Riding a Motorcycle in Winter

Shorter days and cooler temperatures signal the beginning of the end of the riding season for many bikers. But it doesn’t have to. As long as you allow yourself a little more time to gear up and get where you’re going, and you know what winter hazards you’re likely to face, you can ride pretty much year round.

Winter Motorcycle Riding

Rain, Snow and Ice

If you’ve been riding for longer than a couple of months you’ve been caught on the bike in a sudden downpour. Summertime rain you can pretty easily muscle through. But rain in the winter is another story, it can be deadly. Precipitation of any sort will negatively affect your visibility and the traction available to your tires. Snow is even more dangerous than rain. When it sticks or drifts it has an even worse affect on traction.

Rain and snow not only make it harder for you to see but harder for other motorists to see you. Brightly colored gear; jacket, pants, helmet and gloves, with lots of reflective material will make it easier for you to be seen. Switching to a clear face shield will make it easier for you to see, especially since precipitation is often accompanied by lower natural light conditions. We bikers do sit higher than a driver in the average car, and we do have a less obstructed view of the roadway. But don’t let that give you a sense of false security. Sitting snow or water can disguise road hazards.

You’ll want to increase your normal dry-road conditions follow distance to allow for the longer distance it’ll take you to stop on wet pavement. When conditions allow, meaning no traffic in sight, get a feel for how much traction the road will give you by braking on a straight stretch of road. To avoid the need for sudden braking use your throttle and downshifting to help keep your bike under control.

Metal surfaces, like bridges and railroad tracks, will be even more slippery when covered with water or snow. Painted surfaces too, like the lines between lanes, provide less traction when wet. Take these surfaces even more slowly than you would in ideal conditions.

Riding a Motorcycle in the Snow

Winter precipitation hazards are compounded by cold temperatures. Roads take longer to dry and when the temps get below freezing that water and snow will turn to ice. And ice is a killer. You have zero traction on ice. Another danger is that it’s difficult to spot a patch ice until you’re on top of it. Ice is bad enough if you’re the only vehicle on the road, but how often does that happen? Not even the biggest four-wheel drive vehicles can maintain control on a road covered with ice. Ice is the one road condition that I avoid whenever possible.

Effects Of The Cold

Think of the cold as your enemy. You don’t necessarily need to avoid it, but if you’re going to defeat it you need to understand it and how it can negatively affect you and your ability to remain in control of your motorcycle. Do that and you can not only ride in the winter, but enjoy doing it.

The two most deadly weapons that cold uses are frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite is the freezing of part of the body and usually is first seen in the extremities such as the fingers and toes. Early signs of frostbite are loss of feeling, skin that is cold to the touch or shows signs of discoloration like white, gray or blue. When your core body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit you’re suffering from hypothermia. Initial symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, confusion and apathy. Left untreated, the shivering will stop and confusion will turn to delirium. If you start feeling the effects of either frostbite or hypothermia get off the road, get inside and get something hit to drink. Thanks to the many blood vessels in your stomach the heat from that drink will be distributed quickly through your body.

Cold temperatures will suck the heat out of your body and that is not only dangerous, it can be deadly while cruising at 60 mph. We’ve all heard the local weatherman giving the wind chill during a local winter forecast. That same principle works with the combination of your road speed and the air temperature and how cold you feel. A 60 mph ride in 40 degrees feels like 25 degrees. After 30 minutes of those conditions any exposed skin will begin to show signs of frostbite. It doesn’t take much longer than that for hypothermia to become a real threat.

While you may be motoring along at 60 mph, your body is sitting still, for all practical purposes, you’re sedentary. Your body doesn’t generate enough heat under those conditions to replace what the cold is pulling away. Those effects of the cold come on gradually and affect your reasoning so you may not notice them until they’ve progressed to dangerous levels. But there are a number of ways you can not only combat the cold, but beat it.

Dress In Layers

The trick to not only beating the cold but staying comfortable while riding in the winter is to your body warmth in the cold air out. Layering your clothing keeps a warm pocket of air close to your body. Start with a base layer of synthetic long johns and synthetic or wool socks. Synthetics and wool draw moisture away from your body. Cotton, on the other hand, traps moisture, so avoid it, especially as a base layer.

After establishing a good base layer, let the temperature and the length of your ride determine how many more layers to add. A button-down shirt and sweater and heavy jeans along with solid, above-the-ankle riding boots is good next layer for most conditions above freezing temperatures. Top it all off with good, lined riding jacket and lined, leather gloves. A full-faced helmet will help keep your head not only safe, but warm. For colder temperatures or longer rides consider adding a pair of outer riding pants or a one-piece pants and jacket combo. You may also want to add a synthetic balaclava, neck gator or neoprene face mask to keep the cold air away from your head, neck and face. But don’t overdo the head and neck gear or you’ll be keeping the warm air from your breath from escaping your helmet and causing your face shield to fog.

External Heat

If you ride long enough in cold conditions your body is going to lose heat, regardless of how many layers you’re wearing. For those long winter rides you’ll want to add another source of heat. A number of companies make heated motorcycle gear. This stuff will allow you to ride for as long as you want and stay comfortable doing it.

The best heated gear plugs into an accessory plug on your bike or connects directly to the bike’s battery. You can buy everything from gloves to jacket liners and pants liners. Most of them come with thermostats that you can set on high, medium, low or off. One of the benefits of electrically heated gear is that you won’t need to wear as many layers, giving you more flexibility of movement. Two warnings for using electrically heated gear, make sure to unplug it before getting off your bike, and make sure that your motorcycle’s electrical system is up to the challenge of handling the extra load.

Ride Year Long

You don’t have live in Florida or southern California to enjoy a year round riding system. With some planning, and a little investment in proper gear, you can ride whenever you want. You can beat the cold and winter conditions when you know what you’re facing.

Get Ready for the Cold