Cold weather winter riding is something almost every motorcycle rider around the world will experience either on purpose, or on accident. And when you’re sitting at your desk, reading an article about it, it might not seem like that big of a deal…
However, cold-weather riding is a unique situation that demands your respect as a rider, and your knowledge of how to safely navigate it. Riding while cold has been proven to decrease both mental and physical capacity, and also negatively affects motorcycle function as well.
So whether you’re simply a normal rider who wants to be prepared for getting caught in the cold at some point (eventually we all are) or you’re one of the few, the brave, and the possibly insane motorcyclists that ride year-round — these essential cold-weather riding tips are for you:
7 Essential Cold Weather Winter Riding Tips for Motorcyclists
1. Check the Forecast
This may seem like common sense but you’d be surprised how fast a perfectly sunny day can turn into a dangerous riding situation. Checking the weather only takes moments, and lets you know what to expect throughout the day. Another important reason to check the weather is to accurately calculate the riding temperatures that you’ll be exposed to while at speed. According to the U.S. National Weather Service, riders can calculate the motorcycle wind chill by using the charts below.
Photo Source: Cyclefish
2. Layer Smarter (Clothing)
When it comes to layering protocol — the best strategy is to layer smarter, not thicker. An effective layering strategy would be:
- Wicking Layer: A thin, wicking, athletic-material layer to prevent dampness and saturation.
- Insulating Layer: A thin mid-layer of wool, polyester, or a blend to trap heat and provide insulation. This could be anything from a long sleeve T-Shirt to a light sweater.
- Insulating Layer: A second, thicker insulating layer, possibly with a hood or thin helmet-friendly head covering.
- Waterproof Shell: A waterproof, breathable shell with covered seams (most textile motorcycle jackets are waterproof or can be waterproofed).
- Neck/Head Protection: An often-overlooked element of staying warm, products like the Aerostich Windstopper help to keep this area warm.
When selecting your clothing for a cold-weather ride it is always smarter to overcommit than under. You can always unzip layers, or remove them entirely if you have storage areas on your motorcycle. Remember to include layering for your legs and feet too, and strive to never use layers that are too thick for you to move comfortably in.
Timely Tip: If there is a priority in how/what to layer, your core would be it. Keeping your body core warm and try will go a long way to ensuring the rest of you is too.
Remember — it is MUCH harder to warm back up than it is to maintain your body heat, be sure to address any temperature issues before they start affecting your performance!
3. Heated Motorcycle Gear
The advent of heated gear was a game-changer for riders everywhere. And while we haven’t become impervious to the cold, with heated gear we’re very close to it. Heated gear is available in a variety of forms, including pants, socks, gloves, vests, and jackets. Most gear hooks up to a standard 12V battery (though some have their own battery source), and control systems can even be integrated directly into the fairings to cut down on awkward hanging pieces or ugly wires.
It’s highly suggested to consider having a heated jacket or vest stored within your motorcycle at all times. These thin layers fit within most insulating layers, or can even take the place of them to help keep your core warm.
Heated or high-quality gloves are crucial to keeping your hands warm as well, which is essential for maintaining good motorcycle control.
Timely Tip: All gear, even heated gear, should either be waterproof or covered by a waterproof layer. Becoming wet is one of the quickest ways to lose body heat!
4. Motorcycle Effects
Riding in the cold can affect the machine as much as the person riding it. In cold conditions, tires become harder and consequently lose traction. In cold weather, there may also be sleet, snow, ice, frost, or even new cracks or holes in the road. Because of this, rider lean angle must be decreased (as if you were riding in the rain) and extra precautions need to be taken while navigating corners or calculating stopping distances.
Top motorcycle elements to check before, during, and after a cold-weather ride are:
- Tires: Cold weather means cold tires, which means decreased traction. One way to protect against the effects of cold weather on motorcycle tires is to ensure that they’re in good shape. Tires should have ample tread, be at the correct pressure, lack any type of bulges or rot, and be less than 5 years old. Tire pressure should always be check before every ride.
- Fluid: Maintaining correct fluid levels should also be on your pre-cold-weather ride checklist. Coolants are often rated for specific temperatures, and some motorcycle manuals will call for different oil weights in different riding conditions.
- Battery: Proper battery function should be confirmed before riding (to ensure you don’t get stranded when stopping). Carry a battery jump starter just in case.
Timely Tip: Weaving back and forth is not an effective way to build heat in your tires. Quick acceleration and deceleration will, but be aware of traction limits and road conditions.
5. Motorcycle Modifications
In today’s world there is an almost endless amount of safety and comfort-related modifications riders make to their bikes. Some top cold-weather riding related ones are:
- Larger Windscreen: Any blockage of airflow over your body will help to reduce lost heat.
- Lowered Fairings: Same as above, more body protections means more retained warmth.
Photo Source: Revzilla
- Handguards: Take a tip from the dirtbike riders and invest in a set of quality handguards to block the wind from your handgrips.
- Handlebar Covers: A step up from handguards — handlebar covers are an insulated layer that furthers your hands’ protection from the cold.
- Heated Handgrips: Installing a heated handgrip system is simple and cost-effective.
- Heated Seat: Though more common in cars than in motorcycles, heated seats are an available modification option for many makes and models.
6. Mental Checks
Knowing how to spot the warning signs of cold-induced fatigue can truly mean the difference between life and death for a rider. These beginning warning signs of hypothermia while riding can include:
- Slowed reaction times.
- Stiffness in the hands and legs, loss of mobility.
- Decreased mental clarity, “zoning out” or missing road signs.
- Difficulty naturally taking deep breaths.
- “Hunched” or lowered posture while riding.
Any combination of these symptoms can indicate that your mental and physical capability to ride a motorcycle has begun to decrease, which is a serious issue that needs to be addressed as quickly as possible to prevent further decline.
Timely Tip: Always increase visibility and following distance when riding in cold weather. It’s often difficult to judge when riding ability may be impaired, and larger safety margins can help to compensate.
7. Quick Fixes
Most riders don’t intend to ride in cold weather. More often than not riders are caught off guard by a sudden storm or decrease in temperature. In these situations, a few well-used “hacks” can help you to heat up and get home safely.
- Pushups: When we become cold our blood vessels constrict, decreasing circulation to our body. A temporary quick fix could be to stop to execute a set of pushups and/or jumping jacks. It’s essential not to over-exert yourself when doing this however, as sweating will greatly increase the speed at which you become cold again.
- Atypical Insulation: If you’re caught off guard without enough layers then it’s likely time to make an impromptu purchase. Many gas stations will sell warm layers, but even newspapers or garbage bags will make an acceptable (albeit not fashionable) temporary fix.
- Have a Snack: Eating is a fun way to temporarily heat your body, as the act of digestion burns calories, which creates heat. Ideally, your snack would be or include something warm.
- Know When to Stop: One of the most important skills a motorcyclist can have is knowing their limits. If you begin to have signs of impaired function, have an improperly prepared motorcycle, are caught in unexpected weather, or simply are too tired to continue — find a place to stop for the night and start fresh in the morning (using a tow service if needed). Bottom line: Ending a ride safely is always better than pushing the limits and risking a crash.
Without a doubt, cold-weather riding can be rewarding and exhilarating. However, it’s important to use every safety-resource that you can to stay safe while on the road.
It’s important to recognize when conditions are too hazardous to ride, and while riding it’s essential to always perform both motorcycle and self-checks to ensure optimal performance from both man and machine.
Often a rider won’t even realize how much the cold is affecting them until they have a close call or experience significant issues. Learning how to recognize warning signs and address cold-weather challenges is crucial for anyone on two wheels.
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