Cold-Weather Motorcycle Riding Tips
In March of 2010, I attended the Cornerspeed roadracing school at Virginia International Raceway. The weather was unseasonably warm, so instead of trucking the track bike there, I decided to pilot my long-distance sport-tourer there, a ’98 Honda VFR800.
The trip south from Northeast Pennsylvania was without issue; I rode out almost 600 miles on a desolate path, stripped the bike down of touring necessities, and had some fun at VIR. But the ride home was much, much different when winter’s soul silently crept up on me.
About 100 miles from home, a cold front moved through, and the temps plummeted into the 20s. Heavy winds began, and then came the snow. I was in a full Weise cold-weather riding gear, but failed miserably in all other preparations, such as base layers and a fog-free shield. My sweat quickly proved cold, and my fingertips were almost sacrificed due to minor hypothermia.
Details aside, I ended up in the bathroom of a Turkey Hill for almost two hours, wasting loads of electricity trying to heat my phalanges and dry my boots. Only about an hour from home at this moment, I stupidly continued with snow falling with absolutely no feeling in my fingers, and enough distractions to create dire devastation.
Luckily, though, I made it. A hot bath and two bottles of Syrah later, everything registered. I realized I made a stupid decision, and was wondered how those 60+ mph winds didn’t launch me off the side of the highway. But instead of deciding against riding during the winter months, I began searching for the things that would allow me to safely and warming ride when dead-man winter raises his anti-motorcycling head.
Nearly four years later of riding 12 months a year, here are some of the things I’ve learned:
1. Wear Correct Motorcycle Gear in a Layering Fashion
Riding comfortably in cold weather begins with correct gear choice, and it’s all about layering. Base Layers (full leg, full sleeve), such as those offered by UnderArmour and many motorcycle apparel companies, are a must. Even while riding we sweat, and the base layers allow our skin to breath, wicking away moisture. This helps sweat evaporate rather than turning to cold perspiration on the body. I also don socks that wick away moisture.
For most conditions in the 20s or teens, I simply wear a zip-up fleece with a neck collar over my base layers, which helps create an insulating barrier. If things get cooler, I always have another mid-layer, such as a snug wool button up, but it’s rarely used.
Next is your outer gear; I swear by Gore-Tex due to the waterproofing and breathability, and my usual winter suit is either my Klim Badlands setup, or my Weise Explorer setup. As for boots, again, Gore-Tex. Most of my winter riding is completed on my 2002 Suzuki V-Strom adventure tourer, and though they don’t have the full grip I prefer for such riding, my favorite boots are the Alpinestars 365 Gore-Tex series. To compensate, I added grippier riding pegs.
There are two gloves I swear by for winter riding – the Klim Element in short cuff (think like a skier, and put the jacket over the glove for true waterproofing), and the Held Freezer Glove. I bring the Held Freezer Glove for backup, though the Explorer does everything needed. Some wear glove base layers, but with heated grips, this isn’t needed.
Next is a neck warmer, such as an Aerostich Windstopper, and a tightly-sealed helmet with a fog-free faceshield. Fog free is absolutely necessary. My favorite winter lid is the Shoei Neotec modular helmet, though I use a bit of insulation to plug the huge, upper-front vent, but keep the rear ventilation vent open so the head doesn’t sweat.
As for heated gear, I’ve tried it, but am not a fan. Simple layering keeps the core hot, and as long as that core is protected from direct wind, things remain comfortable. Though the technology much of today’s electric-heated gear is top notch, there’s possibility of failure. I stick with gear, thank you.
2. Proper Motorcycle Prep for Winter Riding
When my V-Strom is set up for winter riding, it’s one ugly son of a bitch. But this is futile, considering I’m out riding while most are suffocating in their cars.
The basics needed for cold-weather riding arrives at element protections, such as a huge windscreen, and handguards. I also crafted some awkward aluminum windguards that I put on my Touratech crash bars to keep wind off the legs, but both were ripped off during a spirited ride.
My V-Strom, and my VFR, both sport heated grips. There are many aftermarkets available (Hot Grips, Bike Master), and installation is simple.
Also, if your bike is water-cooled, make sure the antifreeze is fresh (should be changed yearly anyway), and its mixed properly. Also make sure all hoses are in great shape. Nothing can be more devastating than a busted radiator or hose when miles away from home.
Adventure-style riding pegs are also a great addition. My V-Strom uses Touratech’s Rallye Foot Pegs, and they provide optimal grip regardless of how slick conditions get.
3. Cold Weather Equals Colder Tires
It’s that simple – cold weather means colder tires. And as everyone should now, cold tires equate to limited traction. Riding helps increase heat in the tire, but even the briefest stop can quickly cool the tires down, providing lack of traction.
While on this subject, let’s also discuss how you get heat in your tires. Many riders sway back and fourth like a NASCAR driver, but simply put, this is a waste of time. To truly get heat in the tires, accelerate and decelerate quickly for a bit, obviously being aware of traction. Hard on brakes to hard on the throttle puts heat in tires more quickly than riding like some redneck. Plus swaying looks stupid.
Also, make sure you have adequate tread on your tires for winter riding. Penny pinching on tires is about as stupid as penny pinching on the quality of a motorcycle helmet, and this is truer-than-ever in winter-motorcycling scenarios. It may snow, and you’ll need to channel water/snow more than ever on wet roads that are cold.
And check your tire pressure; I check mine religiously before every ride. This is more than crucial during the winter months when optimal traction is needed.
4. Watch for Salt, Fresh Cracks due to Plows and Black Ice
Salt is not only an enemy to metal, but also traction. Treat salt like ice; if you see crystalized appearances on the side of the road, stay away. I low-sided my V-Strom once due to the age-old fault of getting into a sharp corner too quick. I was forced to run too much lean angle, and my front tire quickly washed out. It was winter, though, and I slid into a snow bank, walking away unharmed.
Also remember that those plow trucks destroy roads, causing new cracks, sometimes huge and able to chew up rims. Once again remember to run correct tire pressure; you don’t want to bend a rim or pinch a tube.
And black ice. If it even remotely looks like ice, stay away.
While on the subject of salt, remember that motorcycles weren’t designed for winter riding. Like salt from the ocean, motorcycles can quickly succumb to rust. I have a car wash less than a mile away. Whenever the sun is out and the roads are clear, I give my bike a thorough wash to free it off as much salt as possible. This is a great time to further inspect your bike.
5. Increase Visibility and Following Distance
While riding in the winter, increase your visibility and space. Increasing visibility simply means looking further down the road, helping you recognize hazards before they occur. Increased visibility allows you to react to a potential threat well in advanced, and this is more than needed in winter when traction is limited from the cold roads. My rule of thumb is always looking 15 seconds ahead.
As for following distance, open it up. I maintain a few car lengths of space ahead of me, allowing me to react to hazards, such as cars ahead stopping, or being able to see something on the road.
Riding on a car’s ass is completely stupid, and I’ve witness even the most experienced riders doing this. Just think for a moment; in optimally-dry conditions, it takes an experience rider about 85 feet to stop a bike traveling at 35 mph. An average car is around 16 feet, so it would take about five car lengths to stop. Do the math…and of course, the faster you’re riding, the more distance you should maintain.
6. Have a Motorcycle-Specific Towing Service
Accidents happen, and are more likely to happen in cold-weather riding due to, once again, lack of traction. Make sure you have a towing service that is readily available; nothing can get a rider out of the sport faster than wasting a few hundred miles on a tow.
A fateful member of the American Motorcyclist Association, I have the organizations Roadside Assistance. And the best part? It arrives as a comp with my yearly membership. The AMA’s Roadside Service company’s usually tow motorcycles, too, so there’s a better chance your bike won’t end up on its side atop some flatbed.
7. Don’t be a Dummy; If Snow Starts Falling, Get Home
The title says it all. If it begins snowing, get home. The white stuff can accumulate quickly, providing the slickest conditions.
Keep an eye on the forecasts, and if there’s even a threat of major snow, keep the bike home. Or buy a kit to create some studded snow tires. In controlled environments, riding on snow/ice can become quite an addiction. Plus, it’ll allow you to further build skill for riding in normal weather.
Riding in the winter can be challenging, but these tips will allow motorcyclists to garner more miles throughout colder months. Though a resident of Pennsylvania, I typically ride about 30,000 miles on my bikes – and winter riding makes this possible.
Have any winter-riding tips you’d like to share? Share them here; the more tips, the safer we’ll all be while motorcycling in the winter.