Riding in Cold Weather
Just because it’s winter and cold outside doesn’t mean you have to put away and store your motorcycle until spring. There are a lot of options when it comes to riding safely and warm all year around. Here are some tips to keep you and your bike on the road when winter offers its worst.
#1: BIKE INSPECTION AND PREPPING
One way to block out chilling winds is with a windshield or faring. These divert the wind off your chest and help keep your upper body and vital organs warm. You can also add hand guards to block the wind from your hands and fingers.
If your bike is water-cooled, make sure the antifreeze is fresh (this should be changed yearly, anyway) and is properly mixed. Also, make sure all hoses are in great shape. Using thinner oil during cold months will improve your bike’s performance, especially during start up. Check your owner’s manual for recommendations.
Adventure-style riding pegs are also a great addition and provide optimal grip.
Tires are one of the most important things to check on your bike, especially in cold weather.
Always check your tire quality before riding. Hitting ice on old and warn-out tires is a recipe for disaster. Be sure your motorcycle tire has at least 50% tread life. You can use the penny tire test from our pre-ride checklist to make sure your tire is safe to ride on.
Also, check the birthdate of your tires by scoping out the 4-digit code usually adjacent to the DOT markings. The first two digits indicate the week of manufacturing, and the second two point to the year. Anything older than 6 years old is not safe to ride on.
Be sure to check your tire pressure. Cold weather causes air pressure to drop. This can reduce the PSI of your tires. A general rule of thumb is 1-2 pounds of air pressure drop for every drop of 10 degrees.
Tire temperature is also a factor when riding in cold weather. The colder your tires are, the less grip and traction they have. Braking and acceleration push heat into tires by flexing the carcass and causing friction. Ride cautiously until your tires are warmed up.
There are tires designed for the all-weather motorcyclist. These tires heat up faster and include additional grooving to assist in liquid dispersion. All-weather tires are often a better winter choice.
#2: ROAD CONDITIONS
Roadways take the brunt of winter’s wrath in the form of sand, salt, gravel and potholes. Combat these conditions by keeping your eyes up and scanning far ahead. Also, assume the worst in order to be prepared.
Ice you can’t see is called black ice. Bridges are more susceptible to ice because they are disconnected from the warmth of the ground. Spots on the road which are shaded from the sun are icier also. Well-traveled roads are often better, because passing traffic melts and dries the moisture. If you feel you’re on an icy patch, do not make any sudden moves and do not touch your breaks. Pull in the clutch, and let the bike coast until you’re clear.
When in doubt, slow down, brake early, modulate levers smoothly, and don’t be afraid to take the next exit so you can regroup and warm up. When you get back on the road, be sure to increase your visibility and following distance.
Also, remember to wash your bike more often in the winter. With all the additional salt on the roads, motorcycle can quickly succumb to rust.
#3: GEAR UP
Insulating your body means adding layers. Your inner layer should be a snug-fitting thermal or fleece. No need to worry about moisture-wicking materials since you won’t be sweating as much. Your outer layer needs to block the wind. Leather works well for this. Bring a rain suit to wear in case it begins to rain or snow. However, don’t wear too many layers. This can make you lose mobility.
Hands are particularly vulnerable to the cold. Gauntlet gloves will help seal the gap between gloves and jacket. Gloves with a breathable, waterproof liner will keep rain out while allowing moister from perspiration to escape. You can also use a pair of latex gloves underneath your riding gloves to help seal in body heat and block wind.
A full-face helmet will keep you warmer than an open-face helmet. Sealing the area around your neck with a bandana, fleece, or wind and waterproof neck warmer can make a huge difference. A balaclava under your helmet provides additional warmth with minimal bulk.
You can also carry heated chemical packs to use when needed. These can be found at any outdoor and camping store. Be careful when using them. Some heated packs can reach temperatures of 150 degrees and shouldn’t be placed next to bare skin.
#4: GET ELECTRIC
No matter how layered you are, the longer you are out riding, the more you will lose body heat. This is why some riders choose to resort to electrical assistance on longer trips. Heated clothing, which uses your bike's electrical system to power heating elements, makes a huge difference. Heated clothing not only insulates you, but also adds heat to the entire equation; however, make sure your charging system can handle the load. There are also some D-cell options that don’t need to run off the power of your bike. You can find a list of our favorite electrical cold-riding gear here.
There are options for heated seats and grips, but these need to be installed and require basic mechanical skills.
Hypothermia, a potentially deadly condition, occurs when your core body temperature drops significantly. Temperatures do not need to be below freezing to induce hypothermia. Wind chill, wind speeds, and the length of time you are exposed to cold air are all factors that increase your chance of hypothermia.
Know the early signs of hypothermia and be prepared. Uncontrolled shivering and chattering teeth are the first signs of danger. You may also feel dizzy and your muscles may begin to stiffen, making it harder for you to hold onto your bike or pull in the levers. You can learn more about the early signs of hypothermia and prevention here.
One last thing to keep in mind is to drink plenty of liquids. Dehydration may be foremost in your mind in the hot months, but you still lose moisture in the winter. Cold, dry winter air can suck moisture out, and you may not realize you’re dehydrated until it’s too late.