or at least save you from looking over your shoulder every 5 seconds from the fear of being run over.

  • Greg says:

    I’ve commuted by bike well over 1,000 times now and have done it in a variety of weather conditions including extremely cold and windy and hot and humid. In grad school, my commute was about 3 miles and flat and my current commute is about 4.5 miles and hilly. I think this is a great article, and I have a few additional things to add.

    1) Let me emphasize the wear your helmet part. I fractured 2 vertebrae in my neck on my bicycle (in a triathlon, not while commuting), but my helmet saved my life. You never know when something is going to happen, so it’s always good to wear your helmet.
    2) Watch out for the “door zone.” When you have to ride next to cars that are parallel parked, be aware of someone opening a car door into your path of travel. Slow down, look for people in cars, and move outside the door zone if possible.
    3) Sunglasses with swappable lenses make it easy to swap out for clear lenses when you need to ride in the dark, but still want protection from things flying in your eyes.
    4) I switched at some point from a backpack to a rear-mounted gear system and it made a huge difference (no more back sweat!). I started with metal baskets and bungee cords, but then I got a pack from Arkel. The Arkel stuff is pretty expensive, but it is really well made. I’ve had the “Commuter” for several years now. Their bags go on and off the bike in about a second–way faster and easier than anything else I’ve seen–and look pretty good as well. They have great customer service and the packs are very durable and stay mounted securely while riding. I also have the rain fly for mine and it works well.
    5) With lights there are three categories of brightness: be legal, be seen, see. I upgraded from “be seen” to “see” at some point and it was awesome.
    6) If you’re riding in extreme cold like I used to do, switch from ski gloves to lined ski mittens. They are so much warmer! As an aside, wearing lots of warm clothes and hopping on the bike is surprisingly warmer than getting in a cold car that warms up around the time you get to work.
    7) I just bike slowly when I commute and have never really needed to shower afterwards. I get my sweat on during separate workouts, so I just take my time riding to work and don’t worry about it.
    8) Binder clips work great for keeping your pants out of your chain.
    9) There are sometimes perks. We’re moving into a new building at work and despite the fact that I don’t have seniority, I was offered one of the big offices so I would have room to store my bike.

  • Kristen says:

    Hi! Thank you for all of your green posts, G.E.–I think it’s great that you’re mixing sustainability with personal finance. This is a bit different from commuting/transportation, but I’d really like to see a post on green investing/your thoughts on divestment. I think that one of the biggest problems with sustainability is that few of us have found a way to sustainably make money.

    How can I green up my personal portfolio? What should I look for in a local bank? What sort of SRI options are there?

    Thanks and, again, you have a great blog!
    Kristen

  • Christopher says:

    Get a mirror! The EVT mirror is my mirror of choice.

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