At some point I want to get a bunch of bakfiets owners together and design the perfect rain canopy. Until then, we’re stuck with the rain canopies that are actually available. I’ve previously talked about what I didn’t like about the R&M version of the Packster canopy. In addition to my problems with the functionality of that one, there was also the issue of them not making one at all for the Packster 80, which was the bike I wanted for the increased cargo capacity. So I ordered a Blaq canopy at the same time as I ordered the Packster 80. I’d seen other versions of their canopies around town on other bikes but the one for the Packster 80 didn’t exist when I placed my order, so I was relying on their track record and hoping I’d like it.
I got the canopy in September and did a brief review after I’d had it for a couple of weeks. Now it’s February and I’ve had the canopy in near-daily use for close to 6 months in almost all kinds of weather. I thought it was time for a more thorough review, including my thoughts on what they do right and what could be improved for my version of the ideal rain canopy.
First things first: Size. This cover is HUGE. This is largely a function of the size of the box on the Packster 80, which pretty much demands a large rain canopy. Additionally, because the rain canopy needs to allow for 1) tall kids + helmets and 2) the handlebars to be able to go all the way up and turn without interacting with the canopy, it has to be tall as well as long. As it stands, the canopy allows about 2-3″ of clearance when the bars are raised to the highest level, and is almost tall enough for my 5’6″ self to sit underneath with my helmet on and be comfortable. Your kids are going to be getting bonked in the head with the handlebars and needing to lean forward a bit before they are hitting the top of this canopy. This is a big contrast with the R&M canopy, which only has ~3-4″ of clearance over my average height 4.5 year old’s helmeted head on the higher heigh setting. Additionally, the canopy curves up fairly quickly in the front, allowing a lot of space in the front of the box. This means that I can still use the front seats in my box with the canopy installed. Or stack groceries really high in the front. Or carry really ridiculous things like easels. You know, standard cargo bike stuff. The R&M cover is much more aerodynamic but the sacrifice is space in the front of the box when the canopy is in use. My preference is for more space.
This brings up a big downside of the design of the Blaq cover though: it’s a giant wind sail on the front of your bike. I get asked about this a lot. There’s even a warning on the paperwork when you buy this canopy reminding you that it’s a giant wind sail on the front of your bike and you should be careful. I struggled for a long time to quantify this issue because it’s not easy to find good data on wind speeds and I don’t have any way to measure them while I’m on my bike. However, a recent wind storm resulted in me looking into this a little more and discovering a good wind report/forecast system by Seattle City Light and UW.
So, how big a problem is it to have a giant wind sail on the front of the Packster 80?
In average Seattle conditions, pretty much none. For the sake of answering this I’m going to disclose that I weigh ~120lbs. This is important because the lighter you are, the more likely you are to get pushed around by the wind hitting the canopy. Your mass just can’t counteract the wind as easily when you are lighter. With an unloaded bike I will notice winds in the 20-30 mph range pushing me a bit, but will generally only need to work a little bit to compensate and stay on the track I want. Below 15 mph it is essentially unnoticeable to me, even unloaded. With a loaded bike (65+lbs of kids on board is my typical load) it takes more like 30-35 mph winds to really start to push me around. When the winds start to hit 40 mph it’s unpleasant to be on the bike, even with a loaded bike. I start to feel like I could get pushed to somewhere I don’t want to be and the wind starts to push the canopy into the bars and brake lever if it’s coming from the wrong direction (see additional discussion below). Last weekend I finally reached the limit of wind tolerance. While cutting through the UW campus I encountered wind gusts in the ~50mph range. A few times I got off and walked the bike. Once I failed to do so in time and a gust caught me at the wrong time and over I went. No kids on board at the time and no injuries to me.
It is possible I could have prevented the fall, but I’d have risked falling the other way onto the concrete instead of the grass, so I opted for the sure fall onto the grass. And now I can report confidently that you should probably not ride your Packster 80 + giant wind sail in 50+ mph wind unless you’re OK with falling over. If you live in a really windy area, this might be a problem. In Seattle it’s not much of a hindrance. We’ve only had a handful of days in the last 6 months where the winds were that strong at any part of the day. If you are going to need to regularly deal with serious wind I’d pick the R&M canopy. One thing that may not be obvious if you haven’t spent a lot of time on electric bikes is that the electric assist actually plays a big role in the stability of the bike in the wind, allowing you to more easily apply the power you need to counter the wind. So if you’re reading this and expecting to apply it to using a similar cover on an unassisted bike, take note of that.
Now, how well does this thing keep the kids/box/cargo dry and warm? In terms of dry, I’d say very well, though not as well as it could. In terms of warm, it’s a bit lacking (which has benefits and drawbacks). The open back is both a feature and a flaw in this regard. On the plus side, you don’t get a bunch of condensation inside it, or need to worry about whether there is enough air flow. There is. It’s also easy to talk to the kids while the cover it on. And the way it’s set up blocks a lot of the wind and rain from hitting the rider, keeping you warmer and drier. The only way to put a closed back on this canopy would be to make it shorter, or have it not come all the way to the back of the box. Making it shorter is what R&M opted for, and it means that there’s just not much clearance for taller kids. Keeping it from coming all the way to the back of the box is going to let a lot of rain in (if you leave an opening) or involve a more complicated setup to connect the back of the canopy to the box (which complicates the design). So open back it is. The downsides of the open back are that it does let some rain into the box, especially when you’re facing in such a direction relative to the rain that it’s angled into the box. Additionally it doesn’t allow the air to be held within the box, so there’s less of a greenhouse effect and the kids don’t stay as warm as they do with a closed canopy. In cold weather this is a bit of a pain since you need to bundle the kids up more or keep blankets in the box. As the weather warms up it’s pretty nice though, allowing you to use the rain canopy even as it gets pretty warm without the kids overheating. As it stands, I’ve only had a couple of occasions where enough rain got into the box to be a problem, even when it’s been parked in the rain for long periods of time.
Finally, loading and unloading. These aspects of the R&M canopy were really frustrating to me. It was difficult and awkward to load and unload my kids, even when they wanted to cooperate with me. I was worried that the lack of zippers to open the sides of the Blaq canopy would mean that loading and unloading would be even more awkward. I was wrong. It’s honestly really easy. You pop the snap and put the kid in (or take them out). Pop the snap back on and you’re good to go. The side lifts out of the way easily and there isn’t any messing with zippers to frustrate you. This also makes it a lot easier to do with mittens or gloves on. The downside is that the snaps are prone to coming loose if the kids push on the canopy from inside the bike. Since the canopy hits the handlebars if a snap is loose, this is not great. Also, the snaps open best from pressure from below the snap, which is hard for the kids to manage from inside the box. Good when you have little kids that you want to keep locked in there. Bad when you have older kids you want to have be more independent. It is possible to reach outside the box and pop the snap from underneath, but a bit fiddly. Overall the fastener choice leaves some problems that could likely be solved with a different selection. But I’m way happier with it than the R&M design.
The only other big thing I want to mention with the Blaq canopy is that for some reason (which appears to be related to the way the panels are sewn together because I’ve moved the poles around every which way and can’t change it) it leans to the right. This leaves lots of space for the bars and brake levers on that side, but almost none on the left. If there isn’t any way to keep this from happening I’d strongly prefer for it to lean to the left instead. That way the rear brake would be the one at risk of activating if the wind pushes the canopy in (which does happen a bit in high winds). It’s easier to handle an unexpected rear brake activation than a front one, especially when it’s wet and slippery. Ideally though, it would be designed so this issue didn’t happen at all. And to be fair, I’m using wider bars than the stock ones, which exacerbates this problem. It’s possible with the stock bars you’d never have a problem.
So what do I think would make for a perfect canopy? I’d start from a design similar to the Blaq canopies and make these modifications:
- A detachable/roll up back for the canopy that could be used when the bike is parked or you need to keep the warmth in. I think you could have it angle toward the front to keep it clear of the handlebars, though this might mean bigger kids had to lean forward when it was in use.
- Having the top of the canopy come back toward the rider the way the Urban Arrow canopy does. This would help keep the inside of the box drier while still using the open back design. It would also let you keep your cell phone dry when it’s mounted on the handlebars, which is helpful when navigating to new places.
- Change the attachment from the snaps to something that is easier for older kids to operate from inside the box and that doesn’t come free on it’s own with light pressure from kid’s heads on the canopy when they are inside.
- Come up with a pole design that collapses. The Blaq canopy itself can be rolled up into a reasonably sized package as it is, but the poles don’t fold up at all, leaving you with ~7 ft long poles to try to attach to your bike if you needed to take the canopy off when you are away from the house. NOT EASY! It also makes it much harder to ship the canopy.
- I’d love to see rain cape integration like the Urban Arrow features. Right now I attach my rain cape to my canopy with binder clips but it’s not ideal. And not attaching it leads to water getting dumped into the box. The kids are not fans of that, in case you were wondering.
I’d love to know what other bakfiets users think of their rain canopies. What do you like? What would you change? Tell me about your perfect rain canopy design!