Safe Riding

Safe Winter Riding

Written by  January 1, 2015

For those of us here in the Midwest and other northern climates, it looks like Old Man Winter has exhaled a breath of cold air and knocked the last few leaves to the ground. It’s 14 degrees out as I sit here writing this, which means for some, it's time to roll your bike into the corner of your garage, hook up your battery tender and hope for an early spring. For others, who are a bit more adventurous, there’s no real end to the riding season; just a change in riding gear.

Some riders refuse to let winter rob them of their favorite (or only) form of transportation. You might call them hardcore or just plain nuts, but with a bit of knowledge and a few cold weather riding tricks, anyone can prolong their riding season.

As many of you know, cold weather riding can be a lot of fun, however, riding during this time of year poses its own dangers you must be prepared to deal with.

Black Ice
No, Jed, it’s not Texas tea. Black ice is really just a fancy name for frozen water on the road. Black ice can form any time the temperature has dropped near the freezing point, or where frost can form. The main problem with black ice is it's really hard to see.

Black ice often forms on bridges and overpasses first, because they can’t draw warmth from Mother Earth. That’s why you often see warning signs that bridges may be icy. Also be on the lookout for roads that are shaded from the sun or follow a river or stream. You also should keep your eyes peeled for roads that look really smooth (something a lot of us rarely find).

When it comes to black ice, the best thing you can do is try to anticipate where it is most likely to form, and avoid it. Try to stay on well-traveled roads and ride in the tracks made by the cages. Heavy traffic also tends to help keep black ice from forming.

I’ve hit patches of black ice before, and it can really scare the crap out of you! Your first instinct might be to hit the brakes, but don’t! If you know what’s good for you, don’t make any sudden moves or touch the brakes. Instead, pull in the clutch and let your bike coast until you are clear. Then look for a safe place to pull over and change your insulated underwear.

Hypothermia
That cold shiver up your back might be uncomfortable, but it can also be the first sign of a very deadly condition known as hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your core body temperature drops significantly, and can be exacerbated by water, wind, exhaustion, or an ex-spouse.

Many riders think the temperatures have to be below freezing to induce hypothermia. Think again! Wind chill gets worse as wind speeds increase, and the longer you're out, the worse it gets.

One of the early warning signs of hypothermia is when you start feeling cold, but can't decide if you should pull over or not. The answer should always be YES, but hypothermia can also cloud your judgment. If you begin to suffer from any of these symptoms, pull into the next warm café and have some hot chocolate, or soup (I prefer chicken noodle).

If you begin shivering uncontrollably and your teeth begin to chatter, you are in real danger. You may also start to feel dizzy, or even drunk (even if you haven’t been drinking), as your muscles begin to stiffen. Continued exposure may cause the shivering to slow down or even stop, but by then you're already in deep sh*t!

Frostbite
That cold air that seems to cut right through to your very core is a sure sign to cover up. Believe it or not; exposed skin is at risk of frostbite in temperatures as warm as 55 degrees.

Your nose, earlobes, fingers and toes are some of the more likely targets of frostbite. Early symptoms include a pins-and-needles sensation, with the skin turning very white and soft. At this point, no permanent damage has occurred, and you can reverse the effects by soaking the areas in lukewarm water or breathing on them.

In the next stage of frostbite, waxy patches may form and the skin may feel numb. After this, you may lose feeling in the affected area. At this point, you could suffer permanent damage. In other words, it is actually possible for you to freeze your ass off; along with other body parts you many need at a later time!

The speed of the wind and the length of exposure drastically lowers wind chill temperatures. That means riding at just 30 mph on a 45 degree day will put you in danger of both hypothermia and frostbite in as little as a half hour. You can use our wind chill calculator to determine how nippy the wind will make you feel.

Insulation
So, how do you lessen these dangers? Simply, cover up! Whether it's 40 degrees or 15 degrees, if all of your skin is covered, the wind chill is irrelevant.

There are numerous products available to help you beat the cold, and what you may need depends on where, when, and for how long you plan on riding. The best thing you can do is insulate your body by layering your clothes. Make the inner layer thermal or fleece underwear to create a warm cushion of air between you and the cold, add layers, then use some form of outer material to break the wind.

A good leather jacket works well for an outer shell because it is wind resistant, abrasion resistant and makes you look really cool while actually being quite warm! There are, of course, many other fabrics, such as overall suits made from man-made fibers that repels water, but whatever your choice, make sure it has some crash protection in case you forget my earlier tips for dealing with black ice.

Your hands are particularly vulnerable, so gauntlet-style gloves work best to help keep your fingers warmer longer. Heated grips are nice as well, and for extreme cold, they make a pair of heavy insulated gloves that mounts to your handlebars and fits over the controls and hand grips. Then, all you have to do is slide your hands into the rear-facing openings and you’re ready to ride. I’ve never actually used these, but personally, if it’s that cold, you’ll most likely find me sitting in front of the fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate and a bottle of brandy.

It should be obvious, but a full face helmet will keep you warmer than no helmet, or that cool looking novelty helmet you wear during the summer to keep the cops off your back. You’ll also want to seal the area between your neck and the helmet. A bandana will work in a pinch, however, I prefer a leather covered fleece bandana or a silk neck warmer which fits over my head like a ski mask. It also comes in handy if you’re running low on funds and need to pop into the nearest bank to make a withdrawal.

Block that Wind!
As speeds increase, cold air has a way of sneaking in and robbing your heat. Your front line in the defense against cold is to try and block the wind.

A windshield or fairing is a good front line defense. A small windshield that mounts to your handlebars can be low enough to look over, but just big enough to divert wind from your chest. If you plan on doing a lot of cold weather riding, you may consider switching to a larger windshield during that time.

Electrical Heat
If you really want to be good and toasty, you may want to get wired. No, not that kind of wired! Electrical clothing, which uses your bike's electrical system to power heating elements, makes a huge difference by not just insulating you, but adding heat.

Gloves start around $100. Vests, depending on the style, can go from $100 to $200. Socks can range from simple D-cell powered items that usually go for around $25, to $90 systems that hook into the rest of your electric riding gear. For $400 to $500, there's even an electrically heated saddle, which will really keep your buns nice and toasty! If you’re really serious about riding in the cold, you should be able to outfit yourself for around $700 bucks.

The key is to make sure your charging system can handle the load that electric heat draws from your bike. Check your owner's manual, or stop by your local dealer to confirm you have enough electrical reserves on your bike to handle the load. I’ve never used electric gear, however, I’m sure that heating your hands and torso would make a huge difference.

Chemical Heat
Another option is a lightweight, disposable heat pack, which people also use to keep them warm while hunting, skiing or sitting in Arrowhead stadium watching the Chiefs get beat on a cold Sunday afternoon.

Many stores carry these, and they can provide six to eight hours’ worth of heat. Some chemical heat packs can produce up to 150 degrees of heat, so make sure to keep them off your bare skin to prevent blisters.

Drink Liquids to Stay Warm
Make sure to drink lots of liquids, because you still lose water, even though it's freezing out. It's easy to get dehydrated, even in winter, because you don't notice that you're sweating. Stay away from caffeine drinks and alcohol, however, sweet drinks can provide much needed carbohydrates to help boost your body's heat-making ability.

Cold Weather Gear
Now, you may wonder, where do I go to buy all this wintry riding gear? If Santa didn’t slip it under your tree for Christmas, then check with your local dealership or motorcycle apparel store. If you live in the middle of nowhere or can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, below are links to a few websites you might find helpful:

Aerostich

Roadgear

Tour Master

Gerbing's Heated Clothing

Mike Schweder

Editor-in-Chief - Kansas City, MO

Mike is the original founder of Cycle Connections Online Motorcycle Magazine and an avid motorcycle enthusiast. He has been riding for over 40 years, belongs to several local and national motorcycle organizations and travels to numerous rallies and events throughout the US each year. Mike has been a writer and editor for many years and has a passion for sharing his motorcycling experiences and stories with you. Contact Mike at mikes@cycleconnections.com