Winter riding can be a relatively comfortable and joyous experience, or sheer misery. And it’s up to you to determine which it’s going to be, through proper preparation and smart riding.
Wind—and subsequent wind-chill factor—is your greatest enemy, and most efficient heat-thief, especially if it’s combined with rain. A cold, wet rider can’t pay proper attention to changing traffic and road conditions. Even if it’s dry, 40 degrees Fahrenheit in your garage will feel like 27 degrees on the road at 40 mph. At 30 degrees ambient temperature, it will feel like 13 degrees. And at 60 mph it will feel like 10 degrees.
So, how do you prepare? Let’s start at the top—of you. A full-face helmet is your best bet, preferably with a medium-tint face shield for daylight riding, and a clear one for nighttime. Anti-fog sprays or sticks can help keep your shield clear, although if you can afford it a dedicated anti-fog shield or insert would be better. If you wear glasses, don’t forget to treat them too. There are also several anti-fog masks on the market that cover your nose and mouth, and offer added security against shield mist-up. A balaclava, bandana or neck warmer can help hold in heat.
Keep your core warm
A crucial element in the battle against the cold is to keep your body’s core warm. When the core gets cold, the body goes into extreme self-defense mode, and starts robbing blood flow from the extremities to keep the core warm. That means cold hands and fingers, and toes and feet. When your hands and feet get cold, you may not be able to operate the motorcycle’s controls properly.
There are two potentially overlapping strategies to keeping the core warm. Perhaps the best is electrically heated gear, which you connect to your bike’s battery or—in some cases—is self-contained via portable, rechargeable batteries. You can get items to cover everything from the neck down: vests, jackets, base layers that have heating elements, gloves and socks. At a minimum, consider a heated base layer or vest, and add more bulky items as the temperature drops.
The layering strategy
Depending on how cold it is, layering alone—or in combination with electric gear—can do the trick. What’s key is multiple, thin layers of moisture-wicking fabric. The moisture-wicking properties keep sweat away from the skin, which, combined with cold temperatures, can rob body heat with startling efficiency. This is especially important to adventure riders and off-road riders who are likely to ride hard enough to work up a sweat. And avoid cotton, especially as a bottom layer. Cotton retains moisture, and if you sweat in cotton in the winter, you will get cold. Dedicated motorcycling layers are your best bet, although you can make do with other winter-sports layers. Just make sure they’re lightweight and thin so you can retain freedom of movement. Multiple layers allow you to remove one or more if the day warms even slightly. Modern super fabrics, such as polypropylene and fleece are good choices, but even natural fabrics such as silk and wool can be warm, too. Again, such clothing is available to cover every part of your body, including hands and feet.
Picking the best outerwear
For outerwear, motorcycle-specific clothing is virtually mandatory. Leather garments cut the wind well, but don’t do a very good job of insulating, requiring you to resort to electrics, layering or both, which can potentially restrict movement. Modern synthetic riding gear can incorporate varying amounts of insulation, which can reduce the number of layers you need. Gore-Tex, or a variant, is always a good idea because of its ability to breathe. The same holds true for gloves and boots. Again, your best bets are Gore-Tex or something similar for your gloves and boots. It’s crucial to keep your extremities warm and dry in winter weather.
Other features to look for
Reflective or high-visibility gear is also a good idea. Check jacket features carefully. Does it have a removable liner? Is it waterproof? Does it have sufficient venting in case the weather changes? And what about armor in the shoulders, back and elbows? There are several jackets on the market that that offer everything, so do your homework. The same goes for pants. They should be waterproof, have insulation (preferably removable), armor and venting. Of course, perhaps the ultimate answer is a waterproof, insulated one-piece suit, and there are many of those on the market.
Check your bike too
Now that you’re prepared, make sure your motorcycle is as well. It should be running properly and in top mechanical condition. Anything suspect should be attended to. At the top of your list should be to check your tires. If they’re squared-off, scalloped or close to the wear bars, replace them. And check tire pressures on a regular basis. Check or replace your bike’s coolant as well, according to the owner’s manual. Consider replacing the oil (and filter) with the lowest viscosity recommended in the owner’s manual. Higher-viscosity oil takes longer to pump up to your engine’s top-end and takes longer to get to proper operating temperature. Heated grips might seem a luxury to some, but they’re pure pleasure for your digits when the mercury plummets. Make sure all your bike’s lights are working properly as well.
Cold weather riding tips
As for winter riding itself, there are two words to live by: Slow down. As a motorcyclist, winter means most of the odds are against you. Cold roads and cold tires mean reduced traction. Generally lower-light conditions mean reduced visibility, for you, other motorists, and pedestrians. Precipitation can change a manageable road surface into something treacherous. Reducing your speed can give you a much-needed safety margin. Also allow greater distances between yourself and any vehicle you’re following. You might need that extra road to slow down in time. If you’re on your favorite set of twisties, take extra caution, and especially beware the bend beneath an overhanging tree. Moisture tends to collect there, and if it’s freezing or below, it’ll turn to ice. And the last few words of winter riding advice: If it’s freezing or below and raining or snowing, stay home. Check the weather forecast before you head out.
Winter riding can indeed be a joy, if you remember a few simple things: Stay warm, stay dry, slow down, and—as always—be careful.